Moshe Peters shivered as he hobbled down Wood Street toward Christ Church. A chill lingered in the early morning air and nipped at the bare toes which protruded from the ends of his boots. He paused for a moment to adjust the crutch under his arm and gather his ragged coat about him.
A subdued milky sun floated in the lifting fog. Moshe limped along at a pace equal to that of any two-legged man.
The morning was melting away as fast as the fog. In this brick and mortar slum that was the East End of London, time was measured by hunger pangs and the search for a doss-house in which to rest. Each day contained only so many hours of fruitful begging. A man had to secure enough shillings and pence for his daily bread and night’s lodging
Ahead of him a door opened and a customer, bundle under his arm, called back to the shopkeeper. “A good day to you, Simon. May the Almighty Himself bless your ovens.”
Moshe slowed his pace as he neared the door of Simon Linski, the baker. If God smiled upon him, another customer would enter or leave the shop. Then Moshe could breathe in an ocean of fresh-baked fragrance to sustain him throughout the day.
Each day, for that reason, Moshe timed his steps so that he would pass the bakery soon after the morning’s baking was ready for purchase. This morning, though, he saw something that caused him to stop and stare in the store window. Adorning the display case was a challah braid as thick as a leg of mutton.
It must be almost time for the Shabbat. How long has it been since I had a Shabbat meal?
Moshe leaned his forehead against the window memorizing the golden glow of the braid and steaming the glass with his breath.
“You there! Leave yer beggin’ for another establishment!” The stout baker, armed with a rolling pin, threw open the door. He aimed a blow at the vagrant’s head.
Moshe inhaled the aroma of the fresh bread that flowed from the bakery before escaping down the street as quickly as he could.
A right turn on Church Street brought him out to the warehouses that lined Commercial Street. A porter, lugging a large basket of vegetables to the nearby Spitalfields Market, knocked Moshe to the ground.
“Watch where yer goin’!” the sweating workman puffed before disappearing into the market crowd.
Moshe brushed himself off and slowly, using his crutch, rose to his feet.
“A ha’penny for the cripple?” Moshe held his greasy hat out to a man in a black well-tailored coat.
The man sneered and tossed a farthing at Moshe’s feet before continuing on his way toward the marketplace.
“Thank you, sir.” Moshe called to the man’s retreating back and bent to collect the coin.
“You know,” a voice said, “There is a place not far from here where you can have a cup of soup and a crust of bread.”
He glanced at the well-dressed stranger. This man did not react to Moshe’s ragged appearance as others had most of his life.
“The workhouse?” Moshe snorted. “I’d sooner starve to death.”
“No, I don’t mean the workhouse. General Booth’s soldiers have a soup kitchen not far from here. It’s not much but you’ll have a hot meal.”
“General Booth, y’ say? What regiment?”
The corners of the stranger’s mouth flickered upward in a small smile. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Salvation Army?”
Moshe frowned. He thought about his dear mum’s reproofs years ago when he played with some Christian boys one street over from the lodging house. I don’t want you with those boys. Their parents go to a building where every week they eat human flesh and drink the poor unfortunate’s blood. Lest you want to be their next sacrifice, stay away.
“Christian?” he asked. The stranger nodded and took him by the arm, intent upon leading him, but Moshe pulled away.
“If you won’t go with me, can I at least help you in some way?”
Moshe thought of the challah braid in Simon Linski’s window. A braid like that with tea or ricewater would last for many days. He licked his lips thinking about it and marveled at his good fortune.
“There is one thing you could do, if ye were willing,” he murmured.
Shabbat-the Jewish word for Sabbath measured from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday
Challah-a special braided yeast bread that is often part of the Shabbat meal
Farthing-the smallest coin in usage in Victorian England
Ricewater-a drink made by boiling rice, straining it, and adding a little sweetener to the liquid.
The superstition Moshe remembers from his mother is one I have heard in the past.
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