The Red army fell. My neighborhood was overrun by a hundred Nazi soldiers—all grizzled and dirty with sweat-stains running down their uniforms. The synagogue was destroyed as I emerged from the cellar with my sister Esther. Stained-glass shards littered the ground, eerily dull in the autumn morning. Last night during Shabbat they glittered like a thousand diamonds under the candle light—alas, never again. I urgently warned my father weeks ago that we needed to leave Kiev. The Nazis zealously devoured Russia's armies. These men bathed in blood—death was their God. I only feared my sister and I would fall prey to their hunger.
My father was a baker, and his shop was on Kreshchatik Street which ran through the heart of Kiev's downtown. That morning was like any other—mother fussed with Esther over her unruly dark curls, and father sat meditatively in his chair praying. The sun was rising, and blared brightly into our small home. I dressed in my handsome clothes, remembering my prayer shawl and yarmulke. My sights were on Maya, the rabbi's youngest and most beautiful daughter. Her voice was liquid-honey, and I was enthralled by her dream to become a canter. I would propose to her that morning. I attempted to conceal the dark circles under my eyes, much to Esther's amusement.
"Gross!" she giggled, squirming away from mother, "Tzvi wants to kissy-kissy Maya!"
"Oi vey!" cried Mother, Esther's pinned curls falling loose, "Good girls stay still! I refuse to see you run amuck like a wild wolf on Sabbath."
She tickled her daughter, and the two laughed with delight as father scooped Esther into his arms.
"Someday you will be a bride, Esther," he laughed in his rich baritone voice, "I am a proud man, to have a strong son and a daughter as beautiful and as blessed as Sara!"
I chuckled, and rubbed my heavy eyes. In the mirror I was wane and pale from nerves, and I frowned at my cowardice. I was seventeen years old, and last year witnessed my closest friend Abraham propose. He was suave and sophisticated—an expert with the Torah and the ladies. I was surprised when he settled down and married. His wild demeanor was sedated by his adoration for his wife, and yesterday I saw him outside the bakery, flaunting his newborn son. I missed his carefree laughter and goofy grin. Secretly I wondered if marriage would transform me overnight into a man like Abraham. Combing my hair I sighed, wanting to rebel against tradition. There was a world outside Kiev, one I desperately needed to explore.
"Tzvi," my mother said gently, tapping my shoulder, "Would you mind bringing little Esther to temple with you? She wanted to play with Rachel and Leah."
I bit my lip awkwardly, afraid Esther's overly curious mind would interrupt my concentration. My father gazed sternly my way, and I nodded.
"No trouble at all," I replied, motioning to my sister, "My pleasure."
Esther threw her arms in the air and latched herself to my leg.
"I love you," she beamed, "even if you are gross. I'd never kiss a girl."
Father laughed heartily, his crooked smile soon replaced with seriousness. Mother nodded understandingly, and herded Esther to her bedroom. Her giggling was suddenly hushed as the door closed, and silence settled between my father and me. My palms sweat as I inhaled anxiously awaiting his advice. Grasping my shoulders with his heavy hands, he leaned and kissed my forehead.
"You are a good son," he said, blessing me with a prayer, "May god be with you today, and may he find favor with your decision."
"I struggle with words," father grunted, his brow furrowing, "My son is unhappy, and I cannot understand why. I am joyful you are seeking Maya's hand, but I am troubled seeing you so uneasy."
"Papa, everything will be predictable."
He looked confused, but he softened and embraced me.
"Tzvi, God graces our lives in mysterious ways. Marriage is an adventure, and you will grow stronger in your faith. Rest easy—everything will be revealed with time."
"If you so say, Father."
"Our traditions have ensured our survival, Tzvi," he said more sternly, "I expect you to carry those traditions on."
My father was a good man, a pillar of our community. But I was different. Old stories, prophets, the mysticism of the Kabala—all failed to intrigue me. I would travel to New York City, witness the marvels of human ingenuity. I would climb the world's tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building. And finally I would fall in love with a modern woman in high heels and a pleated skirt. That was the adventure I yearned for.
"Tzvi?" he said, sadly returning me to reality, "You will speak with the Rabbi?"
"Yes," I stated, meeting my father's gaze like a man. He patted my shoulder with approval, and sat in his chair. An energetic squeal echoed from the bedroom, and Esther burst in, her hair braided beneath her babushka. She grabbed my hand, and pulled me towards the door. Mother frowned disapprovingly, fiddling with Esther's bangs which somehow freed themselves in minutes.
"Mind your brother," she chided, fussing momentarily with my yarmulke, "Don't go running somewhere by yourself!"
Esther snickered and I winked at her. We were prepared to leave when father stood. He waved his hands over each of us, praying for safety. He squeezed Esther's hand.
"Listen to your mother," he whispered in her ear, his beard tickling, "Spare me from her angry tirades, please?"
Esther grinned. I stepped outside, my fingers interlaced with my sister's. My parents watched us go, admiration etched into their faces. I turned away, starring into the distance and straining to see. A brigade of soldiers was approaching, their boots shaking the Earth.