An orthodox Jewish immigrant family from Russia. A settled Jewish immigrant family of market vendors originally from Spain. Lives that converge. A country that does not recognise their rules. A sadness so deep it becomes a tragedy. A young man is branded a criminal for trying to feed his parents and a young woman falls in a love that will never bring her happiness. A book about women, passion, tradition, and family. Shänne Sands brings to life two families and their struggles with love, war, injustice and crime.
Paperback. 366 pages.
£7.99 Amazon UK
$10.00 Barnes&Noble USA
Widely available online and from your local book store: ISBN 9781908867889
Extract: Chapter One.
Every few seconds, against the bedroom
window of a high, narrow, three-storey, east-end
Victorian house, a freezing gust of wind blew its
bleak draughts through the ageing wooden framework
until the curtains shook.
It was just past midnight on November 7th
1909. An icy, cold rain drizzled down the window
panes leaving a pretty pattern of winter raindrops in
spite of London grime that fouled the glass.
Like the rest of the house the bedroom was
square and indifferent, as if the builder had always
known only the poor would ever inhabit it, or if it
had at any time in its history seen better days, this
house showed no signs of it.
A double iron bedstead was made up with a
featherbed and feather quilt in eastern European
style. A washstand, a chair, a heavy chest of drawers
took their place in each corner and a jet of gaslight
from the one lamp against the faded wallpaper set
shadow phantoms in grotesque and humorous shapes
across the ceiling with its damp patches and peeling
Rifka Myersavitch felt her time had nearly
come. For the fifth baby preparation was not difficult.
Sarah from Quaker Street would come, if she was
needed. Sarah was getting old but she knew about
babies. Babies were her special knowledge,
‘Everyone has a special knowledge,’ Sarah
always said as she dipped honey cake into her glass
of tea in Rifka’s front room on the afternoons all the
women gossiped together. After all, the Community
had to pray together and had to stay together. Praying
together was Reuben Myersavitch’s special
knowledge. He was Reuben the scholar. Reuben the
Zaddik. His knowledge was all the prayers and
benedictions of over thirty centuries of his people.
Ah, Reuben, wonderful Reuben, wonderful, kind,
bearded Reuben with Slavic eyes and a bear hug that
“I love you – I love you. Life is a joy. Life is a
gift from our everlasting Father in Heaven, blessed
be his name.”
Maybe old Sarah wouldn’t be needed. It was
only birth. Rifka was a female cat-woman. Her babies
gave little bother. The pain was soon forgotten.
She folded her bed quilt with great care. It was
her comforter in a cold hour. In her most private
meditations, when her children were asleep and
Reuben was away talking about his vision of the
Promised Land to his devout group of followers,
Rifka would lie in the feather bed and pull the quilt
around her small body and dare to dream, such
dreams! If Reuben knew he’d die of a million doubts.
But no one knew of Rifka’s dreams, only the feather
quilt, and sometimes she would hum to herself the
words of an ancient song, ‘Only God and myself know
what is in my heart.’ She placed the quilt on top of
the chest of drawers and held her hands to her aching
She then spread brown paper over her mattress.
Rifka always collected brown paper. So much brown
paper stained with the her blood had been burnt in
England. It was too late to call Sarah, Reuben would
have to cut the cord. It would be alight, didn’t he cut
Benjamin’s cord? And Benjamin was five years old,
God bless him.
“My first-born. My Benjamin with blue eyes.
Reuben wasn’t keen on those blue eyes, until I said,
‘Tell me Reuben Myersavitch how to change
them? These things happen. And besides, you know
‘What?’ he asked.
‘I, his mother have blue eyes. And underneath
this sheitel I have blond hair. Have you forgotten
because I am now a married lady, I had long fair
plaits and you used to twine them around your neck
and say, ‘Rifka, mine, we are betrothed,’ remember
‘Then how we laughed at Benjamin’s blue eyes
and the Cossack ancestor who most likely shone
through them. Although we banished him to hell and
circumcised our son into the safety of the Covenant.
Anyway, when we stopped laughing Reuben said,
‘Next time I want a son with deep brown eyes,’
and we laughed and danced all over the house.”
In the next bedroom, on another double, iron
bedstead her children slept together, their tiny pale
shapes cuddled together in the warmth of each other
and their feather quilt. Their brown curls tossed on
the pillows, their sleeping heads full of the land of
night fairies and huge giants.
Rifka could hear their breathing through the
thin walls. The pains in her back were bad. She lay
on the brown paper, her head supported by a pillow
covered in a white, linen pillow case. The cool cloth
soothed her head as she drifted into the first
contractions of labour and her mind tried to leave the
pain behind as her hands gripped the iron bedstead
above her head and her body heaved into long, sad
moans that came from the depth of her being. Birth
Sometimes during labour as her mind cleared
for a moment she could hear Reuben praying, softly
singing his prayers backwards and forwards, his
body rocked towards the Holy Land. Forwards and
backwards to her heart, soothing her pains,
“Thank God we men were not born women,” he
sang softly, “Children are always a blessing.”
Pray hard Reuben Myersavitch. Pray hard that
the birth will soon be over and have a little wine
She lay in agony but did not scream. Reuben
came into the room many times with an enamel
basin with warm water to wipe her face. Suddenly
old Sarah appeared with hot water in another enamel
basin muttering to herself,
“The way we poor have our babies is not right.
It’s not right! You will kill your Rifka next time,
Reuben Myersavitch, you will kill her. Do you hear?
Five babies! She is only twenty two! Animals!
Disgusting animals that is what you are,” she
muttered on and on. Her eyes glaring at poor Reuben
every time Rifka bit her lips and moaned.
“My husband tried to kill me with babies but,
thank God, one morning he fell under a coach. That
was freedom! I lived for the first time. I didn’t walk,
I floated like a queen. Bah, to babies! A blessing
indeed! When did you last pay the rent man, Reuben
Myersavitch, eh?” She rubbed Rifka’s back. She
“I made a knowledge of babies. I help deliver
them now. I stopped having them myself!”
Reuben didn’t hear a word. He had left the
bedroom. The brown paper was now bloodstained.
Rifka’s legs were wide apart and her knees almost
touched her chin. She pushed, with her insides being
torn and stretched and it seemed there was no more
breath in her lungs. The waters broke and the
universe exploded inside her, like the Big Bang which
had sent fragments of worlds into dark and secret
space. Her dilated womb rushed pain into her belly,
down to her groin. Pain opened her up hurting her to
her very soul – as the infant’s dark head came into
existence for the first time. Old Sarah, with blood
over her hands and down the front of her long, white
apron, spat at Reuben,
“Another Myersavitch to dr ive the
neighbourhood mad!” Then she pulled the baby clear
out of its mother’s body.
Rifka slumped to the side of the mattress. She
was wet with sweat and blood. Her hands sore from
being clenched too tightly. On the floorboards a
crumpled heap of brown paper was ready to be
thrown away. Reuben brushed with extreme
tenderness, the damp hair from his wife’s forehead.
“We have another son Rifka. Sleep now and I
will sing the prayers for the blessing of a safe birth.”
He poured red wine across Rifka’s lips. It
slithered down the side of her chin. She had passed
out. In his ignorance and poverty he said to the tired
“See, she sleeps. My Rifka sleeps.”
The first birth cries came from the new born
boy. The wind continued to batter the Victorian
house as the other children slept on, unaware of their
new brother or bed-bugs that crawled over their
small, white legs.
Above the tenement, above the yellow
gaslights, above the icy November pavements and
the sleeping East-end poor and the awake poor still
roaming the unforgiving city streets emigrants call
home; a grey, winter sky held above all their souls, a
pale, distant moon. A piece of gleaming light shone
out into all this greyness. The Evening Star. Every
emigrant who had ever crossed a hostile sea seeking
a new shore, a new Promised Land, had loved this
star, this precious Venus. The single light in the dark
night sky. As the infant boy sucked in the first
oxygen of life outside his mother’s womb the moon
and the Evening Star shone just a little brighter,
‘Hope, little brother,’ they said. ‘Always reach
up high and try to touch our glitter.’
The children would wake soon and see their
“Welcome little Abraham.”
Even the inhospitable wind seemed to say,