‘Whatever else may not agree in this disagreeing world, a verb must agree with its noun.’ Ephraim smacked his fist into his palm and then laughed. His new patron, President Pendleton of Bethany College, had the grace and perception to laugh with the just-arrived professor of Hebrew, Greek and Biblical exegesis.
From dry, spare prairie to cradling green hills, the jolt in setting was as if the Epsteins had been picked up and put down in the panhandle of West Virginia by a tornado. After the bitterness in Dakota Territory Ephraim was buoyed with vindication. From being founding president of a university there the house, pay and privileges here are a diminishment from his previous glory, but now he has utter academic freedom. A new book project, a new geography, and, aged 56, yet again a new life awaits — with the loyal Helena and their four daughters to support.
Once again Ephraim lands on his feet, with a post at Bethany College: ideal for him as it was founded by free-thinking Disciples of Christ who believed in no sects, no denominations. His literate and independent style of Christianity surely won’t get him in trouble here. But why not support his family by doctoring? In Chapter 34, Resurrection, in the seventh year of mourning for his little son he still feels unable to return to practice. Bethany College, click here , flourishes to this day. The home of its second President, William K Pendleton, had been a station in the underground railroad for escaping slaves some 25 years before Ephraim’s time at Bethany.
‘What are you trying to prove, Ephraim?’ Jacob took another bite of his fishcake.
‘That Truth is the Way.’
‘That will carry you through,’ the old uncle airily dismissed the subject. ‘How is little Frieda? And the pretty Mrs Epstein.’
Ephraim told him about the baby due in autumn, and then plunged into his turmoil. ‘I can’t be a physician. But I cannot stay on as a silenced teacher.’
‘The Jews don’t like you because of your Jesus. And the Christians don’t like you because of your truth.’ Jacob laughed gently. ‘Do you ever think of keeping quiet?’
But we know by now that Ephraim cannot keep from acting on his truths. In Chapter 29, Professor Epstein, medical practice is impossible for the still-grieving physician. He has lasted one successful year as a teacher of Hebrew and scripture at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Because of his outspokenness he now must invent himself once again… but as what, where?
When fact is perfect for fiction… this highly romantic episode was no more than family lore when I began writing the novel of Dr Epstein’s life. Then California cousin CB sent me wonderful evidence of truth.
‘As to the wooing there is a bit of romance. In an album at the house of some relatives in St. Petersburg, the young merchant saw a photograph of Miss Sarah. In a twinkling of an eye he fell in love, and expressed an ardent with to see the fair original. Correspondence followed… with the result above stated.’ The New York Times December 24, 1874.
In Chapter 26, Perjured, determined daughter Sadie defeats her father. Ephraim overrides his resistance to her marriage — but at what cost?
For many men the birth of a son is a great thing, and for Ephraim perhaps especially so when William was born to Helena in 1874. He knew what it was to be the first born son of his parents, the longed for male. This joy in a son was bred in his bones and could not be denied. Equally undeniable was consideration of circumcision. He himself was circumcised, of course, by a mohel at the bris at eight days of age, as all Jewish boys were. Ephraim’s personal life, his profession and his Jewish-Christian faith constellated in a crisis.
In Chapter 25, Doctor and Family Man, at last Ephraim has contentment, crowned by the birth of a son. But this raises issues. As his great granddaughter I can only assume that Ephraim was circumcised. I have dared to imagine that he had a dilemma over this issue for his own son. This is backed by factual circumstantial evidence: his published letter-battle with a southern physician in the professional Medical and Surgical Reporter in 1874, exactly the year of son William’s birth. The exchange escalated to the point of Ephraim’s fiery outrage on the whole issue of Jewish ‘superiority’. In his own words: ‘The singular perseverance of the Jews in health is a mean fiction…’
His conflict shows: he both defends and attacks Judaism. In medical circles at the time circumcision was thought to be good for health. But Ephraim believed it had become a religious political issue; the choice he made could be seen as taking sides. About his boy? My imagination has Ephraim decide against. And gives Helena very little say.
The shock and relief in Rachel’s voice forced Ephraim’s eyes back to her, and he explained.
Heiliggeistkirche in Heidelberg 2003 Christian Bienia
‘No. I have given up missionary work. I have arranged to pay off my obligation to the Society with Zayde’s inheritance.’
‘What? That is our money, my money! How much?’
‘It’s from my half.’
‘What will you do in America?’ Rachel’s voice softened into curiosity, moving on from outrage to consideration of married life without proselytizing.
And so… will his difficult wife go with Ephraim back to America? Or will he manage to get free of her? Ah, but in Chapter 18, The Get, dear Mama forces another option that results in a no and a yes. Ephraim consults his soul in this grand church which at the time (1862) was divided down the middle, half protestant, half Roman Catholic. Split, like him, between Judaism and Christianity. Which way to go?
…for the briefest of moments Ephraim did not recognize her, and then — ‘Mama!’ He flung his arms around his heart’s balm, bowing his head to kiss her tear-wet cheeks as she murmured his name. They pulled apart and Ephraim extended his hands toward his father, and then surprised himself by hugging Papa, too, and found the hug returned. And then, hovering half-hidden, a graceful, blonde, blue-eyed fourteen-year-old, Ephraim’s daughter: Sarah.
‘Papa.’ She bobbed a little curtsy and blushed.
Reconciliation at last, not in Belarus but in Heidelberg, Germany. In Chapter 17, Ephraim Feeds on the Wind, Grandfather’s death brings Dr Epstein and his wife out of Turkey and into the loving arms of his family. While he rejoices to be with his daughter Ephraim encounters new strains on his difficult marriage and new pressures on his faith.
… perfidious, in preventing Sarah from coming. Why? To hurt him? To beat him in one of their petty battles? He could hardly imagine the possibility that Rachel wished to have him all to herself. Perhaps it was to punish him for the years of so-called widowhood.
Jewish, Bulgarian & Muslim women in Ottoman Saloniki, 1873
After all, he in the first place had left Rachel and Sarah behind. But when it came to ‘in the first place’ it was his grandfather, Zayde, who had made them marry and created this mess. The buts and ifs and accusations chased through his head and he knew he would continue to tolerate his wife. He had to, it was his duty.
Ephraim is furious over two betrayals by his wife. In Chapter 15, The Taste of Learning, he learns she has prevented their daughter from joining them here in Turkey. And she has gossiped about the restrictions he has put on their conjugal life. What’s more, he is frustrated in his missionary work – and then he gets an order to move on.
They clasped hands. She wore dark green, and a lighter green bonnet, dark curls at her forehead, that creamy skin, hardly any wrinkles, those shining eyes. People surged around them, stevedores in baggy trousers, fezzed porters in kaftans.
Ephraim startled and looked to her left, to her right, tried to peer over her shoulder. ‘The porter promised to bring all the luggage,’ she said in the Belarusian of their youth.
‘But where is Sarah?’
‘In the end, she did not come.’ Rachel watched his stunned expression. ‘I am sorry. They kept her.’
It is 1860 and Ephraim has begun as a medical missionary in Saloniki, Turkey (today Thessalonika, Greece), at last reuniting with the wife he left in Brest-Litovsk ten years earlier. In Chapter 14, A Man Shall Cleave Unto His Wife, the mis-matched couple try for love while Ephraim struggles to convert the local Sephardic Jews to Christianity. And he fumes: will he never be allowed to meet his 12-year-old daughter?
… in Cincinnati Ephraim and Sadie had told Helena how the Epstein family celebrated Chanukah. Though the Jewish festival of lights was based on history and the German tradition muddled up Christianity with pagan folklore, the two celebrations had in common the deepest faith of all —
— the miracle of light in darkness. Now, along with readings from the Gospels of the story of the son of God born in a stable, the children heard about the candelabrum and the oil for one day which lasted for eight in the Temple. Jesus would have known this story too, Ephraim made sure they understood.
We jump ahead here to Chapter 35, Still Full of Sap, in Bethany, West Virginia 1885-87 in order to celebrate Christmas. Ephraim here is happily married and father of four young children. Next time, back to his chronology, continuing med school in New York City 1858. Meanwhile, happy celebrations to you.
A letter from home at last, but it was bordered with black, the only words: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!’ At the bottom his parents names and the numbers 1829 – 1853: the dates of Ephraim’s birth and his revealed conversion to Christianity. They had declared him dead.
The room spun and he gripped the sides of the wooden chair he sat in. Trembling, he gathered his scarf and hat and hurried down the staircase into the biting air of gray November. He walked fast, blindly. He sped on, driven by grief, by horror: what had he done? He had found his own God. And now his parents had severed him.
Having successfully begun at seminary in Chapter 11, At Andover, Ephraim breaks down in health and mind at his family’s reaction to his conversion. He learns new lessons in endurance, finding support in the household of his teacher, Professor Calvin Stowe, and Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Will Ephraim see his wife and daughter again? When I am a physician, he vows, then I will rescue them.