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The Promised Land, a Novel. Ruhama Veltfort

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The Promised Land: A Novel, Ruhama Veltfort (covered wagon, mountains, Hebrew script in clouds)

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Excerpt from Chapter 10
of The Promised Land


Praise be to Thee, Lord our God, Ruler of all the world, who made the great sea. There was a blessing for seeing the ocean, so I knew it was real. But how could I have prepared myself for that voyage? Just above the close darkness of the ship's belly, our quarters for those five weeks, were the unlimited waves, rising and falling as far as I could see, green by day and by night the deepest black, under a wide, wide sky covered with countless stars.

Each day when I stumbled out under the white, billowing sails of the Bremen, my eyes were opened a little wider. Where I had come from there was always an edge: the end of the village, the edge of the forest, the wall around the city. Now there was nothing around me but space extending forever, dark green rolls of water that merged at the horizon into the gray canopy of sky.

As if the ship's motion had not already made my legs waver like weeds in the wind; the sight of all that unobstructed space made my head spin so that I could hardly stand. I had never dreamed I could feel so alone, for though I had always felt alone among people, I now felt alone in the universe. Yet in the midst of that awful loneliness I felt the pure joy of a bird, soaring high over those waves, bound for home.

So it was that in coming to America, the land without Torah, I regained my lost faith. My heart began to lift as soon as that marvelous and awful ship sailed, when I realized I was leaving my old country behind forever. Even as Yitzhak and the others lay suffering, I knew that whatever happened I would be held safely by the One who called each of that multitude of stars by name, Who numbered every hair on my head. I did not know whether we might drown in a shipwreck or die of a plague; whether America was an actual, real place where we would find a new and happier life, or if we would be lost forever in a fancy of Yitzhak's imagination. Yet I was at peace; I no longer felt blown on the wind, but instead borne upward on the invisible, loving current that sustained all the worlds.


Though I had felt safe with God at sea, I almost fainted with fear when we first landed, weak as newborn lambs, in America. All around were madly moving people who could not speak without shouting. They even looked peculiar, like animals dressed in human clothes. They moved so fast and shouted so loud that they seemed larger than they were.

In spite of the sweet-smelling flowering trees that lined the streets, I thought that Yitzhak had brought us to Hell. And while he took Fergis to be a rescuing angel, I thought him an imp, whose real master was not Reb Kahn but the Evil One. I even saw a few poor souls chained together in a line, driven by a devil on horseback!
Of course, it was not really Hell, it was just another country. We came to a river as wide as ten Vistulas, and the noisy boat that carried us to St. Louis. And on that boat, it seemed true what we had heard at home, that in America everyone lived like kings and queens. It truly seemed our days of hunger and misery were as far behind us as the country we had left.

St. Louis was a big, spread-out village, not as big or dirty as Cracow. I felt disoriented by the strange landscape, the river as slow and brown as the sticky molasses the people here liked to spread on bread. For that molasses alone, Levi and Rachel would have sworn eternal loyalty to America! I had never seen trees and plants such as grew here, though the animals were the same horses, cows, dogs and cats we had in Poland.

Reb Noah Kahn was big, and dressed like a nobleman in his fine coat and tall black hat. Everything about him looked powerful; except for his features I would not have believed he could be a Jew. His wife was much smaller, but she wore a big dress, made of black, hissing, silky stuff.

Every week in that magnificent, frightening house I discovered yet another room, each one stuffed with furniture, carpets, paintings. Fancy wood cabinets held strange and delicate objects made of carved wood and bone, painted ceramics and skillfully worked metals, objects whose uses I could not imagine. When no one was watching I ran my hands over the stair railing, the woodwork, even the window sills. I caressed the walls, covered with figured paper: pictures of flowers, horses, people in strange costumes. Everything was polished and silent.