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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 30, 2018 by

Sadie Schuster’s Magic Love Knots (Part 2 of “Sadie in Love”)

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 96-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.  


Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Sadie Schuster sold love knots, hope wrapped in a schmattah, fifty cents. A lot of money in 1913, but hope never came cheap, especially when it came from Sadie Schuster. “You think this business makes me rich?” she asked her customers. “I do it to make people happy. The material alone costs me forty cents.”

She learned her magic tricks in Poland, where she and Fivel lived before coming to New York, two greenhorns, just married, and talked about love knots as though there really was magic in this world, and only she, of all the Jews in New York who came from Minsk, from Riga and Lublin, Budapest and Warsaw, knew how to put them together.

It was a secret, she said, passed from mother to daughter. Her own daughter, Yivvy, who ran a second-hand shop, and worked the cash register nights at the Second Street Cafeteria, didn’t believe in love or magic.  Take it or leave it, Sadie Schuster was the only love knot person in New York City.

The love knots were works of art. For women customers, Sadie braided strands of theloved one’s hair with red thread, added a shirt button, a shoe lace, fringe from a prayer shawl, cigar bands, suspender buckles. For men customers, she stole a tooth from the loved one’s comb, the lace of a handkerchief, hairpins, boot heels, a snip of corset bone.

Showering scented water over the scraps, she wrapped them in a square of flowered cotton schmattah, and tied the four corners together, making a plump little bundle the size of her thumb. If she could get her hands on a little perspiration from the body of the loved one, and rub that into the knot – ha! Perfect. Cupping the knot in her palm, she   half-chanted, half-sang, murmuring strange sounds softly; so softly, her customers couldn’t recognize the language. Precisely what Sadie hoped for: her certainty, their bewilderment. It made her seem powerful. It made her customers feel better about parting with fifty cents.

This was the promise: the love knot pulled at the loved one against his/her will, against all reason, against the laws of nature and the Old Testament; against, it seemed, everything except Sadie’s say-so. Love always begat love, until two separate people turned into one absolutely and for-all-time happy couple.

Her favorite customers were those who lived in her tenement building on Ludlow Street, an eight-flat she and Fivel purchased at auction just before he died. Up and down four flights of stairs, breathing hard, sweating, even in winter, Sadie stirred up love knot business when she collected rent. “Love knots,” she crooned, “money for me today, love for you tomorrow. Open up for Sadie.”

Unmarried tenants opened up, and asked questions. They were lonely, but not foolish.

Fifty cents bought a shave and haircut, two steam baths at Silberstein’s Private Water Works, five dances at the Irving Street Saturday Night Social Club. A second-hand derby hat. Spats. Three pairs of used, embroidered gloves, the fingers still like new.  

 What guarantee did they have, who could they complain to, if love didn’t appear in two, three weeks? “Nobody. God matched Adam to Eve, yes? And it didn’t work out.

So, who did Adam complain to? Anyway…” Sadie liked to use words from her night school English class, words like anyway and nevertheless, savoring each syllable as though it were food, and she was hungry. “Anyway, leave the details to me, you got plenty to do.  Go rent a hall, get ready to make a wedding. I smell success about to happen.”          

What choice did her customers have? Loneliness on the lower east side was like an itch waiting to be scratched. Synagogues seated men in front, women in back, behind  gauze curtains. Moishe Pipik’s Cafe on Lower Broadway was loud talk and cigar smoke, hot blintzes and sour cream, scratchy Gypsy music, but no place for romance.

Loneliness hung over Sadie too, now that Fivel was dead, taken by influenza; one week, and splat, like that, dead. Dead, but not gone; Sadie wouldn’t let him get away that easily. She talked to him while she worked on her love knots. Sometimes it seemed they talked more now than when he was alive. 

“Fivel…” Her eyes on the ceiling. “A woman alone, it’s no picnic.” Silence. “I know you didn’t want to, but you went before the mortgage did.” Again, silence. “That second-

 hand furnace you put in? I said, buy new, remember?” No sign he’d heard. “Well, you

can act hurt. Meanwhile, you’re up there floating around warm, and I’m down here freez-

ing.” Cocking her head: “Remember this watch?” Raising her arm. “For my birthday, just before…” Sadie’s smile soured. “It keeps terrible time.”

 Early in June, Sadie’s business went crazy. Four new customers in one week, enough money to buy white boots with hearts stenciled on the heels, or maybe the used fox scarf with one eye in the window of a second-hand shop on Orchard Street.

By the end of the week, she opened The Daily Forward in search of new, mysterious-sounding words to put into her sing-song chants, and, as always, in search of news of the women she’d met in the Canal Street Library—school teachers, store clerks, seamstresses, Jewish, Gentile, all mixed together, for getting the vote. When they marched through the lower east side, the men booing from the sidewalks, also some women, even,  the policemens all over them, they kept on stopping traffic, waving their flags, Sadie along with them, thinking, thanks God Fivel doesn’t see me.

Now, opening the Forward” she found not interesting words or suffrage news,  but her horoscope: “If you’re an April baby, you got to learn to live with passion.”

Sadie looked at the ceiling, through the ceiling, toward heaven. “Fivel,” she whispered, “hear that  — passion! Something we never talked about.” Her memory of how passion looked, felt, the way it burned her skin and throat, were older than her marriage. So old, Sadie felt uncertain. Maybe the advice wasn’t meant for her. She read the horoscope again: “Learn to live with passion.” Suddenly, it sounded like something she’d been waiting to do.

But first — what did she look like? She hadn’t been paying attention. Sadie peered into the patch of mirror over her washbasin. The news at forty-one wasn’t good: wrinkling around the eyes, sagging under the chin. Elsewhere, what was tight was now loose, what was once high was slipping. Sadie sucked in her fleshy cheeks, puckered her lips. A woman without a man had to hurry, time was no friend. Growing old on cold sheets was bad for the bones, bad for the skin, terrible for the nerves.

Tse-hit-st,” she whispered, using the Yiddish word for passion, tsutsing the t-s  sounds, grateful she still had all her own teeth. She repeated the word: tsehitst. It  sang a soft hiss as it rolled off her tongue. A good sign. 

Living tse-hit-st was a wonderful idea, but it raised questions without offering answers. Sadie turned to the obituary column. Whose wife was gone? That month three women her age had left healthy husbands behind. Sadie knew two of them: a house painter with a glass eye that clicked when he laughed or sneezed, a chicken flicker who moved like a freight train. Sadie imagined his immense weight settling into her bed.

That left Herschl Diamond, who peddled blocks of ice, a man she’d seen many times riding through the streets on his wagon, calling out in careful English: “Ice! A cold friend on a hot day!” Nice muscles on that one, she’d thought, good hair, expensive teeth.

Only two, three weeks ago, they’d almost met. She’d been rushing out of her flat and turned, almost tripping over him in the foyer, dressed in a clean white shirt and red suspenders, pressed cotton pants, heading for an upper floor. Never too hurried to admire something admirable, Sadie watched him vanish up the stairwell and around the curve. So. Now this desirable man was, like her, alone. How terrible. How wonderful.

She lowered the window shades, dimmed the gas jets, closed her eyes and crooned. She rang a set of six brass bells, snapped her fingers, stomped her feet. The air felt thin, empty. Sometimes the spirits needed coaxing, sometimes they tortured her, accusing her of not believing. Spirits were harder to fool than customers.

Plucking a garlic bulb from the ice box, she hung it on a string around her neck,  twirling slowly, then faster. She trimmed her fingernails and dropped the parings into a tiny metal cylinder that contained The Song of Songs inscribed on ivory parchment. “Oy,” she sang, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

* * * 

Read another installment of Sadie in Love tomorrow.