But nothing changed. Sarai and Alter did not vary their conjugal routine, but still no child. Sarai visited the local Jewish cemetery. There was a grave of a woman who had died over a hundred years ago, and purportedly bore nearly forty living children.
Women with problems often went to her grave to pray for her intercession. But it did not work. Sarai asked permission, and which Alter granted, to visit this or that rabbi in this or that town. She often returned with potions in small bottles, or amulets around her neck. But another year passed and all the wonder rabbis in the province failed. And Mendel the baker kept on Alter when the cobbler expressed his woes.
“You must divorce her, Alter,” he said as he twirled a long braid of challah, his face caked with white flour like a mime. “The Torah says: There shall not be male or female barren among you. The first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply. Multiply, Alter! God, may He be merciful, may turn his face away from you for your lack of resolve.”
And Mendel the baker knew his Talmud well. He peppered Alter with citations and quotes: “The Talmud also says a man’s iniquity leaves him childless; the childless are likened to those cut off from God, Blessed be He, and as already dead, Heaven forbid, and cast out along with the paupers, the lepers, the blind…”
Alter listened to the baker’s excursions in Talmud in silence, nervously biting the end of his pipe.
So after Purim Alter told Sarai he would divorce her. This time he looked at her fully in the face. Their year of trials and torments had hardened their respective positions; their love had frayed at the edges by the pressure of bitterness. Alter realized that he would not cry on the threshold of the rabbi’s house. He also suspected that Sarai would try and fight the divorce.
They rode to Podloz in a driving rain. Neither spoke a word. When they met with the old rabbi, a man whose beard was so white it was nearly yellow, like parchment, both lowered their heads. He asked them their business. Alter explained the past; his previous wife, dead; his two sons, dead; his fours years of marriage to Sarai and no offspring.
“But a man must wait ten years to divorce a barren wife,” the rabbi explained softly, with a note of impatience in his tone. A folio of the Talmud lay on a lectern, its opened page covered by a clean handkerchief. “Do you wish to divorce your husband Sarai daughter of Gershom?” the old rabbi asked Sarai, careful to avoid looking at her directly.
“No, Rabbi,” Sarai answered. The rabbi turned to Alter again.
“Does something else about her displease you?” the rabbi asked. “Is she quarrelsome? Do you have relations as God commands? Is your house kept orderly and clean? Are you fed?” Alter could have picked just one and divorced Sarai, but he cold not move his lips. He could not lie. Despite it all, he loved her. He simply shook his head.
“Then there are no grounds for divorce,” the rabbi explained, running shaking fingers though his beard. “The Holy One purifies us through suffering. God, Blessed be He, desires to hear our prayers of longing to Him. He makes us worthy of His gifts through trial and privation. Do not lose hope, children. Abraham and Sarah were childless for seventy-five years before God granted their prayers. Rebecca for twenty years. Rachel, for fourteen years. Hannah, sixteen years and six months, and then God was moved by compassion by her prayers, and granted her Samuel, who became a great prophet,” the rabbi said in a wavering voice, fluttering his hand. “Go home my children and pray like good Jews, like our fathers and mothers did, and God will grant you your prayers though His compassion,” and then, as a coda: “If not, come back in one year.”
Alter and Sarai rode away from Podloz and its gurgling river. Alter did not feel purified by his trials, he felt enraged by the frustration they generated. Would God come down from the clouds and help him repair shoes and provide for him when he had lost all his teeth and could not so much as sew a piece of leather?