An Obscure Apostle
A Dramatic Story
TRANSLATED BY C.S. DE SOISSONS FROM THE ORIGINAL POLISH OF
GREENING & CO., LTD.
20 CECIL COURT, CHARING CROSS ROAD
Printed by Cowan & Co., Limited Perth.
In Lord Palmerston's days, the English public naturally heard a great deal about Poland, for there were a goodly number of Poles, noblemen and others, residing in London, exiles after the unsuccessful revolution, who, believing that England would help them to recover their lost liberty, made every possible effort to that end through Count Vladislas Zamoyski, the prime minister's personal friend. But even in those times, when the English press was writing much about the political situation in Poland, little was said about that which constitutes the greatest glory of a nation, namely, its literature and art, which alone can be secure of immortality. Only lately, in fact, has any public attention been paid by English people to Polish literature. However, among the authors who have attracted considerable attention of late, is the writer of "By Fire and Sword," whose "Quo Vadis," has met with a phenomenal reception. Henryk Sienkiewicz has by his popularity proved that in unfortunate, almost forgotten, Poland, there is an abundance of literary talent and an important output of works of which few English readers have any conception. For instance, who has ever heard, in Great Britain, of Adam Michiewicz the great Polish poet, who, critics declare, can be placed in the same category with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Klopstock, Camoens, and Milton? Joseph Kraszewski as a novel writer occupies in Poland as high a position as Maurice Jokai does in Hungarian literature, while Mme. Eliza Orzeszko is considered to be the Polish Georges Sand, even by the Germans, who are in many respects the rivals of Slavs in politics and literature.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, asked by an interviewer what he thought about the contemporary Polish literary talents, replied: "At the head of all stand Waclaw Sieroszewski and Stefan Zeromski; they are young, and very promising writers. But Eliza Orzeszko still holds the sceptre as a novelist."
When the "Revue des Deux Mondes" asked the authors of different nationalities to furnish an essay on women of their respective countries, Mme. Orzeszko was chosen among the Polish writers to write about the Polish women. It may be stated that translations of her novels appeared in the same magazine more than twenty years ago. She is not only a talented but also a prolific writer. She has suffered much in her life, and her sufferings have brought out those sterling qualities of soul and heart, which make her books so intensely human, and characterise all her works, and place her high above contemporary Polish writers. The present volume may stand as a proof of her all-embracing talent.
C.S. DE SOISSONS.
AN OBSCURE APOSTLE
On the summits of civilisation the various branches of the great tree of humanity are united and harmonised. Education is the best apostle of universal brotherhood. It polishes the roughness without and cuts the overgrowth within; it permits of the development, side by side and with mutual respect, of the natural characteristics of different individuals; it prunes even religious beliefs produced by the needs of the time, and reduces them to their simplest expression, the result being that people can live without antipathies.
Quite a different state of affairs exists in the social valley unlighted by the sun of knowledge. There people are the same to-day as they were in the remote centuries. Time, while making tombs for the dead people, has not buried with them the forms which, being continually regenerated, create among amazed societies unintelligible anachronisms. Here exist distinctions which, with sharp edges, push back everything which belongs not to them; here are crawling moral and physical miseries which are unknown, even by name, to those who have reached the summits; here is a gathering of dark figures, standing out against the background of the world, resembling vague outlines of sphinxes keeping guard over the graveyards; here are widely-spread petrifications of faiths, sentiment and customs, testifying by their presence that geniuses of many centuries can simultaneously rule the world. Patricians and plebeians changed their formal parts. The first became defenders and propagators of equality; the second stubbornly hold to distinctions. And if in times of yore oppression was directed by those who stood high against those who, in dust and humility, swarmed in the depths, in our times, from the depths arise unhealthy exhalations, which poison life and make the roads of civilisation difficult to the chosen ones.
Such unfortunate valleys, rendering many people unhappy, separating the rest of the world by a chain of high mountains, exist in Israelitic society, as well as in the society of other nations, and there they are even more numerous than elsewhere. Their too long existence is the result of many historical causes and characteristics of the race. To-day they constitute a phenomenon; attracting the thinker and the artist by their great influence and the originality of their colouring, composed of mysterious shadows and bright lights. But who is familiar with them and who studies them? Even those who, on account of the same blood and traditions, should be attracted toward these localities, plunged in darkness, send there neither painters nor apostles—sometimes they do not even believe in their existence. For instance, what a surprise it would be to Israelitic society, gathered in the largest city in the country, composed of cultivated men and of women, who by their beauty, refinement and wit are in no way inferior to the women of other nations: what a surprise it would be to this society, gowned in purple and fine linen, if somebody would all at once describe Szybow and what is transpiring there!
Szybow? On what planet is it, and if on ours, what population has it? The people there, are they white, black or brown?
Well then, readers, I am going to make you acquainted with that deep—very deep—social valley. Not long ago there was enacted there an interesting drama worthy of your kind glance—of your heart's strong throb and a moment of long, sad thought. But in order to bring out facts and figures they must be thrown against the background on which they have risen and developed, and in the deep perspectives of which there are elements which are the causes of their existence. Therefore you must permit me, before raising the curtain which hides the first scenes of the drama, to tell you in brief the history of the small town.
Far, far from the line of the railroads which run through the Bialorus (a part of Poland around the city of Mohileff which now belongs to Russia), far from even the navigable River Dzwina, in one of the most remote corners of the country, amidst quiet, large, level fields—still existing in some parts of Europe—between two sandy roads which disappear into the depths of a great forest, there is a group of gray houses of different sizes standing so closely together that anyone looking at them would say that they had been seized by some great fright and had crowded together in order to be able to exchange whispers and tears.
This is Szybow, a town inhabited by Israelites, almost exclusively, with the exception of a small street at the end of the place in which, in a few houses, live a few very poor burghers and very quiet old retired officials.
It is the only street that is quiet, and the only street in which flowers bloom in summer. In the other streets no flowers bloom, and they are dreadfully noisy. There the people talk and move about continually, industriously, passionately, within the houses and in the narrow dark alleys called streets, and in the round, comparatively large market-place in the centre of the town, around which there are numerous doors of stinking small shops. In this market-place after a week of transactions by the people of the vicinity, there remains an inconceivable quantity of dirt and sweepings, and here is also the high, dusky, strangely-shaped meeting house.
This building is one of the specimens, rare to-day, of Hebrew architecture. A painter and an archeologist would look upon it with an equal amount of interest. At first glance it can be easily seen that it is a synagogue, although it does not look like other churches. Its four thick walls form a monotonous quadrangle, and its brown colour gives it a touch of dignity, sadness, and antiquity. These walls must be very old indeed, for they are covered with green strips of moss. The higher parts of the walls are cut with a row of long, narrow, deeply-set windows, recalling, by their shape, the loop-holes of a fortress. The whole building is covered by a roof whose three large heavy turrets, built one upon the other, look like three moss-covered gigantic mushrooms.
Every gathering, whether of greater importance or of common occurrence, was held here, sheltered beneath the brown walls and mushroom-like roof of the temple. Here in the large round courtyard are the heders (Hebrew schools), where the kahals (church committees) gather. Here stands a low black house with two windows, a real mud hovel, inhabited for several centuries and for many generations by Rabbis of the family of Todros, famous in the community and even far beyond it. Here at least everything is clean, and while in other parts of the place, in the spring especially, the people nearly sink into the mud, the school courtyard is always clean. It would be difficult to find on it even a wisp of straw, for as soon as anything is noticed, it is at once picked up by a passer-by, anxious to keep clean the place around the temple.
How important Szybow is to the Israelites living in Bialorus, and even in Lithuania, can be judged by an embarrassing incident which occurred to a merry but unwise nobleman while in conversation with a certain Jewish agent, more spiritual than humble.
The agent was standing at the door of the office of the noble, bent a little forward, smiling, always ready to please and serve the noble, and say a witty word to put him in good humour. The noble was feeling pretty good, and joked with the Jew.
"Chaimek," spoke he, "wert thou in Cracow?"
"I was not, serene lord."
"Then thou art stupid."
"Chaimek, wert thou in Rome?"
"I was not, serene lord."
"Then thou art very stupid."
Chaimek bowed again, but in the meanwhile he had made two steps forward. On his lips wandered one of those smiles common to the people of his race—clever, cunning, in which it is impossible to say whether there is humility or triumph, flattery or irony.
"Excuse me, your lordship," he said softly, "has your lordship been in Szybow?"
Szybow was situated about twenty miles from the place at which this conversation was held.
The nobleman answered, "I was not."
"And what now?" answered Chaimek still more softly.
The answer of the jolly nobleman to that embarrassing question is not recorded, but the use of Szybow as an argument against the insult shows that to the Jew Szybow was of the same relative importance as were Rome and Cracow to the nobleman, i.e., as the place which was the concentration of civil and religious authorities.
If someone were to have asked the Jew why he attributed such importance to a small, poor town, he would probably mention two families who had lived in Szybow for centuries—Ezofowichs and Todros. Between these two families there existed the difference that the Ezofowichs represented the concentration in the highest degree of the element of secular importance, i.e., large family, numerous relatives, riches, and keenness in the transaction of large business interests, and in increasing their wealth. On the other hand, the Todros family represented the spiritual element—piety, religious culture, and severe, almost ascetic, purity of life.
It is probable that if Chaimek were asked the reason for the importance given to the little town, he would forget to name the Ezofowichs because, although the Israelites were proud of the riches and influence of that family as one of their national glories, this lustre, purely worldly, paled in comparison with the rays of holiness which surrounded the name of Todros.
The Todros were for generations considered by the whole Hebrew population of Bialorus and Lithuania as the most accomplished example and enduring pillar of orthodoxy. Was it really so? Here and there could be found scholarly Talmudists, who smiled when a question arose in regard to the Talmudistic orthodoxy of the Todros, and when they gathered together the name of Todros was sadly whispered about. But although the celebrated orthodoxy of the Todros was much discussed by these scholars, they were greatly in the minority—only a score among the masses of believers. The crowd believed, worshipped, and went to Szybow as to a holy place, to make obeisance and ask for advice, consolation, and medicines.
Szybow had not always possessed such an attractive power of orthodoxy; on the contrary, its founders were schismatics, representing in Israel the spirit of opposition and division, Karaites. In the times of yore they had converted to their belief the powerful inhabitants of the rich land on the shores of Chersoneses, and they became their kings. Afterwards, in accordance with the traditions of that reign, they wandered into the world with their legislative book, the Bible, double exiles, from Palestine and Crimea, and a small part of them, brought to Lithuania by the Grand Duke Witold, went as far as Bialorus and settled there in a group of houses and mud-hovels called Szybow.
In those times, on Friday and Saturday evenings, great tranquillity and darkness was spread through the town, because Karaites, contrary to the Talmudists, did not celebrate the holy day of Sabbath with an abundance of light and noisy joy and copious feasts, but they greeted it with darkness, silence, sadness, and meditation upon the downfall of the national temple, and the glory and might of the people of Israel. Then, from the blackest houses, from behind the small dark windows, there flowed into the quiet without the sound of singing; the parents were sadly telling their children of the prophets who, on the shores of the rivers in Babylon, broke their harps and cut their fingers so that none could force them to sing in captivity, of the blessed country of Havili, situated somewhere in the south of Arabia, where the ten tribes of Israel lived in liberty, happiness, and peace, not knowing quarrels or the use of the sword. They talked of the holy river, Sabbation, hiding the Israelitic wanderers from the eyes of their toes. In time, however, lights began to shine in the windows on Fridays, and then, little by little, they began to talk and pray aloud. Rabbinits arrived. The worshippers of Talmudistic authorities, representative of blind faith in oral traditions gathered and transmitted by Kohens, Tanaits, and Gaons, came and pushed aside the handful of heretics and wrecks. Under the influence of the newcomers the community of Karaites began to melt away. The last blow was struck at it by a man well-known in the history of Polish Hebrews—Michael Ezofowich, Senior.
He was the first of his name to emerge from obscurity. His family, settled in Poland for a long time, was one of these which, during the reign of Jagiellons, under the influence of privileges and laws in Poland promulgated by a (for that time) high civilisation, was united by sympathetic ties to the aboriginal population, and Ezofowich was appointed Senior over all the Hebrew population of Lithuania and Bialorus, by King Zygmunt the First, by a document which read thus:
"We, Zygmunt, by God's grace, etc., make known to all Jews living on the estate, our Fatherland, having taken into consideration the faithful services of the Jew, Michael Ezofowich, and wishing you in your affairs not to meet with any obstacles and delays, according to the laws of justice, we constitute, that Michael Ezofowich shall settle all your affairs for US, and be your superior, and you must come to US through him, and be obedient to him in everything. He will judge you and rule over you according to the custom of our law, and punish the guilty ones by OUR permission, everyone according to his merit."
From the few historical notes about him, it can be seen that the Senior was a man of strong and energetic will. With a firm hand he seized the authority given him over his co-religionists, and he threw an anathema over those who would not obey him, especially on the Karaites, excluding them from the Hebrew community, and refusing them the friendship and help of their tribe. Under such a blow the existence of the inhabitants of Szybow, already poor, sad, and inactive, was made altogether unbearable. The descendants of Hazairan rulers, heretics, constituting, as always, a great minority of the population, exposed to aversion and hatred, oppressed and poor, left the place which had given them shelter for a certain time, carrying with them in their hearts their stubborn attachment to the Bible, and on their lips their poetical legends. They scattered in the broad and hostile world, leaving behind them in that little town where they had lived two hundred years only a few families, cherishing still more passionately their old graveyards, the hill now covered with the ruins of their temple, which the conquering Rabbinits had destroyed. The Rabbinits took possession of Szybow, and, if the truth be told, they changed, by their energy, industry, perfect harmony of action, the result of unusual mutual help, the quiet, gray, poor, sad little village into a town full of activity, noise, care, and riches.
In those times, under the Senior's rule, the Jews in general were prosperous. Besides material prosperity, there began to live in them the hope of a possibility of rising from their mental ignorance and social humiliation. The Senior must surely have had a superior and keen mind, for he was able to thoroughly understand the spirit of the time and the needs of his people, notwithstanding the ancient barriers and prejudices. He rejected the Karaites from the bosom of Israel, not because of religious fanaticism but for broader social reasons. Although he was a Rabbinit, and obliged to give to the religious authorities absolute faith and worship, his mind was sometimes visited by fits of scepticism—perhaps the best road to wisdom. In one of his reports to the King, refuting some objections which had been made to his sentences, he wrote, sadly and ironically:
"Our different books give us different laws. Very often we know not what to do when Gamaliel differs from Eliezer. In Babylon is one truth—in Jerusalem another (two editions of the Talmud). We obey the second Moses (Majmonides) and the new ones call him heretic. I encourage the savants to write such wise books that the clever and stupid can understand them." It was at the time when the Occidental Israelites, settled in France and Spain, raised the question as to whether the professors of the Talmud and Bible should be permitted to acquire a knowledge of the lay sciences. Many opinions were considered, but none was strong enough to prevail, because the partisans of absolute separation from mental work and human tendencies constituted a great majority among the Israelites. Every society has such moments of darkness. It happens especially when a nation is exhausted by a series of successful efforts, after having undergone tortures, and enfeebled by the streams of blood poured out. The Occidental Jews, after centuries of existence in abject fear, wandering through fire and blood, passed such a moment in the sixteenth century. The time was still far distant which gave birth to famous doctors of secular sciences beloved of the people, esteemed by Kings. The high ideas of Majmonides who, giving deserved credit to the legislation of Israel, admired also the Greek scholars, were also far from the—they were even forgotten. Majmonides, who wished to base the knowledge of the Bible and Talmud on a foundation of mathematical and astronomical truths, and make it durable; who openly expressed the desire to shorten the twenty-five hundred sheets of the Talmud into one chapter, clear as the day; who did not justify religious beliefs which were contrary to commonsense, and claimed that "the eyes are placed in the front, and not in the rear of man's head, in order that he may look before him," and prophesied that the whole world would one day be filled with knowledge, as the sea is filled with water—such a man was despised. Four centuries had passed since the dignified, sweet, highly sympathetic figure of the Israelitic thinker had disappeared from the face of the earth. He was one of the greatest thinkers of the middle ages. The giant with the eagle eye and fiery heart had been succeeded by dwarfs, whose weak breasts were saturated with bitterness, and whose eyes looked on the world sadly, suspiciously, narrow-mindedly. "Keep away from Greek knowledge," Joseph Ezobi cried to his son, "because it is like the wine-garden of Sodom, pouring into man's head drunkenness and sin."
"The strangers are pushing into the Gates of Zion!" lamented Abba-Mari, when he learned that the Hebrew youths had begun to study with masters of other religions. And all the Rabbis and the Presidents of the Jewish communities in the West, ordered that no man under thirty years of age should study the lay sciences. "Because," said they, "he who has filled his mind with the Bible, and Talmud has the right to warm himself at the stranger's flame."
The bolder ones, while submitting to the decision of their superiors, cried, "Rabbi, how can we study lay sciences after our thirtieth year, when our minds will have become dulled and our memory tired, and we shall possess enthusiasm no longer and strength of youth."
The orders were obeyed. Their minds grew dull, tired memory fainted, and the strength and enthusiasm of youth left them. Majmonides, grave, silent, motionless, stood in the midst of the sea of darkness which covered the people who had been conducted by him toward the light. They cursed his memory, and a devastating hand rubbed off his tomb its grateful and glorious inscription, replacing it with stiff and cruel words, as fanatical as ignorant:
"Here lies Moses Majmonides, excommunicated heretic."
At the same time the same quarrels raged among the Hebrews settled in Poland, but being less tired by persecution, and because they were less tormented than their brothers in the West, and were freer and more sure of their privileges than their brothers in the West, their aversion to the 'stranger's flames' was less passionate. Nay, there was among them quite a numerous party which cried for secular sciences—for brotherhood with the rest of humanity in intellectual efforts and tendencies. One of these men who stood at the head of this party was the Lithuanian Senior, Ezofowich. Under his influence the Jewish Synod convocated in those times, issued a proclamation to all the Polish Jews. The principal paragraph of this was:
"Jehovah has numerous Sefirots, Adam has had numerous emanations of perfection. Therefore an Israelite must not be satisfied with one religious science only. Although it is a holy science the others must not on this account be neglected. The best fruit is a paradise apple, but shall we not eat less good apples? There were Jews in the courts of kings; Mordoheus was a savant, Esther was clever, Nehemias was a Persian counsellor, and they liberated the people from captivity. Study; be useful to the King and the nobles will respect you. The Jews are as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky; they do not shine like the stars, but everyone tramples on them as on the sand. The wind scatters the seeds of different trees, and none asks from where the most beautiful tree has its origin. Why, then, should there not rise among us a Cedar of Lebanon, instead of thorn-bushes?"
The man under whose inspiration the proclamation was written, calling the Polish Jews to turn their faces to where the light of the future was dawning, met, eye to eye, the man with his face set toward the past and darkness.
This man was a newcomer from Spain, and settled in Szybow. His name was Nehemias Todros, the descendant of the famous Todros Abulaffi Halevi who, famous for his Talmudistic learning and orthodoxy and knowledge, was afterwards carried away by the gloomy secrets of Kabalists, and helping it with his authority, was the cause of the most dreadful error among the Jews from which any nation can suffer. The tradition says that the same Nehemias Todros who had a princely title, Nassi, was the first to bring to Poland the book, Zohar, in which was explained the quintessence of the perilous doctrine, and from that day there comes from Poland the mixture of the Talmud with Kabalistic ideas which has influenced very badly the minds and the lives of the Polish Jews. History is silent regarding the quarrels and fights aroused by this innovation among the people who were in a fair way of emerging from the darkness which surrounded them, but the traditions, piously preserved in the families, tell, that in the fight, which lasted a long time and was very obstinate, between Michael Ezofowich, for a considerable period a Polish Jew, and Nehemias Todros, a Spanish newcomer, the first was vanquished. Consumed with grief caused by the sight of his people returning to the old false roads, crushed by intrigues set afoot against him by the gloomy adversary, he died in his prime. His name descended from generation to generation of Ezofowichs. They were all proud of his memory, although in time they understood less of its importance. From that time dated the great authority of the Todros and the gradual diminution of moral influence exerted by the Ezofowichs. The last ones being driven out by those fresh from the field of waste, social activity, they turned all their abilities in the direction of business, with the aim of increasing their material welfare. The navigable rivers were every year covered with vessels owned by them, and carrying to remote parts enormous quantities of merchandise. Their house, standing in the midst of the poor town, became more and more the centre of national riches and industry. To them, as to the modern Rothschilds, everyone went in need of gold to carry out their enterprises. The Ezofowichs were proud of their material might, and gave up entirely caring about the other—the might of spiritual influence and the fate of the people possessed by their grandfather, and of which they were robbed by Todros—by those Todros who, poor, almost beggars, living in the wretched little house which stood near the temple, disparaging everything which had the appearance of comfort and beauty, but who were, nevertheless, famous all over the country, and were enveloped in the pious dreams and hopes of their people. And only once during two centuries did one of the Ezofowichs attempt to lay hold of not only material—but also moral dignity. It happened toward the end of the last century. The great Four-Year Parliament was in session at Warsaw. The reports of its discussions reached even the small town in Bialorus. The people living there listened and waited. From lips to lips rushed the news of hope and fear—the Jews were under discussion at this Parliament!
What do they say about us? What do they write about us? the long—bearded passers-by asked each other, as they walked through the narrow streets of Szybow, dressed in long halats and big fur caps This curiosity increased each day to such an extent that it finally-extraordinary event—stopped the business transactions and money circulation. Some of them even undertook the long, difficult journey to Warsaw, in order to be near the source of news, and from there they sent their brethren who remained in the little town of Bialorus, long letters, rumpled and spotted newspapers, and leaves torn from different pamphlets, and books.
Of those who remained in the town, two men were most attentive and most impatient—Nohim Todros, Rabbi, and Hersh Ezofowich, rich merchant. There was a muffled, secret antipathy between them. Apparently they were on good terms, but at every opportunity there burst forth the antagonism which existed between the great-grandson of Michael the Senior, the disciple of Majmonides, and the descendant of Nehemias Todros, Kabalistic fanatic.
Finally there came from Warsaw to Szybow a crumpled sheet of paper, which had turned yellow during the journey, and on it were the following words:
"All differences in dress, language, and customs existing between the Jews and early inhabitants must be abolished. Leave alone everything concerning religion. Tolerate even the sects if they work no moral injury. Do not baptise a Jew before he is twenty years old. Give to the Jews the right to acquire land, and do not collect any taxes from those who will take agriculture for five years. Supply them with farm stock. Forbid marriages before the age of twenty for men and eighteen for women."
This sheet was carried about and read hundreds of times in the houses, streets and squares. It was waved as a flag of triumph or mourning, until it went to pieces in those thousands of unhappy, trembling hands. But the population of Szybow did not express its opinion of that news. A smaller part of it turned their questioning eyes toward Hersh; others, more numerous, looked inquiringly into the face of Reb Nohim.
Reb Nohim appeared on the threshold of his hut, and raising his thin hands above his gray head, as a sign of indignation and despair, he cried several times:
"Assybe! assybe! dajde!"
"Misfortune! misfortune! woe!" repeated after him, the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the temple.
But, in the same moment, Hersh Ezofowich standing at the door of the meeting house, put his white hand into the pocket of his satin halat, raised his head, covered with a costly beaver cap, and not less loudly than the Rabbi, but in a different voice, he called:
"Hoffnung! Hoffnung! Frieden!"
"Hope! Hope! Happiness!" repeated after him, timidly, his not very numerous followers, with a sidelong glance at the Rabbi. But the old Rabbi's hearing was good, and he heard the cry. His white beard shook, and his dark eyes flashed lightning in Hersh's direction.
"They will order us to shave our beards and wear short dresses!" he exclaimed, painfully and angrily.
"They will make our minds longer and broaden our hearts!" answered Hersh's sonorous voice.
"They will put us to the plough and order us to cultivate the country of exile!" shouted Rabbi Nohim.
"They will open for us the treasures of the earth, and they will order her to be our fatherland!" screamed Hersh.
"They will forbid us kosher," cried Rabbi.
"They will make of Israel a cedar tree instead of a hawthorn!" answered Hersh.
"Our son's faces will be covered with beards before they may marry!"
"When they take their wives, their minds and strength will be already developed."
"They will order us to warm ourselves at strange fireplaces, and drink from the wine-garden of Sodom."
"They will bring near to us the Jobel-ha-Gabel—the festival of joy, during which the lamb may eat beside the tiger."
"Hersh Ezofowich! Hersh Ezofowich! Through your mouth speaks the soul of your great-grandfather, who wished to lead all Jews to foreign fireplaces."
"Reb Nohim! Reb Nohim! Through your eyes looks the soul of your great-grandfather, who plunged all Jews into great darkness."
Deep silence reigned in the crowd as the two men, standing far from each other, spoke thus. Nohim's voice grew thinner and sharper; Hersh's resounded with stronger and deeper tones. The Rabbi's yellow cheeks became covered with brick-red spots—Ezofowich's face grew pale. The Rabbi shook his thin hands, rocking his figure backward and forward, scattering his silvery beard over both shoulders. The merchant stood erect and motionless, and in his green eyes shone an angry sneer.
A couple of thousand eyes gazed in turn on the two adversaries—leaders of the people—and a couple of thousand mouths quivered, but were silent.
Finally, the long, sharp piercing cry of Reb Nohim resounded in the courtyard of the temple.
"Assybe! assybe! dajde!" moaned the old man, sobbing and crushing his hands.
"Hoffnung! Hoffnung! Frieden!" joyfully exclaimed Hersh, raising his white hand.
The crowd was still silent and motionless for a while. Then the heads began to move like waves and lips to murmur like waters, and at once a couple of thousands of hands were lifted with a gesture of pain and distress, and from a couple of thousand throats came the powerful shout.
"Assybe! assybe! dajde!"
Reb Nohim was victorious!
Hersh looked around. His friends surrounded him closely. They were silent. They dropped their heads and cast timid looks on the ground.
Hersh smiled disdainfully, and when the crowd rushed to the temple, led by Reb Nohim continually shaking his yellow hands above his gray head, and while still before the threshold of the temple began the prayer habitually recited when some peril was imminent—when finally the brown walls of the temple resounded with the powerful sobbing cry, "Lord help thy people! Save from annihilation the sons of Israel!" The young merchant stood motionless, plunged in deep thought. Then he passed slowly down the square, and finally disappeared into a large house of fine outward appearance. It was the biggest and showiest house in the town, almost new, for it was built by Hersh himself, and shone with yellow walls and brilliant windows.
Hersh sat for a long time in a large, simply-furnished room. His look was gloomy. Then he raised his head and called:
In answer to this call the door of the adjoining room opened, and in the golden light of the fireplace appeared a slender young woman. On her head was a large white turban, and a white kerchief fell from her neck, ornamented with several strings of pearls. Her big, dark eyes shone brightly and like flame from her gentle, oval face. She paused opposite her husband, and questioned him with her eyes only.
Hersh motioned her to a chair, in which she sat immediately.
"Freida," he began, "have you heard of what happened in the town to-day?"
"Yes, I have heard," she answered softly. "My brother Joseph came to see me, and told me that you had quarrelled with Reb Nohim."
"He wishes to eat me up as his great-grandfather ate up my great-grand father."
Freida's dark eyes became filled with fear.
"Hersh!" she exclaimed, "you must not quarrel with him. He is a great and saintly man. All will be with him!"
"No," answered the husband, with a smile, "don't be afraid. Now other times are corning—he can't harm me. And as for me, I can't shut my mouth when my heart shouts within me that I must speak. I can no longer stand by to hear that man teaching that what is good is bad, and see the stupid people look into his eyes and shout, although they do not understand anything. No! And how can they understand? Has Todros ever taught them to distinguish good from evil, and separate that which was from that winch shall be?"
After a few moments of silence, Hersh continued:
"Have you forgotten what I told you about Michael the Senior?"
The woman folded her hands devoutly.
"Why should I forget it?" she asked. "You told me beautiful things of him."
"He was a great—a very great man. Todros ate him up. If that family had not eaten him up he would have accomplished great things for the Jews. But no matter about that. I will ask him what he wished to do. He will teach me, and I will do it!"
Freida grew pale.
"But how will you ask him?" she whispered in fear, "he is dead a long time ago."
A mysterious smile played about the merchant's thin lips.
"I know how. Sometimes God permits those who have died to talk with and teach their grandchildren, Freida," he continued, after another pause, "do you know what the Senior did when he saw that Todros would eat him up, and that he would die before the good times would come?"
"No, what did he do?"
"He shut himself up in a room, and he sat there without eating or drinking or sleeping, and—he only wrote. And what did he write? That nobody yet knows, because he hid what he had written, and when he felt that his end was near, he said to his sons: 'I have written down everything that I have known and felt, and what I intended to do; but I have hidden my writings from you, because now such times are at hand that all is useless for the present. The Todros rule, and they will rule for a long time, and they will do this that neither you, nor your sons, nor your grandsons will care to see my writing, and even were they to see it, they would tear it into pieces, and scatter it to the winds for annihilation, ant they would say that Michael the Senior was kofrim (heretic), and they would excommunicate him as they did the second Moses. But there will come a time when my great-grandson will wish for what I had written—to ask for guidance in his thoughts and actions in order to free the Jews from Todros' captivity, and to lead them to that sun from which the other nations receive the warmth. Thus, my great-grandson who desires to have my writings, will find the writings, and you have only to tell the eldest son of that family on your deathbed that it exists, and that there are many wise things written down. It must be thus from generation to generation. I command you thus. Remember to be obedient to this one, whose soul deserved to be immortal! (It was the teaching of Moses Majmonides, in regard to the immortality of the soul, that every man, according to the culture of his mind and moral perfection, could attain immortality, and that annihilation was the punishment for misdeeds)."
Hersh stopped speaking. Freida sat motionless looking into her husband's face with intense curiosity.
"Shall you search for that writing?" she asked softly.
"I shall search for it," said her husband, "and I shall find it, because I am that great-grandson of whom Michael Senior spoke when dying. I shall find that writing—you must help me to find it."
The woman stood erect, beaming with joy.
"Hersh, you are a good man!" she exclaimed. "You are kind to associate me, a woman, with such an important affair and great thoughts."
"Why should I not do it? Are you a bad housekeeper or a bad mother? You do everything well, and your soul is as beautiful as your eyes."
The white face of the young Hebrew woman became scarlet. She dropped her eyes, but her coral-like lips whispered some words of love and gratitude.
"Where shall we search for the writing?" said he thoughtfully.
"Where?" repeated the woman.
"Freida," said the husband, "Michael the Senior could not have hidden his writing in the earth, for he knew that there the worms would eat it, or that it would turn to dust. Is this writing in the earth?"
"No," answered the woman, "it is not there."
"He could not have hidden it in the wails of the house, for he knew that they would rot, and that they would be destroyed, and new ones built. These walls I have built myself, and I carefully searched the old ones, but there was no writing."
"There was not," repeated Freida sorrowfully.
"He could not have hidden it in the roof, because he knew it would not be safe there. When I was born there was perhaps the tenth roof built over our house, but it seems to me that the writing could not have been there. Where is it?"
Both were thoughtful. All at once, after a while, the woman exclaimed:
"Hersh, I know where the writing is!"
Her husband raised his head. His wife was pointing to the large library filled with books, which stood in a corner of the room.
"There?" said Hersh, hesitatingly.
"There," repeated the woman, with conviction. "Have you not told me that these are Michael Senior's books, and that all the Ezofowichs have preserved them, but no one has read them because Todros would not permit the reading of books."
Hersh passed his hand over his forehead, and the woman spoke further.
"Michael the Senior was a wise man, and he saw the future. He knew that for a long time no one would read those books, and that only the one who would read them would be that great-grandson who would find his writings."
"Freida, Freida," exclaimed Hersh, "you are a wise woman!"
She modestly dropped her dark eyes.
"Hersh, I am going to see why the baby is crying. I will give the servants their orders, and have them keep the fire, then I will come here and aid you in your work."
"Come!" said her husband, and when she had gone to the room from which came the sounds of children's voices, he said to himself:
"A wise woman is more precious than gold and pearls. Besides, her husband's heart is quiet."
After a while she returned, locked the door, and asked softly:
"Where is the key?"
Hersh found the key of his great-grandfather's library, and they began to take down the large books. They placed them on the floor, and having seated themselves, they began to turn slowly one leaf after the other. Clouds of dust rose from the piles of paper, which had remained untouched for centuries. The dust settled on Freida's snow-white turban in a gray layer, and covered also Hersh's golden hair. But they worked on indefatigably and with such a solemn expression on their faces that one would think that they were uncovering the grave of their great-grandfather in order to take therefrom his grand thoughts.
Evening was already approaching when Hersh exclaimed as people exclaim when they meet with victory and bliss. Freida said nothing, but she rose slowly and extended her hands above her head in a movement of gratitude.
Then Hersh prayed fervently near the window, through which could be seen the first stars appearing in the sky. During the whole night there was a light in that window, and seated at the table, his head resting on both hands, was Hersh, reading from large yellowish sheets of paper. At the break of day, when the eastern part of the sky had hardly begun to burn with pinkish light, he went out, dressed himself in a travelling mantle and large beaver cap, got into a carriage, and drove away. He was so deeply plunged in thought that he did not even bid good-bye to his children and servants, who crowded the hall of the house. He only nodded to Freida, who stood on the piazza, with the white turban on her head turning pink in the light of the dawn. Her eyes, which followed her husband, were filled with sadness and pride.
Where had Hersh gone? Beyond mountains, forests, and rivers, to a remote part of the country where, amidst swampy plains and black forests of Pinseyzna lived an eloquent partisan of the rights to civilisation of the Polish Jews, Butrymowicz. He was a karmaszym—(the higher, or rather richer, class of nobility in Poland were called by that name, which means a certain shade of red, because their national costumes were of that colour)—and a thinker. He saw clearly and far. He was familiar with the necessities of the century.
When Hersh was introduced into the mansion of the nobleman and admitted to the presence of the great and wise member of parliament, he bowed profoundly, and began to speak thus:
"I am Hersh Ezofowich, a merchant from Szybow, and the great-grandson of Michael Ezofowich, who was superior over all the Jews, and was called Senior by the command of the king himself. I come here from afar. And why do I come? Because I wished to see the great member of the Diet, and talk with the famous author. The light with which his figure shines is so great that it made me blind. As a weak plant twines around the branch of a great oak, so I desire to twine my thoughts about yours, that they shall over-arch the people like the rainbow, and there shall be no more quarrels and darkness in this world."
When the great man answered encouragingly to this preface, Hersh continued:
"Serene lord, you have said that there must be an agreement between two nations, who, living on the same soil, are in continual conflict."
"Yes. I said so," answered the deputy.
"Serene lord, you said that the Jew ought to be equal in everything with the Christians, and in that way they would be no longer noxious."
"I said it."
"Serene lord, yon have said that you consider the Jews as Polish citizens, and that it is necessary that they should send their children to the secular schools. They should have the right to purchase the land, and that among them certain things, which are neither good nor sensible, should be abolished."
"I said it," again affirmed the deputy.
Then the tall, stately figure of the Jew, with its proud head and intelligent look, bent swiftly, and before the deputy could resist Hersh had pressed his hand to his lips.
"I am a newcomer in this country," said he softly. "Younger brother—"
Then he drew himself up and pulled from the pocket of his halat a roll of yellowish papers.
"That which I have brought here," he said, "is more precious to me than gold, pearls, and diamonds."
"What is it?" asked the deputy.
Hersh answered in a solemn voice:
"It is the will of my ancestor, Michael Ezofowich, the Senior."
They both sat reading through the whole night by the light of two small wax candles. Then they began to talk. They spoke softly, with heads bent together and burning faces. Then toward day-break they rose, and simultaneously each stretched out and shook the hands of the other cordially.
What did they read the whole night, and of what were they talking? What sentiment of enthusiasm and hope united their hands as a sign of a pact? Nobody ever learned. It is sunk in the dark night of historical secrets, with many other desires and thoughts. Adversities plunged it there. It was hidden, but not lost. Sometimes we ask ourselves whence come the lightnings of those thoughts and desires which nobody has known before? And we do not know that their sources are the moments not written on the pages of the history by any writer.
The next day a coach driven by six horses stopped before time house of the nobleman. The noble, with his Jewish guest, got in, and together they went to the capital of the country.
A couple of months afterwards Hersh returned from Warsaw to Szybow. He was very active in the town and its environments, he spoke, explained, persuaded, trying to gain partisans for the changes which were in preparation for his people. Then he went away again, and again he returned—and went away. This lasted a couple of years.
When Hersh returned from Ins last journey he was very much changed. His looks were sad, and his forehead was lined with sorrow. He entered the house, sat on the bench, and began to pant heavily. Freida stood before him, sorrowful and uneasy, but quiet and patient. She did not dare to ask. She waited for her husband's words and look. Finally he looked at her sadly, and said:
"Everything is lost!"
"Why lost?" whispered Freida.
Hersh made a gesture, indicative of the downfall of something grand.
"When a building falls," he said, "the beams fall on the heads of those who are within, and the dust fills their eyes."
"It is true," affirmed the woman.
"A great building is in the mire. The beams have fallen on all the great problems and our great works, and the dust covers them—for a long time."
Then he rose, looked at Freida with eyes full of big tears, and said:
"We must hide the Senior's testament, because it will be useless again. Come, let us hide it carefully. If some great-grandson of ours will wish to get it, he will find it the same as we did."
From that day Hersh grew perceptibly older. His eyes dulled, and his hack grew bent. He sat for hours on the bench, sighing deeply, and repeating:
"Assybe! assybe! assybe! dajde!" (Misfortune! Misfortune! Woe!)
Around this sad man moved softly and solicitously a slender woman dressed in a flowing gown and white turban. Her dark eyes often filled with tears, and her steps were so careful and quiet that even the pearls which ornamented her neck never made the slightest noise, and did not interrupt her husband's thoughtfulness.
Sometimes Freida looked sadly at her husband. His sadness made her sad also, but she did not clearly understand it. Why was he sorrowful? His riches did not diminish, the children grew healthy, and everything was as before that quarrel with Reb Nohim and the finding of those old papers. The loving and wise woman, whose whole world was contained between the four walls of her home, could not understand that her husband's spirit was carried into the sphere of broad ideas—that it was fond of the fiery world, and being driven out of it by the strength of events, could not be cured of its longing. She did not know that in this world there were griefs and longings which had no connection with either parents or with children, or with wife or with wealth, or with one's house, and that such griefs and longings of the human spirit are the most difficult to cure.
Todros was rejoicing, and he called his flock to rejoice with him, who believed in his wisdom and sanctity. He triumphed, but he desired to triumph still further. To destroy the Ezofowichs would mean to destroy the stream which flowed into the future, striving with that other stream which strove to congeal into ice—into the petrification of the past. Who knows what may happen in the future? Who knows but that that cursed family may not give rise to a man strong enough to destroy the centuries of work achieved by the Todros. If events had taken another turn, Hersh, with the aid of his friend Edomits, would already have accomplished this!
As in times of yore, his ancestor Michael was accused, so now Hersh was assailed with reproaches of all kinds. In the synagogue they shouted at him that he did not observe the Sabbath, that he was friendly with gojs (any man who does not follow Judaism is a goj), and that he sat at their tables and ate meat which is not kosher. That in contentious affairs he avoided Jewish courts, and went to the tribunals of the country; that he did not obey the superiors of kahal, and he even dared to criticise them that he did not respect Jewish authorities in general, and Reb Nohim in particular.
Hersh defended himself proudly, refuting some of the objections and acknowledging some of the others, but justifying them by reasons, which, however, were not recognised as being right, either by his people or his superiors.
This lasted quite a long time, but finally it stopped. The accusations were discontinued, and intrigues ceased, because the object of these attacks became himself silent, and morally disappeared. Grown prematurely old, and tired of lights, Hersh shut himself up in the circle of private life, and occupied himself with business transactions, These, however, did not go as smoothly as did those of others, because he did not possess—as did others—the sympathy of his brethren. What he felt, and about what he thought, in those last years of his life, no one knew, for he told no one anything. Only before his death he had a long conversation with his wife.
The children were too small to be entrusted with the secret of his disappointed desires, wasted efforts, and smothered griefs. He left these as a legacy to his children through his wife. Did Freida understand and remember the words of her dying husband? Was she willing, and was she able, to remember them, and repeat them to his descendants? It is not known. Only this is certain—that only she knew the place where the Senior's will was hidden—the old writings which were the heritage not only of the Ezofowich family but of the whole Israelitic nation—a neglected and forgotten heritage, but in which—who knows!—were treasures a hundredfold richer than those which filled the chests of that wealthy family.
Therefore the Senior's last thoughts and wishes slept in some hiding-place, waiting for a bold descendant who would be courageous enough to bring them into life. But in the meantime there remained in the town not one soul longing for the light—not one heart which throbbed for something more than his own wife, his own children, and before all, his own riches.
There was plenty of noise arising from the care and haste whose only aim was to gain money; there was darkness because of mystic fears and dreams there was narrowness and suffocating because of merciless, grinding, dead orthodoxy.
The common people of the same faith throughout the whole country considered the people of Szybow as powerful, both materially and morally, wise, orthodox, almost holy.
Over the whole deep-sunk social valley hung a cloud. This cloud was composed of the darkest elements which exist in human kind, which are: respect for the letter from which the spirit has departed, dense ignorance, suspicious and hateful defence of self against everything which flows from broad, sunny, but 'foreign' worlds.
It happened three years ago.
Damp fog was rising from the muddy streets of the town and made dark the transparency of a starry evening. A breath of March wind mingled with the odour of freshly ploughed fields, flew over low roofs, but could not drive out the suffocating exhalations coming in clouds from the doors and windows of the houses.
Notwithstanding the mists and exhalations which filled it, the town had a gay and festive appearance. From behind gray curtains thousands of windows shone with bright illuminations, and from lighted houses came the sounds of noisy conversation or collective prayers. Whoever passed through the streets and looked into this or that window of this or that house, would see all around bright family scenes. In the centre of larger or smaller rooms were long tables, covered with white cloths, and all prepared for a feast. Around them bustled women in variegated dresses, carrying and leaving contributions with a smile on their faces, and admiring their own work in the decoration of the tables. Bearded husbands, holding their children in their arms, pressed their lips to the pink cheeks, or kissed the on the mouth with a loud smack. They tossed them up to the low ceilings, to the great mirth of the older members of the family. Others sat in groups on benches and talked of affairs of the past week. Others still, covered with the folds of their white talliths, stood motionless, facing the walls, rocking their figures back and forward. These were preparing themselves by fervent prayer to meet the holy Sabbath day.
For it was Friday evening.
In the whole town there was but one house in which reigned darkness, emptiness, and sadness. It was a little gray hut which seemed to have been clapped on to a small hill at the other end of the town—it was the only elevation on the waste plain. And even this hill was not natural. Tradition said that it was made by Karaites, who built it on their temple. Today there remained no traces of that temple. The bare, sandy hill, protected the little hut from the winds and snow storms, and the hut humbly and gratefully nestled in its shelter. Over its roof, on the side of the hill, grew a large pear tree. Through its branches the wind rushed sweetly—over it shone a few stars. A large, cultivated field separated this spot from the town. A deep quiet reigned here, interrupted only by muffled echoes of the remote noise of the town. Over the black beds thick clouds of steam and mist, coming from the streets of the town, crept toward the hut.
The interior of the hut was dark as a precipice, and from behind its small windows resounded the trembling but vigorous voice of a man:
"Beyond far seas, beyond high mountains,"—spoke this voice amidst the darkness—"the river Sabbation flows. But it flows not with water, nor with milk and honey, but with yellow gravel and big stones."
The hoarse, trembling voice became silent, and in the dark room, seen from behind two small windows, there was deep silence for a while. This time it was interrupted by quite different sounds.
"Zeide! speak further."
These words were spoken in the voice of a girl—almost childish, but languid and dreamy.
Zeide (grandfather) asked, "Are they not coming yet?"
"I don't hear them," answered the girl.
In the dark room the hoarse trembling narrative began again:
"Beyond the holy river of Sabbation there live four Israelitic tribes; Gad, Assur, Dan and Naphtali. These tribes escaped there from great fears and oppressions, and Jehovah—may His holy name be blessed—has hidden them from their enemies, beyond the river of gravel and stones. And this gravel rises high as the waves of the sea and the stones are roaring and rushing like a big forest when it is shaken by a storm. And when the day of Sabbath comes—"
Here the old voice stopped suddenly, and after a while he asked softly:
"Are they not yet coming?"
There was no answer for a long time. It seemed as though the other was listening before replying.
"They are coming," she said finally.
In the dark interior was heard a long, muffled moaning.
"Zeide! speak further," said the girl's voice, sonorous and pure as before, only less childish—stronger this time.
Zeide did not speak any more.
From the direction of the town rushed, approaching the hut, a strange noise. This was caused by numerous human feet, by piercing exclamations and silvery laughter of the children. Soon in the distance appeared a big moving spot rolling on the surface of the fields. Soon the spot neared the hut, scattered into several groups and with irresistible shouting, screaming, laughing, rushed toward the bent walls and low windows of the hut.
They were children—boys of various ages. The oldest amongst them was perhaps fourteen years and the youngest five. It was difficult to see their dresses in the darkness, but from beneath their caps and long curls of hair, their eyes shone with the passionate fire of mischief and perhaps some other excited sentiment.
"Guten abend! karaime!" shouted at once the rabble, kicking at the locked door with their feet, and shaking the frames of the windows.
"Why don't you show some light on the Sabbath? Why are you sitting in a black hole like the devil? Kofrim, uberwerfer!" (You unbeliever! heretic!) shouted the older ones.
"Aliejdyk giejer! oreman! mishugener!" (rascal, beggar, mad-man!) howled the young ones at the top of their voices.
The insults, laughter, and shaking of the door and windows increased every moment, when from within the hut resounded the girl's voice, quiet and sonorous as before, but so strong that it pierced the noise—"Zeide! speak further!"
"Aj! aj! aj!" answered the old voice, "how can I speak when they shout so loudly."
"Zeide! speak further!"
This time the girl's voice sounded almost imperatively. It was no longer childish. In it could be heard grief, contempt and struggle for the preservation of peace.
As sad singing is blended with the noise of stormy elements, so with the wild noise of the mob of children, insulting, mewing, howling, and laughing, the sobbing words were mingled.
"And during the day of Sabbath, Jehovah—may His name be blessed—gives rest to the holy river of Sabbation. The gravel ceases to flow, the big waves of stones do not roar like the forest—only from the river, which lies quiet and does not move, a thick mist rises—so great that it reaches the high clouds, and hides again from the enemies, the four tribes of Israel: Gad, Assur, Dan and Naphtali."
Alas! around the hut with bent walls and dark interior, the holy river of Sabbation did not flow; neither did high waves or gravel nor thick mists hide its inhabitants from the enemies.
These foes were small, but they were numerous. By a last effort of mischievous frolic several of them pulled at the frames of the windows so strongly that several panes broke. A shout of joy sounded far over the field. Through the openings the interior of the hut became strewn with small clods of earth and stones. The old voice, from the most remote part of the room, trembling, and still more hoarse, cried:
"Aj! Aj! Aj! Jehovah! Jehovah!"
The girl's voice, always sonorous, repeated:
"Zeide, keep quiet! Zeide, don't shout! Zeide, don't be afraid!"
All at once, from behind the crowd of children, someone exclaimed threateningly and imperatively:
"Shtyl Bube! What are you doing here, you rascals? Get out!"
The children at once became silent. The man who caused the tranquillity by his loud voice was tall and well built. His long dress was lined with fur. His face looked pale in the dusk, and his eyes shone as only young eyes can shine.
"What are you doing here?" he repeated, in an angry and decided voice. "Do you think that this house is inhabited by wolves, and that you can howl at them and break the windows?"
The boys, gathered in one compact body, were silent. After a while, however, one of them, the tallest, and evidently the boldest, said:
"Why do they not show some light on Sabbath?"
"That's none of your business," said the man.
"No! That's none of yours either," said the stubborn boy. "We come here every week and do the same—what then?"
"I know that you do the same every week. Therefore I watched to catch you here . . . now go home! quick!"
"And you, Meir, why don't you go yourself to your house? Your bobe and your zeide are eating the fish without you. Why do you drive us from here, and not observe the Sabbath yourself?"
The eyes of the young man became more fiery. He stamped the earth with his foot and shouted so angrily that the younger children dispersed immediately, and only the oldest boy, as though he would have revenge for the scolding, seized a clod of earth and wished to throw it into the little house.
But two strong hands seized him by the arms and the collar.
"Come," said the young man, "I will take you back home."
The boy shouted, and tried to escape. But the strong arm held him fast, and a quiet voice ordered him to be silent. He obeyed, dropping his head.
Around the hut it was now deep dusk. From the dark interior came the sound of heavy, hoarse sighing as from some very old breast, and near the broken window sounded the girl's voice:
"Rest in peace," answered the young man, and went off, leading the little prisoner.
They passed silently through a few streets, and went toward a house situated at the square.
The house was low and long, with a piazza, and a long corridor ran through the whole building. All this announced an inn. The windows in the part of the house assigned to guests were dark. In the others, situated opposite the piazza, and not higher than half-an-ell from the ground, which was covered with straw and hay and all kinds of rubbish, the lights of Sabbath shone forth from behind the dirty panes.
The young man, still leading the boy—who, as it seems, was not only not afflicted by his situation, but was jumping joyfully—passed the rubbish-covered ground, entered the deep corridor, where in the darkness some horse was stamping with his feet, and, groping, found the door Having half-opened it, he pushed the youngster into the room. Then he put his head in the door and said:
"Reb Jankiel, I have brought you Mendel. Scold him or punish him. He roams in the darkness around the town, and attacks innocent people."
This speech, delivered in a loud voice, remained without an answer. Only the continual and fervent murmuring of a prayer came from the interior of the room. Through the door, which still remained half-opened, could be seen the whole long room, with very dirty walls, and enormous stove, which was black with the dust. In the centre of the room was a table covered with a cloth of doubtful cleanliness, but lighted with a copious blaze of light from seven candles burning in a great branched candlestick hanging from the ceiling. The Sabbath feast had not yet begun, and although from the remote part of the house could be heard the voices of women and children, announcing that the family was numerous, there was only one man, his face turned toward the wall, in the room where stood the table ready for the Sabbath supper. This man was of medium size, and very thin and supple. It is not exact to say that he was standing, because that does not express the position of his figure, but, just the same, it would be hard to find another expression. He was neither walking nor jumping, but, nevertheless, he was in continual and violent motion. He threw his head—which was covered with red hair—backward and forward with great rapidity. With these swift movements, the sounds which came from his mouth were in perfect harmony; for he was murmuring, then shouting passionately, then pouring forth long plaintive songs.
The young man standing on the threshold looked for a long time at that figure, praying with all its soul, or, rather, with all its body. Evidently he was waiting for an interruption in the prayer. But it was known that the one who wished to see the end of Reb Jankiel's prayers would have to wait for some time. Apparently the young man was anxious to settle the mischief of the little Mendel quickly.
"Reb Jankiel," he said aloud, after quite a long time, "your son wanders about during the night and assaults innocent people!"
There was no answer.
"Reb Jankiel, your son insults people with bad words!"
Reb Jankiel continued to pray with the same fervour.
"Reb Jankiel, your son breaks the windows of poor people!"
Reb Jankiel turned a few leaves of a large book which he held in both hands, and sang triumphantly:
"Sing to the Lord a new song, because he has created all marvels! Sing! Play, play with a loud singing! Sound the trumpets and horns before the King, Lord!"
The last words were accompanied by the closing of the door. The young man left the long dark corridor, wading once more through the rubbish. When he passed the last lighted window he heard the sound of soft singing. He stopped, and anyone would have done the same, for the voice was pure, young and soft as a murmuring of a complaint, full of prayer, sadness and longing. It was a man's voice.
"Eliezer!" whispered the passer-by, and stopped at the low window.
These windows had far cleaner panes than the others. Through them could be seen a small room, in which was only a bed, a table, a few chairs, and a library full of books. On the table burned a tallow candle, and at the table sat a young man holding his head between the palms of his hands. He was about twenty years old, and his face was white, and of a delicate oval shape. From his fresh lips came the beautiful singing which would have attracted the attention of a great master of music.
And no wonder. Eliezer, Jankiel's son, was the cantor of the community of Szybow—the singer of people and Jehovah.
"Eliezer!" was repeated from behind the window in a soft, friendly whisper.
The singer must have heard the whisper, for he sat near the window. He raised his eyes, and turned them toward the pane. They were blue, meek, and sad. But he did not interrupt his singing. On the contrary, he lifted his hands, white as alabastar, and in that ecstatic position, with an enthusiastic expression on his face, he sang still louder:
"My people, cast from thee the dust of heavy roads. Rise, and take the robe of thy beauty. Hasten, ah hasten, with help to your people, the Only, Incomprehensible! God of our fathers."
The young man at the window did not call any more to the singer praying for his people. He went off, stepping softly in careful respect, and walking through the dark, empty place toward the large house ablaze with lights; he looked at the few stars shining with their pale light through the fog, and he softly hummed, plunged in deep thankfulness:
"Hasten! ah, hasten! with help to your people the Only, Incomprehensible! God of our fathers!"
The large house, blazing with light, which stood opposite the temple, separated from it by the whole width of the square, was the same house built by Hersh Ezofowich, in which he lived with his beautiful wife Freida. Its hundred year old walls had become black from the rains and dust, but the house stood straight, and by its height dominated all other dwelling-places in the town.
For the past hour the celebration of the Sabbath day had begun in the large room filled with old furniture.
There were numerous people of both sexes present, and others were coming. Saul Ezofowich, Hersh's son, the host of the house and chief of the family, rose and approached the big table, above which hung two heavy seven-branched candelabra of solid silver. The old man—whose bent, but strong figure, wrinkled face, and snow-white beard, proclaimed that he was over eighty—took from the hand of the eldest son—himself a gray-headed man—a long candle, and, raising it toward the other candles in the candelabra, exclaimed, in a voice strong, but aged:
"Be blessed God, Lord of the world, Thou who hast lighted us with Thy commandments, and ordered us to light the lights on the day of Sabbath."
As soon as he said these words, the numerous candles were lighted in the candelabra, and everyone present in the room exclaimed:
"Let us go! Let us meet the bride! Let us meet her with greeting on the day of Sabbath! Burn! burn! light of the King! Capital, rise from the mire! Thou hast lived long enough in the valley of tears!"
"My people, shake from thee the dust of heavy roads. Take on the robe of thy beauty. Hasten! ah, hasten! with help to Thy people! God of our fathers!"
"Let us go! Let us go to meet the bride! Let us greet her with the greeting of the song of the Sabbath!"
Loud singing, and the sound of fervent prayers following each other, filled the large room, and sounded far out on the large empty square. The young man, passing the square thoughtfully, heard it, and hastened his steps. When, after having passed the piazza and the long narrow corridor dividing the house in two parts, opened the door to the room filled with lights, the prayers had already changed to conversation, and the gathered company, with traces of solemnity in their faces, but yet mingled with joyful smiles, was standing around the table spread with abundant viands.
The company was composed of different faces and figures. There were two of Saul's sons living with the father; Raphael and Abraham, already gray, dark-eyed, with severe and thoughtful faces. Then Saul's son-in-law, light-haired, pale, with soft eyes—Ber. There were also daughters, sons, and grandchildren of the host of the house; matured women, with stately figures and high caps on carefully-combed wigs; or young girls, with swarthy complexions and thick tresses, their young eyes, brightened by the feast, shone like live coals.
Several young men belonging to the family, and numerous children of different ages, gathered at the other end of the table. Saul stood at the head of it, looking at the door leading to the other rooms of the house, as though he were waiting. After a while, two women appeared in the doorway. One of them gleamed with rainbow-like, almost dazzling light. She was very, very old, but still erect, and looked strong. Her head was surmounted by a turban of bright colours, fastened with an enormous buckle of diamonds. Around her neck she wore a necklace composed of several strands of big pearls which fell on her breast, also fastened with diamonds. She wore a silk dress of bright colours. She also had diamond earrings, which were so long that they reached her shoulders, and so heavy that it was necessary to support them with threads attached to the turban; they gleamed with the dazzling light of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, and at every movement they rustled, striking the pearls and a heavy gold chain beneath them.
This hundred-year-old woman, dressed in all the riches accumulated for centuries, was, it seemed, a relic of the family, much respected by all these people. When, led by her grand-daughter—a girl with a swarthy face and dark hair—she stopped on the threshold of the room, all eyes turned toward her, and all mouths smiled and whispered:
"Bobe! Elte Bobe!" (Grandmother! Great-grandmother!)
The majority of those present said the last words, because there were present more great-grandchildren than grandchildren. Only the host of the house, and the head of the whole family, said to the woman softly:
This word, suitable for little children, sounded strangely, softly, and solemnly from the withered, yellow lips of Saul, moving from the midst of his milk-white beard. While pronouncing that word, his wrinkled forehead, surmounted by equally white hair beneath a velvet skull-cap, became smooth.
But where were Freida's beautiful face, dark, fiery eyes, and slender figure? How changed was the quiet, industrious, intelligent wife and confidant of Hersh Ezofowich! She had outlived all her charms, as she had outlived her husband, lord and friend. With time, her delicate, slender figure increased in size, and took on the shape of the trunk of a tree, from which sprang many strong, fruit-bearing branches. Her face was now covered with such a quantity of fine wrinkles that it was impossible to find one smooth place. Her eyes were sunken, and had grown small, looking from beneath the bar of eyelashes with a pale, faded glow. But on her face, crumpled though it was by the hand of time, there was a sweet and imperturbable peace. The small eyes looked about with smiling tranquillity of the spirit, lulled to sleep by agreeable whispering, and the sweet smile of slumber surrounded her yellow, hardly perceptible lips, which for a long time had grown silent, opening more and more seldom for the pronunciation of shorter and shorter sentences. Now, having placed her arm about the neck of the pretty, young and strong girl by whose side she stood at the family table, and having looked on the faces of all present there, she whispered:
"Wo ist Meir?"
It was the great-grandmother who spoke, and at her words the whole assembly recoiled, as from the blow of a sudden gust of wind. Men, women, and children looked at each other, and through the room resounded the whisper:
"Wo ist Meir?"
Owing to the largeness of the family his absence had not been noticed. Old Saul did not repeat his mother's question, but his forehead frowned still more, and his eye was fixed on the door with a severe, almost angry expression.
At that moment the door opened and a tall, well-proportioned young man entered. His long dress was trimmed with costly fur. He closed the door after him and stood near it, as though shy or ashamed. He noticed that he was too late and that the common family prayers had been recited without him, that the eyes of his grandfather Saul, of two uncles and several women relatives were looking at him severely and inquisitively. Only the grandmother's golden eyes did not look at him angrily. On the contrary, they dilated and shone with joy. Her wrinkled eyelids ceased to tremble, and the thin lips moved and pronounced with the same soundless whisper as before:
"Ejnyklchen! Kleineskind!" (Grandson! Child!) When Saul heard that voice, resounding with joy and tenderness, he shut his lips, already opened to pronounce severe words of reproach and questioning. Both his sons dropped their eyes angrily to the table. The newcomer was greeted only by a general silence which, however, was interrupted by the great-grandmother repeating once more:
Saul stretched his hands over the table, and in a half-voice suggested the subject of a prayer to be recited before the Sabbath feast.
"The Lord may be blessed," began he.
"Blessed be," resounded in the room in a muffled whisper.
For a time they all stood around the table, blessing by the prayer the viands and drinks spread upon it.
The young man did not join the general choir, but, having retreated to a remote corner of the room, he recited the Kiddish prayers omitted by him. While praying he did not move his figure. He crossed his hands on his chest, and fixed his eyes steadily on the window, behind which was complete darkness.
His delicate oval face was pale—the sign of a nervous and passionate disposition. His abundant dark, flowing hair, which had shades of gold in it, was scattered on his white forehead. His deeply set, large gray eyes gazed thoughtfully and a little sadly. In the whole expression of the young man's face there were mingled characteristics of deep sadness and childish bashfulness. His forehead and eyes betrayed some painful thought, but the thin lips had lines of tenderness, and they quivered from time to time as though under the influence of some fear. His upper up and cheeks were covered with golden down, indicating that the young man might be nineteen or twenty years old. It was the age at which the Hebrew men ripened and were not only allowed, but obliged to look after their family and other affairs.
When the young man had finished the prayers and approached the table to take his place, there was heard a voice from among those present, enouncing the words in such a way that they seemed sung:
"Meir, where have you been for such a long time? What were you doing in the town after the Sabbath had begun, and no one is allowed to work any longer? Why did you not celebrate Kiddish with your family to-day? Why is your forehead pale and your eyes sad, when to-day is the joyful Sabbath? In heaven the whole celestial family rejoices, and on earth all pious people should keep their souls mirthful."
All this was said by a strange-looking man. He was rather small and thin; he had a large head covered with thick, coarse hair. His face was swarthy and round, covered with abundant hair, which formed a long, coarse beard. His round eyes cast sharp glances from beneath their thick eyelids. The thinness of the man was increased by a strange dress—more strange than the man himself. It was a very simple costume, consisting of a bag made of rough gray linen, girded around the neck and waist with a hemp rope, and falling to the ground it covered his bare feet.
Who was the man in the dress of an ascetic, with fanatical eyes, with lips full of mystic, deep, almost intoxicated joyfulness?
It was Reb Moshe, melamed or teacher of religion and the Hebrew language. He was pious-perfect. No matter what the weather—wind, rain, cold, and heat—he always went barefooted, dressed in a bag made of rough linen. He lived as do the birds—nobody knew how—probably on some grain scattered here and there. He was the right hand and the right eye of the Rabbi of Szybow, Isaak Todros, and after the Rabbi he was the next object of reverence and admiration of the whole community.
Hearing those words pouring tumultuously from the melamed's mouth and directed towards himself, Meir Ezofowich, great-grandson of Hersh and the grandson of old Saul, did not sit at the table, but with eyes cast on the ground, and a voice muffled by timidity, he answered:
"Reb! I was not there where they are joyful and do good business. I was there where there is sorrow and where poor people sit in darkness and weep."
"Nu!" exclaimed the melamed, "and where today could there be sadness. To-day is Sabbath. Everywhere it is bright and joyful. . . . Where, today, could it be dark?"
A few older members of the family raised their heads and repeated the question:
"Where to-day could there be darkness?"
And then again they asked him:
"Meir, where have you been?"
Meir did not answer. His face expressed timidity and inward hesitation. At that moment one of the girls—the same who had introduced the old grand mother—the girl with the swarthy face and dark, frolicsome eyes, exclaimed mirthfully, clapping her hands:
"I know where it is dark to-day!"
All looks were directed toward her, and all lips asked:
Under the influence of the attracted attention, Lija blushed, and answered softly, with a certain amount of bashfulness:
"In the hut of Abel Karaim, standing on the hill of the Karaites."
"Meir, have you visited Karaites?"
The question was asked by several voices, dominated by the sharp, whining voice of the melamed.
On the bashful young man's face there appeared an expression of angry and sullen irritation.
"I did not visit them," he answered, more loudly than before, "but I defended them from an attack."
"From an attack? What attack? Who attacked them?" asked the melamed mockingly.
This time Meir raised his eyelids and his shining eyes looked sharply into the eyes of his questioner.
"Reb Moshe," he exclaimed, "you know who attacked them. They were your pupils—they do the same every Friday. And why should they not do it, knowing—"
He stopped and again dropped his eyes. Fear and anger were fighting within him.
"Nu, what do they know? Meir, why did you not finish? What do they know?" laughed Reb Moshe.
"They know that you, Reb Moshe, will praise them for so doing."
The melamed rose from his chair, his shining eyes opened widely. He stretched out his dark, thin hand, as though to-say something, but the strong and already sonorous voice of the young man did not permit to do it.
"Reb Moshe," said Meir, bending his head slightly before the melamed—which he did, evidently not very willingly—"Reb Moshe, I respect you—you taught me. I do not ask you why you do not forbid your pupils to attack these poor people living in darkness—but I cannot look at such injustice My heart aches when I see them, because I believe that from such bad children will grow bad men, and if they now shake the poor hut of an old man, and throw stones through the windows, afterward they will set fire to the houses and kill the people! To-day they would have destroyed that poor hut and killed the people if I had not prevented them."
As he said the last words, he took his place at the table. On his face there was no longer timidity and bashfulness. He was evidently deeply convinced of the righteousness of his cause. He looked boldly around, and only his lips quivered, as is always the case with young, sensitive people. At that moment old Saul and his two sons raised their arms and said:
Their voices were solemn, and the looks they turned on Meir were severe and almost angry.
"Sabbath! Sabbath!" shouted the melamed, jumping in his chair and gesticulating with his hands; "You, Meir, during the holy evening of Sabbath, instead of reciting Kiddish and filling your spirit with great joy and giving it into the hands of the angel Matatron, who defends Jacob's tribes before God, that he may give them into the hands of Sar-ha-Olama, who is the angel over angels and the prince of the world, that Sar-ha-Olama may give them to the ten serafits who are so strong in force that they crushed the whole world, in order that through the ten serafits your spirit may reach the great throne, on which is seated En-Sof himself, and join with him in a kiss of love—you, Meir, instead of doing all that, went to defend people from some attack—to watch their house and their life. Meir! Meir! You have violated the Sabbath! You must go to the school and accuse yourself before the people of having committed a great sin and scandal."
This speech made an immense impression on the whole assembly. Saul and his sons looked threatening. The women were surprised and frightened. The dark eyes of Lija—she who had first betrayed her cousin's secret—shone with tears. Only Saul's son-in-law, blue-eyed Ber, looked at the accused boy with sad sympathy, and several young men, Meir's playmates, gazed into his face with curiosity and friendly uneasiness.
Meir answered in a trembling voice:
"In our holy books, Reb Moshe, neither in the Torah nor in the Mishma is there any mention of Sefirots and En-Sof. But there it is stated plainly that Jehovah, although he has commanded us to keep the Sabbath, permitted twenty people to violate the Sabbath in order to save one man."
Such a thing as any one daring to answer the melamed—the perfect pious and Rabbi Todros's right hand—was unheard of and astonishing; it was more, because in the answer there was a negation of his judgment. Therefore the melamed's convex eyes nearly sprang from their sockets. They opened widely and covered Meir's pale face with deep hatred.
"Karaims!" he shouted, tossing himself in his chair, and tearing his beard and his hair—"You went to rescue the Karaims, heretics, infidels, accursed! Why should one rescue them? Why do they not light candles on Sabbath—why do they sit in darkness? Why do they not kill birds and animals as we do? Why do they not know Mishma, Gemara and Zahor?"
He choked with excitement and became silent, and in that interruption Meir's pure and sonorous voice resounded:
"Reb, they are very poor!"
"En-Sof is revengeful and merciless!"
"They are much persecuted!"
"The Incomprehensible persecutes them!" shouted Reb.
"The Eternal does not command us to persecute. Rabbi Huna said: 'Even if the persecution is righteous, the Eternal will take the part of the persecuted one!'"
Reb Moshe's cheeks were red as flame. His eyes seemed to devour the face of the young man, whose looks had now grown bold, and his lips quivered with the words that came rushing to them, but were not pronounced.
The whole gathering was astonished—frightened—depressed. Such a quarrel with the melamed seemed to some of them a sin, to others a danger for the bold young man, and even for the whole family. Therefore Saul looked up sharply from beneath his bushy gray eye-brows into his grandson's face, and hissed:
Meir bent his head before his grandfather, in token of humility and obedience, and one of Saul's sons, in order to pacify Reb Moshe's anger, asked him:
"What is the difference between the authority of the books of Talmud, and Zahora, the Kabalistic book?"
Having heard this question, the melamed put his elbows on the table, and fixed his eyes motionlessly and with an expression of deep reflection on the opposite wall. Then he began to speak slowly, and in a solemn voice:
"Simon ben Jochai, the great Rabbi who lived a very great while ago and knew everything that happened in the heavens and on the earth, said, 'The Talmud is a vile slave, and the Kabala is a great queen.' With what is the Talmud filled? It is filled up with small, secondary things. It teaches what is clean and what is not clean. What is permitted and what is not permitted. What is decent and what is not decent. And with what is filled Zohar—the book of light, the book of Kabala? It is filled with great science; it tells what is God and his Sefirots. The author of it knows all their names, and he teaches what they do and how they built the world. There is said that God's name is En-Sof and his second name is Notarikon and his third name is Gomatria and fourth name Zirufh. The Sefirots are great heavenly forces called: human source, fiancee, fair sex, great visage, small face, mirror, celestial story, lily and apple orchard. And Israel is call Matron, and Israel's. God is called Father, God, En-Sof. He did not create the world; the Sefirots, celestial forces, did it. The first Sefirot produced the strength of God; the second all angels and the Torah (Bible); the third all prophets. The fourth Sefirot produced God's love; the fifth God's justice, and the sixth, a power which ruins everything. The seventh Sefirot produced beauty, the eighth magnificence, the ninth, eternal cause, and the tenth, an eye which watches Israel continually, and follows him on all his roads and takes care of his feet—that they are not wounded—and his head, that misfortune does not fall upon him. All this is taught by Zohar, the book of Kabala, and it is the first book for every Israelite. I know that many Israelites say that the Torah is the more important, but they are stupid, and they do not know that the earth shall tremble from great pains before God and Israel, Father and Matron, shall be united in a kiss of love, until the slave will not retreat before the queen—the Talmud before the Kabala. And when shall that time come? It shall come when the Messiah shall appear. Then for all pious and scholarly people will there be a great feast of joy. Then God will order the boiling of the fish Leviathan which is so great that the whole world rests on it. And everyone will sit down and eat that fish—the scholarly and pious people from the head, and the simple and ignorant from the tail!"
When the melamed finished his speech he breathed deeply, and having dropped his eyes on the table he suddenly fell from mystical heights to earthly realities. On the plate before him was an excellent fish—not Leviathan, but excellent nevertheless. The melamed, living ascetically was very fond of Sabbath feasts, because he believed that it was necessary, to celebrate the Sabbath properly, to keep joyful the body as well as the spirit. Therefore, with the remains of the ecstasy in his eyes, he began to put the delicious dish into his mouth. The whole assembly was silent for a while. His clever speech made a deep impression on almost everyone. Old Saul listened to it with great reverence. His sons cast their grateful eyes on the table and thought over Reb Moshe's scholarly instruction. The women piously placed their hands on their bosoms, inclined their heads in sign of admiration and with smiling lips they repeated:
"Great student—perfect-pious. A true pupil of the great Rabbi Isaak!"
The one looking attentively on the faces of those sitting around the table would have seen two looks which, swift as lightning and unperceived by all present, had been exchanged during the melamed's speech. They were the looks of Ber and Meir. The former looked sadly at the other, who answered him with a look full of restrained anger and irony. When the melamed spoke of the fish Leviathan, so large that the whole world stood on it, and which, in the day of the Messiah, the scholars would eat from the head and the ignorant from the tail, a smile appeared on Meir's thin lips. It was a smile similar to the stiletto. It pierced the one on whose lips it appeared, and it seemed as though it would like to pierce the one who caused it. Ber answered this smile by a sigh. But the four young men who sat opposite Meir noticed it, and on their faces Meir's smile was reflected. After a period of silence, interrupted only by the clatter of knives on the plates and the loud movements of the melamed's jaws, old Saul said:
"Those are great things, scholarly and dreadful, and we thank Reb Moshe for having told them to us. Listen to the learned men, who by their great knowledge sustain Israel's strength and glory, because it is written that the wise men are the world's foundation. 'Who respects them, and questions them often about obscure things with which they are familiar, to that one all sins shall be pardoned.'"
Reb Moshe raised his face from the plate, and stuttered with his mouth full of food:
"Good deeds bring upon man an inexhaustible stream of blessing and forgiveness. They open for him the secrets of the heavens and earth and carry his soul among the Sefirots!"
A silence full of respect was the only answer. But after a few seconds it was interrupted by the sonorous voice of the youth:
"Reb Moshe! what do you call a good deed? What must one do in order to save one's life from sin and draw upon one's self a great stream of grace?" asked Meir aloud.
The melamed raised his eyes at the question. Their looks met again. The melamed's gray eyes shone angrily and threateningly. The gray, transparent eyes of the youth contained silvery streams of hidden smiles.