By Cathy Rosoff
In 1942, 25 year-old Dov Miller was a Hasidic rabbi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A brilliant studious man whose passion for Judaism translated into a dynamic style that gave him a small, but ultra-devoted congregation and whose extremely flat feet had exempted him from the draft; he was considered a good catch by the parents of 18 year-old Rebecca Rothstein. Or rather, he was considered a good catch by David Rothstein. His mother, Sarah, was not so sure, but said nothing. It wasn’t her place.
In 1943, Devorah was born. In 1944, Judith. In 1945, Leah. When Magda, was born in 1946, Dov began to wonder if God was not punishing him for some sin that he was unaware of having committed by refusing to give him even a single son. So when Rebecca informed him she was pregnant a mere three months after giving birth to Abigail, he decided to devote himself more fully to God, so that God might reward him with a son at last. How might he do this? By devoting every ounce of himself to prayer and the study of the Torah. He could not do this with a congregation, however. It was too diverting. So he became part of a subculture of Hasid males who devoted their lives to such endeavors. His wife kindly begged him not to do this, not when she was pregnant. How would they live? She knew the answer to this, but still asked it all the same.
They would do what other Hasid couples in such situations did. She would go to work, likely teaching at an Orthodox girl’s school, and the community would donate whatever they could to help supplement her income, proffering everything from home-cooked food, to their children’s outgrown clothes, to money. They would be, in fact, glad to do this. They wouldn’t pity her. They might even envy her. In their world, Dov’s planned profession would place him in a position of high esteem. People would be all too glad to help support him.
And so this is what happened.
Rebecca was aghast when the doctor told her she had just bore a healthy baby girl. But as she held Abigail in her arms under her husband’s dead gaze, she had second thoughts. Though he had never told her, or anyone else, of his reasons for leaving his congregation in favor of study, she knew them. Now he might finally see the futility of his motives and resume paid work.
He, too, began to wonder if his regimen of study and prayer was not futile. Had he simply spent too little time on it to reap its rewards?
He realized he was wrong in 1948 when Rebecca had a miscarriage. Yes, he had applied himself to this course of study for nearly a year, but how many hours a day? He began practicing 11 hours daily, excluding meals and services. He rarely went to sleep before midnight, nor slept more than five hours a night.
Soon, he started skipping a meal a day, sometimes two so immersed in what he now thought of as his “reflections.” Never a pound overweight, his clothes began to hang off of him. When his 8 months-pregnant wife told him that some in the community were whispering that he might be ill, he wondered if he should give up and try to get hired back at his old synagogue. Over the next month, wondering had started to become planning.
And then Elias was born.
When Rebecca saw her husband’s overjoyed face as he took their son in his arms she thought, it’s over.
When her husband looked into his newborn son’s face, he thought, it’s only just begun.
Why should he treat God so cheaply? Withdrawing from Him just as He had rewarded him?
Elias grew into a child of not only unusual intelligence, but attractiveness. Tall and slim, with high cheekbones, caramel-colored skin and glistening jet-hued hair and eyes, he had an aristocratic feline beauty that caused adults to stare at him as he walked down the street. For a long time, he thought of these gifts as a curse. Were he some dummy, even had he an average intellect, his father would have probably given up on trying to turn him into a brilliant religious scholar. As it was, his brains only made his father more unrelenting, not only forbidding any diverting social life, but sporadically beating him when he felt he was not giving his studies full effort. His beauty largely seemed to have a frustrating pointlessness to it. He was, indeed, aware that it probably contributed, along with his gender and higher status within the household, to the fawning child-prince way his mother and sisters treated him, treatment he considered resentfully entitled to since they were rewarded for their lower positions by normal lives and bruise-free skin. However, he knew it would not help him acquire a more desirable wife. For that he would need to acquire more financial security than that held of his father, who seemed determine to fight to the death for that not to happen.
When he was 13, his oldest sister Devorah married a man named Adam Levy who came from a well-off family who had their own import-export business. His father, David, the business’ owner, was a slightly pudgy jovial man who seemed to sprout sunshine from his round pink face. At one Shabbat dinner, after noticing how much interest he had in his business, David laughed and slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Slow down, you’re too young, you’ll have to wait until I can hire you on.” He was joking, but both Elias and his father took him quite seriously, causing his father to see him as his first real threat and for Elias to see him as his first ray of hope.
About a month after the Shabbat dinner he and his father were discussing the Holocaust and Elias told him that one element of the theory he held about it – shared by a contingent of Orthodox Jews – confused him. If it was God’s punishment of the Jews for turning their backs on Orthodoxy – then why were so many of the Holocaust’s victims Orthodox Jews?
For the first time in his life, his father hit him with a closed fist – in the throat.