Their appointment is November twenty-second, just before Thanksgiving. Isaac wears his best black suit and his Shabbes hat; and Elizabeth, a good but plain dress, navy blue. The Rav doesn't approve of women who attract attention with their clothes.
They don't speak as they stand at the Rav's door. They wait there, not afraid, exactly, but apprehensive, excited, as if they were about to go up on a stage and perform. Quiet and pale, the Rav's son Isaiah opens the door. In the cool entrance hall he takes their coats. Isaac has been once before to see the Rav, but Elizabeth never. She notices every detail, the black-and-white-tiled floor, the old-fashioned brass knobs and keyholes on the doors, the scent of furniture polish.
Isaiah leads Elizabeth and Isaac through the front parlor into the library's back room. Now they see the Rav's great desk, a table royal in scale, its top covered in red leather, and stacked with folio volumes of the law, covered with cardboard manuscript boxes, and a row of three fountain pens, neatly arranged, lined up behind three glass bottles of blue-black ink. Elizabeth and Isaac stand at some distance from the great desk where the Rav sits wearing his black suit. He is small and bent, but he holds his head up, keeping abreast of the books around him.
Isaiah walks around to the Rav's side of the desk and bends down to his father's ear like a translator. "This is Isaac Shulman and his wife," he announces.
The Rav looks straight at Isaac with keen dark eyes. "Very good," he says clearly, his voice remarkably steady. His voice is bearing up.
Isaac comes forward. "Rav Kirshner," he says, "my wife and I would like to ask your permission to open a small store in Kaaterskill."
Here again, Isaiah bends down as if to translate, but the Rav waves him away with a blue-veined hand. "I hear this," he says. "Now, again, Mr. Shulman, the facts. Who?"
"My wife and I," Isaac replies, gesturing to Elizabeth, who stands at a little distance.
"Your wife," the Rav says. "In addition your wife. And what will be her role?"
Elizabeth shivers at the question.
"What will she do?" the Rav asks.
"Mimerchak tavi lachma," Isaac quotes.
Elizabeth nearly forgets herself and laughs. It's such a lucky reference for him to happen on, a cardinal virtue of the virtuous wife in "Ayshes Chayil," the song sung on Friday nights. She bringeth food from afar.
"She wants to bring up food from the city to Kaaterskill," Isaac says, "so the women can shop during the week, instead of waiting for us to come up on weekends with all the groceries in the car."
The Rav nods with a pursed-lip smile. "We have who and what," he says. "Now, how?"
Isaac explains about the back room in Hamilton's store, and gives the names of the stores in Washington Heights from whom they will buy wholesale. The Rav gives his patent to no others.
By the end of this the Rav is leaning back in his leather desk chair. The explanations tire him, Elizabeth thinks. He was more interested in Isaac's textual defense. He pauses now, and seems to forget them for a minute as they stand there, Isaac in front of the desk, Elizabeth nearer the door. Then in an instant he makes his decision.
"Isaiah, the typewriter."
Wordlessly Isaiah rolls two sheets of the Rav's letterhead and carbon paper into the gleaming black manual typewriter. Hammer-hard, Isaiah hits the silver keys as his father dictates a letter of permission:
I, the Reverend Doctor Elijah Kirshner, have examined the business proposals of Isaac Shulman and his family, to purvey kosher food from the city up to Kaaterskill, and to bring this food up to the mountain, packaged and unaltered in any way, and to be sold unchanged.
The proposal seems to me without any harm to the Kehilla.
Excerpted from Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman. Copyright © 1998 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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