The Rise of David Levinsky
by Abraham Cahan
Book I – Home and School
Book II – Enter Satan
Book III – I Lose My Mother
Book IV – Matilda
Book V – I Discover America
Book VI – A Greenhorn No Longer
Book VII – My Temple
Book VIII – The Destruction of My Temple Book IX – Dora
Book X – On the Road
Book XI – Matrimony
Book XII – Miss Tevkin
Book XIII – At Her Father’s House
Book XIV – Episodes of a Lonely Life
HOME AND SCHOOL
SOMETIMES, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America–in 1885–with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance
When I was young I used to think that middle-aged people recalled their youth as something seen through a haze. I know better now. Life is much shorter than I imagined it to be. The last years that I spent in my native land and my first years in America come back to me with the distinctness of yesterday. Indeed, I have a better recollection of many a trifle of my childhood days than I have of some important things that occurred to me recently. I have a good memory for faces, but I am apt to recognize people I have not seen for a quarter of a century more readily than I do some I used to know only a few years ago
I love to brood over my youth. The dearest days in one’s life are those that seem very far and very near at once. My wretched boyhood appeals to me as a sick child does to its mother.
I was born in Antomir, in the Northwestern Region, Russia, in 1865. All I remember of my father is his tawny beard, a huge yellow apple he once gave me at the gate of an orchard where he was employed as watchman, and the candle which burned at his head his body lay under a white shroud on the floor. I was less than three years old when he died, so my mother would carry me to the synagogue in her arms to have somebody say the Prayer for the Dead with me. I was unable fully to realize the meaning of the ceremony, of course, but its solemnity and pathos were not altogether lost upon me. There is a streak of sadness in the blood of my race. Very likely it is of Oriental origin. If it is, it has been amply nourished by many centuries of persecution
Left to her own resources, my mother strove to support herself and me by peddling pea mush or doing odds and ends of jobs. She had to struggle hard for our scanty livelihood and her trials and loneliness came home to me at an early period.
I was her all in all, though she never poured over me those torrents of senseless rhapsody which I heard other Jewish mothers shower over their children. The only words of endearment I often heard from her were, “My little bean,” and, “My comfort.” Sometimes, when she seemed to be crushed by the miseries of her life, she would call me, “My poor little orphan.” Otherwise it was, “Come here, my comfort,” “Are you hungry, my little bean?” or, “You are a silly little dear, my comfort.” These words of hers and the sonorous contralto in which they were uttered are ever alive in my heart, like the Flame Everlasting in a synagogue
“Mamma, why do you never beat me like other mammas do?” I once asked her
She laughed, kissed me, and said, “Because God has punished you hard enough as it is, poor orphan mine.”
I scarcely remembered my father, yet I missed him keenly. I was ever awake to the fact that other little boys had fathers and that I was a melancholy exception; that most married women had husbands, while my mother had to bear her burden unaided. In my dim childish way I knew that there was a great blank in our family nest, that it was a widow’s nest; and the feeling of it seemed to color all my other feelings. When I was a little older and would no longer sleep with my mother, a rusty old coat of my deceased father’s served me as a quilt. At night, before falling asleep, I would pull it over my head, shut my eyes tight, and evoke a flow of fantastic shapes, bright, beautifully tinted, and incessantly changing form and color. While the play of these figures and hues was going on before me I would see all sorts of bizarre visions, which at times seemed to have something to do with my father’s spirit
“Is papa in heaven now? Is he through with hell?” I once inquired of my mother. Some things or ideas would assume queer forms in my mind. God, for example, appealed to me as a beardless man wearing a quilted silk cap; holiness was something burning, forbidding, something connected with fire while a day had the form of an oblong box
I was a great dreamer of day dreams. One of my pastimes was to imagine a host of tiny soldiers each the size of my little finger, “but alive and real.” These I would drill as I saw officers do their men in front of the barracks some distance from our home. Or else I would take. to marching up and down the room with mother’s rolling-pin for a rifle, grunting, ferociously, in Russian: “Left one! Left one! Left one!” in the double capacity of a Russian soldier and of David fighting Goliath.
Often, while bent upon her housework, my mother would hum some of the songs of the famous wedding bard, Eliakim Zunzer, who later emigrated to America.
I distinctly remember her singing his “There is a flower on the road, decaying in the dust, Passers-by treading upon it,” his “Summer and Winter,” and his “Rachael is bemoaning her children.” I vividly recall these brooding airs as she used to sing them, for I have inherited her musical memory and her passionate love for melody, though not her voice. I cannot sing myself, but some tunes give me thrills of pleasure, keen and terrible as the edge of a sword. Some haunt me like ghosts. But then this is a common trait among our people.
She was a wiry little woman, my mother, with prominent cheek-bones, a small, firm mouth, and dark eyes. Her hair was likewise dark, though I saw it but very seldom, for like all orthodox daughters of Israel she always had it carefully covered by a kerchief, a nightcap, or–on Saturdays and holidays–by a wig. She was extremely rigorous about it. For instance, while she changed her kerchief for her nightcap she would cause me to look away
My great sport during my ninth and tenth years was to play buttons. These we would fillip around on some patch of unpaved ground with a little pit for a billiard pocket. My own pockets were usually full of these buttons. As the game was restricted to brass ones from the uniforms of soldiers, my mother had plenty to do to keep those pockets of mine in good repair. To develop skill for the sport I would spend hours in some secluded spot, secretly practising it by myself. Sometimes, as I was thus engaged, my mother would seek me out and bring me a hunk of rye bread.
“Here,” she would say, gravely, handing me it. And I would accept it with preoccupied mien, take a deep bite, and go on filliping my buttons
I gambled passionately and was continually counting my treasure, or running around the big courtyard, jingling it self-consciously. But one day I suddenly wearied of it all and traded my entire hoard of buttons for a pocket-knife and some trinkets
“Don’t you care for buttons any more?” mother inquired
“I can’t bear the sight of them,” I replied
She shrugged her shoulders smilingly, and called me “queer fellow.”
Sometimes I would fall to kissing her passionately. Once, after an outburst of this kind, I said: “Are people sorry for us, mamma?”
“What do you mean?”
“Because I have no papa and we have no money.”
Antomir, which then boasted eighty thousand inhabitants, was a town in which a few thousand rubles was considered wealth, and we were among the humblest and poorest in it. The bulk of the population lived on less than fifty copecks (twenty-five cents) a day, and that was difficult to earn. A hunk of rye bread and a bit of herring or cheese constituted a meal. A quarter of a copeck (an eighth of a cent) was a coin with which one purchased a few crumbs of pot-cheese or some boiled water for tea. Rubbers were worn by people “of means” only. I never saw any in the district in which my mother and I had our home. A white starched collar was an attribute of “aristocracy.” Children had to nag their mothers for a piece of bread
“Mamma, I want a piece of bread,” with a mild whimper
“Again bread! You’ll eat my head off. May the worms eat you.”
Dialogues such as this were heard at every turn
My boyhood recollections include the following episode: Mother once sent me to a tinker’s shop to have our drinking-cup repaired. It was a plain tin affair and must have cost, when new, something like four or five cents. It had done service as long as I could remember. It was quite rusty, and finally sprang a leak. And so I took it to the tinker, or tinsmith, who soldered it up. On my way home I slipped and fell, whereupon the cup hit a cobblestone and sprang a new leak. When my mother discovered the damage she made me tell the story of the accident over and over again, wringing her hands and sighing as she listened. The average mother in our town would have given me a whipping in the circumstances. She did not
CHAPTER II WE lived in a deep basement, in a large, dusky room that we shared with three other families, each family occupying one of the corners and as much space as it was able to wrest. Violent quarrels were a commonplace occurrence, and the question of floor space a staple bone of contention. The huge brick oven in which the four housewives cooked dinner was another prolific source of strife. Fights over pots were as frequent and as truculent as those over the children
Of our room-mates I best recall a bookbinder and a retired old soldier who mended old sheepskin coats for a living. My memories of home are inseparable from the odors of sheepskin and paste and the image of two upright wooden screws (the bookbinder’s “machine”). The soldier had finished his term of military service years before, yet he still wore his uniform–a dilapidated black coat with new brass buttons, and a similar overcoat of a coarse gray material. Also, he still shaved his chin, sporting a pair of formidable gray side-whiskers. Shaving is one of the worst sins known to our faith, but, somehow, people overlooked it in one who had once been compelled to practise it in the army. Otherwise the furrier or sheepskin tailor was an extremely pious man. He was very kind to me, so that his military whiskers never awed me. Not so his lame, tall wife, who often hit me with one of her crutches.
She was the bane of my life. The bookbinder’s wife was much younger than her husband and one of the things I often heard was that he was “crazy for her because she is his second wife,” from which I inferred that second wives were loved far more than first ones.
The bookbinder had a red-haired little girl whom I hated like poison. Red Esther we called her, to distinguish her from a Black Esther, whose home was on the same yard. She was full of fight. Knowing how repulsive she was to me, she was often the first to open hostilities, mocking my way of speaking, or sticking out her tongue at me. Or else she would press her freckled cheek against my lips and then dodge back, shouting, gloatingly: “He has kissed a girl! He has kissed a girl! Sinner! Shame! Sinner! Sinner!”
There were some other things that she or some of the other little girls of our courtyard would do to make an involuntary “sinner” of me, but these had better be left out
I had many a fierce duel with her. I was considered a strong boy, but she was quick and nimble as a cat, and I usually got the worst of the bargain, often being left badly scratched and bleeding. At which point the combat would be taken up by our mothers
The room, part of which was our home, and two other single-room apartments, similarly tenanted, opened into a pitch-dark vestibule which my fancy peopled with “evil ones.” A steep stairway led up to the yard, part of which was occupied by a huddle of ramshackle one-story houses. It was known as Abner’s Court. During the summer months it swarmed with tattered, unkempt humanity. There was a peculiar odor to the place which I can still smell.
(Indeed, many of the things that I conjure up from the past appeal as much to my sense of smell as to my visual memory.) It was anything but a grateful odor
The far end of our street was part of a squalid little suburb known as the Sands. It was inhabited by Gentiles exclusively. Sometimes, when a Jew chanced to visit it some of its boys would descend upon him with shouts of “Damned Jew!” “Christ-killer!” and sick their dogs at him. As we had no dogs to defend us, orthodox Jews being prohibited from keeping these domestic animals by a custom amounting to a religious injunction, our boys never ventured into the place except, perhaps, in a spirit of dare-devil bravado
One day the bigger Jewish boys of our street had a pitched battle with the Sands boys, an event which is one of the landmarks in the history of my childhood
Still, some of the Sands boys were on terms of friendship with us and would even come to play with us in our yard. The only Gentile family that lived in Abner’s Court was that of the porter. His children spoke fairly good Yiddish
One Saturday evening a pock-marked lad from the Sands, the son of a chimney-sweep, meeting me in the street, set his dog at me. As a result I came home with a fair-sized piece of my trousers (knee-breeches were unknown to us) missing
“I’m going to kill him,” my mother said, with something like a sob. “I’m just going to kill him.”
“Cool down,” the retired soldier pleaded, without removing his short-stemmed pipe from his mouth
Mother was silent for a minute, and even seated herself, but presently she sprang to her feet again and made for the door
The soldier’s wife seized her by an arm
“Where are you going? To the Sands? Are you crazy? If you start a quarrel over there you’ll never come back alive.”
“I don’t care!”
She wrenched herself free and left the room.
Half an hour later she came back beaming
“His father is a lovely Gentile,” she said. “He went out, brought his murderer of a boy home, took off his belt, and skinned him alive.”
“A good Gentile,” the soldier’s wife commented, admiringly
There was always a pile of logs somewhere in our Court, the property of some family that was to have it cut up for firewood. This was our great gathering-place of a summer evening. Here we would bandy stories (often of our own inventing) or discuss things, the leading topic of conversation being the soldiers of the two regiments that were stationed in our town. We saw a good deal of these soldiers, and we could tell their officers, commissioned or non-commissioned, by the number of stars or bands on their shoulder-straps. Also, we knew the names of their generals, colonels, and some of their majors or captains. The more important manoeuvers took place a great distance from Abner’s Court, but that did not matter. If they occurred on a Saturday, when we were free from school–and, as good luck would have it, they usually did–many of us, myself invariably included, would go to see them. The blare of trumpets, the beat of drums, the playing of the band, the rhythmic clatter of thousands of feet, the glint or rows and rows of bayonets, the red or the blue of the uniforms, the commanding officer on his mount, the spirited singing of the men marching back to barracks–all this would literally hold me spellbound
That we often played soldiers goes without saying, but we played “hares” more often, a game in which the counting was done by means of senseless words like the American “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” Sometimes we would play war, with the names of the belligerents borrowed from the Old Testament, and once in a while we would have a real “war” with the boys of the next street
I was accounted one of the strong fellows among the boys of Abner’s Court as well as one of the conspicuous figures among them. Compactly built, broad-shouldered, with a small, firm mouth like my mother’s, a well-formed nose and large, dark eyes, I was not a homely boy by any means, nor one devoid of a certain kind of magnetism
One of my recollections is of my mother administering a tongue-lashing to a married young woman whom she had discovered flirting in the dark vestibule with a man not her husband
A few minutes later the young woman came in and begged my mother not to tell her husband
“If I was your husband I would skin you alive.”
“Oh, don’t tell him! Take pity! Don’t.”
“I won’t. Get out of here, you lump of stench.”
“Oh, swear that you won’t tell him! Do swear, dearie. Long life to you.
Health to every little bone of yours.”
“First you swear that you’ll never do it again, you heap of dung.”
“Strike me blind and dumb and deaf if I ever do it again. There.”
“Your oaths are worth no more than the barking of a dog. Can’t you be decent? You ought to be knouted in the market-place. You are a plague. Black luck upon you. Get away from me.”
“But I will be decent. May I break both my legs and both my arms if I am not. Do swear that you won’t tell him.”
My mother yielded
She was passionately devout, my mother. Being absolutely illiterate, she would murmur meaningless words, in the singsong of a prayer, pretending to herself that she was performing her devotions. This, however, she would do with absolute earnestness and fervor, often with tears of ecstasy coming to her eyes. To be sure, she knew how to bless the Sabbath candles and to recite the two or three other brief prayers that our religion exacts from married women. But she was not contented with it, and the sight of a woman going to synagogue with a huge prayer-book under her arm was ever a source of envy to her.
Most of the tenants of the Court were good people, honest and pure, but there were exceptions. Of these my memory has retained the face of a man who was known as “Carrot Pudding” Moe, a red-headed, broad-shouldered “finger worker,” a specialist in “short change,” yardstick frauds, and other varieties of market-place legerdemain. One woman, a cross between a beggar and a dealer in second-hand dresses, had four sons, all of whom were pickpockets, but she herself was said to be of spotless honesty. She never allowed them to enter Abner’s Court, though every time one of them was in prison she would visit him and bring him food
Nor were professional beggars barred from the Court as tenants. Indeed, one of our next-door neighbors was a regular recipient of alms at the hands of my mother. For, poor as she was, she seldom let a Friday pass without distributing a few half-groschen (an eighth of a cent) in charity. The amusing part of it was the fact that one of the beggars on her list was far better off than she
“He’s old and lame, and no hypocrite like the rest of them,” she would explain
She had a ferocious temper, but there were people (myself among them) with whom she was never irritated. The women of Abner’s Court were either her devoted followers or her bitter enemies. She was a leader in most of the feuds that often divided the whole Court into two warring camps, and in those exceptional cases when she happened to be neutral she was an ardent peacemaker. She wore a dark-blue kerchief, which was older than I, and almost invariably, when there was a crowd of women in the yard, that kerchief would loom in its center
Growing as I did in that crowded basement room which was the home of four families, it was inevitable that the secrets of sex should be revealed to me before I was able fully to appreciate their meaning. Then, too, the neighborhood was not of the purest in town. Located a short distance from Abner’s Court, midway between it and the barracks, was a lane of ill repute, usually full of soldiers. If it had an official name I never heard it. It was generally referred to as “that street,” in a subdued voice that was suggestive either of shame and disgust or of waggish mirth. For a long time I was under the impression that “That” was simply the name of the street.
One summer day–I must have been eight years old–I told my mother that I had peeked in one of the little yards of the mysterious lane, that I had seen half-naked women and soldiers there, and that one of the women had beckoned me in and given me some cake
“Why, you mustn’t do that, Davie!” she said, aghast. “Don’t you ever go near that street again! Do you hear?”
“Because it is a bad street.”
“Why is it bad?”
“Keep still and don’t ask foolish questions.”
I obeyed, with the result that the foolish questions kept rankling in my brain
On a subsequent occasion, when she was combing my dark hair fondly, I ventured once more: “Mamma, why mustn’t I come near that street?”
“Because it is a sin to do so, my comfort. Fie upon it!”
This answer settled it. One did not ask why it was a sin to do this or not to do that. “You don’t demand explanations of the Master of the World,” as people were continually saying around me. My curiosity was silenced. That street became repellent to me, something hideously wicked and sinister
Sometimes some of the excommunicated women would drop in at our yard. As a rule, my mother was bitterly opposed to their visits and she often chased them out with maledictions and expressions of abhorrence; but there was one case in which she showed unusual tolerance and even assumed the part of father confessor to a woman of this kind. She would listen to her tale of woe, homesickness and repentance, including some of the most intimate details of her loathsome life. She would even deliver her donations to the synagogue, thus helping her cheat the Biblical injunction which bars the gifts of fallen women from a house of God
My mother would bid me keep away during these confabs of theirs, but this only whetted my curiosity and I often overheard far more than I should
Fridays were half-holidays with us Jewish boys. One Friday afternoon a wedding was celebrated in our courtyard. The procession emerged from one of the rickety one-story houses, accompanied by a band playing a solemn tune.
When it reached the center of the vacant part of the yard it came to a halt and a canopy was stretched over the principal figures of the ceremony.
Prayers and benedictions were chanted. The groom put the ring on the bride’s finger, “dedicating her to himself according to the laws of Moses and Israel “; more prayers were recited; the bridegroom and the bride received sips of wine; a plate was smashed, the sound being greeted by shouts of “Good luck! Good luck!” The band struck up a lively tune with a sad tang to it
The yard was crowded with people. It was the greatest sensation we children had ever enjoyed there. We remained out chattering of the event till the windows were aglitter with Sabbath lights
I was in a trance. The ceremony was a poem to me, something inexpressibly beautiful and sacred.
Presently a boy, somewhat older than I, made a jest at the young couple’s expense. What he said was a startling revelation to me. Certain things which I had known before suddenly appeared in a new light to me. I relished the discovery and I relished the deviltry of it. But the poem vanished. The beauty of the wedding I had just witnessed, and of weddings in general, seemed to be irretrievably desecrated
That boy’s name was Naphtali. He was a trim-looking fellow with curly brown hair, somewhat near-sighted. He was as poor as the average boy in the yard and as poorly dressed, but he was the tidiest of us. He would draw, with a piece of chalk, figures of horses and men which we admired. He knew things, good and bad, and from that Friday I often sought his company. Unlike most of the other boys, he talked little, throwing out his remarks at long intervals, which sharpened my sense of his wisdom. His father never let him attend the manoeuvers, yet he knew more about soldiers than any of the other boys, more even than I, though I had that retired soldier, the sheepskin man, to explain things military to me.
One summer evening Naphtali and I sat on a pile of logs in the yard, watching a boy who was “playing” on a toy fiddle of his own making. I said: “I wish I knew how to play on a real fiddle, don’t you?”
Naphtali made no answer. After a little he said: “You must think it is the bow that does the playing, don’t you?”
“What else does it?” I asked, perplexed
“It’s the fingers of the other hand, those that are jumping around.”
I did not understand, but I was deeply impressed all the same. The question bothered me all that evening. Finally I submitted it to my mother: “Mamma, Naphtali says when you play on a fiddle it is not the bow that makes the tune, but the fingers that are jumping around. Is it true?”
She told me not to bother her with foolish questions, but the retired soldier, who had overheard my query, volunteered to answer it.
“Of course it is not the bow,” he said
“But if you did not work the bow the strings would not play, would they?” I urged.
“You could play a tune by pinching them,” he answered. “But if you just kept passing the bow up and down there would be no tune at all.”
I plied him with further questions and he answered them all, patiently and fondly, illustrating his explanations with a thread for a violin string, my mother looking from him to me beamingly
When we were through she questioned him: “Do you think he understands it all?” “He certainly does. He has a good head,” he answered, with a wink. And she flushed with happiness
CHAPTER III THE tuition fee at a school for religious instruction or cheder was from eight to ten rubles (five dollars) for a term of six months. My mother could not afford it. On the other hand, she would not hear of sending me to the free cheder of our town, because of its reputation for poor instruction. So she importuned and harassed two distant relatives of ours until they agreed to raise part of the sum between them. The payments were made with anything but promptness, the result being that I was often turned out of school.
Mother, however, would lose no time in bringing me back. She would implore the schoolmaster to take pity on the poor, helpless woman that she was, assuring him, with some weird oaths, that she would pay him every penny. If that failed she would burst into a flood of threats and imprecations, daring him to let a fatherless boy grow up in ignorance of the Word of God. This was followed by similar scenes at the houses of my cousins, until finally I was allowed to resume my studies, sometimes at the same cheder, sometimes at some other one. There were scores of such private schools in our town, and before I got through my elementary religious education I had become acquainted with a considerable number of them
Sometimes when a teacher or his wife tried to oust me, I would clutch at the table and struggle sullenly until they yielded
I may explain that instruction in these cheders was confined to the Hebrew Old Testament and rudiments of the Talmud, the exercises lasting practically all day and part of the evening. The class-room was at the same time the bedroom, living-room, and kitchen of the teacher’s family. His wife and children were always around. These cheder teachers were usually a haggard-looking lot with full beards and voices hoarse with incessant shouting.
A special man generally came for an hour to teach the boys to write. As he was to be paid separately, I was not included. The feeling of envy, abasement, and self-pity with which I used to watch the other boys ply their quills is among the most painful memories of my childhood
During the penmanship lesson I was generally kept busy in other directions.
The teacher’s wife would make me help her with her housework, go her errands, or mind the baby (in one instance I became so attached to the baby that when I was expelled I missed it keenly)
I seized every opportunity to watch the boys write and would practise the art, with chalk, on my mother’s table or bed, on the door of our basement room, on many a gate or fence. Sometimes a boy would let me write a line or two in his copy-book. Sometimes, too, I would come to school before the schoolmaster had returned from the morning service at the synagogue, and practise with pen and ink, following the copy of some of my classmates. One of my teachers once caught me in the act. He held me up as an ink-thief and forbade me come to school before the beginning of exercises
Otherwise my teachers scarcely ever complained of my behavior. As to the progress I was making in my studies, they admitted, some even with enthusiasm, that mine was a “good head.” Nevertheless, to be beaten by them was an every-day experience with me
Overworked, underfed, and goaded by the tongue-lashings of their wives, these enervated drudges were usually out of sorts. Bursts of ill temper, in the form of invective, hair-pulling, ear-pulling, pinching, caning, “nape-cracking,” or “chin-smashing,” were part of the routine, and very often I was the scapegoat for the sins of other boys. When a pupil deserved punishment and the schoolmaster could not afford to inflict it because the culprit happened to be the pet of a well-to-do family, the teacher’s anger was almost sure to be vented on me. If I happened to be somewhat absent-minded (the only offense I was ever guilty of), or was not quick enough to turn over a leaf, or there was the slightest halt in my singsong, I received a violent “nudge” or a pull by the ear.
“Lively, lively, carcass you!” I can almost hear one of my teachers shout these words as he digs his elbow into my side. “The millions one gets from your mother!”
This man would beat and abuse me even by way of expressing approval
“A bright fellow, curse him!” he would say, punching me with an air of admiration. Or, “Where did you get those brains of yours, you wild beast?” with a violent pull at my forelock
During the winter months, when the exercises went on until 9 in the evening, the candle or kerosene was paid for by the boys, in rotation. When it was my turn to furnish the light it often happened that my mother was unable to procure the required two copecks (one cent). Then the teacher or his wife, or both, would curse me for a sponge and a robber, and ask me why I did not go to the charity school
Almost every teacher in town was known among us boys by some nickname, which was usually borrowed from some trade. If he had a predilection for pulling a boy’s hair we would call him “wig-maker” or “brush-maker”; if he preferred to slap or “calcimine” the culprit’s face we would speak of him as a mason.
A “coachman” was a teacher who did not spare the rod or the whip; a “carpenter,” one who used his finger as a gimlet, boring a pupil’s side or cheek; a “locksmith,” one who had a weakness for “turning the screw,” or pinching
The greatest “locksmith” in town was a man named Shmerl. But then he was more often called simply Shmerl the Pincher. He was one of my schoolmasters.
He seemed to prefer the flesh of plump, well-fed boys, but as these were usually the sons of prosperous parents, he often had to forego the pleasure and to gratify his appetite on me. There was something morbid in his cruel passion for young flesh something perversely related to sex, perhaps. He was a young man with a wide, sneering mouth
He would pinch me black and blue till my heart contracted with pain. Yet I never uttered a murmur. I was too profoundly aware of the fact that I was kept on sufferance to risk the slightest demonstration. I had developed a singular faculty for bearing pain, which I would parade before the other boys. Also, I had developed a relish for flaunting my martyrdom, for being an object of pity
Oh, how I did hate this man, especially his sneering mouth! In my helplessness I would seek comfort in dreams of becoming a great man some day, rich and mighty, and avenging myself on him. Behold! Shmerl the Pincher is running after me, cringingly begging my pardon, and I, omnipotent and formidable, say to him: “Do you remember how you pinched the life out of me for nothing? Away with you, you cruel beast!”
Or I would vision myself dropping dead under one of his onslaughts. Behold him trembling with fright, the heartless wretch! Serves him right.
If my body happened to bear some mark of his cruelty I would conceal it carefully from my mother, lest she should quarrel with him. Moreover, to betray school secrets was considered a great “sin.”
One night, as I was changing my shirt, anxiously manoeuvering to keep a certain spot on my left arm out of her sight, she became suspicious
“Hold on. What are you hiding there?” she said, stepping up and inspecting my bare arm. She found an ugly blotch. “Woe is me! A lamentation upon me!” she said, looking aghast. “Who has been pinching you?”
“It is that beast of a teacher, isn’t it?”
“Don’t lie, Davie. It is that assassin, the cholera take him! Tell me the truth. Don’t be afraid.”
“A boy did it.”
“What is his name?”
“I don’t know. It was a boy in the street.”
“You are a liar.”
The next morning when I went to cheder she accompanied me
Arrived there, she stripped me half-naked and, pointing at the discoloration on my arm, she said, with ominous composure: “Look! Whose work is it?”
“Mine,” Shmerl answered, without removing his long-stemmed pipe from his wide mouth. He was no coward
“And you are proud of it, are you?” “If you don’t like it you can take your ornament of a son along with you.
Clear out, you witch!”
She flew at him and they clenched. When they had separated, some of his hair was in her hand, while her arms, as she subsequently owned to me, were marked with the work of his expert fingers.
Another schoolmaster had a special predilection for digging the huge nail of his thumb into the side of his victim, a peculiarity for which he had been named “the Cossack,” his famous thumb being referred to by the boys as his spear. He had a passion for inventing new and complex modes of punishment, his spear figuring in most of them. One of his methods of inflicting pain was to slap the boy’s face with one hand and to prod his side with the thumb of the other, the slaps and the thrusts alternating rhythmically. This heartless wretch was an abject coward. He was afraid of thunder, of rats, spiders, dogs, and, above all, of his wife, who would call him indecent names in our presence. I abhorred him, yet when he was thus humiliated I felt pity for him His wife kept a stand on a neighboring street corner, where she sold cheap cakes and candy, and those of her husband’s pupils who were on her list of “good customers” were sure of immunity from his spear. As I scarcely ever had a penny, he could safely beat me whenever he was so disposed
CHAPTER IV THE Cossack had a large family and one of his daughters, a little girl, named Sarah-Leah, was the heroine of my first romance.
Sarah-Leah had the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to a sister of her father’s, an offense which her mother never forgave her. She treated her as she might a stepdaughter. As for the Cossack, he may have cared for the child, but if he did he dared not show it. Poor little Sarah-Leah! She was the outcast of the family just as I was the outcast of her father’s school.
She was about eleven years old and I was somewhat younger. The similarity of our fates and of our self-pity drew us to each other. When her father beat me I was conscious of her commiserating look, and when she was mistreated by her mother she would cast appealing glances in my direction. Once when the teacher punished me with special cruelty her face twitched and she broke into a whimper, whereupon he gave her a kick, saying: “Is it any business of yours? Thank God your own skin has not been peeled off.”
Once during the lunch hour, when we were alone, Sarah-Leah and I, in a corner of the courtyard, she said: “You are so strong, Davie! Nothing hurts you.”
“Nothing at all. I could stand everything,” I bragged
“You could not, if I bit your finger.”
“Go ahead!” I said, with bravado, holding out my hand. She dug her teeth into one of my fingers. It hurt so that I involuntarily ground my own teeth, but I smiled
“Does it not hurt you, Davie?” she asked, with a look of admiration
“Not a bit. Go on, bite as hard as you can.”
She did, the cruel thing, and like many an older heroine, she would not desist until she saw her lover’s blood
“It still does not hurt, does it?” she asked, wiping away a red drop from her lips.
I shook my head contemptuously
“When you are a man you will be strong as Samson the Strong.”
I was the strongest boy in her father’s school. She knew that most of the other boys were afraid of me, but that did not seem to interest her. At least when I began to boast of it she returned to my ability “to stand punishment,” as the pugilists would put it
One day one of my schoolmates aroused her admiration by the way he “played” taps with his fist for a trumpet. I tried to imitate him, but failed grievously. The other boy laughed and Sarah-Leah joined him. That was my first taste of the bitter cup called jealousy
I went home a lovelorn boy
I took to practising “taps.” I was continually trumpeting. I kept at it so strenuously that my mother had many a quarrel with our room-mates because of it
My efforts went for nothing, however. My rival, and with him my lady love, continued to sneer at my performances
I had only one teacher who never beat me, or any of the other boys. Whatever anger we provoked in him would spend itself in threats, and even these he often turned to a joke, in a peculiar vein of his own
“If you don’t behave I’ll cut you to pieces,” he would say. “I’ll just cut you to tiny bits and put you into my pipe and you’ll go up in smoke.” Or, “I’ll give you such a thrashing that you won’t be able to sit down, stand up, or lie down. The only thing you’ll be able to do is to fly–to the devil.”
This teacher used me as a living advertisement for his school. He would take me from house to house, flaunting my recitations and interpretations. Very often the passage which he thus made me read was a lesson I had studied under one of his predecessors, but I never gave him away
Every cheder had its king. As a rule, it was the richest boy in the school, but I was usually the power behind the throne. Once one of these potentates (it was at the school of that kindly man) mimicked my mother hugging her pot of pea mush
“If you do it again I’ll kill you,” I said
“If you lay a finger on me,” he retorted, “the teacher will kick you out.
Your mother doesn’t pay him, anyhow.”
I flew at him. His Majesty tearfully begged for mercy. Since then he was under my thumb and never omitted to share his ring-shaped rolls or apples with me
Often when a boy ate something that was beyond my mother’s means–a cookie or a slice of buttered white bread–I would eye him enviously till he complained that I made him choke. Then I would go on eying him until he bribed me off with a piece of the tidbit. If staring alone proved futile I might try to bring him to terms by naming all sorts of loathsome objects. At this it frequently happened that the prosperous boy threw away his cookie from sheer disgust, whereupon I would be mean enough to pick it up and to eat it in triumph, calling him something equivalent to “Sissy.”
The compliments that were paid my brains were ample compensation for my mother’s struggles. Sending me to work was out of the question. She was resolved to put me in a Talmudic seminary. I was the “crown of her head” and she was going to make a “fine Jew” of me. Nor was she a rare exception in this respect, for there were hundreds of other poor families in our town who would starve themselves to keep their sons studying the Word of God
Whenever one of the neighbors suggested that I be apprenticed to some artisan she would flare up. On one occasion a suggestion of this kind led to a violent quarrel
One afternoon when we happened to pass by a bookstore she stopped me in front of the window and, pointing at some huge volumes of the Talmud, she said: “This is the trade I am going to have you learn, and let our enemies grow green with envy.”
BOOK II ENTER SATAN CHAPTER I THE Talmudic seminary, or yeshivah, in which my mother placed me was a celebrated old institution, attracting students from many provinces. Like most yeshivahs, it was sustained by donations, and instruction in it was free. Moreover, out-of-town students found shelter under its roof, sleeping on the benches or floors of the same rooms in which the lectures were delivered and studied during the day. Also, they were supplied with a pound of rye bread each for breakfast. As to the other meals, they were furnished by the various households of the orthodox community. I understand that some school-teachers in certain villages of New England get their board on the rotation plan, dining each day in the week with another family. This is exactly the way a poor Talmud student gets his sustenance in Russia, the system being called “eating days.”
One hour a day was devoted to penmanship and a sorry smattering of Russian, the cost of tuition and writing-materials being paid by a “modern” philanthropist
I was admitted to that seminary at the age of thirteen. As my home was in the city, I neither slept in the classroom nor “ate days.” The lectures lasted only two hours a day, but then there was plenty to do, studying them and reviewing previous work. This I did in an old house of prayer where many other boys and men of all ages pursued similar occupations. It was known as the Preacher’s Synagogue, and was famed for the large number of noted scholars who had passed their young days reading Talmud in it.
The Talmud is a voluminous work of about twenty ponderous tomes. To read these books, to drink deep of their sacred wisdom, is accounted one of the greatest “good deeds” in the life of a Jew. It is, however, as much a source of intellectual interest as an act of piety. If it be true that our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor, the distinction is probably due, in some measure, to the extremely important part which Talmud studies have played in the spiritual life of the race
A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received. I spent seven years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the various cheders
What is the Talmud? The bulk of it is taken up with debates of ancient rabbis. It is primarily concerned with questions of conscience, religious duty, and human sympathy–in short, with the relations “between man and God” and those “between man and man.” But it practically contains a consideration of almost every topic under the sun, mostly with some verse of the Pentateuch for a pretext. All of which is analyzed and explained in the minutest and keenest fashion, discussions on abstruse subjects being sometimes relieved by an anecdote or two, a bit of folklore, worldly wisdom, or small talk. Scattered through its numerous volumes are priceless gems of poetry, epigram, and story-telling
It is at once a fountain of religious inspiration and a “brain-sharpener.” “Can you fathom the sea? Neither can you fathom the depths of the Talmud,” as we would put it. We were sure that the highest mathematics taught in the Gentile universities were child’s play as compared to the Talmud
In the Preacher’s Synagogue, then, I spent seven years of my youthful life.
For hours and hours together I would sit at a gaunt reading-desk, swaying to and fro over some huge volume, reading its ancient text and interpreting it in Yiddish. All this I did aloud, in the peculiar Talmud singsong, a trace of which still persists in my intonation even when I talk cloaks and bank accounts and in English
The Talmud was being read there, in a hundred variations of the same singsong, literally every minute of the year, except the hours of prayer.
There were plenty of men to do it during the day and the evening, and at least ten men (a sacred number) to keep the holy word echoing throughout the night. The majority of them were simply scholarly business men who would drop in to read the sacred books for an hour or two, but there was a considerable number of such as made it the occupation of their life. These were supported either by the congregation or by their own wives, who kept shops, stalls, inns, or peddled, while their husbands spent sixteen hours a day studying Talmud
One of these was a man named Reb (Rabbi) Sender, an insignificant, ungainly little figure of a man, with a sad, child-like little face flanked by a pair of thick, heavy, dark-brown side-locks that seemed to weigh him down
His wife kept a trimming-store or something of the sort, and their only child, a girl older than I, helped her attend to business as well as to keep house in the single-room apartment which the family occupied in the rear of the little shop. As he invariably came to the synagogue for the morning prayer, and never left it until after the evening service, his breakfasts and dinners were brought to the house of worship. His wife usually came with the meal herself. Waiting on one’s husband and “giving him strength to learn the law” was a “good deed.”
She was a large woman with an interesting dark face, and poor Reb Sender cut a sorry figure by her side
Men of his class are described as having “no acquaintance with the face of a coin.” All the money he usually handled was the penny or two which he needed to pay for his bath of a Friday afternoon. Occasionally he would earn three or four copecks by participating in some special prayer, for a sick person, for instance. These pennies he invariably gave away. Once he gave his muffler to a poor boy. His wife subsequently nagged him to death for it. The next morning he complained of her to one of the other scholars
“Still,” he concluded, “if you want to serve God you must be ready to suffer for it. A good deed that comes easy to you is like a donation which does not cost you anything.” I made his acquaintance by asking him to help me out with an obscure passage. This he did with such simple alacrity and kindly modesty as to make me feel a chum of his. I warmed to him and he reciprocated my feelings. He took me to his bosom. He often offered to go over my lesson with me, and I accepted his services with gratitude. He spoke in a warm, mellow basso that had won my heart from the first. His singsong lent peculiar charm to the pages that we read in duet. As he read and interpreted the text he would wave his snuff-box, by way of punctuating and emphasizing his words, much as the conductor of an orchestra does his baton, now gently, insinuatingly, now with a passionate jerk, now with a sweeping majestic movement. One cannot read Talmud without gesticulating, and Reb Sender would scarcely have been able to gesticulate without his snuff-box.
It was of tortoise shell, with a lozenge-shaped bit of silver in the center.
It gradually became dear to me as part of his charming personality.
Sometimes, when we were reading together, that glistening spot in the center of the lid would fascinate my eye so that I lost track of the subject in hand
He often hummed some liturgical melody of a well-known synagogue chanter.
One afternoon he sang something to me, with his snuff-box for a baton, and then asked me how I liked it
“I composed it myself,” he explained, boastfully
I did not like the tune. In fact, I failed to make out any tune at all, but I was overflowing with a desire to please him, so I said, with feigned enthusiasm: “Did you really? Why, it’s so beautiful, so sweet!”
Reb Sender’s face shone
After that he often submitted his compositions to me, though he was too shy to sing them to older people. They were all supposed to be liturgical tunes, or at least some “hop” for the Day of the Rejoicing of the Law. When I hailed the newly composed air with warm approval he would show his satisfaction either with shamefaced reserve or with child-like exuberance.
If, on the other hand, I failed to conceal my indifference, he would grow morose, and it would be some time before I succeeded in coaxing him back to his usual good humor
Nor were his melodies the only things he confided to me. When I was still a mere boy, fourteen or fifteen years old, he would lay bare to me some of the most intimate secrets of his heart
“You see, my wife thinks me a fool,” he once complained to me. “She thinks I don’t see it. Do you understand, David? She looks up to me for my learning, but otherwise she thinks I have no sense. It hurts, you know.” He was absolutely incapable of keeping a secret or of saying or acting anything that did not come from the depths of his heart. He often talked to me of God and His throne, of the world to come, and of the eternal bliss of the righteous, quoting from a certain book of exhortations and adding much from his own exalted imagination. And I would listen, thrilling, and make a silent vow to be good and to dedicate my life to the service of God
“Study the Word of God, Davie dear,” he would say, taking my hand into his.
“There is no happiness like it. What is wealth? A dream of fools. What is this world? A mere curl of smoke for the wind to scatter. Only the other world has substance and reality; only good deeds and holy learning have tangible worth. Beware of Satan, Davie. When he assails you, just say no; turn your heart to steel and say no. Do you hear, my son?”
The anecdotes and sayings of the Talmud, its absurdities no less than its gems of epigrammatic wisdom, were mines of poetry, philosophy, and science to him. He was a dreamer with a noble imagination, with a soul full of beauty
This unsophisticated, simple-hearted man, with the mind of an infant, was one of the most quick-witted, nimble-minded scholars in town.
His great delight was to tackle some intricate maze of Talmudic reasoning.
This he would do with ferocious zest, like a warrior attacking the enemy, flashing his tortoise snuff-box as if it were his sword. When away from his books or when reading some of the fantastic tales in them he was meek and gentle as a little bird. No sooner did he come across a fine bit of reasoning than he would impress me as a lion
On one occasion, after Reb Sender got through a celebrated tangle with me, arousing my admiration by the ingenuity with which he discovered discrepancies and by the adroitness with which he explained them away, he said: “I do enjoy reading with you. Sometimes, when I read by myself, I feel lonely. Anyhow, I love to have you around, David. If you went to study somewhere else I should miss you very much.” On another occasion he said: “You are like a son to me, Davie. Be good, be genuinely pious; for my sake, if for nothing else. Above all, don’t be double-faced; never say what you do not mean; do not utter words of flattery.”
As I now analyze my reminiscences of him I feel that he was a yearning, lonely man. He was in love with his wife and, in spite of her devotion to him, he was love-lorn. Poor Reb Sender! He was anything but a handsome man, while she was well built and pretty. And so it may be that she showed more reverence for his learning and piety than love for his person. He was continually referring to her, apparently thirsting to discuss her demeanor toward him
“The Lord of the Universe has been exceptionally good to me,” he once said to me. “May I not forfeit His kindness for my sins. He gives me health and my daily bread, and I have a worthy woman for a wife. Indeed, she is a woman of rare merits, so clever, so efficient, and so good. She nags me but seldom, very seldom.” He paused to take snuff and then remained silent, apparently hesitating to come to the point. Finally he said: “In fact, she is so wise I sometimes wish I could read her thoughts. I should give anything to have a glimpse into her heart. She has so little to say to me.
She thinks I am a fool. There is a sore in here “–pointing at his heart.
“We have been married over twenty-two years, and yet–would you believe it?–I still feel shy in her presence, as if we were brought together for the first time, by a match-maker, don’t you know. But then you are too young to understand these things. Nor, indeed, ought I to talk to you about them, for you are only a child. But I cannot help it. If I did not unburden my mind once in a while I might not be able to stand it.”
That afternoon he composed what he called a “very sad tune,” and hummed it to me. I failed to make out the tune, but I could feel its sadness
I loved him passionately. As for the other men of the synagogue, if they did not share my ardent affection for him, they all, with one exception, liked him. The exception was a middle-aged little Talmudist with a tough little beard who held everybody in terror by his violent temper and pugnacity. He was a pious man, but his piety never manifested itself with such genuine fervor as when he exposed the impiety of others. He was forever picking quarrels, forever challenging people to debate with him, forever offering to show that their interpretation of this passage or that was all wrong. The sound of his acrimonious voice or venomous laughter grated on Reb Sender’s nerves, but he bore him absolutely no ill-will. Nor did he ever utter a word of condemnation concerning a certain other scholar, an inveterate tale-bearer and gossip-monger, though a good-natured fellow, who not infrequently sought to embroil him with some of his warmest friends.
One Talmudist, a corpulent old man whose seat was next to Reb Sender’s, was more inclined to chat than to study. Now and again he would break in upon my friend’s reading with some piece of gossip; and the piteous air with which Reb Sender would listen to him, casting yearning glances at his book as he did so, was as touching as it was amusing
My mother usually brought my dinner to the synagogue. She would make her entrance softly, so as to take me by surprise while I was absorbed in my studies. It did her heart good to see me read the holy book. As a result, I was never so diligent as I was at the hour when I expected her arrival with the dinner-pot. Very often I discovered her tiptoeing in or standing at a distance and watching me admiringly. Then I would take to singing and swaying to and fro with great gusto. She often encountered Reb Sender’s wife at the synagogue. They did not take to each other.
On one occasion my mother found Reb Sender’s daughter at the house of prayer. Having her father’s figure and features, the girl was anything but prepossessing. My mother surveyed her from head to foot
That evening when I was eating my supper at home my mother said: “Look here, Davie. I want you to understand that Reb Sender’s wife is up to some scheme about you. She wants you to marry that monkey of hers. That’s what she is after.” I was not quite fifteen
“Leave me alone,” I retorted, coloring
“Never mind blushing. It is she who tells Reb Sender to be so good to you.
The foxy thing! She thinks I don’t see through her. That scarecrow of a girl is old enough to be your mother, and she has not a penny to her marriage portion, either. A fine match for a boy like you! Why, you can get the best girl in town.”
She said it aloud, by way of flaunting my future before our room-mates. Two of the three families who shared the room with us, by the way, were the same as when I was a little boy. Moving was a rare event in the life of the average Antomir family
Red Esther was still there. She was one of those who heard my mother’s boastful warning to me. She grinned. After a little, as I was crossing the room, she sang out with a giggle: “Bridegroom!”
“I’ll break your bones,” I returned, pausing
She stuck out her tongue at me
I still hated her, but, somehow, she did not seem to be the same as she had been before. The new lines that were developing in her growing little figure, and more particularly her own consciousness of them, were not lost upon me. A new element was stealing into my rancor for her–a feeling of forbidden curiosity. At night, when I lay in bed, before falling asleep, I would be alive to the fact that she was sleeping in the same room, only a few feet from me. Sometimes I would conjure up the days of our childhood when Red Esther caused me to “sin” against my will, whereupon I would try to imagine the same scenes, but with the present fifteen-year-old Esther in place of the five-year-old one of yore.
The word “girl” had acquired a novel sound for me, one full of disquieting charm. The same was true of such words as “sister,” “niece,” or “bride,” but not of “woman.” Somehow sisters and nieces were all young girls, whereas a woman belonged to the realm of middle-aged humanity, not to my world
Naphtali went to the same seminary. He was two grades ahead of me. He “ate days,” for his father had died and his mother had married a man who refused to support him. He was my great chum at the seminary. The students called him Tidy Naphtali or simply the Tidy One. He was a slender, trim lad, his curly brown hair and his near-sighted eyes emphasizing his Talmudic appearance. He was the cleanliest and neatest boy at the yeshivah. This often aroused sardonic witticism from some of the other students. Scrupulous tidiness was so uncommon a virtue among the poorer classes of Antomir that the painstaking care he bestowed upon his person and everything with which he came in contact struck many of the boys as a manifestation of girl-like squeamishness. As for me, it only added to my admiration of him. His conscience seemed to be as clean as his finger-nails. He wrote a beautiful hand, he could draw and carve, and he was a good singer. His interpretations were as clear-cut as his handwriting. He seemed to be a Jack of all trades and master of all. I admired and envied him. His reticence piqued me and intensified his power over me. I strove to emulate his cleanliness, his graceful Talmud gestures, and his handwriting. At one period I spent many hours a day practising caligraphy with some of his lines for a model
“Oh, I shall never be able to write like you,” I once said to him, in despair
“Let us swap, then,” he replied, gaily.. “Give me your mind for learning and I shall let you have my handwriting.”
“Pshaw! Yours is a better mind than mine, too.”
“No, it is not,” he returned, and resumed his reading. “Besides, you are ahead of me in piety and conduct.” He shook his head deprecatingly and went on reading. He was one of the noted “men of diligence” at the seminary. With his near-sighted eyes close to the book he would read all day and far into the night in ringing, ardent singsongs that I thought fascinating. The other reticent Talmudists I knew usually read in an undertone, humming their recitatives quietly. He seldom did. Sparing as he was of his voice in conversation, he would use it extravagantly when intoning his Talmud
It is with a peculiar sense of duality one reads this ancient work. While your mind is absorbed in the meaning of the words you utter, the melody in which you utter them tells your heart a tale of its own. You live in two distinct worlds at once. Naphtali had little to say to other people, but he seemed to have much to say to himself. His singsongs were full of meaning, of passion, of beauty. Quite often he would sing himself hoarse
Regularly every Thursday night he and I had our vigil at the Preacher’s Synagogue, where many other young men would gather for the same purpose. We would sit up reading, side by side, until the worshipers came to morning service. To spend a whole night by his side was one of the joys of my existence in those days
Reb Sender was somewhat jealous of him
Soon after graduation Naphtali left Antomir for a town in which lived some of his relatives. I missed him as I would a sweetheart
CHAPTER II I WAS nearly sixteen. I had graduated from the seminary and was pursuing my studies at the Preacher’s Synagogue exclusively, as an “independent scholar.” I was overborne with a sense of my dignity and freedom. I seemed to have suddenly grown much taller. If I caught myself walking fast or indulging in some boyish prank I would check myself, saying in my heart: “You must not forget that you are an independent scholar. You are a boy no longer.”
I was free to loaf, but I worked harder than ever. I was either in an exalted state of mind or pining away under a spell of yearning and melancholy–of causeless, meaningless melancholy.
My Talmudic singsong reflected my moods. Sometimes it was a spirited recitative, ringing with cheery self-consciousness and the joy of being a lad of sixteen; at other times it was a solemn song, aglow with devotional ecstasy. When I happened to be dejected in the commonplace sense of the word, it was a listless murmur, doleful or sullen. But then the very reading of the Talmud was apt to dispel my gloom. My voice would gradually rise and ring out, vibrating with intellectual passion
The intonations of the other scholars, too, echoed the voices of their hearts, some of them sonorous with religious bliss, others sad, still others happy-go-lucky. Although absorbed in my book, I would have a vague consciousness of the connection between the various singsongs and their respective performers. I would be aware that the bass voice with the flourishes in front of me belonged to the stuttering widower from Vitebsk, that the squeaky, jerky intonation to the right came from the red-headed fellow whom I loathed for his thick lips, or that the sweet, unassertive cadences that came floating from the east wall were being uttered by Reb Rachmiel, the “man of acumen” whose father-in-law had made a fortune as a war-contractor in the late conflict with Turkey. All these voices blended in a symphonic source of inspiration for me. It was divine music in more senses than one
The ancient rabbis of the Talmud, the Tanaim of the earlier period and the Amorairn of later generations, were living men. I could almost see them, each of them individualized in my mind by some of his sayings, by his manner in debate, by some particular word he used, or by some particular incident in which he figured. I pictured their faces, their beards, their voices.
Some of them had won a warmer corner in my heart than others, but they were all superior human beings, godly, unearthly, denizens of a world that had been ages ago and would come back in the remote future when Messiah should make his appearance
Added to the mystery of that world was the mystery of my own singsong. Who is there?–I seemed to be wondering, my tune or recitative sounding like the voice of some other fellow. It was as if somebody were hidden within me.
What did he look like? If you study the Talmud you please God even more than you do by praying or fasting. As you sit reading the great folio He looks down from heaven upon you. Sometimes I seemed to feel His gaze shining down upon me, as though casting a halo over my bead
My relations with God were of a personal and of a rather familiar character.
He was interested in everything I did or said; He watched my every move or thought; He was always in heaven, yet, somehow, he was always near me, and I often spoke to Him as I might to Reb Sender
If I caught myself slurring over some of my prayers or speaking ill of another boy or telling a falsehood, I would say to Him, audibly: “Oh, forgive me once more. You know that I want to be good. I will be good.
I know I will.”
Sometimes I would continue to plead in this manner till I broke into sobs.
At other times, as I read my Talmud, conscious of His approval of me, tears of bliss would come into my eyes
I loved Him as one does a woman.
Often while saying my prayers I would fall into a veritable delirium of religious infatuation. Sometimes this fit of happiness and yearning would seize me as I walked in the street
“O Master of the World! Master of the Universe! I love you so!” I would sigh. “Oh, how I love you!”
I also had talks with the Evil Spirit, or Satan. He, too, was always near me. But he was always trying to get me into trouble
“You won’t catch me again, scoundrel you,” I would assure him with sneers and leers. Or, “Get away from me, heartless mischief-maker you! You’re wasting your time, I can tell you that.”
My bursts of piety usually lasted a week or two. Then there was apt to set in a period of apathy, which was sure to be replaced by days of penance and a new access of spiritual fervor.
One day, as Reb Sender and I were reading a page together, a very pretty girl entered the synagogue. She came to have a letter written for her by one of the scholars. I continued to read aloud, but I did so absently now, trailing along after my companion. My mind was upon the girl, and I was casting furtive glances
Reb Sender paused, with evident annoyance. “What are you looking at, David?” he said, with a tug at my arm. “Shame! You are yielding to Satan.”
He was too deeply interested in the Talmudic argument under consideration to say more on the matter at this minute, but he returned to it as soon as we had reached the end of the section. He spoke earnestly, with fatherly concern: “You are growing, David. You are a boy no longer. You are getting to be a man. This is just the time when one should be on his guard against Satan.”
I sat, looking down, my brain in a daze of embarrassment
“Remember, David, ‘He who looks even at the little finger of a woman is as guilty as though he looked at a woman that is wholly naked.'” He quoted the Talmudic maxim in a tone of passionate sternness, beating the desk with his snuff-box at each word
As to his own conduct, he was one of three or four men at the synagogue of whom it was said that they never looked at women, and, to a very considerable extent, his reputation was not unjustified
“You must never tire fighting Satan, David,” he proceeded. “Fight him with might and main.”
As I listened I was tingling with a mute vow to be good. Yet, at the same time, the vision of “a woman that is wholly naked” was vividly before me
He caused me to bring a certain ancient work, one not included in the Talmud, in which he made me read the following: “Rabbi Mathia, the son of Chovosh, had never set eyes on a woman.
Therefore when he was at the synagogue studying the Law, his visage would shine as the sun and its features would be the features of an angel. One day, as he thus sat reading, Satan chanced to pass by, and in a fit of jealousy Satan said: “‘Can it really be that this man has never sinned?’ “‘He is a man of spotless purity,’ answered God
“‘Just grant me the liberty,’ Satan urged, ‘and I will lead him to sin.’ “‘You will never succeed.’ “‘Let me try.’ “‘Proceed.’ “Satan then appeared in the guise of the most beautiful woman in the world, of one the like of whom had not been born since the days of Naomi, the sister of Tuval Cain, the woman who had led angels astray.
When Rabbi Mathia espied her he faced about. So Satan, still in the disguise of a beautiful woman, took up a position on the left side of him; and when he turned away once more he walked over to the right side again. Finally Rabbi Mathia had nails and fire brought him and gouged out his own eyes.
“At this God called for Angel Raphael and bade him cure the righteous man. Presently Raphael came back with the report that Rabbi Mathia would not be cured lest he should again be tempted to look at pretty women.
“‘Go tell him in My name that he shall never be tempted again,’ said God
“And so the holy man regained his eyesight and was never molested by Satan again.”
The painful image of poor Rabbi M athia gouging out his eyes supplanted the nude figure of the previous quotation in my mind
Reb Sender pursued his “exhortative talk.” He dwelt on the duties of man to man.
“If a man is tongue-tied, don’t laugh at him, but, rather, feel pity for him, as you would for a man with broken legs. Nor should you hate a man who has a weakness for telling falsehoods. This, too, is an affliction, like stuttering or being lame. Say to yourself, ‘Poor fellow, he is given to lying.’ Above all, you must fight conceit, envy, and every kind of ill-feeling in your heart. Remember, the sum and substance of all learning lies in the words, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Another thing, remember that it is not enough to abstain from lying by word of mouth; for the worst lies are often conveyed by a false look, smile, or act. Be genuinely truthful, then. And if you feel that you are good, don’t be too proud of it.
Be modest, humble, simple. Control your anger.”
He worked me up to a veritable frenzy of penitence
“I will, I will,” I said, tremulously. “And if I ever catch myself looking at a woman again I will gouge out my eyes like Rabbi Mathia.”
“‘S-sh! Don’t say that, my son.” About a quarter of an hour later, as I sat reading by myself, I suddenly sprang to my feet and walked over to Reb Sender
“You are so dear to me,” I gasped out. “You are a man of perfect righteousness. I love you so. I should jump into fire or into water for your sake.”
“‘S-sh!” he said, taking me gently by the hand and pressing me down into a seat by his side. “You are a good boy. As to my being a man of perfect righteousness, alas! I am far from being one. We are all sinful. Come, let us read another page together.”
Satan kept me rather busy these days. It was not an easy task to keep one’s eyes off the girls who came to the Preacher’s Synagogue, and when none was around I would be apt to think of one. I would even picture myself touching a feminine cheek with the tip of my finger. Then my heart would sink in despair and I would hurl curses at Satan
“Eighty black years on you, vile wretch you!” I would whisper, gnashing my teeth, and fall to reading with ferocious zeal
In the relations between men and women it is largely case of forbidden fruit and the mystery of distance. The great barrier that religion, law, and convention have laced between the sexes adds to the joys and poetry of love, but it is responsible also for much of the suffering, degradation, and crime that spring from it. In my case his barrier was of special magnitude.
Dancing with a girl, or even taking one out for a walk, was out of the question. Nor was the injunction confined to men who devoted themselves to the study of holy books. It was the rule of ordinary decency for any Jew except one who lived “like a Gentile,” that is, like a person of modern culture. Indeed, there were scores of towns in the vicinity of Antomir where one could not take a walk even with one’s own wife without incurring universal condemnation. There was a lancing-school or two in Antomir, but they were attended by young mechanics of the coarser type. To be sure, there were plenty of young Jews in our town who did live “like Gentiles,” who called the girls of their acquaintance “young ladies,” took off their hats to them, took them out for a walk in the public park, and danced with them, just like the nobles or the army officers of my birthplace. But then these fellows spoke Russian instead of Yiddish and altogether they belonged to a world far removed from mine. Many of these “modern” young Jews went to high school and wore pretty uniforms with silver-plated buttons and silver lace.
To me they were apostates, sinners in Israel. And yet I could not think of them without a lurking feeling of envy. The Gentile books they studied and their social relations with girls who were dressed “like young noblewomen” piqued my keenest curiosity and made me feel small and wretched
The orthodox Jewish faith practically excludes woman from religious life.
Attending divine service is not obligatory for her, and those of the sex who wish to do so are allowed to follow the devotions not in the synagogue proper, but through little windows or peepholes in the wall of an adjoining room. In the eye of the spiritual law that governed my life women were intended for two purposes only: for the continuation of the human species and to serve as an instrument in the hands of Satan for tempting the stronger sex to sin. Marriage was simply a duty imposed by the Bible. Love? So far as it meant attraction between two persons of the opposite sex who were not man and wife, there was no such word in my native tongue. One loved one’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister. To be “in love” with a girl who was an utter stranger to you was something unseemly, something which only Gentiles or “modern” Jews might indulge in
But at present all this merely deepened the bewitching mystery of the forbidden sex in my young blood. And Satan, wide awake and sharp-eyed as ever, was not slow to perceive the change that had come over me and made the most of it
There was no such thing as athletics or outdoor sports in my world. The only physical exercise known to us was to be swinging like a pendulum in front of your reading-desk from nine in the morning to bedtime every day, and an all-night vigil every Thursday in addition. Even a most innocent frolic among the boys was suppressed as an offense to good Judaism
All of which tended to deepen the mystery of girlhood and to increase the chances of Satan.
I must explain that although women could not attend divine service except through a peephole, they were free to visit the house of worship on all sorts of other errands. So some of them would come with food for the scholars, others with candles for the chandeliers, while still others wanted letters read or written. One of the several rabbis of the town was in the habit of spending his evenings reading Talmud in the Preacher’s Synagogue, so housewives of the neighborhood, or their daughters, would bring some spoon, pot, or chicken to have them passed upon according to the dietary laws of Moses and the Talmud
I would scrutinize the faces and figures of these girls, I would draw comparisons, make guesses as to whether they were engaged to be married (I did not have to speculate upon whether they were already married, because a young matron who would visit our synagogue was sure to have her hair covered with a wig). It became one of my pastimes to make forecasts as to the looks of the next young woman to call at the synagogue, whether she would be pretty or homely, tall or short, fair or dark, plump or spare. I was interested in their eyes, but, somehow, I was still more interested in their mouths. Some mouths would set my blood on fire. I would invent all sorts of romantic episodes with myself as the hero. I would portray my engagement to some of the pretty girls I had seen, our wedding, and, above all, our married life. The worst of it was that these images often visited my brain while I was reading the holy book. Satan would choose such moments of all others because in this manner he would involve me in two great sins at once; for in addition to the wickedness of indulging in salacious thoughts there was the offense of desecrating the holy book by them
Reb Sender’s daughter was about to be married to a tradesman of Talmudic education. I did not care for her in the least, yet her approaching wedding aroused a lively interest in me
Red Esther had gone out to service. She came home but seldom, and when she did we scarcely ever talked to each other. The coarse brightness of her complexion and the harsh femininity of her laughter repelled me
“I do hate her,” I once said to myself, as I heard that laugh of hers
“And yet you would not mind kissing her, would you, now?” a voice retorted
I had to own that I would not, and then I cudgeled my brains over the amazing discrepancy of the thing. Kissing meant being fond of one. I enjoyed kissing my mother, for instance. Now, I certainly was not fond of Esther. I was sure that I hated her. Why, then, was I impelled to kiss her? How could I hate and be fond of her at once? I went on reasoning it out, Talmud fashion, till I arrived at the conclusion that there were two kinds of kisses: the kiss of affection and the kiss of Satan. I submitted it, as a discovery, to some of the other young Talmudists, but they scouted it as a truism. A majority of us were modest of speech and conduct. But there were some who were not
CHAPTER III WHEN I was a little over eighteen the number of steady readers at the Old Synagogue was increased by the advent of a youth from the Polish provinces.
His appearance produced something of a sensation, for, in addition to being the son of a rich merchant and the prospective son-in-law of a celebrated rabbi, he was the possessor of a truly phenomenal memory. He was well versed in the entire Talmud, and could recite by heart about five hundred leaves, or one thousand pages, of it. He was generally called the Pole. He was tall and supple, fair-complexioned, and well-groomed, with a suggestion of self-satisfaction and aloofness in the very sinuosity of his figure. His velvet skull-cap, which was always pushed back on his head, exposed to view a forelock of golden hair. His long-skirted, well-fitting coat was of the richest broadcloth I had ever seen. He wore a watch and chain that were said to be worth a small fortune. I hated him. He was repugnant to me for his Polish accent, for his good clothes, for his well-fed face, for his haughty manner, for the servile attention that was showered on him, and, above all, for his extraordinary memory. I had always been under the impression that the boys of well-to-do parents were stupid. Brains did not seem to be in their line. That this young man, who was so well supplied with this world’s goods, should possess a wonderful mind as well jarred on me as an injustice to us poor boys
I would seek comfort in the reflection that “the essence of scholarship lay in profundity and acumen rather than in the ability to rattle off pages like so many psalms.” Yet those “five hundred leaves” of his gave me no peace.
Five hundred! The figure haunted me. Finally I set myself the task of memorizing five hundred leaves. It was a gigantic undertaking, although my memory was rather above the average. I worked with unflagging assiduity for weeks and weeks. Nobody was to know of my purpose until it had been achieved. I worked so hard and was so absorbed in my task that my interest in girls lost much of its usual acuteness. At times I had a sense of my own holiness. When I walked through the streets, on my way to or from the synagogue, I kept reciting some of the pages I had mastered. While in bed for the night, I whispered myself to sleep reciting Talmud. When I ate, some bit of Talmud was apt to be running through my mind. If there was a hitch, and I could not go on, my heart would sink within me. I would stop eating and make an effort to recall the passage
It was inevitable that the new character of my studies should sooner or later attract Reb Sender’s attention. My secret hung like a veil between us.
He was jealous of it. Ultimately he questioned me, beseechingly, and I was forced to make a clean breast of it
Reb Sender beamed. The veil was withdrawn. Presently his face fell again
“What I don’t like about it is your envy of the Pole,” he said, gravely.
“Don’t take it ill, my son, but I am afraid you are envious and begrudging.
Fight it, Davie. Give up studying by heart. It is not with a pure motive you are doing it. Your studies are poisoned with hatred and malice. Do you want to gladden my heart, Davie?”
“I do. I will. What do you mean?” “Just step up to the Pole and beg his pardon for the evil thoughts you have harbored about him.”
A minute later I stood in front of my hated rival, thrilling with the ecstasy of penitence.
“I have sinned against you. Forgive me,” I said, with downcast eyes
The Pole was puzzled
“I envied you,” I explained. “I could not bear to hear everybody speak of the five hundred leaves you know by heart. So I wanted to show you that I could learn by heart just as much, if not more.”
A suggestion of a sneer flitted across his well-fed face. It stung me as if it were some loathsome insect. His golden forelock exasperated me
“And I could do it, too,” I snapped. “I have learned more than fifty leaves already. It is not so much of a trick as I thought it was.”
“Is it not?” the Pole said, with a full-grown sneer
“You need not be so stuck up, anyhow,” I shot back, and turned away
Before I had reached Reb Sender, who had been watching us, I rushed back to the Pole
“I just want to say this,” I began, in a towering rage. “With all your boasted memory you would be glad to change brains with me.”
His shoulders shook with soundless mirth
“Laugh away. But let Reb Sender examine both of us. Let him select a passage and see who of us can delve deeper into it, you or I? Memory alone is nothing.”
“Isn’t it? Then why are you green with envy of me?” And once more he burst into a laugh, with a graceful jerk of his head which set my blood on fire
“You’re a pampered idiot.”
“You’re green with envy.”
“I’ll break every bone in you.”
We flew at each other, but Reb Sender and two other scholars tore us apart
“Shame!” the Talmudists cried, shrugging their shoulders in disgust
“Just like Gentiles,” some one commented
“It is an outrage to have the holy place desecrated in this manner.”
“What has got into you?” Reb Sender said to me as he led me back to my desk
I resumed studying by heart with more energy than ever. “That’s all right!” I thought to myself. “I’ll have that silk-stocking of a fellow lick the dust of my shoes.” I now took special measures to guard my secret even from Reb Sender. One of these was to take a book home and to work there, staying away from synagogue as often as I could invent a plausible pretext. I was lying right and left. Satan chuckled in my face, but I did not care. I promised myself to settle my accounts with the Uppermost later on. The only thing that mattered now was to beat the Pole
The sight of me learning the Word of God so diligently was a source of indescribable joy to my mother. She struggled to suppress her feeling, but from time to time a sigh would escape her, as though the rush of happiness was too much for her heart
Alas! this happiness of hers was not to last much longer
BOOK III I LOSE MY MOTHER CHAPTER I IT was Purim, the feast of Esther. Our school-boys were celebrating the downfall of Haman, and they were doing it in the same war-like fashion in which American boys celebrate their forefathers’ defiance of George III. The synagogues roared with the booming of fire-crackers, the report of toy pistols, the whir-whir of Purim rattles. It was four weeks to the great eight-day festival of Passover and my mother went to work in a bakery of unleavened bread. She toiled from eighteen to twenty hours a day, so that she often dozed off over her rolling-pin from sheer exhaustion. But then she earned far more than usual. Including tips from customers (the baker merely acted as a contractor for the families whose flour he transformed into fiat, round, tasteless Passover cakes, or “matzoths”) she saved up, during the period, a little over twenty rubles. With a part of this sum she ordered a new coat for me and bought me a new cap. I remember that coat very well. It was of a dark-brown cotton stuff, neat at the waist and with absurdly long skirts, of course. The Jewish Passover often concurs with the Christian Easter. This was the case in the year in question. One afternoon–it was the seventh day of our festival–I chanced to be crossing the Horse-market. As it was not market day, it was deserted save for groups of young Gentiles, civilians and soldiers, who were rolling brightly colored Easter eggs over the ground. My new long-skirted coat and side-locks provoked their mirth until one of them hit me a savage blow in the face, splitting my lower lip.
Another rowdy snatched off my new cap–just because our people considered it a sin to go bareheaded. And, as I made my way, bleeding, with one hand to my lip and the other over my bare head, the company sent a shower of broken eggs and a chorus of jeers after me
It was only a short distance from Abner’s Court. When I entered our basement and faced my mother, she stared at me for a moment, as though dumfounded, and then, slapping her hands together, she sobbed: “Woe is me! Darkness is me! What has happened to you?”
When she had heard my story she stood silent awhile, looking aghast, and then left the house.
“I’m going to kill him. I am just going to kill him,” she said, in measured accents which still ring in my ears
The bookbinder’s wife, the retired soldier, and I ran after her, imploring her not to risk her life on such a foolhardy errand, but she took no heed of us
“Foolish woman! You don’t even know who did it,” urged the soldier
“I’ll find out!” she answered
The bookbinder’s wife seized her by an arm, but she shook her off. I pleaded with her with tears in my eyes
“Go back,” she said to me, trying to be gentle while her eyes were lit with an ominous look
These were the last words I ever heard her utter
Fifteen minutes later she was carried into our basement unconscious. Her face was bruised and swollen and the back of her head was broken. She died the same evening
I have never been able to learn the ghastly details of her death. The police and an examining magistrate were said to be investigating the case, but nothing came of it
There was no lack of excitement among the Jews of Antomir. The funeral was expected to draw a vast crowd. But the epidemic of anti-Jewish atrocities of 1881 and 1882 were fresh in one’s mind, so word was passed round “not to irritate the Gentiles.” The younger and “modern” element in town took exception to this timidity. They insisted upon a demonstrative funeral. They were organizing for self-defense in case the procession was interfered with, but the counsel of older people prevailed. As a consequence, the number of mourners following the hearse was even smaller than it would have been if my mother had died a natural death. And the few who did take part in the sad procession were unusually silent. A Jewish funeral without a chorus of sobbing women was inconceivable in Antomir. Indeed, a pious matron who happens to come across such a scene will join in the weeping, whether she had ever heard of the deceased or not. On this occasion, however, sobs were conspicuous by their absence
“‘S-sh! ‘s-sh! None of your wailing!” an old man kept admonishing the women
I spent the “Seven Days “(of mourning) in our basement, where I received visits from neighbors, from the families of my two distant relatives, from Reb Sender and other Talmudists of my synagogue. Among these was the Pole.
This time my rival begged my forgiveness. I granted it, of course, but I felt that we never could like each other
There was a great wave of sympathy for me. Offers of assistance came pouring in in all sorts of forms. Had there been a Yiddish newspaper in town and such things as public meetings, the outburst might have crystallized into what, to me, would have been a great fortune. As it was, public interest in me died before anything tangible was done. Still, there were several prosperous families of the old-fashioned class, each of which wanted to provide me with excellent board. But then Reb Sender’s wife, in a fit of compassion and carried away by the prevailing spirit of the moment, claimed the sole right to feed me
“I’ll take his mother’s place,” she said. “Whatever the Upper One gives us will be enough for him, too.” Her husband was happy, while I lacked the courage to overrule them
As to lodgings, it was deemed most natural that I should sleep in some house of worship, as thousands of Talmud students did in Antomir and other towns.
To put up with a synagogue bench for a bed and to “eat days” was even regarded as a desirable part of a young man’s Talmud education. And so I selected a pew in the Preacher’s Synagogue for my bed. I was better off than some others who lived in houses of God, for I had some of my mother’s bedding while they mostly had to sleep on hay pillows with a coat for a blanket
It was not until I found myself lying on this improvised bed that I realized the full extent of my calamity. During the first seven days of mourning I had been aware, of course, that something appalling had befallen me, but I had scarcely experienced anything like keen anguish. I had been in an excited, hazy state of mind, more conscious of being the central figure of a great sensation than of my loss. As I went to bed on the synagogue bench, however, instead of in my old bunk at what had been my home, the fact that my mother was dead and would never be alive again smote me with crushing violence. It was as though I had just discovered it. I shall never forget that terrible night
At the end of the first thirty days of mourning I visited mother’s grave.
“Mamma! Mamma!” I shrieked, throwing myself upon the mound in a wild paroxysm of grief
The dinners which Reb Sender’s wife brought to the synagogue for her husband and myself were never quite enough for two, and for supper, which he had at home, she would bring me some bread and cheese or herring. Poor Reb Sender could not look me in the face. The situation grew more awkward every day. It was not long before his wife began to drop hints that I was hard to please, that she did far more than she could afford for me and that I was an ingrate. The upshot was that she “allowed” me to accept “days” from other families. But the well-to-do people had by now forgotten my existence and the housewives who were still vying with one another in offering me meals were mostly of the poorer class. These strove to make me feel at home at their houses, and yet, in some cases at least, as I ate, I was aware of being watched lest I should consume too much bread. As a consequence, I often went away half hungry. All of which quickened my self-pity and the agony of my yearnings for mother. I grew extremely sensitive and more quarrelsome than I am naturally. I quarreled with one of my relatives, a woman, and rejected the “day” which I had had in her house, and shortly after abandoned one of my other “days.”
Reb Sender kept tab of my missing “days” and tried to make up for them by sharing his dinner with me. His wife, however, who usually waited for the dishes and so was present while I ate, was anything but an encouraging witness of her husband’s hospitality. The food would stick in my throat under her glances. I was repeatedly impelled abruptly to leave the meal, but refrained from doing so for Reb Sender’s sake. I obtained two new “days.” One of these I soon forfeited, having been caught stealing a hunk of bread; but I kept the matter from Reb Sender. To conceal the truth from him I would spend the dinner hour in the street or in a little synagogue in another section of the city. Tidy Naphtali had recently returned to Antomir, and this house of worship was his home now. His vocal cords had been ruined by incessantly reading Talmud at the top of his lungs. He now spoke or read in a low, hoarse voice. He still spent most of his time at a reading-desk, but he had to content himself with whispering
I found a new “day,” but lost three of my old ones. Naphtali had as little to eat as I, yet he scarcely ever left his books. One late afternoon I sat by his side while he was reading in a spiritless whisper. Neither of us had lunched that day. His curly head was propped upon his arm, his near-sighted eyes close to the book. He never stirred. He was too faint to sway his body or to gesticulate. I was musing wearily, and it seemed as though my hunger was a living thing and was taking part in my thoughts