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The Slipper Maker's Fast by Jacob A. Riis

 

Isaac Josephs, slipper-maker, sat up on the fifth floor of his Allen Street tenement, in the gray of the morning, to finish the task he had set himself before Yom Kippur. Three days and three nights he had worked without sleep, almost without taking time to eat, to make ready the two dozen slippers that were to enable him to fast the fourth day and night for conscience' sake, and now they were nearly done. As he saw the end of his task near, he worked faster and faster while the tenement slept.

Three years he had slaved for the sweater, stinted and starved himself, before he had saved enough to send for his wife and children, awaiting his summons in the city by the Black Sea. Since they came they had slaved and starved together; for wages had become steadily less, work more grinding, and hours longer and later. Still, of that he thought little. They had known little else, there or here; they were together now. The past was dead; the future was their own, even in the Allen Street tenement, toiling night and day at starvation wages. To-morrow was the feast, their first Yom Kippur since they had come together again,—Esther, his wife, and Ruth and little Ben,—the feast when, priest and patriarch of his own house, he might forget his bondage and be free. Poor little Ben! The hand that smoothed the soft leather on the last took a tenderer, lingering touch as he glanced toward the stool where the child had sat watching him work till his eyes grew small. Brave little Ben, almost a baby yet, but so patient, so wise, and so strong!

The deep breathing of the sleeping children reached him from their crib. He smiled and listened, with the half-finished slipper in his hand. As he sat thus, a great drowsiness came upon him. He nodded once, twice; his hands sank into his lap, his head fell forward upon his chest. In the silence of the morning he slept, worn out with utter weariness.

He awoke with a guilty start to find the first rays of the dawn struggling through his window, and his task yet undone. With desperate energy he seized the unfinished slipper to resume his work. His unsteady hand upset the little lamp by his side, upon which his burnishing-iron was heating. The oil blazed up on the floor and ran toward the nearly finished pile of work. The cloth on the table caught fire. In a fever of terror and excitement, the slipper-maker caught it in his hands, wrung it, and tore at it to smother the flames. His hands were burned, but what of that? The slippers, the slippers! If they were burned, it was ruin. There would be no Yom Kippur, no feast of Atonement, no fast—rather, no end of it; starvation for him and his.

He beat the fire with his hands and trampled it with his feet as it burned and spread on the floor. His hair and his beard caught fire: With a despairing shriek he gave it up and fell before the precious slippers, barring, the way of the flames to them with his body.

The shriek woke his wife. She sprang out of bed, snatched up a blanket, and threw it upon the fire. It went out, was smothered under the blanket. The slipper-maker sat up, panting and grateful. His Yom Kippur was saved.

The tenement awoke to hear of the fire in the morning, when all Jew town was stirring with preparations for the feast. The slipper-maker's wife was setting the house to rights for the holiday then. Two half-naked children played about her knees, asking eager questions about it. Asked if her husband had often to work so hard, and what he made by it, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “The rent and a crust.”

And yet all this labor and effort to enable him to fast one day according to the old dispensation, when all the rest of the days he fasted according to the new!

 
 
 

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