The Synagogue on Piaţa Rahovei

Lori Sambol Brody  

In the Astoria Hotel’s dining room, lurid pink cherubs gaze down from the crown molding.  Their faces are impassive.  They don’t care that the businessman from Bucharest plied me last night with glasses of must, telling me it’s wine but not quite, and now, over breakfast, is encouraging me to accompany him to Iași.  I am more polite than his insistence warrants: I am 32, an age when I am too nice to everyone.  I tell him my plans; he tips his head back to drink his tea like a shot of Ţuică and says, there are no synagogues here in Oradea.  The waiter nods in agreement, serves us spongy rolls with tongs.  But the map in my guidebook shows three Stars of David near the town center, marking the location of three synagogues.  Oradea, the guidebook reveals, was once a great center of Jewish settlement.  My great-grandparents, Hinda and Yitzhack, emigrated from Romania a hundred years ago, before the Iron Guard, before the Nazis.

There are many synagogues in Iași, he says.

My tea is so sweet it’s undrinkable.  The businessman orders seconds.  I wonder if the waiter will help me if the businessman grabs my arm and forces me outside to his battered white van.

The businessman leans forward.  Are you Jewish?  His eyes flash. 

I push my chair back.  I lie.  I say, no. 

I am still shaking as I leave the Astoria.

The guidebook’s map is not precise.  I follow streets without names, streets that do not exist on the map.  A maze without end.  The buildings are painted in worn pastels, water stains the corners of windowsills.  A horse-drawn wagon passes, the bed filled with loosely rolled barbed wire.

Streets converge and open to a small plaza where boys kick a soccer ball.  A synagogue squats behind crenellated iron gates emblazoned with a Star of David.  Mustard-colored paint peels in strips.  I shake the gates but they are secured with a rusting padlock.  Inside the fence, tree roots cradle amber beer bottles and empty cigarette packs.  As I circle the building, the boys kick the ball across the plaza and follow me.  America, America, they chant. 

I do not find an opening in the fence.  Around the back of the synagogue, I cannot see through stained glass windows opaque with grime.  There must be a bimah, an ark for the Torah, and a separate section for the women, either screened or in tiers above.  Or perhaps it’s just a gutted shell.  I imagine Hinda, veiled and solemn, circling Yitzhack seven times under the chuppah, before they left to America and transformed themselves to Anna and Isidore.

On the other side of the fence, a teenage couple kisses.  He leans against the synagogue’s walls; she presses her body against his.  Her hennaed hair tangles with his blond curls.  His hands draw her hips close.  Without pulling away, they stop kissing and look at me with shadowed eyes.

I belong here, I want to tell them. 

But their stares say, not anymore.

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Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters in a house that once was a meat locker. Her short fiction has been published in Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, WhiskeyPaper, alice blue review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody.