Reuben Asher Braubes ~ The Misfortune
Pumpian is a little town in Lithuania, a Jewish town. It lies far away from the highway, among villages reached by the Polish Road. The inhabitants of Pumpian are poor people, who get a scanty living from the peasants that come into the town to make purchases, or else the Jews go out to them with great bundles on their shoulders and sell them every sort of small ware, in return for a little corn, or potatoes, etc. Strangers, passing through, are seldom seen there, and if by any chance a strange person arrives, it is a great wonder and rarity. People peep at him through all the little windows, elderly men venture out to bid him welcome, while boys and youths hang about in the street and stare at him. The women and girls blush and glance at him sideways, and he is the one subject of conversation: “Who can that be? People don’t just set off and come like that—there must be something behind it.” And in the house-of-study, between Afternoon and Evening Prayer, they gather closely round the elder men, who have been to greet the stranger, to find out who and what the latter may be.
Fifty or sixty years ago, when what I am about to tell you happened, communication between Pumpian and the rest of the world was very restricted indeed: there were as yet no railways, there was no telegraph, the postal service was slow and intermittent. People came and went less often, a journey was a great undertaking, and there were not many outsiders to be found even in the larger towns. Every town was a town to itself, apart, and Pumpian constituted a little world of its own, which had nothing to do with the world at large, and lived its own life.
Neither were there so many newspapers then, anywhere, to muddle people’s heads every day of the week, stirring up questions, so that people should have something to talk about, and the Jews had no papers of their own at all, and only heard “news” and “what was going on in the world” in the house-of-study or (lehavdil!) in the bath-house. And what sort of news was it then? What sort could it be? World-stirring questions hardly existed (certainly Pumpian was ignorant of them): politics, economics, statistics, capital, social problems, all these words, now on the lips of every boy and girl, were then all but unknown even in the great world, let alone among us Jews, and let alone to Reb Nochumtzi, the Pumpian Rav!
And yet Reb Nochumtzi had a certain amount of worldly wisdom of his own.
Reb Nochumtzi was a native of Pumpian, and had inherited his position there from his father. He had been an only son, made much of by his parents (hence the pet name Nochumtzi clinging to him even in his old age), and never let out of their sight. When he had grown up, they connected him by marriage with the tenant of an estate not far from the town, but his father would not hear of his going there “auf Köst,” as the custom is. “I cannot be parted from my Nochumtzi even for a minute,” explained the old Rav, “I cannot bear him out of my sight. Besides, we study together.” And, in point of fact, they did study together day and night. It was evident that the Rav was determined his Nochumtzi should become Rav in Pumpian after his death—and so he became.
He had been Rav some years in the little town, receiving the same five Polish gulden a week salary as his father (on whom be peace!), and he sat and studied and thought. He had nothing much to do in the way of exercising authority: the town was very quiet, the people orderly, there were no quarrels, and it was seldom that parties went “to law” with one another before the Rav; still less often was there a ritual question to settle: the folk were poor, there was no meat cooked in a Jewish house from one Friday to another, when one must have a bit of meat in honor of Sabbath. Fish was a rarity, and in summer time people often had a “milky Sabbath,” as well as a milky week. How should there be “questions”? So he sat and studied and thought, and he was very fond indeed of thinking about the world!
It is true that he sat all day in his room, that he had never in all his life been so much as “four ells” outside the town, that it had never so much as occurred to him to drive about a little in any direction, for, after all, whither should he drive? And why drive anywhither? And yet he knew the world, like any other learned man, a disciple of the wise. Everything is in the Torah, and out of the Torah, out of the Gemoreh, and out of all the other sacred books, Reb Nochumtzi had learned to know the world also. He knew that “Reuben’s ox gores Simeon’s cow,” that “a spark from a smith’s hammer can burn a wagon-load of hay,” that “Reb Eliezer ben Charsum had a thousand towns on land and a thousand ships on the sea.” Ha, that was a fortune! He must have been nearly as rich as Rothschild (they knew about Rothschild even in Pumpian!). “Yes, he was a rich Tano and no mistake!” he reflected, and was straightway sunk in the consideration of the subject of rich and poor.
He knew from the holy books that to be rich is a pure misfortune. King Solomon, who was certainly a great sage, prayed to God: Resh wo-Osher al-titten li!—”Give me neither poverty nor riches!” He said that “riches are stored to the hurt of their owner,” and in the holy Gemoreh there is a passage which says, “Poverty becomes a Jew as scarlet reins become a white horse,” and once a sage had been in Heaven for a short time and had come back again, and he said that he had seen poor people there occupying the principal seats in the Garden of Eden, and the rich pushed right away, back into a corner by the door. And as for the books of exhortation, there are things written that make you shudder in every limb. The punishments meted out to the rich by God in that world, the world of truth, are no joke. For what bit of merit they have, God rewards them in this poor world, the world of vanity, while yonder, in the world of truth, they arrive stript and naked, without so much as a taste of Kingdom-come!
“Consequently, the question is,” thought Reb Nochumtzi, “why should they, the rich, want to keep this misfortune? Of what use is this misfortune to them? Who so mad as to take such a piece of misfortune into his house and keep it there? How can anyone take the world-to-come in both hands and lose it for the sake of such vanities?”
He thought and thought, and thought it over again:
“What is a poor creature to do when God sends him the misfortune of riches? He would certainly wish to get rid of them, only who would take his misfortune to please him? Who would free another from a curse and take it upon himself?
“But, after all … ha?” the Evil Spirit muttered inside him.
“What a fool you are!” thought Reb Nochumtzi again. “If” (and he described a half-circle downward in the air with his thumb), “if troubles come to us, such as an illness (may the Merciful protect us!), or some other misfortune of the kind, it is expressly stated in the Sacred Writings that it is an expiation for sin, a torment sent into the world, so that we may be purified by it, and made fit to go straight to Paradise. And because it is God who afflicts men with these things, we cannot give them away to anyone else, but have to bear with them. Now, such a misfortune as being rich, which is also a visitation of God, must certainly be borne with like the rest.
He began to feel very sorry for Reb Eliezer ben Charsum with his thousand towns and his thousand ships. “To think that such a saint, such a Tano, one of the authors of the holy Mishnah, should incur such a severe punishment!
“But he stood the trial! Despite this great misfortune, he remained a saint and a Tano to the end, and the holy Gemoreh says particularly that he thereby put to shame all the rich people, who go straight to Gehenna.”
Thus Reb Nochumtzi, the Pumpian Rav, sat over the Talmud and reflected continually on the problem of great riches. He knew the world through the Holy Scriptures, and was persuaded that riches were a terrible misfortune, which had to be borne, because no one would consent to taking it from another, and bearing it for him.
Again many years passed, and Reb Nochumtzi gradually came to see that poverty also is a misfortune, and out of his own experience.
His Sabbath cloak began to look threadbare (the weekday one was already patched on every side), he had six little children living, one or two of the girls were grown up, and it was time to think of settling them, and they hadn’t a frock fit to put on. The five Polish gulden a week salary was not enough to keep them in bread, and the wife, poor thing, wept the whole day through: “Well, there, ich wie ich, it isn’t for myself—but the poor children are naked and barefoot.”
At last they were even short of bread.
“Nochumtzi! Why don’t you speak?” exclaimed his wife with tears in her eyes. “Nochumtzi, can’t you hear me? I tell you, we’re starving! The children are skin and bone, they haven’t a shirt to their back, they can hardly keep body and soul together. Think of a way out of it, invent something to help us!”
And Reb Nochumtzi sat and considered.
He was considering the other misfortune—poverty.
“It is equally a misfortune to be really very poor.”
And this also he found stated in the Holy Scriptures.
It was King Solomon, the famous sage, who prayed as well: Resh wo-Osher al-titten li, that is, “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” Aha! poverty is no advantage, either, and what does the holy Gemoreh say but “Poverty diverts a man from the way of God”? In fact, there is a second misfortune in the world, and one he knows very well, one with which he has a practical, working acquaintance, he and his wife and his children.
And Reb Nochum pursued his train of thought:
“So there are two contrary misfortunes in the world: this way it’s bad, and that way it’s bitter! Is there really no remedy? Can no one suggest any help?”
And Reb Nochumtzi began to pace the room up and down, lost in thought, bending his whole mind to the subject. A whole flight of Bible texts went through his head, a quantity of quotations from the Gemoreh, hundreds of stories and anecdotes from the “Fountain of Jacob,” the Midrash, and other books, telling of rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate people, till his head went round with them all as he thought. Suddenly he stood still in the middle of the room, and began talking to himself:
“Aha! Perhaps I’ve discovered a plan after all! And a good plan, too, upon my word it is! Once more: it is quite certain that there will always be more poor than rich—lots more! Well, and it’s quite certain that every rich man would like to be rid of his misfortune, only that there is no one willing to take it from him—no one, not any one, of course not. Nobody would be so mad. But we have to find out a way by which lots and lots of people should rid him of his misfortune little by little. What do you say to that? Once more: that means that we must take his unfortunate riches and divide them among a quantity of poor! That will be a good thing for both parties: he will be easily rid of his great misfortune, and they would be helped, too, and the petition of King Solomon would be established, when he said, ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches.’ It would come true of them all, there would be no riches and no poverty. Ha? What do you think of it? Isn’t it really and truly an excellent idea?”
Reb Nochumtzi was quite astonished himself at the plan he had invented, cold perspiration ran down his face, his eyes shone brighter, a happy smile played on his lips. “That’s the thing to do!” he explained aloud, sat down by the table, blew his nose, wiped his face, and felt very glad.
“There is only one difficulty about it,” occurred to him, when he had quieted down a little from his excitement, “one thing that doesn’t fit in. It says particularly in the Torah that there will always be poor people among the Jews, ‘the poor shall not cease out of the land.’ There must always be poor, and this would make an end of them altogether! Besides, the precept concerning charity would, Heaven forbid, be annulled, the precept which God, blessed is He, wrote in the Torah, and which the holy Gemoreh and all the other holy books make so much of. What is to become of the whole treatise on charity in the Shulchan Aruch? How can we continue to fulfil it?”
But a good head is never at a loss! Reb Nochumtzi soon found a way out of the difficulty.
“Never mind!” and he wrinkled his forehead, and pondered on. “There is no fear! Who said that even the whole of the money in the possession of a few unfortunate rich men will be enough to go round? That there will be just enough to help all the Jewish poor? No fear, there will be enough poor left for the exercise of charity. Ai wos? There is another thing: to whom shall be given and to whom not? Ha, that’s a detail, too. Of course, one would begin with the learned and the poor scholars and sages, who have to live on the Torah and on Divine Service. The people can just be left to go on as it is. No fear, but it will be all right!”
At last the plan was ready. Reb Nochumtzi thought it over once more, very carefully, found it complete from every point of view, and gave himself up to a feeling of satisfaction and delight.
“Whatever? What sort of plan?”
“There, there, wait and see and hold your tongue! No woman’s brain could take it in. You leave it to me, it will be all right!”
And Reb Nochumtzi reflected further:
“Yes, the plan is a good one. Only, how is it to be carried out? With whom am I to begin?”
And he thought of all the householders in Pumpian, but—there was not one single unfortunate man among them! That is, not one of them had money, a real lot of money; there was nobody with whom to discuss his invention to any purpose.
“If so, I shall have to drive to one of the large towns!”
And one Sabbath the beadle gave out in the house-of-study that the Rav begged them all to be present that evening at a convocation.
At the said convocation the Rav unfolded his whole plan to the people, and placed before them the happiness that would result for the whole world, if it were to be realized. But first of all he must journey to a large town, in which there were a great many unfortunate rich people, preferably Wilna, and he demanded of his flock that they should furnish him with the necessary means for getting there.
The audience did not take long to reflect, they agreed to the Rav’s proposal, collected a few rubles (for who would not give their last farthing for such an important object?), and on Sunday morning early they hired him a peasant’s cart and horse—and the Rav drove away to Wilna.
The Rav passed the drive marshalling his arguments, settling on what he should say, and how he should explain himself, and he was delighted to see how, the more deeply he pondered his plan, the more he thought it out, the more efficient and appropriate it appeared, and the clearer he saw what happiness it would bestow on men all the world over.
The small cart arrived at Wilna.
“Whither are we to drive?” asked the peasant.
“Whither? To a Jew,” answered the Rav. “For where is the Jew who will not give me a night’s lodging?”
“And I, with my cart and horse?”
The Rav sat perplexed, but a Jew passing by heard the conversation, and explained to him that Wilna is not Pumpian, and that they would have to drive to a post-house, or an inn.
“Be it so!” said the Rav, and the Jew gave him the address of a place to which they should drive.
Wilna! It is certainly not the same thing as Pumpian. Now, for the first time in his life, the Rav saw whole streets of tall houses, of two and three stories, all as it were under one roof, and how fine they are, thought he, with their decorated exteriors!
“Oi, there live the unfortunate people!” said Reb Nochumtzi to himself. “I never saw anything like them before! How can they bear such a misfortune? I shall come to them as an angel of deliverance!”
He had made up his mind to go to the principal Jewish citizen in Wilna, only he must be a good scholar, so as to understand what Reb Nochumtzi had to say to him.
They advised him to go to the president of the Congregation.
Every street along which he passed astonished him separately, the houses, the pavements, the droshkis and carriages, and especially the people, so beautifully got up with gold watch-chains and rings—he was quite bewildered, so that he was afraid he might lose his senses, and forget all his arguments and his reasonings.
At last he arrived at the president’s house.
“He lives on the first floor.” Another surprise! Reb Nochumtzi was unused to stairs. There was no storied house in all Pumpian! But when you must, you must! One way and another he managed to arrive at the first-floor landing, where he opened the door, and said, all in one breath:
“I am the Pumpian Rav, and have something to say to the president.”
The president, a handsome old man, very busy just then with some merchants who had come on business, stood up, greeted him politely, and opening the door of the reception-room said to him:
“Please, Rabbi, come in here and wait a little. I shall soon have finished, and then I will come to you here.”
Expensive furniture, large mirrors, pictures, softly upholstered chairs, tables, cupboards with shelves full of great silver candlesticks, cups, knives and forks, a beautiful lamp, and many other small objects, all of solid silver, wardrobes with carving in different designs; then, painted walls, a great silver chandelier decorated with cut glass, fascinating to behold! Reb Nochumtzi actually had tears in his eyes, “To think of anyone’s being so unfortunate—and to have to bear it!”
“What can I do for you, Pumpian Rav?” inquired the president.
And Reb Nochumtzi, overcome by amazement and enthusiasm, nearly shouted:
“You are so unfortunate!”
The president stared at him, shrugged his shoulders, and was silent.
Then Reb Nochumtzi laid his whole plan before him, the object of his coming.
“I will be frank with you,” he said in concluding his long speech, “I had no idea of the extent of the misfortune! To the rescue, men, save yourselves! Take it to heart, think of what it means to have houses like these, and all these riches—it is a most terrible misfortune! Now I see what a reform of the whole world my plan amounts to, what deliverance it will bring to all men!”
The president looked him straight in the face: he saw the man was not mad, but that he had the limited horizon of one born and bred in a small provincial town and in the atmosphere of the house-of-study.
“You are quite right, Rabbi! Your plan is really a very good one. But I am only one of many, Wilna is full of such unfortunate people. Everyone of them must be talked to, and have the thing explained to him. Then, the other party must be spoken to as well, I mean the poor people, so that they shall be willing to take their share of the misfortune. That’s not such an easy matter as giving a thing away and getting rid of it.”
“Of course, of course….” agreed Reb Nochumtzi.
“Look here, Rav of Pumpian, I will undertake the more difficult part—let us work together! You shall persuade the rich to give away their misfortune, and I will persuade the poor to take it! Your share of the work will be the easier, because, after all, everybody wants to be rid of his misfortune. Do your part, and as soon as you have finished with the rich, I will arrange for you to be met half-way by the poor….”
History does not tell how far the Rav of Pumpian succeeded in Wilna. Only this much is certain, the president never saw him again.
Judah Löb Lewin ~ Earth of Palestine
As my readers know, I wanted to do a little stroke of business—to sell the world-to-come. I must tell you that I came out of it very badly, and might have fallen into some misfortune, if I had had the ware in stock. It fell on this wise: Nowadays everyone is squeezed and stifled; Parnosseh is gone to wrack and ruin, and there is no business—I mean, there is business, only not for us Jews. In such bitter times people snatch the bread out of each other’s mouths; if it is known that someone has made a find, and started a business, they quickly imitate him; if that one opens a shop, a second does likewise, and a third, and a fourth; if this one makes a contract, the other runs and will do it for less—”Even if I earn nothing, no more will you!”
When I gave out that I had the world-to-come to sell, lots of people gave a start, “Aha! a business!” and before they knew what sort of ware it was, and where it was to be had, they began thinking about a shop—and there was still greater interest shown on the part of certain philanthropists, party leaders, public workers, and such-like. They knew that when I set up trading in the world-to-come, I had announced that my business was only with the poor. Well, they understood that it was likely to be profitable, and might give them the chance of licking a bone or two. There was very soon a great tararam in our little world, people began inquiring where my goods came from. They surrounded me with spies, who were to find out what I did at night, what I did on Sabbath; they questioned the cook, the market-woman; but in vain, they could not find out how I came by the world-to-come. And there blazed up a fire of jealousy and hatred, and they began to inform, to write letters to the authorities about me. Laban the Yellow and Balaam the Blind (you know them!) made my boss believe that I do business, that is, that I have capital, that is—that is—but my employer investigated the matter, and seeing that my stock in trade was the world-to-come, he laughed, and let me alone. The townspeople among whom it was my lot to dwell, those good people who are a great hand at fishing in troubled waters, as soon as they saw the mud rise, snatched up their implements and set to work, informing by letter that I was dealing in contraband. There appeared a red official and swept out a few corners in my house, but without finding a single specimen bit of the world-to-come, and went away. But I had no peace even then; every day came a fresh letter informing against me. My good brothers never ceased work. The pious, orthodox Jews, the Gemoreh-Köplech, informed, and said I was a swindler, because the world-to-come is a thing that isn’t there, that is neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, and the whole thing was a delusion; the half-civilized people with long trousers and short earlocks said, on the contrary, that I was making game of religion, so that before long I had enough of it from every side, and made the following resolutions: first, that I would have nothing to do with the world-to-come and such-like things which the Jews did not understand, although they held them very precious; secondly, that I would not let myself in for selling anything. One of my good friends, an experienced merchant, advised me rather to buy than to sell: “There are so many to sell, they will compete with you, inform against you, and behave as no one should. Buying, on the other hand—if you want to buy, you will be esteemed and respected, everyone will flatter you, and be ready to sell to you on credit—everyone is ready to take money, and with very little capital you can buy the best and most expensive ware.” The great thing was to get a good name, and then, little by little, by means of credit, one might rise very high.
So it was settled that I should buy. I had a little money on hand for a couple of newspaper articles, for which nowadays they pay; I had a bit of reputation earned by a great many articles in Hebrew, for which I received quite nice complimentary letters; and, in case of need, there is a little money owing to me from certain Jewish booksellers of the Maskilim, for books bought “on commission.” Well, I am resolved to buy.
But what shall I buy? I look round and take note of all the things a man can buy, and see that I, as a Jew, may not have them; that which I may buy, no matter where, isn’t worth a halfpenny; a thing that is of any value, I can’t have. And I determine to take to the old ware which my great-great-grandfathers bought, and made a fortune in. My parents and the whole family wish for it every day. I resolve to buy—you understand me?—earth of Palestine, and I announce both verbally and in writing to all my good and bad brothers that I wish to become a purchaser of the ware.
Oh, what a commotion it made! Hardly was it known that I wished to buy Palestinian earth, than there pounced upon me people of whom I had never thought it possible that they should talk to me, and be in the room with me. The first to come was a kind of Jew with a green shawl, with white shoes, a pale face with a red nose, dark eyes, and yellow earlocks. He commenced unpacking paper and linen bags, out of which he shook a little sand, and he said to me: “That is from Mother Rachel’s grave, from the Shunammite’s grave, from the graves of Huldah the prophetess and Deborah.” Then he shook out the other bags, and mentioned a whole list of men: from the grave of Enoch, Moses our Teacher, Elijah the Prophet, Habakkuk, Ezekiel, Jonah, authors of the Talmud, and holy men as many as there be. He assured me that each kind of sand had its own precious distinction, and had, of course, its special price. I had not had time to examine all the bags of sand, when, aha! I got a letter written on blue paper in Rashi script, in which an unknown well-wisher earnestly warned me against buying of that Jew, for neither he nor his father before him had ever been in Palestine, and he had got the sand in K., from the Andreiyeff Hills yonder, and that if I wished for it, he had real Palestinian earth, from the Mount of Olives, with a document from the Palestinian vicegerent, the Brisk Rebbetzin, to the effect that she had given of this earth even to the eaters of swine’s flesh, of whom it is said, “for their worm shall not die,” and they also were saved from worms. My Palestinian Jew, after reading the letter, called down all bad dreams upon the head of the Brisk Rebbetzin, and declared among other things that she herself was a dreadful worm, who, etc. He assured me that I ought not to send money to the Brisk Rebbetzin, “May Heaven defend you! it will be thrown away, as it has been a hundred times already!” and began once more to praise his wares, his earth, saying it was a marvel. I answered him that I wanted real earth of Palestine, earth, not sand out of little bags.
“Earth, it is earth!” he repeated, and became very angry. “What do you mean by earth? Am I offering you mud? But that is the way with people nowadays, when they want something Jewish, there is no pleasing them! Only” (a thought struck him) “if you want another sort, perhaps from the field of Machpelah, I can bring you some Palestinian earth that is earth. Meantime give me something in advance, for, besides everything else, I am a Palestinian Jew.”
I pushed a coin into his hand, and he went away. Meanwhile the news had spread, my intention to purchase earth of Palestine had been noised abroad, and the little town echoed with my name. In the streets, lanes, and market-place, the talk was all of me and of how “there is no putting a final value on a Jewish soul: one thought he was one of them, and now he wants to buy earth of Palestine!” Many of those who met me looked at me askance, “The same and not the same!” In the synagogue they gave me the best turn at the Reading of the Law; Jews in shoes and socks wished me “a good Sabbath” with great heartiness, and a friendly smile: “Eh-eh-eh! We understand—you are a deep one—you are one of us after all.” In short, they surrounded me, and nearly carried me on their shoulders, so that I really became something of a celebrity.
Yüdel, the “living orphan,” worked the hardest. Yüdel is already a man in years, but everyone calls him the “orphan” on account of what befell him on a time. His history is very long and interesting, I will tell it you in brief.
He has a very distinguished father and a very noble mother, and he is an only child, of a very frolicsome disposition, on account of which his father and his mother frequently disagreed; the father used to punish him and beat him, but the boy hid with his mother. In a word, it came to this, that his father gave him into the hands of strangers, to be educated and put into shape. The mother could not do without him, and fell sick of grief; she became a wreck. Her beautiful house was burnt long ago through the boy’s doing: one day, when a child, he played with fire, and there was a conflagration, and the neighbors came and built on the site of her palace, and she, the invalid, lies neglected in a corner. The father, who has left the house, often wished to rejoin her, but by no manner of means can they live together without the son, and so the cast-off child became a “living orphan”; he roams about in the wide world, comes to a place, and when he has stayed there a little while, they drive him out, because wherever he comes, he stirs up a commotion. As is the way with all orphans, he has many fathers, and everyone directs him, hits him, lectures him; he is always in the way, blamed for everything, it’s always his fault, so that he has got into the habit of cowering and shrinking at the mere sight of a stick. Wandering about as he does, he has copied the manners and customs of strange people, in every place where he has been; his very character is hardly his own. His father has tried both to threaten and to persuade him into coming back, saying they would then all live together as before, but Yüdel has got to like living from home, he enjoys the scrapes he gets into, and even the blows they earn for him. No matter how people knock him about, pull his hair, and draw his blood, the moment they want him to make friendly advances, there he is again, alert and smiling, turns the world topsy-turvy, and won’t hear of going home. It is remarkable that Yüdel, who is no fool, and has a head for business, the instant people look kindly on him, imagines they like him, although he has had a thousand proofs to the contrary. He has lately been of such consequence in the eyes of the world that they have begun to treat him in a new way, and they drive him out of every place at once. The poor boy has tried his best to please, but it was no good, they knocked him about till he was covered with blood, took every single thing he had, and empty-handed, naked, hungry, and beaten as he is, they shout at him “Be off!” from every side. Now he lives in narrow streets, in the small towns, hidden away in holes and corners. He very often hasn’t enough to eat, but he goes on in his old way, creeps into tight places, dances at all the weddings, loves to meddle, everything concerns him, and where two come together, he is the third.
I have known him a long time, ever since he was a little boy. He always struck me as being very wild, but I saw that he was of a noble disposition, only that he had grown rough from living among strangers. I loved him very much, but in later years he treated me to hot and cold by turns. I must tell you that when Yüdel had eaten his fill, he was always very merry, and minded nothing; but when he had been kicked out by his landlord, and went hungry, then he was angry, and grew violent over every trifle. He would attack me for nothing at all, we quarrelled and parted company, that is, I loved him at a distance. When he wasn’t just in my sight, I felt a great pity for him, and a wish to go to him; but hardly had I met him than he was at the old game again, and I had to leave him. Now that I was together with him in my native place, I found him very badly off, he hadn’t enough to eat. The town was small and poor, and he had no means of supporting himself. When I saw him in his bitter and dark distress, my heart went out to him. But at such times, as I said before, he is very wild and fanatical. One day, on the Ninth of Ab, I felt obliged to speak out, and tell him that sitting in socks, with his forehead on the ground, reciting Lamentations, would do no good. Yüdel misunderstood me, and thought I was laughing at Jerusalem. He began to fire up, and he spread reports of me in the town, and when he saw me in the distance, he would spit out before me. His anger dated from some time past, because one day I turned him out of my house; he declared that I was the cause of all his misfortunes, and now that I was his neighbor, I had resolved to ruin him; he believed that I hated him and played him false. Why should Yüdel think that? I don’t know. Perhaps he feels one ought to dislike him, or else he is so embittered that he cannot believe in the kindly feelings of others. However that may be, Yüdel continued to speak ill of me, and throw mud at me through the town; crying out all the while that I hadn’t a scrap of Jewishness in me.
Now that he heard I was buying Palestinian earth, he began by refusing to believe it, and declared it was a take-in and the trick of an apostate, for how could a person who laughed at socks on the Ninth of Ab really want to buy earth of Palestine? But when he saw the green shawls and the little bags of earth, he went over—a way he has—to the opposite, the exact opposite. He began to worship me, couldn’t praise me enough, and talked of me in the back streets, so that the women blessed me aloud. Yüdel was now much given to my company, and often came in to see me, and was most intimate, although there was no special piousness about me. I was just the same as before, but Yüdel took this for the best of signs, and thought it proved me to be of extravagant hidden piety.
“There’s a Jew for you!” he would cry aloud in the street. “Earth of Palestine! There’s a Jew!”
In short, he filled the place with my Jewishness and my hidden orthodoxy. I looked on with indifference, but after a while the affair began to cost me both time and money.
The Palestinian beggars and, above all, Yüdel and the townsfolk obtained for me the reputation of piety, and there came to me orthodox Jews, treasurers, cabalists, beggar students, and especially the Rebbe’s followers; they came about me like bees. They were never in the habit of avoiding me, but this was another thing all the same. Before this, when one of the Rebbe’s disciples came, he would enter with a respectful demeanor, take off his hat, and, sitting in his cap, would fix his gaze on my mouth with a sweet smile; we both felt that the one and only link between us lay in the money that I gave and he took. He would take it gracefully, put it into his purse, as it might be for someone else, and thank me as though he appreciated my kindness. When I went to see him, he would place a chair for me, and give me preserve. But now he came to me with a free and easy manner, asked for a sip of brandy with a snack to eat, sat in my room as if it were his own, and looked at me as if I were an underling, and he had authority over me; I am the penitent sinner, it is said, and that signifies for him the key to the door of repentance; I have entered into his domain, and he is my lord and master; he drinks my health as heartily as though it were his own, and when I press a coin into his hand, he looks at it well, to make sure it is worth his while accepting it. If I happen to visit him, I am on a footing with all his followers, the Chassidim; his “trustees,” and all his other hangers-on, are my brothers, and come to me when they please, with all the mud on their boots, put their hand into my bosom and take out my tobacco-pouch, and give it as their opinion that the brandy is weak, not to talk of holidays, especially Purim and Rejoicing of the Law, when they troop in with a great noise and vociferation, and drink and dance, and pay as much attention to me as to the cat.
In fact, all the townsfolk took the same liberties with me. Before, they asked nothing of me, and took me as they found me, now they began to demand things of me and to inquire why I didn’t do this, and why I did that, and not the other. Shmuelke the bather asked me why I was never seen at the bath on Sabbath. Kalmann the butcher wanted to know why, among the scape-fowls, there wasn’t a white one of mine; and even the beadle of the Klaus, who speaks through his nose, and who had never dared approach me, came and insisted on giving me the thirty-nine stripes on the eve of the Day of Atonement: “Eh-eh, if you are a Jew like other Jews, come and lie down, and you shall be given stripes!”
And the Palestinian Jews never ceased coming with their bags of earth, and I never ceased rejecting. One day there came a broad-shouldered Jew from “over there,” with his bag of Palestinian earth. The earth pleased me, and a conversation took place between us on this wise:
“How much do you want for your earth?”
“For my earth? From anyone else I wouldn’t take less than thirty rubles, but from you, knowing you and of you as I do, and as your parents did so much for Palestine, I will take a twenty-five ruble piece. You must know that a person buys this once and for all.”
“I don’t understand you,” I answered. “Twenty-five rubles! How much earth have you there?”
“How much earth have I? About half a quart. There will be enough to cover the eyes and the face. Perhaps you want to cover the whole body, to have it underneath and on the top and at the sides? O, I can bring you some more, but it will cost you two or three hundred rubles, because, since the good-for-nothings took to coming to Palestine, the earth has got very expensive. Believe me, I don’t make much by it, it costs me nearly….”
“I don’t understand you, my friend! What’s this about bestrewing the body? What do you mean by it?”
“How do you mean, ‘what do you mean by it?’ Bestrewing the body like that of all honest Jews, after death.”
“Ha? After death? To preserve it?”
“Yes, what else?”
“I don’t want it for that, I don’t mind what happens to my body after death. I want to buy Palestinian earth for my lifetime.”
“What do you mean? What good can it do you while you’re alive? You are not talking to the point, or else you are making game of a poor Palestinian Jew?”
“I am speaking seriously. I want it now, while I live! What is it you don’t understand?”
My Palestinian Jew was greatly perplexed, but he quickly collected himself, and took in the situation. I saw by his artful smile that he had detected a strain of madness in me, and what should he gain by leading me into the paths of reason? Rather let him profit by it! And this he proceeded to do, saying with winning conviction:
“Yes, of course, you are right! How right you are! May I ever see the like! People are not wrong when they say, ‘The apple falls close to the tree’! You are drawn to the root, and you love the soil of Palestine, only in a different way, like your holy forefathers, may they be good advocates! You are young, and I am old, and I have heard how they used to bestrew their head-dress with it in their lifetime, so as to fulfil the Scripture verse, ‘And have pity on Zion’s dust,’ and honest Jews shake earth of Palestine into their shoes on the eve of the Ninth of Ab, and at the meal before the fast they dip an egg into Palestinian earth—nu, fein! I never expected so much of you, and I can say with truth, ‘There’s a Jew for you!’ Well, in that case, you will require two pots of the earth, but it will cost you a deal.”
“We are evidently at cross-purposes,” I said to him. “What are two potfuls? What is all this about bestrewing the body? I want to buy Palestinian earth, earth in Palestine, do you understand? I want to buy, in Palestine, a little bit of earth, a few dessiatines.”
“Ha? I didn’t quite catch it. What did you say?” and my Palestinian Jew seized hold of his right ear, as though considering what he should do; then he said cheerfully: “Ha—aha! You mean to secure for yourself a burial-place, also for after death! O yes, indeed, you are a holy man and no mistake! Well, you can get that through me, too; give me something in advance, and I shall manage it for you all right at a bargain.”
“Why do you go on at me with your ‘after death,'” I cried angrily. “I want a bit of earth in Palestine, I want to dig it, and sow it, and plant it….”
“Ha? What? Sow it and plant it?! That is … that is … you only mean … may all bad dreams!…” and stammering thus, he scraped all the scattered earth, little by little, into his bag, gradually got nearer the door, and—was gone!
It was not long before the town was seething and bubbling like a kettle on the boil, everyone was upset as though by some misfortune, angry with me, and still more with himself: “How could we be so mistaken? He doesn’t want to buy Palestinian earth at all, he doesn’t care what happens to him when he’s dead, he laughs—he only wants to buy earth in Palestine, and set up villages there.”
“Eh-eh-eh! He remains one of them! He is what he is—a skeptic!” so they said in all the streets, all the householders in the town, the women in the market-place, at the bath, they went about abstracted, and as furious as though I had insulted them, made fools of them, taken them in, and all of a sudden they became cold and distant to me. The pious Jews were seen no more at my house. I received packages from Palestine one after the other. One had a black seal, on which was scratched a black ram’s horn, and inside, in large characters, was a ban from the Brisk Rebbetzin, because of my wishing to make all the Jews unhappy. Other packets were from different Palestinian beggars, who tried to compel me, with fair words and foul, to send them money for their travelling expenses and for the samples of earth they enclosed. My fellow-townspeople also got packages from “over there,” warning them against me—I was a dangerous man, a missionary, and it was a Mitzveh to be revenged on me. There was an uproar, and no wonder! A letter from Palestine, written in Rashi, with large seals! In short I was to be put to shame and confusion. Everyone avoided me, nobody came near me. When people were obliged to come to me in money matters or to beg an alms, they entered with deference, and spoke respectfully, in a gentle voice, as to “one of them,” took the alms or the money, and were out of the door, behind which they abused me, as usual.
Only Yüdel did not forsake me. Yüdel, the “living orphan,” was bewildered and perplexed. He had plenty of work, flew from one house to the other, listening, begging, and talebearing, answering and asking questions; but he could not settle the matter in his own mind: now he looked at me angrily, and again with pity. He seemed to wish not to meet me, and yet he sought occasion to do so, and would look earnestly into my face.
The excitement of my neighbors and their behavior to me interested me very little; but I wanted very much to know the reason why I had suddenly become abhorrent to them? I could by no means understand it.
Once there came a wild, dark night. The sky was covered with black clouds, there was a drenching rain and hail and a stormy wind, it was pitch dark, and it lightened and thundered, as though the world were turning upside down. The great thunder claps and the hail broke a good many people’s windows, the wind tore at the roofs, and everyone hid inside his house, or wherever he found a corner. In that dreadful dark night my door opened, and in came—Yüdel, the “living orphan”; he looked as though someone were pushing him from behind, driving him along. He was as white as the wall, cowering, beaten about, helpless as a leaf. He came in, and stood by the door, holding his hat; he couldn’t decide, did not know if he should take it off, or not. I had never seen him so miserable, so despairing, all the time I had known him. I asked him to sit down, and he seemed a little quieted. I saw that he was soaking wet, and shivering with cold, and I gave him hot tea, one glass after the other. He sipped it with great enjoyment. And the sight of him sitting there sipping and warming himself would have been very comic, only it was so very sad. The tears came into my eyes. Yüdel began to brighten up, and was soon Yüdel, his old self, again. I asked him how it was he had come to me in such a state of gloom and bewilderment? He told me the thunder and the hail had broken all the window-panes in his lodging, and the wind had carried away the roof, there was nowhere he could go for shelter; nobody would let him in at night; there was not a soul he could turn to, there remained nothing for him but to lie down in the street and die.
“And so,” he said, “having known you so long, I hoped you would take me in, although you are ‘one of them,’ not at all pious, and, so they say, full of evil intentions against Jews and Jewishness; but I know you are a good man, and will have compassion on me.”
I forgave Yüdel his rudeness, because I knew him for an outspoken man, that he was fond of talking, but never did any harm. Seeing him depressed, I offered him a glass of wine, but he refused it.
I understood the reason of his refusal, and started a conversation with him.
“Tell me, Yüdel heart, how is it I have fallen into such bad repute among you that you will not even drink a drop of wine in my house? And why do you say that I am ‘one of them,’ and not pious? A little while ago you spoke differently of me.”
“Ett! It just slipped from my tongue, and the truth is you may be what you please, you are a good man.”
“No, Yüdel, don’t try to get out of it! Tell me openly (it doesn’t concern me, but I am curious to know), why this sudden revulsion of feeling about me, this change of opinion? Tell me, Yüdel, I beg of you, speak freely!”
My gentle words and my friendliness gave Yüdel great encouragement. The poor fellow, with whom not one of “them” has as yet spoken kindly! When he saw that I meant it, he began to scratch his head; it seemed as if in that minute he forgave me all my “heresies,” and he looked at me kindly, and as if with pity. Then, seeing that I awaited an answer, he gave a twist to his earlock, and said gently and sincerely:
“You wish me to tell you the truth? You insist upon it? You will not be offended?”
“You know that I never take offence at anything you say. Say anything you like, Yüdel heart, only speak.”
“Then I will tell you: the town and everyone else is very angry with you on account of your Palestinian earth: you want to do something new, buy earth and plough it and sow—and where? in our land of Israel, in our Holy Land of Israel!”
“But why, Yüdel dear, when they thought I was buying Palestinian earth to bestrew me after death, was I looked upon almost like a saint?”
“Ê, that’s another thing! That showed that you held Palestine holy, for a land whose soil preserves one against being eaten of worms, like any other honest Jew.”
“Well, I ask you, Yüdel, what does this mean? When they thought I was buying sand for after my death, I was a holy man, a lover of Palestine, and because I want to buy earth and till it, earth in your Holy Land, our holy earth in the Holy Land, in which our best and greatest counted it a privilege to live, I am a blot on Israel. Tell me, Yüdel, I ask you: Why, because one wants to bestrew himself with Palestinian earth after death, is one an orthodox Jew; and when one desires to give oneself wholly to Palestine in life, should one be ‘one of them’? Now I ask you—all those Palestinian Jews who came to me with their bags of sand, and were my very good friends, and full of anxiety to preserve my body after death, why have they turned against me on hearing that I wished for a bit of Palestinian earth while I live? Why are they all so interested and such good brothers to the dead, and such bloodthirsty enemies to the living? Why, because I wish to provide for my sad existence, have they noised abroad that I am a missionary, and made up tales against me? Why? I ask you, why, Yüdel, why?”
“You ask me? How should I know? I only know that ever since Palestine was Palestine, people have gone there to die—that I know; but all this ploughing, sowing, and planting the earth, I never heard of in my life before.”
“Yes, Yüdel, you are right, because it has been so for a long time, you think so it has to be—that is the real answer to your questions. But why not think back a little? Why should one only go to Palestine to die? Is not Palestinian earth fit to live on? On the contrary, it is some of the very best soil, and when we till it and plant it, we fulfil the precept to restore the Holy Land, and we also work for ourselves, toward the realization of an honest and peaceable life. I won’t discuss the matter at length with you to-day. It seems that you have quite forgotten what all the holy books say about Palestine, and what a precept it is to till the soil. And another question, touching what you said about Palestine being only there to go and die in. Tell me, those Palestinian Jews who were so interested in my death, and brought earth from over there to bestrew me—tell me, are they also only there to die? Did you notice how broad and stout they were? Ha? And they, they too, when they heard I wanted to live there, fell upon me like wild animals, filling the world with their cries, and made up the most dreadful stories about me. Well, what do you say, Yüdel? I ask you.”
“Do I know?” said Yüdel, with a wave of the hand. “Is my head there to think out things like that? But tell me, I beg, what is the good to you of buying land in Palestine and getting into trouble all round?”
“You ask, what is the good to me? I want to live, do you hear? I want to live!”
“If you can’t live without Palestinian earth, why did you not get some before? Did you never want to live till now?”
“Oh, Yüdel, you are right there. I confess that till now I have lived in a delusion, I thought I was living; but—what is the saying?—so long as the thunder is silent….”
“Some thunder has struck you!” interrupted Yüdel, looking compassionately into my face.
“I will put it briefly. You must know, Yüdel, that I have been in business here for quite a long time. I worked faithfully, and my chief was pleased with me. I was esteemed and looked up to, and it never occurred to me that things would change; but bad men could not bear to see me doing so well, and they worked hard against me, till one day the business was taken over by my employer’s son; and my enemies profited by the opportunity, to cover me with calumnies from head to foot, spreading reports about me which it makes one shudder to hear. This went on till the chief began to look askance at me. At first I got pin-pricks, malicious hints, then things got worse and worse, and at last they began to push me about, and one day they turned me out of the house, and threw me into a hedge. Presently, when I had reviewed the whole situation, I saw that they could do what they pleased with me. I had no one to rely on, my onetime good friends kept aloof from me, I had lost all worth in their eyes; with some because, as is the way with people, they took no trouble to inquire into the reason of my downfall, but, hearing all that was said against me, concluded that I was in the wrong; others, again, because they wished to be agreeable to my enemies; the rest, for reasons without number. In short, reflecting on all this, I saw the game was lost, and there was no saying what might not happen to me! Hitherto I had borne my troubles patiently, with the courage that is natural to me; but now I feel my courage giving way, and I am in fear lest I should fall in my own eyes, in my own estimation, and get to believe that I am worth nothing. And all this because I must needs resort to them, and take all the insults they choose to fling at me, and every outcast has me at his mercy. That is why I want to collect my remaining strength, and buy a parcel of land in Palestine, and, God helping, I will become a bit of a householder—do you understand?”
“Why must it be just in Palestine?”
“Because I may not, and I cannot, buy in anywhere else. I have tried to find a place elsewhere, but they were afraid I was going to get the upper hand, so down they came, and made a wreck of it. Over there I shall be proprietor myself—that is firstly, and secondly, a great many relations of mine are buried there, in the country where they lived and died. And although you count me as ‘one of them,’ I tell you I think a great deal of ‘the merits of the fathers,’ and that it is very pleasant to me to think of living in the land that will remind me of such dear forefathers. And although it will be hard at first, the recollection of my ancestors and the thought of providing my children with a corner of their own and honestly earned bread will give me strength, till I shall work my way up to something. And I hope I will get to something. Remember, Yüdel, I believe and I hope! You will see, Yüdel—you know that our brothers consider Palestinian earth a charm against being eaten by worms, and you think that I laugh at it? No, I believe in it! It is quite, quite true that my Palestinian earth will preserve me from worms, only not after death, no, but alive—from such worms as devour and gnaw at and poison the whole of life!”
Yüdel scratched his nose, gave a rub to the cap on his head, and uttered a deep sigh.
“Yes, Yüdel, you sigh! Now do you know what I wanted to say to you?”
“Ett!” and Yüdel made a gesture with his hand. “What you have to say to me?—ett!”
“Oi, that ‘ett!’ of yours! Yüdel, I know it! When you have nothing to answer, and you ought to think, and think something out, you take refuge in ‘ett!’ Just consider for once, Yüdel, I have a plan for you, too. Remember what you were, and what has become of you. You have been knocking about, driven hither and thither, since childhood. You haven’t a house, not a corner, you have become a beggar, a tramp, a nobody, despised and avoided, with unpleasing habits, and living a dog’s life. You have very good qualities, a clear head, and acute intelligence. But to what purpose do you put them? You waste your whole intelligence on getting in at backdoors and coaxing a bit of bread out of the maidservant, and the mistress is not to know. Can you not devise a means, with that clever brain of yours, how to earn it for yourself? See here, I am going to buy a bit of ground in Palestine, come with me, Yüdel, and you shall work, and be a man like other men. You are what they call a ‘living orphan,’ because you have many fathers; and don’t forget that you have one Father who lives, and who is only waiting for you to grow better. Well, how much longer are you going to live among strangers? Till now you haven’t thought, and the life suited you, you have grown used to blows and contumely. But now that—that—none will let you in, your eyes must have been opened to see your condition, and you must have begun to wish to be different. Only begin to wish! You see, I have enough to eat, and yet my position has become hateful to me, because I have lost my value, and am in danger of losing my humanity. But you are hungry, and one of these days you will die of starvation out in the street. Yüdel, do just think it over, for if I am right, you will get to be like other people. Your Father will see that you have turned into a man, he will be reconciled with your mother, and you will be ‘a father’s child,’ as you were before. Brother Yüdel, think it over!”
I talked to my Yüdel a long, long time. In the meanwhile, the night had passed. My Yüdel gave a start, as though waking out of a deep slumber, and went away full of thought.
On opening the window, I was greeted by a friendly smile from the rising morning star, as it peeped out between the clouds.
And it began to dawn.
David Frischmann ~ Three Who Ate
Once upon a time three people ate. I recall the event as one recalls a dream. Black clouds obscure the men, because it happened long ago.
Only sometimes it seems to me that there are no clouds, but a pillar of fire lighting up the men and their doings, and the fire grows bigger and brighter, and gives light and warmth to this day.
I have only a few words to tell you, two or three words: once upon a time three people ate. Not on a workday or an ordinary Sabbath, but on a Day of Atonement that fell on a Sabbath.
Not in a corner where no one sees or hears, but before all the people in the great Shool, in the principal Shool of the town.
Neither were they ordinary men, these three, but the chief Jews of the community: the Rabbi and his two Dayonim.
The townsfolk looked up to them as if they had been angels, and certainly held them to be saints. And now, as I write these words, I remember how difficult it was for me to understand, and how I sometimes used to think the Rabbi and his Dayonim had done wrong. But even then I felt that they were doing a tremendous thing, that they were holy men with holy instincts, and that it was not easy for them to act thus. Who knows how hard they fought with themselves, who knows how they suffered, and what they endured?
And even if I live many years and grow old, I shall never forget the day and the men, and what was done on it, for they were no ordinary men, but great heroes.
Those were bitter times, such as had not been for long, and such as will not soon return.
A great calamity had descended on us from Heaven, and had spread abroad among the towns and over the country: the cholera had broken out.
The calamity had reached us from a distant land, and entered our little town, and clutched at young and old.
By day and by night men died like flies, and those who were left hung between life and death.
Who can number the dead who were buried in those days! Who knows the names of the corpses which lay about in heaps in the streets!
In the Jewish street the plague made great ravages: there was not a house where there lay not one dead—not a family in which the calamity had not broken out.
In the house where we lived, on the second floor, nine people died in one day. In the basement there died a mother and four children, and in the house opposite we heard wild cries one whole night through, and in the morning we became aware that there was no one left in it alive.
The grave-diggers worked early and late, and the corpses lay about in the streets like dung. They stuck one to the other like clay, and one walked over dead bodies.
The summer broke up, and there came the Solemn Days, and then the most dreadful day of all—the Day of Atonement.
I shall remember that day as long as I live.
The Eve of the Day of Atonement—the reciting of Kol Nidré!
At the desk before the ark there stands, not as usual the precentor and two householders, but the Rabbi and his two Dayonim.
The candles are burning all round, and there is a whispering of the flames as they grow taller and taller. The people stand at their reading-desks with grave faces, and draw on the robes and prayer-scarfs, the Spanish hoods and silver girdles; and their shadows sway this way and that along the walls, and might be the ghosts of the dead who died to-day and yesterday and the day before yesterday. Evidently they could not rest in their graves, and have also come into the Shool.
Hush!… the Rabbi has begun to say something, and the Dayonim, too, and a groan rises from the congregation.
“With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give leave to pray with them that have transgressed.”
And a great fear fell upon me and upon all the people, young and old. In that same moment I saw the Rabbi mount the platform. Is he going to preach? Is he going to lecture the people at a time when they are falling dead like flies? But the Rabbi neither preached nor lectured. He only called to remembrance the souls of those who had died in the course of the last few days. But how long it lasted! How many names he mentioned! The minutes fly one after the other, and the Rabbi has not finished! Will the list of souls never come to an end? Never? And it seems to me the Rabbi had better call out the names of those who are left alive, because they are few, instead of the names of the dead, who are without number and without end.
I shall never forget that night and the praying, because it was not really praying, but one long, loud groan rising from the depth of the human heart, cleaving the sky and reaching to Heaven. Never since the world began have Jews prayed in greater anguish of soul, never have hotter tears fallen from human eyes.
That night no one left the Shool.
After the prayers they recited the Hymn of Unity, and after that the Psalms, and then chapters from the Mishnah, and then ethical books….
And I also stand among the congregation and pray, and my eyelids are heavy as lead, and my heart beats like a hammer.
“U-Malochim yechofézun—and the angels fly around.”
And I fancy I see them flying in the Shool, up and down, up and down. And among them I see the bad angel with the thousand eyes, full of eyes from head to feet.
That night no one left the Shool, but early in the morning there were some missing—two of the congregation had fallen during the night, and died before our eyes, and lay wrapped in their prayer-scarfs and white robes—nothing was lacking for their journey from the living to the dead.
They kept on bringing messages into the Shool from the Gass, but nobody wanted to listen or to ask questions, lest he should hear what had happened in his own house. No matter how long I live, I shall never forget that night, and all I saw and heard.
But the Day of Atonement, the day that followed, was more awful still.
And even now, when I shut my eyes, I see the whole picture, and I think I am standing once more among the people in the Shool.
It is Atonement Day in the afternoon.
The Rabbi stands on the platform in the centre of the Shool, tall and venerable, and there is a fascination in his noble features. And there, in the corner of the Shool, stands a boy who never takes his eyes off the Rabbi’s face.
In truth I never saw a nobler figure.
The Rabbi is old, seventy or perhaps eighty years, but tall and straight as a fir-tree. His long beard is white like silver, but the thick, long hair of his head is whiter still, and his face is blanched, and his lips are pale, and only his large black eyes shine and sparkle like the eyes of a young lion.
I stood in awe of him when I was a little child. I knew he was a man of God, one of the greatest authorities in the Law, whose advice was sought by the whole world.
I knew also that he inclined to leniency in all his decisions, and that none dared oppose him.
The sight I saw that day in Shool is before my eyes now.
The Rabbi stands on the platform, and his black eyes gleam and shine in the pale face and in the white hair and beard.
The Additional Service is over, and the people are waiting to hear what the Rabbi will say, and one is afraid to draw one’s breath.
And the Rabbi begins to speak.
His weak voice grows stronger and higher every minute, and at last it is quite loud.
He speaks of the sanctity of the Day of Atonement and of the holy Torah; of repentance and of prayer, of the living and of the dead, and of the pestilence that has broken out and that destroys without pity, without rest, without a pause—for how long? for how much longer?
And by degrees his pale cheeks redden and his lips also, and I hear him say: “And when trouble comes to a man, he must look to his deeds, and not only to those which concern him and the Almighty, but to those which concern himself, to his body, to his flesh, to his own health.”
I was a child then, but I remember how I began to tremble when I heard these words, because I had understood.
The Rabbi goes on speaking. He speaks of cleanliness and wholesome air, of dirt, which is dangerous to man, and of hunger and thirst, which are men’s bad angels when there is a pestilence about, devouring without pity.
And the Rabbi goes on to say:
“And men shall live by My commandments, and not die by them. There are times when one must turn aside from the Law, if by so doing a whole community may be saved.”
I stand shaking with fear. What does the Rabbi want? What does he mean by his words? What does he think to accomplish? And suddenly I see that he is weeping, and my heart beats louder and louder. What has happened? Why does he weep? And there I stand in the corner, in the silence, and I also begin to cry.
And to this day, if I shut my eyes, I see him standing on the platform, and he makes a sign with his hand to the two Dayonim to the left and right of him. He and they whisper together, and he says something in their ear. What has happened? Why does his cheek flame, and why are theirs as white as chalk?
And suddenly I hear them talking, but I cannot understand them, because the words do not enter my brain. And yet all three are speaking so sharply and clearly!
And all the people utter a groan, and after the groan I hear the words, “With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give leave to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.”
Silence. Not a sound is heard in the Shool, not an eyelid quivers, not a breath is drawn.
And I stand in my corner and hear my heart beating: one—two—one—two. A terror comes over me, and it is black before my eyes. The shadows move to and fro on the wall, and amongst the shadows I see the dead who died yesterday and the day before yesterday and the day before the day before yesterday—a whole people, a great assembly.
And suddenly I grasp what it is the Rabbi asks of us. The Rabbi calls on us to eat, to-day! The Rabbi calls on Jews to eat on the Day of Atonement—not to fast, because of the cholera—because of the cholera—because of the cholera … and I begin to cry loudly. And it is not only I—the whole congregation stands weeping, and the Dayonim on the platform weep, and the greatest of all stands there sobbing like a child.
And he implores like a child, and his words are soft and gentle, and every now and then he weeps so that his voice cannot be heard.
“Eat, Jews, eat! To-day we must eat. This is a time to turn aside from the Law. We are to live through the commandments, and not die through them!”
But no one in the Shool has stirred from his place, and there he stands and begs of them, weeping, and declares that he takes the whole responsibility on himself, that the people shall be innocent. But no one stirs. And presently he begins again in a changed voice—he does not beg, he commands:
“I give you leave to eat—I—I—I!”
And his words are like arrows shot from the bow.
But the people are deaf, and no one stirs.
Then he begins again with his former voice, and implores like a child:
“What would you have of me? Why will you torment me till my strength fails? Think you I have not struggled with myself from early this morning till now?”
And the Dayonim also plead with the people.
And of a sudden the Rabbi grows as white as chalk, and lets his head fall on his breast. There is a groan from one end of the Shool to the other, and after the groan the people are heard to murmur among themselves.
Then the Rabbi, like one speaking to himself, says:
“It is God’s will. I am eighty years old, and have never yet transgressed a law. But this is also a law, it is a precept. Doubtless the Almighty wills it so! Beadle!”
The beadle comes, and the Rabbi whispers a few words into his ear.
He also confers with the Dayonim, and they nod their heads and agree.
And the beadle brings cups of wine for Sanctification, out of the Rabbi’s chamber, and little rolls of bread. And though I should live many years and grow very old, I shall never forget what I saw then, and even now, when I shut my eyes, I see the whole thing: three Rabbis standing on the platform in Shool, and eating before the whole people, on the Day of Atonement!
The three belong to the heroes.
Who shall tell how they fought with themselves, who shall say how they suffered, and what they endured?
“I have done what you wished,” says the Rabbi, and his voice does not shake, and his lips do not tremble.
“God’s Name be praised!”
And all the Jews ate that day, they ate and wept.
Rays of light beam forth from the remembrance, and spread all around, and reach the table at which I sit and write these words.
Once again: three people ate.
At the moment when the awesome scene in the Shool is before me, there are three Jews sitting in a room opposite the Shool, and they also are eating.
They are the three “enlightened” ones of the place: the tax-collector, the inspector, and the teacher.
The window is wide open, so that all may see; on the table stands a samovar, glasses of red wine, and eatables. And the three sit with playing-cards in their hands, playing Preference, and they laugh and eat and drink.
Do they also belong to the heroes?
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