By Esther Nitzarim
In a busy, bustling Bronx neighborhood during the mid ‘50s, a shrill cream filled the afternoon air. Everyone continued what they were doing, except for one woman. Her face appeared at the third-floor corner window in the courtyard of a six-story apartment building. She opened her kitchen window and looked out.
The woman’s kind patient deep-brown eyes searched outside. Again the cry disturbed the afternoon. “M-a-a-!” The brown eyes followed Ella racing across the street.
Some neighbors thought, What is she screaming about now? They were not patient. They did not like the calm, comforting city sounds shattered by screams. That Ella! Oh how scared she was of the world around her, even of her own shadow.
Ella was scared of many things: strangers; the dark, subways; elevators; loud flushing toilets; and even painting at an easel with a big blank white paper staring at her.
However, there were two things that scared Ella the most. The first was dogs. There were many dogs in that Bronx neighborhood. Some were loved pets, but many were unloved, wild-looking strays. The second most-frightening thing in Ella’s life was Salvador. Salvador with black straggly hair, flashing dark brown eyes, a big smile with dazzling white teeth reminding Ella of the neighborhood strays. Wild, happy, and free, he ran through the streets as quickly as a cheetah.
Ella’s mother sighed as she watched her daughter crossing the street safely. Then she spotted the cause for Ella’s screams. There, not far behind Ella was Salvador with arms outstretched just about to grab her. Ella came swiftly into the courtyard. “M-a-a,” she screeched, “tell Salvador not to hurt me!”
In a soft, gentle voice, Ella’s mother pleaded, “Please, Salvador, don’t bother Ella. Here, Salvador.” She threw down a nickel for the candy store. Salvador bent down, picked up the coin, smiled, and ran happily away.
“Ma,” Ella murmured in a hoarse, exhausted voice, “I am ready to come upstairs. Will you open the door and wait for me?”
“Sure,” replied her mother.
Walking up the three flights of stairs in the dark hallway made Ella’s stomach quiver. “Ma, are you there?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I am here.”
A few steps later, “Ma, are you still there?”
“I’m still here.”
“Are you there?”
Ella knew her mother would be waiting at the apartment with the door wide open for her, but she wanted any stranger who could be in the dark shadows to know her mother was here to protect her.
Finally Ella reached the door of her apartment, 3-H, and her mother’s warm hug. Now Ella was safely inside their three-room apartment.
“How was kindergarten today?”
Ella answered in Yiddish, her first language, “Good, Mama. Miss Pieskowicz let me play in the doll corner. And when I was playing, I was talking in Yiddish to the dolls. She asked me what I was saying. I told her. Then she wanted me to say it again in Yiddish. She tried to repeat it. Ma, she sounded so funny. Miss Piekowicz and I both laughed.”
Just then Ella and her mother heard the sad sounds of a violin. Ma always went to the window to listen to the wandering musicians. She leaned out of the wide-open kitchen window, her brown curls shaking in time to the tune of “My Mother’s Sabbath Candles.” On the kitchen windowsill stood a dish and a cup, a pushke. Ma was always putting her extra change in them.
When the violin player was finished playing his two songs, coins rained down into the courtyard. As he bent to pick them up, Mama wrapped a few coins in a piece of newspaper and three it down for the musician. She wanted to keep the coins together for him so that he would not have to bed down too often. He was an old man. Mama smile and said, “Thank you for your beautiful music.” He smiled back, tipped his hat, and played an extra song for her, “Where Is the Town of My Youth?”
“Mama, why do you throw money to that man?” Ella asked.
“Because he plays from the heart, and that is how he makes his living.”
“Doesn’t he have another job?” again Ella wondered out loud.
“No. I don’t think so. I think he is poor, Ella; and it is a mitzvah, a good deed, to give to the poor.”
“Mama, what if he is only pretending to be poor to get our money?”
“Then he must still need the money. It is our job to give tzedakah, charity; it’s not our job to worry if a person is honest or not. It is their responsibility to be honest.”
“Ma, why do you keep these on the windowsill? You’re always putting change in them.”
“Ella, in this tzedakah can, the pushke, I put money for the poor. This month it is for orphans in Israel, children who don’t have a mother or father. In that dish I keep money for the musicians, and for you so that you can go to the candy store. (Ella knew this is the very place where the money for Salvador came from, too.) And in this cup I am saving for the family. Whenever I get enough money, I take it to the bank.”
“What are you saving for?”
“I am saving so that one day maybe Tata, your father, can have a different job, one where he can wear a white shirt and not work so hard in a dirty factory.”
“Ma, I love to talk with you.”
“I’m happy to answer your questions and talk to you, too, sweet one. I hope you will always feel comfortable to talk to me and ask me any questions.”
“My Mama, I have a question I‘ve wanted to ask you for the longest time, but I’ve been too afraid to ask.”
“Please ask. You shouldn’t be afraid so much.”
“Mamashe, why do you cry every time you light Shabbos candles on Friday night?”
“Ellashe,” sometimes I cry when I am happy, like the times I cry when you do something I am proud of. And sometimes I cry when I am sad. On Shabbos when I light the candles I am sad because I remember my family that was killed during the war. They were killed by terrible people called the Nazis. I miss my Mama, Tata, and four brother—Herschel, Dovid, Binyamin, and Leib—and my aunts and uncles and cousins. I miss my family so very much, and I cry because I wish they could share the joy of Shabbos with us. But sometimes I have tears in my eyes when something is funny like on The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Ella, I believe most people are good. Only a few people are mean. I know you are afraid. I have some questions for you now. Ella, why are you so afraid of Salvador? What do you think he will do to you? Why do you think he likes to chase after you and not the other girls?”
“I don’t know, but you’ll keep him away from me, right?”
“I will not always be around to be able to chase away what scares you. You need to face what scares you on your own. I have confidence in you. I know you can do it. Come, let’s go see if baby Leah is awake for her nap yet.”
The days passed by much as they had before. Ella went to kindergarten at P.S. 67 kitty-corner from her apartment building. From her kitchen window, Ella’s mother watched Ella come and go as frightened as ever. Then again the creams of “M-a-a-a” would ring throughout the neighborhood.
One day Mama popped her head out the window. She saw Ella racing with Salvador hot on her heels. Mama had reached for a nickel before they arrived in the courtyard.
Much to her surprise and Salvador’s shock, Ella turned around and faced her tormentor. “Salvador, I don’t like when you run after me! Why do you do that?”
“At first, I just wanted to play with you; but then I really liked to hear you scream. You are the best screamer in the neighborhood, and I was proud I could force you to be so noisy. And an extra treat was getting money from your mother.”
“Salvador, don’t you chase me again! If you want to play, just ask me.”
Ella and Salvador heard the clinking of two coins hit the ground. When Ella gazed up at the kitchen window, she saw a smile on her mother’s face as Mama was wiping a tear away from her left eye.
“Salvador and Ella, I tossed down two nickels so you could go to the candy store together today.”
As they walked to the candy story around the corner, Ella told Salvador, “My Mama must be proud of me.”
When Ella looks back on that time now, she still believes Mama was proud of her; yet she feels that just maybe Mama was also laughing at wild, spunky carefree Salvador.
Salvador was a real boy in my childhood. I was afraid of him as I was afraid of my own shadow. Somehow with my mother’s help, I confronted my greatest fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the “other.” As a mother today, as a speech therapist, and as a wife, I try to be there for those whom I love and need me. As I was taught by my mother, I should only fear Elokim, the Lord. As so, I teach my children and my students to confront their fears.
from the February 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine