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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. The Glossary at the end of the document includes an explanatory note on special characters and diacritics. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
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THE PROMISED LAND
THE PROMISED LAND
BY MARY ANTIN
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS FROM PHOTOGRAPHS
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1912
COPYRIGHT, 1911 AND 1912, BY THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
Published April 1912
To the Memory of JOSEPHINE LAZARUS Who lives in the fulfilment of her prophecies
I. WITHIN THE PALE 1
II. CHILDREN OF THE LAW 29
III. BOTH THEIR HOUSES 42
IV. DAILY BREAD 60
V. I REMEMBER 79
VI. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE 111
VII. THE BOUNDARIES STRETCH 137
VIII. THE EXODUS 163
IX. THE PROMISED LAND 180
X. INITIATION 206
XI. "MY COUNTRY" 222
XII. MIRACLES 241
XIII. A CHILD'S PARADISE 252
XIV. MANNA 264
XV. TARNISHED LAURELS 276
XVI. DOVER STREET 286
XVII. THE LANDLADY 301
XVIII. THE BURNING BUSH 321
XIX. A KINGDOM IN THE SLUMS 337
XX. THE HERITAGE 359
MASHKE AND FETCHKE Frontispiece
THE GRAVE-DIGGER OF POLOTZK 24
HEDER (HEBREW SCHOOL) FOR BOYS IN POLOTZK 34
THE WOOD MARKET, POLOTZK 52
MY FATHER'S PORTRAIT 70
MY GRANDFATHER'S HOUSE, WHERE I WAS BORN 80
THE MEAT MARKET, POLOTZK 98
SABBATH LOAVES FOR SALE (BREAD MARKET, POLOTZK) 124
WINTER SCENE ON THE DVINA 144
UNION PLACE (BOSTON) WHERE MY NEW HOME WAITED FOR ME 184
TWOSCORE OF MY FELLOW-CITIZENS—PUBLIC SCHOOL, CHELSEA 230
WHEELER STREET, IN THE LOWER SOUTH END OF BOSTON 264
HARRISON AVENUE IS THE HEART OF THE SOUTH END GHETTO 288
I LIKED TO STAND AND LOOK DOWN ON THE DIM TANGLE OF RAILROAD TRACKS BELOW 298
THE NATURAL HISTORY CLUB HAD FREQUENT FIELD EXCURSIONS 328
BATES HALL, WHERE I SPENT MY LONGEST HOURS IN THE LIBRARY 342
THE FAMOUS STUDY, THAT WAS FIT TO HAVE BEEN PRESERVED AS A SHRINE 346
THE TIDE HAD RUSHED IN, STEALING AWAY OUR SEAWEED CUSHIONS 362
I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. Physical continuity with my earlier self is no disadvantage. I could speak in the third person and not feel that I was masquerading. I can analyze my subject, I can reveal everything; for she, and not I, is my real heroine. My life I have still to live; her life ended when mine began.
A generation is sometimes a more satisfactory unit for the study of humanity than a lifetime; and spiritual generations are as easy to demark as physical ones. Now I am the spiritual offspring of the marriage within my conscious experience of the Past and the Present. My second birth was no less a birth because there was no distinct incarnation. Surely it has happened before that one body served more than one spiritual organization. Nor am I disowning my father and mother of the flesh, for they were also partners in the generation of my second self; copartners with my entire line of ancestors. They gave me body, so that I have eyes like my father's and hair like my mother's. The spirit also they gave me, so that I reason like my father and endure like my mother. But did they set me down in a sheltered garden, where the sun should warm me, and no winter should hurt, while they fed me from their hands? No; they early let me run in the fields—perhaps because I would not be held—and eat of the wild fruits and drink of the dew. Did they teach me from books, and tell me what to believe? I soon chose my own books, and built me a world of my own.
In these discriminations I emerged, a new being, something that had not been before. And when I discovered my own friends, and ran home with them to convert my parents to a belief in their excellence, did I not begin to make my father and mother, as truly as they had ever made me? Did I not become the parent and they the children, in those relations of teacher and learner? And so I can say that there has been more than one birth of myself, and I can regard my earlier self as a separate being, and make it a subject of study.
A proper autobiography is a death-bed confession. A true man finds so much work to do that he has no time to contemplate his yesterdays; for to-day and to-morrow are here, with their impatient tasks. The world is so busy, too, that it cannot afford to study any man's unfinished work; for the end may prove it a failure, and the world needs masterpieces. Still there are circumstances by which a man is justified in pausing in the middle of his life to contemplate the years already passed. One who has completed early in life a distinct task may stop to give an account of it. One who has encountered unusual adventures under vanishing conditions may pause to describe them before passing into the stable world. And perhaps he also might be given an early hearing, who, without having ventured out of the familiar paths, without having achieved any signal triumph, has lived his simple life so intensely, so thoughtfully, as to have discovered in his own experience an interpretation of the universal life.
I am not yet thirty, counting in years, and I am writing my life history. Under which of the above categories do I find my justification? I have not accomplished anything, I have not discovered anything, not even by accident, as Columbus discovered America. My life has been unusual, but by no means unique. And this is the very core of the matter. It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording. My life is a concrete illustration of a multitude of statistical facts. Although I have written a genuine personal memoir, I believe that its chief interest lies in the fact that it is illustrative of scores of unwritten lives. I am only one of many whose fate it has been to live a page of modern history. We are the strands of the cable that binds the Old World to the New. As the ships that brought us link the shores of Europe and America, so our lives span the bitter sea of racial differences and misunderstandings. Before we came, the New World knew not the Old; but since we have begun to come, the Young World has taken the Old by the hand, and the two are learning to march side by side, seeking a common destiny.
Perhaps I have taken needless trouble to furnish an excuse for my autobiography. My age alone, my true age, would be reason enough for my writing. I began life in the Middle Ages, as I shall prove, and here am I still, your contemporary in the twentieth century, thrilling with your latest thought.
Had I no better excuse for writing, I still might be driven to it by my private needs. It is in one sense a matter of my personal salvation. I was at a most impressionable age when I was transplanted to the new soil. I was in that period when even normal children, undisturbed in their customary environment, begin to explore their own hearts, and endeavor to account for themselves and their world. And my zest for self-exploration seems not to have been distracted by the necessity of exploring a new outer universe. I embarked on a double voyage of discovery, and an exciting life it was! I took note of everything. I could no more keep my mind from the shifting, changing landscape than an infant can keep his eyes from the shining candle moved across his field of vision. Thus everything impressed itself on my memory, and with double associations; for I was constantly referring my new world to the old for comparison, and the old to the new for elucidation. I became a student and philosopher by force of circumstances.
Had I been brought to America a few years earlier, I might have written that in such and such a year my father emigrated, just as I would state what he did for a living, as a matter of family history. Happening when it did, the emigration became of the most vital importance to me personally. All the processes of uprooting, transportation, replanting, acclimatization, and development took place in my own soul. I felt the pang, the fear, the wonder, and the joy of it. I can never forget, for I bear the scars. But I want to forget—sometimes I long to forget. I think I have thoroughly assimilated my past—I have done its bidding—I want now to be of to-day. It is painful to be consciously of two worlds. The Wandering Jew in me seeks forgetfulness. I am not afraid to live on and on, if only I do not have to remember too much. A long past vividly remembered is like a heavy garment that clings to your limbs when you would run. And I have thought of a charm that should release me from the folds of my clinging past. I take the hint from the Ancient Mariner, who told his tale in order to be rid of it. I, too, will tell my tale, for once, and never hark back any more. I will write a bold "Finis" at the end, and shut the book with a bang!
THE PROMISED LAND
WITHIN THE PALE
When I was a little girl, the world was divided into two parts; namely, Polotzk, the place where I lived, and a strange land called Russia. All the little girls I knew lived in Polotzk, with their fathers and mothers and friends. Russia was the place where one's father went on business. It was so far off, and so many bad things happened there, that one's mother and grandmother and grown-up aunts cried at the railroad station, and one was expected to be sad and quiet for the rest of the day, when the father departed for Russia.
After a while there came to my knowledge the existence of another division, a region intermediate between Polotzk and Russia. It seemed there was a place called Vitebsk, and one called Vilna, and Riga, and some others. From those places came photographs of uncles and cousins one had never seen, and letters, and sometimes the uncles themselves. These uncles were just like people in Polotzk; the people in Russia, one understood, were very different. In answer to one's questions, the visiting uncles said all sorts of silly things, to make everybody laugh; and so one never found out why Vitebsk and Vilna, since they were not Polotzk, were not as sad as Russia. Mother hardly cried at all when the uncles went away.
One time, when I was about eight years old, one of my grown-up cousins went to Vitebsk. Everybody went to see her off, but I didn't. I went with her. I was put on the train, with my best dress tied up in a bandana, and I stayed on the train for hours and hours, and came to Vitebsk. I could not tell, as we rushed along, where the end of Polotzk was. There were a great many places on the way, with strange names, but it was very plain when we got to Vitebsk.
The railroad station was a big place, much bigger than the one in Polotzk. Several trains came in at once, instead of only one. There was an immense buffet, with fruits and confections, and a place where books were sold. My cousin never let go my hand, on account of the crowd. Then we rode in a cab for ever so long, and I saw the most beautiful streets and shops and houses, much bigger and finer than any in Polotzk.
We remained in Vitebsk several days, and I saw many wonderful things, but what gave me my one great surprise was something that wasn't new at all. It was the river—the river Dvina. Now the Dvina is in Polotzk. All my life I had seen the Dvina. How, then, could the Dvina be in Vitebsk? My cousin and I had come on the train, but everybody knew that a train could go everywhere, even to Russia. It became clear to me that the Dvina went on and on, like a railroad track, whereas I had always supposed that it stopped where Polotzk stopped. I had never seen the end of Polotzk; I meant to, when I was bigger. But how could there be an end to Polotzk now? Polotzk was everything on both sides of the Dvina, as all my life I had known; and the Dvina, it now turned out, never broke off at all. It was very curious that the Dvina should remain the same, while Polotzk changed into Vitebsk!
The mystery of this transmutation led to much fruitful thinking. The boundary between Polotzk and the rest of the world was not, as I had supposed, a physical barrier, like the fence which divided our garden from the street. The world went like this now: Polotzk—more Polotzk—more Polotzk—Vitebsk! And Vitebsk was not so different, only bigger and brighter and more crowded. And Vitebsk was not the end. The Dvina, and the railroad, went on beyond Vitebsk,—went on to Russia. Then was Russia more Polotzk? Was here also no dividing fence? How I wanted to see Russia! But very few people went there. When people went to Russia it was a sign of trouble; either they could not make a living at home, or they were drafted for the army, or they had a lawsuit. No, nobody went to Russia for pleasure. Why, in Russia lived the Czar, and a great many cruel people; and in Russia were the dreadful prisons from which people never came back.
Polotzk and Vitebsk were now bound together by the continuity of the earth, but between them and Russia a formidable barrier still interposed. I learned, as I grew older, that much as Polotzk disliked to go to Russia, even more did Russia object to letting Polotzk come. People from Polotzk were sometimes turned back before they had finished their business, and often they were cruelly treated on the way. It seemed there were certain places in Russia—St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and Kiev—where my father or my uncle or my neighbor must never come at all, no matter what important things invited them. The police would seize them and send them back to Polotzk, like wicked criminals, although they had never done any wrong.
It was strange enough that my relatives should be treated like this, but at least there was this excuse for sending them back to Polotzk, that they belonged there. For what reason were people driven out of St. Petersburg and Moscow who had their homes in those cities, and had no other place to go to? Ever so many people, men and women and even children, came to Polotzk, where they had no friends, with stories of cruel treatment in Russia; and although they were nobody's relatives, they were taken in, and helped, and set up in business, like unfortunates after a fire.
It was very strange that the Czar and the police should want all Russia for themselves. It was a very big country; it took many days for a letter to reach one's father in Russia. Why might not everybody be there who wanted to?
I do not know when I became old enough to understand. The truth was borne in on me a dozen times a day, from the time I began to distinguish words from empty noises. My grandmother told me about it, when she put me to bed at night. My parents told me about it, when they gave me presents on holidays. My playmates told me, when they drew me back into a corner of the gateway, to let a policeman pass. Vanka, the little white-haired boy, told me all about it, when he ran out of his mother's laundry on purpose to throw mud after me when I happened to pass. I heard about it during prayers, and when women quarrelled in the market place; and sometimes, waking in the night, I heard my parents whisper it in the dark. There was no time in my life when I did not hear and see and feel the truth—the reason why Polotzk was cut off from the rest of Russia. It was the first lesson a little girl in Polotzk had to learn. But for a long while I did not understand. Then there came a time when I knew that Polotzk and Vitebsk and Vilna and some other places were grouped together as the "Pale of Settlement," and within this area the Czar commanded me to stay, with my father and mother and friends, and all other people like us. We must not be found outside the Pale, because we were Jews.
So there was a fence around Polotzk, after all. The world was divided into Jews and Gentiles. This knowledge came so gradually that it could not shock me. It trickled into my consciousness drop by drop. By the time I fully understood that I was a prisoner, the shackles had grown familiar to my flesh.
The first time Vanka threw mud at me, I ran home and complained to my mother, who brushed off my dress and said, quite resignedly, "How can I help you, my poor child? Vanka is a Gentile. The Gentiles do as they like with us Jews." The next time Vanka abused me, I did not cry, but ran for shelter, saying to myself, "Vanka is a Gentile." The third time, when Vanka spat on me, I wiped my face and thought nothing at all. I accepted ill-usage from the Gentiles as one accepts the weather. The world was made in a certain way, and I had to live in it.
Not quite all the Gentiles were like Vanka. Next door to us lived a Gentile family which was very friendly. There was a girl as big as I, who never called me names, and gave me flowers from her father's garden. And there were the Parphens, of whom my grandfather rented his store. They treated us as if we were not Jews at all. On our festival days they visited our house and brought us presents, carefully choosing such things as Jewish children might accept; and they liked to have everything explained to them, about the wine and the fruit and the candles, and they even tried to say the appropriate greetings and blessings in Hebrew. My father used to say that if all the Russians were like the Parphens, there would be no trouble between Gentiles and Jews; and Fedora Pavlovna, the landlady, would reply that the Russian people were not to blame. It was the priests, she said, who taught the people to hate the Jews. Of course she knew best, as she was a very pious Christian. She never passed a church without crossing herself.
The Gentiles were always crossing themselves; when they went into a church, and when they came out, when they met a priest, or passed an image in the street. The dirty beggars on the church steps never stopped crossing themselves; and even when they stood on the corner of a Jewish street, and received alms from Jewish people, they crossed themselves and mumbled Christian prayers. In every Gentile house there was what they called an "icon," which was an image or picture of the Christian god, hung up in a corner, with a light always burning before it. In front of the icon the Gentiles said their prayers, on their knees, crossing themselves all the time.
I tried not to look in the corner where the icon was, when I came into a Gentile house. I was afraid of the cross. Everybody was, in Polotzk—all the Jews, I mean. For it was the cross that made the priests, and the priests made our troubles, as even some Christians admitted. The Gentiles said that we had killed their God, which was absurd, as they never had a God—nothing but images. Besides, what they accused us of had happened so long ago; the Gentiles themselves said it was long ago. Everybody had been dead for ages who could have had anything to do with it. Yet they put up crosses everywhere, and wore them on their necks, on purpose to remind themselves of these false things; and they considered it pious to hate and abuse us, insisting that we had killed their God. To worship the cross and to torment a Jew was the same thing to them. That is why we feared the cross.
Another thing the Gentiles said about us was that we used the blood of murdered Christian children at the Passover festival. Of course that was a wicked lie. It made me sick to think of such a thing. I knew everything that was done for Passover, from the time I was a very little girl. The house was made clean and shining and holy, even in the corners where nobody ever looked. Vessels and dishes that were used all the year round were put away in the garret, and special vessels were brought out for the Passover week. I used to help unpack the new dishes, and find my own blue mug. When the fresh curtains were put up, and the white floors were uncovered, and everybody in the house put on new clothes, and I sat down to the feast in my new dress, I felt clean inside and out. And when I asked the Four Questions, about the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs and the other things, and the family, reading from their books, answered me, did I not know all about Passover, and what was on the table, and why? It was wicked of the Gentiles to tell lies about us. The youngest child in the house knew how Passover was kept.
The Passover season, when we celebrated our deliverance from the land of Egypt, and felt so glad and thankful, as if it had only just happened, was the time our Gentile neighbors chose to remind us that Russia was another Egypt. That is what I heard people say, and it was true. It was not so bad in Polotzk, within the Pale; but in Russian cities, and even more in the country districts, where Jewish families lived scattered, by special permission of the police, who were always changing their minds about letting them stay, the Gentiles made the Passover a time of horror for the Jews. Somebody would start up that lie about murdering Christian children, and the stupid peasants would get mad about it, and fill themselves with vodka, and set out to kill the Jews. They attacked them with knives and clubs and scythes and axes, killed them or tortured them, and burned their houses. This was called a "pogrom." Jews who escaped the pogroms came to Polotzk with wounds on them, and horrible, horrible stories, of little babies torn limb from limb before their mothers' eyes. Only to hear these things made one sob and sob and choke with pain. People who saw such things never smiled any more, no matter how long they lived; and sometimes their hair turned white in a day, and some people became insane on the spot.
Often we heard that the pogrom was led by a priest carrying a cross before the mob. Our enemies always held up the cross as the excuse of their cruelty to us. I never was in an actual pogrom, but there were times when it threatened us, even in Polotzk; and in all my fearful imaginings, as I hid in dark corners, thinking of the horrible things the Gentiles were going to do to me, I saw the cross, the cruel cross.
I remember a time when I thought a pogrom had broken out in our street, and I wonder that I did not die of fear. It was some Christian holiday, and we had been warned by the police to keep indoors. Gates were locked; shutters were barred. If a child cried, the nurse threatened to give it to the priest, who would soon be passing by. Fearful and yet curious, we looked through the cracks in the shutters. We saw a procession of peasants and townspeople, led by a number of priests, carrying crosses and banners and images. In the place of honor was carried a casket, containing a relic from the monastery in the outskirts of Polotzk. Once a year the Gentiles paraded with this relic, and on that occasion the streets were considered too holy for Jews to be about; and we lived in fear till the end of the day, knowing that the least disturbance might start a riot, and a riot lead to a pogrom.
On the day when I saw the procession through a crack in the shutter, there were soldiers and police in the street. This was as usual, but I did not know it. I asked the nurse, who was pressing to the crack over my head, what the soldiers were for. Thoughtlessly she answered me, "In case of a pogrom." Yes, there were the crosses and the priests and the mob. The church bells were pealing their loudest. Everything was ready. The Gentiles were going to tear me in pieces, with axes and knives and ropes. They were going to burn me alive. The cross—the cross! What would they do to me first?
There was one thing the Gentiles might do to me worse than burning or rending. It was what was done to unprotected Jewish children who fell into the hands of priests or nuns. They might baptize me. That would be worse than death by torture. Rather would I drown in the Dvina than a drop of the baptismal water should touch my forehead. To be forced to kneel before the hideous images, to kiss the cross,—sooner would I rush out to the mob that was passing, and let them tear my vitals out. To forswear the One God, to bow before idols,—rather would I be seized with the plague, and be eaten up by vermin. I was only a little girl, and not very brave; little pains made me ill, and I cried. But there was no pain that I would not bear—no, none—rather than submit to baptism.
Every Jewish child had that feeling. There were stories by the dozen of Jewish boys who were kidnapped by the Czar's agents and brought up in Gentile families, till they were old enough to enter the army, where they served till forty years of age; and all those years the priests tried, by bribes and daily tortures, to force them to accept baptism, but in vain. This was in the time of Nicholas I, but men who had been through this service were no older than my grandfather, when I was a little girl; and they told their experiences with their own lips, and one knew it was true, and it broke one's heart with pain and pride.
Some of these soldiers of Nicholas, as they were called, were taken as little boys of seven or eight—snatched from their mothers' laps. They were carried to distant villages, where their friends could never trace them, and turned over to some dirty, brutal peasant, who used them like slaves and kept them with the pigs. No two were ever left together; and they were given false names, so that they were entirely cut off from their own world. And then the lonely child was turned over to the priests, and he was flogged and starved and terrified—a little helpless boy who cried for his mother; but still he refused to be baptized. The priests promised him good things to eat, and fine clothes, and freedom from labor; but the boy turned away, and said his prayers secretly—the Hebrew prayers.
As he grew older, severer tortures were invented for him; still he refused baptism. By this time he had forgotten his mother's face, and of his prayers perhaps only the "Shema" remained in his memory; but he was a Jew, and nothing would make him change. After he entered the army, he was bribed with promises of promotions and honors. He remained a private, and endured the cruellest discipline. When he was discharged, at the age of forty, he was a broken man, without a home, without a clue to his origin, and he spent the rest of his life wandering among Jewish settlements, searching for his family; hiding the scars of torture under his rags, begging his way from door to door. If he were one who had broken down under the cruel torments, and allowed himself to be baptized, for the sake of a respite, the Church never let him go again, no matter how loudly he protested that he was still a Jew. If he was caught practicing Jewish rites, he was subjected to the severest punishment.
My father knew of one who was taken as a small boy, who never yielded to the priests under the most hideous tortures. As he was a very bright boy, the priests were particularly eager to convert him. They tried him with bribes that would appeal to his ambition. They promised to make a great man of him—a general, a noble. The boy turned away and said his prayers. Then they tortured him, and threw him into a cell; and when he lay asleep from exhaustion, the priest came and baptized him. When he awoke, they told him he was a Christian, and brought him the crucifix to kiss. He protested, threw the crucifix from him, but they held him to it that he was a baptized Jew, and belonged to the Church; and the rest of his life he spent between the prison and the hospital, always clinging to his faith, saying the Hebrew prayers in defiance of his tormentors, and paying for it with his flesh.
There were men in Polotzk whose faces made you old in a minute. They had served Nicholas I, and come back unbaptized. The white church in the square—how did it look to them? I knew. I cursed the church in my heart every time I had to pass it; and I was afraid—afraid.
On market days, when the peasants came to church, and the bells kept ringing by the hour, my heart was heavy in me, and I could find no rest. Even in my father's house I did not feel safe. The church bell boomed over the roofs of the houses, calling, calling, calling. I closed my eyes, and saw the people passing into the church: peasant women with bright embroidered aprons and glass beads; barefoot little girls with colored kerchiefs on their heads; boys with caps pulled too far down over their flaxen hair; rough men with plaited bast sandals, and a rope around the waist,—crowds of them, moving slowly up the steps, crossing themselves again and again, till they were swallowed by the black doorway, and only the beggars were left squatting on the steps. Boom, boom! What are the people doing in the dark, with the waxen images and the horrid crucifixes? Boom, boom, boom! They are ringing the bell for me. Is it in the church they will torture me, when I refuse to kiss the cross?
They ought not to have told me those dreadful stories. They were long past; we were living under the blessed "New Regime." Alexander III was no friend of the Jews; still he did not order little boys to be taken from their mothers, to be made into soldiers and Christians. Every man had to serve in the army for four years, and a Jewish recruit was likely to be treated with severity, no matter if his behavior were perfect; but that was little compared to the dreadful conditions of the old regime.
The thing that really mattered was the necessity of breaking the Jewish laws of daily life while in the service. A soldier often had to eat trefah and work on Sabbath. He had to shave his beard and do reverence to Christian things. He could not attend daily services at the synagogue; his private devotions were disturbed by the jeers and insults of his coarse Gentile comrades. He might resort to all sorts of tricks and shams, still he was obliged to violate Jewish law. When he returned home, at the end of his term of service, he could not rid himself of the stigma of those enforced sins. For four years he had led the life of a Gentile.
Piety alone was enough to make the Jews dread military service, but there were other things that made it a serious burden. Most men of twenty-one—the age of conscription—were already married and had children. During their absence their families suffered, their business often was ruined. At the end of their term they were beggars. As beggars, too, they were sent home from their military post. If they happened to have a good uniform at the time of their dismissal, it was stripped from them, and replaced by a shabby one. They received a free ticket for the return journey, and a few kopecks a day for expenses. In this fashion they were hurried back into the Pale, like escaped prisoners. The Czar was done with them. If within a limited time they were found outside the Pale, they would be seized and sent home in chains.
There were certain exceptions to the rule of compulsory service. The only son of a family was exempt, and certain others. In the physical examination preceding conscription, many were rejected on account of various faults. This gave the people the idea of inflicting injuries on themselves, so as to produce temporary deformities on account of which they might be rejected at the examination. Men would submit to operations on their eyes, ears, or limbs, which caused them horrible sufferings, in the hope of escaping the service. If the operation was successful, the patient was rejected by the examining officers, and in a short time he was well, and a free man. Often, however, the deformity intended to be temporary proved incurable, so that there were many men in Polotzk blind of one eye, or hard of hearing, or lame, as a result of these secret practices; but these things were easier to bear than the memory of four years in the Czar's service.
Sons of rich fathers could escape service without leaving any marks on their persons. It was always possible to bribe conscription officers. This was a dangerous practice,—it was not the officers who suffered most in case the negotiations leaked out,—but no respectable family would let a son be taken as a recruit till it had made every effort to save him. My grandfather nearly ruined himself to buy his sons out of service; and my mother tells thrilling anecdotes of her younger brother's life, who for years lived in hiding, under assumed names and in various disguises, till he had passed the age of liability for service.
If it were cowardice that made the Jews shrink from military service they would not inflict on themselves physical tortures greater than any that threatened them in the army, and which often left them maimed for life. If it were avarice—the fear of losing the gains from their business for four years—they would not empty their pockets and sell their houses and sink into debt, on the chance of successfully bribing the Czar's agents. The Jewish recruit dreaded, indeed, brutality and injustice at the hands of officers and comrades; he feared for his family, which he left, often enough, as dependents on the charity of relatives; but the fear of an unholy life was greater than all other fears. I know, for I remember my cousin who was taken as a soldier. Everything had been done to save him. Money had been spent freely—my uncle did not stop at his unmarried daughter's portion, when everything else was gone. My cousin had also submitted to some secret treatment,—some devastating drug administered for months before the examination,—but the effects were not pronounced enough, and he was passed. For the first few weeks his company was stationed in Polotzk. I saw my cousin drill on the square, carrying a gun, on a Sabbath. I felt unholy, as if I had sinned the sin in my own person. It was easy to understand why mothers of conscript sons fasted and wept and prayed and worried themselves to their graves.
There was a man in our town called David the Substitute, because he had gone as a soldier in another's stead, he himself being exempt. He did it for a sum of money. I suppose his family was starving, and he saw a chance to provide for them for a few years. But it was a sinful thing to do, to go as a soldier and be obliged to live like a Gentile, of his own free will. And David knew how wicked it was, for he was a pious man at heart. When he returned from service, he was aged and broken, bowed down with the sense of his sins. And he set himself a penance, which was to go through the streets every Sabbath morning, calling the people to prayer. Now this was a hard thing to do, because David labored bitterly all the week, exposed to the weather, summer or winter; and on Sabbath morning there was nobody so tired and lame and sore as David. Yet he forced himself to leave his bed before it was yet daylight, and go from street to street, all over Polotzk, calling on the people to wake and go to prayer. Many a Sabbath morning I awoke when David called, and lay listening to his voice as it passed and died out; and it was so sad that it hurt, as beautiful music hurts. I was glad to feel my sister lying beside me, for it was lonely in the gray dawn, with only David and me awake, and God waiting for the people's prayers.
The Gentiles used to wonder at us because we cared so much about religious things,—about food, and Sabbath, and teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy, as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things. There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people, like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors. They were always respectful, and openly admired some of our ways. But most of the Gentiles were ignorant and distrustful and spiteful. They would not believe that there was any good in our religion, and of course we dared not teach them, because we should be accused of trying to convert them, and that would be the end of us.
Oh, if they could only understand! Vanka caught me on the street one day, and pulled my hair, and called me names; and all of a sudden I asked myself why—why?—a thing I had stopped asking years before. I was so angry that I could have punished him; for one moment I was not afraid to hit back. But this why—why? broke out in my heart, and I forgot to revenge myself. It was so wonderful—Well, there were no words in my head to say it, but it meant that Vanka abused me only because he did not understand. If he could feel with my heart, if he could be a little Jewish boy for one day, I thought, he would know—he would know. If he could understand about David the Substitute, now, without being told, as I understood. If he could wake in my place on Sabbath morning, and feel his heart break in him with a strange pain, because a Jew had dishonored the law of Moses, and God was bending down to pardon him. Oh, why could I not make Vanka understand? I was so sorry that my heart hurt me, worse than Vanka's blows. My anger and my courage were gone. Vanka was throwing stones at me now from his mother's doorway, and I continued on my errand, but I did not hurry. The thing that hurt me most I could not run away from.
There was one thing the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take any kind of bribe at any time. Peace cost so much a year in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their children maltreating your children, they might complain against you to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called, unless the judge had reason to befriend you. The cheapest way to live in Polotzk was to pay as you went along. Even a little girl understood that, in Polotzk.
Perhaps your parents were in business,—usually they were, as almost everybody kept store,—and you heard a great deal about the chief of police, and excise officers, and other agents of the Czar. Between the Czar whom you had never seen, and the policeman whom you knew too well, you pictured to yourself a long row of officials of all sorts, all with their palms stretched out to receive your father's money. You knew your father hated them all, but you saw him smile and bend as he filled those greedy palms. You did the same, in your petty way, when you saw Vanka coming toward you on a lonely street, and you held out to him the core of the apple you had been chewing, and forced your unwilling lips into a smile. It hurt, that false smile; it made you feel black inside.
In your father's parlor hung a large colored portrait of Alexander III. The Czar was a cruel tyrant,—oh, it was whispered when doors were locked and shutters tightly barred, at night,—he was a Titus, a Haman, a sworn foe of all Jews,—and yet his portrait was seen in a place of honor in your father's house. You knew why. It looked well when police or government officers came on business.
You went out to play one morning, and saw a little knot of people gathered around a lamp-post. There was a notice on it—a new order from the chief of police. You pushed into the crowd, and stared at the placard, but you could not read. A woman with a ragged shawl looked down upon you, and said, with a bitter kind of smile, "Rejoice, rejoice, little girl! The chief of police bids you rejoice. There shall be a pretty flag flying from every housetop to-day, because it is the Czar's birthday, and we must celebrate. Come and watch the poor people pawn their samovars and candlesticks, to raise money for a pretty flag. It is a holiday, little girl. Rejoice!"
You know the woman is mocking,—you are familiar with the quality of that smile,—but you accept the hint and go and watch the people buy their flags. Your cousin keeps a dry-goods store, where you have a fine view of the proceedings. There is a crowd around the counter, and your cousin and the assistant are busily measuring off lengths of cloth, red, and blue, and white.
"How much does it take?" somebody asks. "May I know no more of sin than I know of flags," another replies. "How is it put together?" "Do you have to have all three colors?" One customer puts down a few kopecks on the counter, saying, "Give me a piece of flag. This is all the money I have. Give me the red and the blue; I'll tear up my shirt for the white."
You know it is no joke. The flag must show from every house, or the owner will be dragged to the police station, to pay a fine of twenty-five rubles. What happened to the old woman who lives in that tumble-down shanty over the way? It was that other time when flags were ordered up, because the Grand Duke was to visit Polotzk. The old woman had no flag, and no money. She hoped the policeman would not notice her miserable hut. But he did, the vigilant one, and he went up and kicked the door open with his great boot, and he took the last pillow from the bed, and sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof. I knew the old woman well, with her one watery eye and her crumpled hands. I often took a plate of soup to her from our kitchen. There was nothing but rags left on her bed, when the policeman had taken the pillow.
The Czar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There was a poor locksmith who owed the Czar three hundred rubles, because his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his term in the army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the whole family was liable. Now, the locksmith never could have so much money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached his household goods, everything he had, including his young bride's trousseau; and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's time the police came again, looking for the balance of the Czar's dues. They put their seal on everything they found. The bride was in bed with her first baby, a boy. The circumcision was to be next day. The police did not leave a sheet to wrap the child in when he is handed up for the operation.
Many bitter sayings came to your ears if you were a Jewish little girl in Polotzk. "It is a false world," you heard, and you knew it was so, looking at the Czar's portrait, and at the flags. "Never tell a police officer the truth," was another saying, and you knew it was good advice. That fine of three hundred rubles was a sentence of lifelong slavery for the poor locksmith, unless he freed himself by some trick. As fast as he could collect a few rags and sticks, the police would be after them. He might hide under a false name, if he could get away from Polotzk on a false passport; or he might bribe the proper officials to issue a false certificate of the missing brother's death. Only by false means could he secure peace for himself and his family, as long as the Czar was after his dues.
It was bewildering to hear how many kinds of duties and taxes we owed the Czar. We paid taxes on our houses, and taxes on the rents from the houses, taxes on our business, taxes on our profits. I am not sure whether there were taxes on our losses. The town collected taxes, and the county, and the central government; and the chief of police we had always with us. There were taxes for public works, but rotten pavements went on rotting year after year; and when a bridge was to be built, special taxes were levied. A bridge, by the way, was not always a public highway. A railroad bridge across the Dvina, while open to the military, could be used by the people only by individual permission.
My uncle explained to me all about the excise duties on tobacco. Tobacco being a source of government revenue, there was a heavy tax on it. Cigarettes were taxed at every step of their process. The tobacco was taxed separately, and the paper, and the mouthpiece, and on the finished product an additional tax was put. There was no tax on the smoke. The Czar must have overlooked it.
Business really did not pay when the price of goods was so swollen by taxes that the people could not buy. The only way to make business pay was to cheat—cheat the Government of part of the duties. But playing tricks on the Czar was dangerous, with so many spies watching his interests. People who sold cigarettes without the government seal got more gray hairs than bank notes out of their business. The constant risk, the worry, the dread of a police raid in the night, and the ruinous fines, in case of detection, left very little margin of profit or comfort to the dealer in contraband goods. "But what can one do?" the people said, with the shrug of the shoulders that expresses the helplessness of the Pale. "What can one do? One must live."
It was not easy to live, with such bitter competition as the congestion of population made inevitable. There were ten times as many stores as there should have been, ten times as many tailors, cobblers, barbers, tinsmiths. A Gentile, if he failed in Polotzk, could go elsewhere, where there was less competition. A Jew could make the circle of the Pale, only to find the same conditions as at home. Outside the Pale he could only go to certain designated localities, on payment of prohibitive fees, augmented by a constant stream of bribes; and even then he lived at the mercy of the local chief of police.
Artisans had the right to reside outside the Pale, on fulfilment of certain conditions. This sounded easy to me, when I was a little girl, till I realized how it worked. There was a capmaker who had duly qualified, by passing an examination and paying for his trade papers, to live in a certain city. The chief of police suddenly took it into his head to impeach the genuineness of his papers. The capmaker was obliged to travel to St. Petersburg, where he had qualified in the first place, to repeat the examination. He spent the savings of years in petty bribes, trying to hasten the process, but was detained ten months by bureaucratic red tape. When at length he returned to his home town, he found a new chief of police, installed during his absence, who discovered a new flaw in the papers he had just obtained, and expelled him from the city. If he came to Polotzk, there were then eleven capmakers where only one could make a living.
Merchants fared like the artisans. They, too, could buy the right of residence outside the Pale, permanent or temporary, on conditions that gave them no real security. I was proud to have an uncle who was a merchant of the First Guild, but it was very expensive for my uncle. He had to pay so much a year for the title, and a certain percentage on the profits from his business. This gave him the right to travel on business outside the Pale, twice a year, for not more than six months in all. If he were found outside the Pale after his permit expired, he had to pay a fine that exceeded all he had gained by his journey, perhaps. I used to picture my uncle on his Russian travels, hurrying, hurrying to finish his business in the limited time; while a policeman marched behind him, ticking off the days and counting up the hours. That was a foolish fancy, but some of the things that were done in Russia really were very funny.
There were things in Polotzk that made you laugh with one eye and weep with the other, like a clown. During an epidemic of cholera, the city officials, suddenly becoming energetic, opened stations for the distribution of disinfectants to the people. A quarter of the population was dead when they began, and most of the dead were buried, while some lay decaying in deserted houses. The survivors, some of them crazy from horror, stole through the empty streets, avoiding one another, till they came to the appointed stations, where they pushed and crowded to get their little bottles of carbolic acid. Many died from fear in those horrible days, but some must have died from laughter. For only the Gentiles were allowed to receive the disinfectant. Poor Jews who had nothing but their new-made graves were driven away from the stations.
Perhaps it was wrong of us to think of our Gentile neighbors as a different species of beings from ourselves, but such madness as that did not help to make them more human in our eyes. It was easier to be friends with the beasts in the barn than with some of the Gentiles. The cow and the goat and the cat responded to kindness, and remembered which of the housemaids was generous and which was cross. The Gentiles made no distinctions. A Jew was a Jew, to be hated and spat upon and used spitefully.
The only Gentiles, besides the few of the intelligent kind, who did not habitually look upon us with hate and contempt, were the stupid peasants from the country, who were hardly human themselves. They lived in filthy huts together with their swine, and all they cared for was how to get something to eat. It was not their fault. The land laws made them so poor that they had to sell themselves to fill their bellies. What help was there for us in the good will of such wretched slaves? For a cask of vodka you could buy up a whole village of them. They trembled before the meanest townsman, and at a sign from a long-haired priest they would sharpen their axes against us.
The Gentiles had their excuse for their malice. They said our merchants and money-lenders preyed upon them, and our shopkeepers gave false measure. People who want to defend the Jews ought never to deny this. Yes, I say, we cheated the Gentiles whenever we dared, because it was the only thing to do. Remember how the Czar was always sending us commands,—you shall not do this and you shall not do that, until there was little left that we might honestly do, except pay tribute and die. There he had us cooped up, thousands of us where only hundreds could live, and every means of living taxed to the utmost. When there are too many wolves in the prairie, they begin to prey upon each other. We starving captives of the Pale—we did as do the hungry brutes. But our humanity showed in our discrimination between our victims. Whenever we could, we spared our own kind, directing against our racial foes the cunning wiles which our bitter need invented. Is not that the code of war? Encamped in the midst of the enemy, we could practice no other. A Jew could hardly exist in business unless he developed a dual conscience, which allowed him to do to the Gentile what he would call a sin against a fellow Jew. Such spiritual deformities are self-explained in the step-children of the Czar. A glance over the statutes of the Pale leaves you wondering that the Russian Jews have not lost all semblance to humanity.
A favorite complaint against us was that we were greedy for gold. Why could not the Gentiles see the whole truth where they saw half? Greedy for profits we were, eager for bargains, for savings, intent on squeezing the utmost out of every business transaction. But why? Did not the Gentiles know the reason? Did they not know what price we had to pay for the air we breathed? If a Jew and a Gentile kept store side by side, the Gentile could content himself with smaller profits. He did not have to buy permission to travel in the interests of his business. He did not have to pay three hundred rubles fine if his son evaded military service. He was saved the expense of hushing inciters of pogroms. Police favor was retailed at a lower price to him than to the Jew. His nature did not compel him to support schools and charities. It cost nothing to be a Christian; on the contrary, it brought rewards and immunities. To be a Jew was a costly luxury, the price of which was either money or blood. Is it any wonder that we hoarded our pennies? What his shield is to the soldier in battle, that was the ruble to the Jew in the Pale.
The knowledge of such things as I am telling leaves marks upon the flesh and spirit. I remember little children in Polotzk with old, old faces and eyes glazed with secrets. I knew how to dodge and cringe and dissemble before I knew the names of the seasons. And I had plenty of time to ponder on these things, because I was so idle. If they had let me go to school, now—But of course they didn't.
There was no free school for girls, and even if your parents were rich enough to send you to a private school, you could not go very far. At the high school, which was under government control, Jewish children were admitted in limited numbers,—only ten to every hundred,—and even if you were among the lucky ones, you had your troubles. The tutor who prepared you talked all the time about the examinations you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for the Jewish candidates, of course; a nine-year-old Jewish child had to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected to understand. But that did not matter so much. You had been prepared for the thirteen-year-old test; you found the questions quite easy. You wrote your answers triumphantly—and you received a low rating, and there was no appeal.
I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store, munching an apple that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their own troubles, as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults from everybody. Those who, by heroic efforts and transcendent good luck, successfully finished the course, found themselves against a new wall, if they wished to go on. They were turned down at the universities, which admitted them in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school,—especially rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without disguise. No, the Czar did not want us in the schools.
I heard from my mother of a different state of affairs, at the time when her brothers were little boys. The Czar of those days had a bright idea. He said to his ministers: "Let us educate the people. Let us win over those Jews through the public schools, instead of allowing them to persist in their narrow Hebrew learning, which teaches them no love for their monarch. Force has failed with them; the unwilling converts return to their old ways whenever they dare. Let us try education."
Perhaps peaceable conversion of the Jews was not the Czar's only motive when he opened public schools everywhere and compelled parents to send their boys for instruction. Perhaps he just wanted to be good, and really hoped to benefit the country. But to the Jews the public schools appeared as a trap door to the abyss of apostasy. The instructors were always Christians, the teaching was Christian, and the regulations of the schoolroom, as to hours, costume, and manners, were often in opposition to Jewish practices. The public school interrupted the boy's sacred studies in the Hebrew school. Where would you look for pious Jews, after a few generations of boys brought up by Christian teachers? Plainly the Czar was after the souls of the Jewish children. The church door gaped for them at the end of the school course. And all good Jews rose up against the schools, and by every means, fair or foul, kept their boys away. The official appointed to keep the register of boys for school purposes waxed rich on the bribes paid him by anxious parents who kept their sons in hiding.
After a while the wise Czar changed his mind, or he died,—probably he did both,—and the schools were closed, and the Jewish boys perused their Hebrew books in peace, wearing the sacred fringes in plain sight, and never polluting their mouths with a word of Russian.
And then it was the Jews who changed their minds—some of them. They wanted to send their children to school, to learn histories and sciences, because they had discovered that there was good in such things as well as in the Sacred Law. These people were called progressive, but they had no chance to progress. All the czars that came along persisted in the old idea, that for the Jew no door should be opened,—no door out of the Pale, no door out of their mediaevalism.
 A four-cornered cloth with specially prepared fringes is worn by pious males under the outer garments, but with, the fringes showing. The latter play a part in the daily ritual.
CHILDREN OF THE LAW
As I look back to-day I see, within the wall raised around my birthplace by the vigilance of the police, another wall, higher, thicker, more impenetrable. This is the wall which the Czar with all his minions could not shake, the priests with their instruments of torture could not pierce, the mob with their firebrands could not destroy. This wall within the wall is the religious integrity of the Jews, a fortress erected by the prisoners of the Pale, in defiance of their jailers; a stronghold built of the ruins of their pillaged homes, cemented with the blood of their murdered children.
Harassed on every side, thwarted in every normal effort, pent up within narrow limits, all but dehumanized, the Russian Jew fell back upon the only thing that never failed him,—his hereditary faith in God. In the study of the Torah he found the balm for all his wounds; the minute observance of traditional rites became the expression of his spiritual cravings; and in the dream of a restoration to Palestine he forgot the world.
What did it matter to us, on a Sabbath or festival, when our life was centred in the synagogue, what czar sat on the throne, what evil counsellors whispered in his ear? They were concerned with revenues and policies and ephemeral trifles of all sorts, while we were intent on renewing our ancient covenant with God, to the end that His promise to the world should be fulfilled, and His justice overwhelm the nations.
On a Friday afternoon the stores and markets closed early. The clatter of business ceased, the dust of worry was laid, and the Sabbath peace flooded the quiet streets. No hovel so mean but what its casement sent out its consecrated ray, so that a wayfarer passing in the twilight saw the spirit of God brooding over the lowly roof.
Care and fear and shrewishness dropped like a mask from every face. Eyes dimmed with weeping kindled with inmost joy. Wherever a head bent over a sacred page, there rested the halo of God's presence.
Not on festivals alone, but also on the common days of the week, we lived by the Law that had been given us through our teacher Moses. How to eat, how to bathe, how to work—everything had been written down for us, and we strove to fulfil the Law. The study of the Torah was the most honored of all occupations, and they who engaged in it the most revered of all men.
My memory does not go back to a time when I was too young to know that God had made the world, and had appointed teachers to tell the people how to live in it. First came Moses, and after him the great rabbis, and finally the Rav of Polotzk, who read all day in the sacred books, so that he could tell me and my parents and my friends what to do whenever we were in doubt. If my mother cut up a chicken and found something wrong in it,—some hurt or mark that should not be,—she sent the housemaid with it to the rav, and I ran along, and saw the rav look in his big books; and whatever he decided was right. If he called the chicken "trefah" I must not eat of it; no, not if I had to starve. And the rav knew about everything: about going on a journey, about business, about marrying, about purifying vessels for Passover.
Another great teacher was the dayyan, who heard people's quarrels and settled them according to the Law, so that they should not have to go to the Gentile courts. The Gentiles were false, judges and witnesses and all. They favored the rich man against the poor, the Christian against the Jew. The dayyan always gave true judgments. Nohem Rabinovitch, the richest man in Polotzk, could not win a case against a servant maid, unless he were in the right.
Besides the rav and the dayyan there were other men whose callings were holy,—the shohat, who knew how cattle and fowls should be killed; the hazzan and the other officers of the synagogue; the teachers of Hebrew, and their pupils. It did not matter how poor a man was, he was to be respected and set above other men, if he were learned in the Law.
In the synagogue scores of men sat all day long over the Hebrew books, studying and disputing from early dawn till candles were brought in at night, and then as long as the candles lasted. They could not take time for anything else, if they meant to become great scholars. Most of them were strangers in Polotzk, and had no home except the synagogue. They slept on benches, on tables, on the floor; they picked up their meals wherever they could. They had come from distant cities, so as to be under good teachers in Polotzk; and the townspeople were proud to support them by giving them food and clothing and sometimes money to visit their homes on holidays. But the poor students came in such numbers that there were not enough rich families to provide for all, so that some of them suffered privation. You could pick out a poor student in a crowd, by his pale face and shrunken form.
There was almost always a poor student taking meals at our house. He was assigned a certain day, and on that day my grandmother took care to have something especially good for dinner. It was a very shabby guest who sat down with us at table, but we children watched him with respectful eyes. Grandmother had told us that he was a lamden (scholar), and we saw something holy in the way he ate his cabbage.
Not every man could hope to be a rav, but no Jewish boy was allowed to grow up without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. The scantiest income had to be divided so as to provide for the boys' tuition. To leave a boy without a teacher was a disgrace upon the whole family, to the remotest relative. For the children of the destitute there was a free school, supported by the charity of the pious. And so every boy was sent to heder (Hebrew school) almost as soon as he could speak; and usually he continued to study until his confirmation, at thirteen years of age, or as much longer as his talent and ambition carried him. My brother was five years old when he entered on his studies. He was carried to the heder, on the first day, covered over with a praying-shawl, so that nothing unholy should look on him; and he was presented with a bun, on which were traced, in honey, these words: "The Torah left by Moses is the heritage of the children of Jacob."
After a boy entered heder, he was the hero of the family. He was served before the other children at table, and nothing was too good for him. If the family were very poor, all the girls might go barefoot, but the heder boy must have shoes; he must have a plate of hot soup, though the others ate dry bread. When the rebbe (teacher) came on Sabbath afternoon, to examine the boy in the hearing of the family, everybody sat around the table and nodded with satisfaction, if he read his portion well; and he was given a great saucerful of preserves, and was praised, and blessed, and made much of. No wonder he said, in his morning prayer, "I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a female." It was not much to be a girl, you see. Girls could not be scholars and rabbonim.
I went to my brother's heder, sometimes, to bring him his dinner, and saw how the boys studied. They sat on benches around the table, with their hats on, of course, and the sacred fringes hanging beneath their jackets. The rebbe sat at an end of the table, rehearsing two or three of the boys who were studying the same part, pointing out the words with his wooden pointer, so as not to lose the place. Everybody read aloud, the smallest boys repeating the alphabet in a sing-song, while the advanced boys read their portions in a different sing-song; and everybody raised his voice to its loudest so as to drown the other voices. The good boys never took their eyes off their page, except to ask the rebbe a question; but the naughty boys stared around the room, and kicked each other under the table, till the rebbe caught them at it. He had a ruler for striking the bad boys on the knuckles, and in a corner of the room leaned a long birch wand for pupils who would not learn their lessons.
The boys came to heder before nine in the morning, and remained until eight or nine in the evening. Stupid pupils, who could not remember the lesson, sometimes had to stay till ten. There was an hour for dinner and play at noon. Good little boys played quietly in their places, but most of the boys ran out of the house and jumped and yelled and quarrelled.
There was nothing in what the boys did in heder that I could not have done—if I had not been a girl. For a girl it was enough if she could read her prayers in Hebrew, and follow the meaning by the Yiddish translation at the bottom of the page. It did not take long to learn this much,—a couple of terms with a rebbetzin (female teacher),—and after that she was done with books.
A girl's real schoolroom was her mother's kitchen. There she learned to bake and cook and manage, to knit, sew, and embroider; also to spin and weave, in country places. And while her hands were busy, her mother instructed her in the laws regulating a pious Jewish household and in the conduct proper for a Jewish wife; for, of course, every girl hoped to be a wife. A girl was born for no other purpose.
How soon it came, the pious burden of wifehood! One day the girl is playing forfeits with her laughing friends, the next day she is missed from the circle. She has been summoned to a conference with the shadchan (marriage broker), who has been for months past advertising her housewifely talents, her piety, her good looks, and her marriage portion, among families with marriageable sons. Her parents are pleased with the son-in-law proposed by the shadchan, and now, at the last, the girl is brought in, to be examined and appraised by the prospective parents-in-law. If the negotiations go off smoothly, the marriage contract is written, presents are exchanged between the engaged couple, through their respective parents, and all that is left the girl of her maidenhood is a period of busy preparation for the wedding.
If the girl is well-to-do, it is a happy interval, spent in visits to the drapers and tailors, in collecting linens and featherbeds and vessels of copper and brass. The former playmates come to inspect the trousseau, enviously fingering the silks and velvets of the bride-elect. The happy heroine tries on frocks and mantles before her glass, blushing at references to the wedding day; and to the question, "How do you like the bridegroom?" she replies, "How should I know? There was such a crowd at the betrothal that I didn't see him."
Marriage was a sacrament with us Jews in the Pale. To rear a family of children was to serve God. Every Jewish man and woman had a part in the fulfilment of the ancient promise given to Jacob that his seed should be abundantly scattered over the earth. Parenthood, therefore, was the great career. But while men, in addition to begetting, might busy themselves with the study of the Law, woman's only work was motherhood. To be left an old maid became, accordingly, the greatest misfortune that could threaten a girl; and to ward off that calamity the girl and her family, to the most distant relatives, would strain every nerve, whether by contributing to her dowry, or hiding her defects from the marriage broker, or praying and fasting that God might send her a husband.
Not only must all the children of a family be mated, but they must marry in the order of their ages. A younger daughter must on no account marry before an elder. A houseful of daughters might be held up because the eldest failed to find favor in the eyes of prospective mothers-in-law; not one of the others could marry till the eldest was disposed of.
A cousin of mine was guilty of the disloyalty of wishing to marry before her elder sister, who was unfortunate enough to be rejected by one mother-in-law after another. My uncle feared that the younger daughter, who was of a firm and masterful nature, might carry out her plans, thereby disgracing her unhappy sister. Accordingly he hastened to conclude an alliance with a family far beneath him, and the girl was hastily married to a boy of whom little was known beyond the fact that he was inclined to consumption.
The consumptive tendency was no such horror, in an age when superstition was more in vogue than science. For one patient that went to a physician in Polotzk, there were ten who called in unlicensed practitioners and miracle workers. If my mother had an obstinate toothache that honored household remedies failed to relieve, she went to Dvoshe, the pious woman, who cured by means of a flint and steel, and a secret prayer pronounced as the sparks flew up. During an epidemic of scarlet fever, we protected ourselves by wearing a piece of red woolen tape around the neck. Pepper and salt tied in a corner of the pocket was effective in warding off the evil eye. There were lucky signs, lucky dreams, spirits, and hobgoblins, a grisly collection, gathered by our wandering ancestors from the demonologies of Asia and Europe.
Antiquated as our popular follies was the organization of our small society. It was a caste system with social levels sharply marked off, and families united by clannish ties. The rich looked down on the poor, the merchants looked down on the artisans, and within the ranks of the artisans higher and lower grades were distinguished. A shoemaker's daughter could not hope to marry the son of a shopkeeper, unless she brought an extra large dowry; and she had to make up her mind to be snubbed by the sisters-in-law and cousins-in-law all her life.
One qualification only could raise a man above his social level, and that was scholarship. A boy born in the gutter need not despair of entering the houses of the rich, if he had a good mind and a great appetite for sacred learning. A poor scholar would be preferred in the marriage market to a rich ignoramus. In the phrase of our grandmothers, a boy stuffed with learning was worth more than a girl stuffed with bank notes.
Simple piety unsupported by learning had a parallel value in the eyes of good families. This was especially true among the Hasidim, the sect of enthusiasts who set religious exaltation above rabbinical lore. Ecstasy in prayer and fantastic merriment on days of religious rejoicing, raised a Hasid to a hero among his kind. My father's grandfather, who knew of Hebrew only enough to teach beginners, was famous through a good part of the Pale for his holy life. Israel Kimanyer he was called, from the village of Kimanye where he lived; and people were proud to establish even the most distant relationship with him. Israel was poor to the verge of beggary, but he prayed more than other people, never failed in the slightest observance enjoined on Jews, shared his last crust with every chance beggar, and sat up nights to commune with God. His family connections included country peddlers, starving artisans, and ne'er-do-wells; but Israel was a zaddik—a man of piety—and the fame of his good life redeemed the whole wretched clan. When his grandson, my father, came to marry, he boasted his direct descent from Israel Kimanyer, and picked his bride from the best families.
The little house may still be standing which the pious Jews of Kimanye and the neighboring villages built for my great-grandfather, close on a century ago. He was too poor to build his own house, so the good people who loved him, and who were almost as poor as he, collected a few rubles among themselves, and bought a site, and built the house. Built, let it be known, with their own hands; for they were too poor to hire workmen. They carried the beams and boards on their shoulders, singing and dancing on the way, as they sang and danced at the presentation of a scroll to the synagogue. They hauled and sawed and hammered, till the last nail was driven home; and when they conducted the holy man to his new abode, the rejoicing was greater than at the crowning of a czar.
That little cabin was fit to be preserved as the monument to a species of idealism that has rarely been known outside the Pale. What was the ultimate source of the pious enthusiasm that built my great-grandfather's house? What was the substance behind the show of the Judaism of the Pale? Stripped of its grotesque mask of forms, rites, and mediaeval superstitions, the religion of these fanatics was simply the belief that God was, had been, and ever would be, and that they, the children of Jacob, were His chosen messengers to carry His Law to all the nations. Beneath the mountainous volumes of the Talmudists and commentators, the Mosaic tablets remained intact. Out of the mazes of the Cabala the pure doctrine of ancient Judaism found its way to the hearts of the faithful. Sects and schools might rise and fall, deafening the ears of the simple with the clamor of their disputes, still the Jew, retiring within his own soul, heard the voice of the God of Abraham. Prophets, messiahs, miracle workers might have their day, still the Jew was conscious that between himself and God no go-between was needed; that he, as well as every one of his million brothers, had his portion of God's work to do. And this close relation to God was the source of the strength that sustained the Jew through all the trials of his life in the Pale. Consciously or unconsciously, the Jew identified himself with the cause of righteousness on earth; and hence the heroism with which he met the battalions of tyrants.
No empty forms could have impressed the unborn children of the Pale so deeply that they were prepared for willing martyrdom almost as soon as they were weaned from their mother's breast. The flame of the burning bush that had dazzled Moses still lighted the gloomy prison of the Pale. Behind the mummeries, ceremonials, and symbolic accessories, the object of the Jew's adoration was the face of God.
This has been many times proved by those who escaped from the Pale, and, excited by sudden freedom, thought to rid themselves, by one impatient effort, of every strand of their ancient bonds. Eager to be merged in the better world in which they found themselves, the escaped prisoners determined on a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of manner. They rejoiced in their transformation, thinking that every mark of their former slavery was obliterated. And then, one day, caught in the vise of some crucial test, the Jew fixed his alarmed gaze on his inmost soul, and found there the image of his father's God.
* * * * *
Merrily played the fiddlers at the wedding of my father, who was the grandson of Israel Kimanyer of sainted memory. The most pious men in Polotzk danced the night through, their earlocks dangling, the tails of their long coats flying in a pious ecstasy. Beggars swarmed among the bidden guests, sure of an easy harvest where so many hearts were melted by piety. The wedding jester excelled himself in apt allusions to the friends and relatives who brought up their wedding presents at his merry invitation. The sixteen-year-old bride, suffocated beneath her heavy veil, blushed unseen at the numerous healths drunk to her future sons and daughters. The whole town was a-flutter with joy, because the pious scion of a godly race had found a pious wife, and a young branch of the tree of Judah was about to bear fruit.
When I came to lie on my mother's breast, she sang me lullabies on lofty themes. I heard the names of Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah as early as the names of father, mother, and nurse. My baby soul was enthralled by sad and noble cadences, as my mother sang of my ancient home in Palestine, or mourned over the desolation of Zion. With the first rattle that was placed in my hand a prayer was pronounced over me, a petition that a pious man might take me to wife, and a messiah be among my sons.
I was fed on dreams, instructed by means of prophecies, trained to hear and see mystical things that callous senses could not perceive. I was taught to call myself a princess, in memory of my forefathers who had ruled a nation. Though I went in the disguise of an outcast, I felt a halo resting on my brow. Sat upon by brutal enemies, unjustly hated, annihilated a hundred times, I yet arose and held my head high, sure that I should find my kingdom in the end, although I had lost my way in exile; for He who had brought my ancestors safe through a thousand perils was guiding my feet as well. God needed me and I needed Him, for we two together had a work to do, according to an ancient covenant between Him and my forefathers.
This is the dream to which I was heir, in common with every sad-eyed child of the Pale. This is the living seed which I found among my heirlooms, when I learned how to strip from them the prickly husk in which they were passed down to me. And what is the fruit of such seed as that, and whither lead such dreams? If it is mine to give the answer, let my words be true and brave.
BOTH THEIR HOUSES
Among the mediaeval customs which were preserved in the Pale when the rest of the world had long forgotten them was the use of popular sobriquets in place of surnames proper. Family names existed only in official documents, such as passports. For the most part people were known by nicknames, prosaic or picturesque, derived from their occupations, their physical peculiarities, or distinctive achievements. Among my neighbors in Polotzk were Yankel the Wig-maker, Mulye the Blind, Moshe the Six-fingered; and members of their respective families were referred to by these nicknames: as, for example, "Mirele, niece of Moshe the Six-fingered."
Let me spread out my family tree, raise aloft my coat-of-arms, and see what heroes have left a mark by which I may be distinguished. Let me hunt for my name in the chronicles of the Pale.
In the village of Yuchovitch, about sixty versts above Polotzk, the oldest inhabitant still remembered my father's great-grandfather when my father was a boy. Lebe the Innkeeper he was called, and no reproach was coupled with the name. His son Hayyim succeeded to the business, but later he took up the glazier's trade, and developed a knack for all sorts of tinkering, whereby he was able to increase his too scanty earnings.
Hayyim the Glazier is reputed to have been a man of fine countenance, wise in homely counsel, honest in all his dealings. Rachel Leah, his wife, had a reputation for practical wisdom even greater than his. She was the advice giver of the village in every perplexity of life. My father remembers his grandmother as a tall, trim, handsome old woman, active and independent. Satin headbands and lace-trimmed bonnets not having been invented in her day, Rachel Leah wore the stately knupf or turban on her shaven head. On Sabbaths and holidays she went to the synagogue with a long, straight mantle hanging from neck to ankle; and she wore it with an air, on one sleeve only, the other dangling empty from her shoulder.
Hayyim begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Pinchus, my father. It behooves me to consider the stuff I sprang from.
Joseph inherited the trade, good name, and meagre portion of his father, and maintained the family tradition of honesty and poverty unbroken to the day of his death. For that matter, Yuchovitch never heard of any connection of the family, not even a doubtful cousin, who was not steeped to the earlocks in poverty. But that was no distinction in Yuchovitch; the whole village was poor almost to beggary.
Joseph was an indifferent workman, an indifferent scholar, and an indifferent hasid. At one thing only he was strikingly good, and that was at grumbling. Although not unkind, he had a temper that boiled over at small provocation, and even in his most placid mood he took very little satisfaction in the world. He reversed the proverb, looking for the sable lining of every silver cloud. In the conditions of his life he found plenty of food for his pessimism, and merry hearts were very rare among his neighbors. Still a certain amount of gloom appears to have been inherent in the man. And as he distrusted the whole world, so Joseph distrusted himself, which made him shy and awkward in company. My mother tells how, at the wedding of his only son, my father, Joseph sat the whole night through in a corner, never as much as cracking a smile, while the wedding guests danced, laughed, and rejoiced.
It may have been through distrust of the marital state that Joseph remained single till the advanced age of twenty-five. Then he took unto himself an orphan girl as poor as he, namely, Rachel, the daughter of Israel Kimanyer of pious memory.
My grandmother was such a gentle, cheerful soul, when I knew her, that I imagine she must have been a merry bride. I should think my grandfather would have taken great satisfaction in her society, as her attempts to show him the world through rose-hued spectacles would have given him frequent opportunity to parade his grievances and recite his wrongs. But from all reports it appears that he was never satisfied, and if he did not make his wife unhappy it was because he was away from home so much. He was absent the greater part of the time; for a glazier, even if he were a better workman than my grandfather, could not make a living in Yuchovitch. He became a country peddler, trading between Polotzk and Yuchovitch, and taking in all the desolate little hamlets scattered along that route. Fifteen rubles' worth of goods was a big bill to carry out of Polotzk. The stock consisted of cheap pottery, tobacco, matches, boot grease, and axle grease. These he bartered for country produce, including grains in small quantity, bristles, rags, and bones. Money was seldom handled in these transactions.
A rough enough life my grandfather led, on the road at all seasons, in all weathers, knocking about at smoky little inns, glad sometimes of the hospitality of some peasant's hut, where the pigs slept with the family. He was doing well if he got home for the holidays with a little white flour for a cake, and money enough to take his best coat out of pawn. The best coat, and the candlesticks, too, would be repawned promptly on the first workday; for it was not for the like of Joseph of Yuchovitch to live with idle riches around him.
For the credit of Yuchovitch it must be recorded that my grandfather never had to stay away from the synagogue for want of his one decent coat to wear. His neighbor Isaac, the village money lender, never refused to give up the pledged articles on a Sabbath eve, even if the money due was not forthcoming. Many Sabbath coats besides my grandfather's, and many candlesticks besides my grandmother's, passed most of their existence under Isaac's roof, waiting to be redeemed. But on the eve of Sabbath or holiday Isaac delivered them to their respective owners, came they empty-handed or otherwise; and at the expiration of the festival the grateful owners brought them promptly back, for another season of retirement.
While my grandfather was on the road, my grandmother conducted her humble household in a capable, housewifely way. Of her six children, three died young, leaving two daughters and an only son, my father. My grandmother fed and dressed her children the best she could, and taught them to thank God for what they had not as well as for what they had. Piety was about the only positive doctrine she attempted to drill them in, leaving the rest of their education to life and the rebbe.
Promptly when custom prescribed, Pinchus, the petted only son, was sent to heder. My grandfather being on the road at the time, my grandmother herself carried the boy in her arms, as was usual on the first day. My father distinctly remembers that she wept on the way to the heder; partly, I suppose, from joy at starting her son on a holy life, and partly from sadness at being too poor to set forth the wine and honey-cake proper to the occasion. For Grandma Rachel, schooled though she was to pious contentment, probably had her moments of human pettiness like the rest of us.
My father distinguished himself for scholarship from the first. Five years old when he entered heder, at eleven he was already a yeshibah bahur—a student in the seminary. The rebbe never had occasion to use the birch on him. On the contrary, he held him up as an example to the dull or lazy pupils, praised him in the village, and carried his fame to Polotzk.
My grandmother's cup of pious joy was overfilled. Everything her boy did was pleasant in her sight, for Pinchus was going to be a scholar, a godly man, a credit to the memory of his renowned grandfather, Israel Kimanyer. She let nothing interfere with his schooling. When times were bad, and her husband came home with his goods unsold, she borrowed and begged, till the rebbe's fee was produced. If bad luck continued, she pleaded with the rebbe for time. She pawned not only the candlesticks, but her shawl and Sabbath cap as well, to secure the scant rations that gave the young scholar strength to study. More than once in the bitter winter, as my father remembers, she carried him to heder on her back, because he had no shoes; she herself walking almost barefoot in the cruel snow. No sacrifice was too great for her in the pious cause of her boy's education. And when there was no rebbe in Yuchovitch learned enough to guide him in the advanced studies, my father was sent to Polotzk, where he lived with his poor relations, who were not too poor to help support a future rebbe or rav. In Polotzk he continued to distinguish himself for scholarship, till people began to prophesy that he would live to be famous; and everybody who remembered Israel Kimanyer regarded the promising grandson with double respect.
At the age of fifteen my father was qualified to teach beginners in Hebrew, and he was engaged as instructor in two families living six versts apart in the country. The boy tutor had to make himself useful, after lesson hours, by caring for the horse, hauling water from the frozen pond, and lending a hand at everything. When the little sister of one of his pupils died, in the middle of the winter, it fell to my father's lot to take the body to the nearest Jewish cemetery, through miles of desolate country, no living soul accompanying him.
After one term of this, he tried to go on with his own studies, sometimes in Yuchovitch, sometimes in Polotzk, as opportunity dictated. He made the journey to Polotzk beside his father, jogging along in the springless wagon on the rutty roads. He took a boy's pleasure in the gypsy life, the green wood, and the summer storm; while his father sat moody beside him, seeing nothing but the spavins on the horse's hocks, and the mud in the road ahead.
There is little else to tell of my father's boyhood, as most of his time was spent in the schoolroom. Outside the schoolroom he was conspicuous for high spirits in play, daring in mischief, and independence in everything. But a boy's playtime was so short in Yuchovitch, and his resources so limited, that even a lad of spirit came to the edge of his premature manhood without a regret for his nipped youth. So my father, at the age of sixteen and a half, lent a willing ear to the cooing voice of the marriage broker.
Indeed, it was high time for him to marry. His parents had kept him so far, but they had two daughters to marry off, and not a groschen laid by for their dowries. The cost of my father's schooling, as he advanced, had mounted to seventeen rubles a term, and the poor rebbe was seldom paid in full. Of course my father's scholarship was his fortune—in time it would be his support; but in the meanwhile the burden of feeding and clothing him lay heavy on his parents' shoulders. The time had come to find him a well-to-do father-in-law, who should support him and his wife and children, while he continued to study in the seminary.
After the usual conferences between parents and marriage brokers, my father was betrothed to an undertaker's daughter in Polotzk. The girl was too old,—every day of twenty years,—but three hundred rubles in dowry, with board after marriage, not to mention handsome presents to the bridegroom, easily offset the bride's age. My father's family, to the humblest cousin, felt themselves set up by the match he had made; and the boy was happy enough, displaying a watch and chain for the first time in his life, and a good coat on week days. As for his fiancee, he could have no objection to her, as he had seen her only at a distance, and had never spoken to her.
When it was time for the wedding preparations to begin, news came to Yuchovitch of the death of the bride-elect, and my father's prospects seemed fallen to the ground. But the undertaker had another daughter, girl of thirteen, and he pressed my father to take her in her sister's place. At the same time the marriage broker proposed another match; and my father's poor cousins bristled with importance once more.
Somehow or other my father succeeded in getting in a word at the family councils that ensued; he even had the temerity to express a strong preference. He did not want any more of the undertaker's daughters; he wanted to consider the rival match. There were no serious objections from the cousins, and my father became engaged to my mother.
This second choice was Hannah Hayye, only daughter of Raphael, called the Russian. She had had a very different bringing-up from Pinchus, the grandson of Israel Kimanyer. She had never known a day of want; had never gone barefoot from necessity. The family had a solid position in Polotzk, her father being the owner of a comfortable home and a good business.
Prosperity is prosaic, so I shall skip briefly over the history of my mother's house.
My grandfather Raphael, early left an orphan, was brought up by an elder brother, in a village at no great distance from Polotzk. The brother dutifully sent him to heder, and at an early age betrothed him to Deborah, daughter of one Solomon, a dealer in grain and cattle. Deborah was not yet in her teens at the time of the betrothal, and so foolish was she that she was afraid of her affianced husband. One day, when she was coming from the store with a bottle of liquid yeast, she suddenly came face to face with her betrothed, which gave her such a fright that she dropped the bottle, spilling the yeast on her pretty dress; and she ran home crying all the way. At thirteen she was married, which had a good effect on her deportment. I hear no more of her running away from her husband.
Among the interesting things belonging to my grandmother, besides her dowry, at the time of the marriage, was her family. Her father was so original that he kept a tutor for his daughters—sons he had none—and allowed them to be instructed in the rudiments of three or four languages and the elements of arithmetic. Even more unconventional was her sister Hode. She had married a fiddler, who travelled constantly, playing at hotels and inns, all through "far Russia." Having no children, she ought to have spent her days in fasting and praying and lamenting. Instead of this, she accompanied her husband on his travels, and even had a heart to enjoy the excitement and variety of their restless life. I should be the last to blame my great-aunt, for the irregularity of her conduct afforded my grandfather the opening for his career, the fruits of which made my childhood so pleasant. For several years my grandfather travelled in Hode's train, in the capacity of shohat providing kosher meat for the little troup in the unholy wilds of "far Russia"; and the grateful couple rewarded him so generously that he soon had a fortune of eighty rubles laid by.
My grandfather thought the time had now come to settle down, but he did not know how to invest his wealth. To resolve his perplexity, he made a pilgrimage to the Rebbe of Kopistch, who advised him to open a store in Polotzk, and gave him a blessed groschen to keep in the money drawer for good luck.
The blessing of the "good Jew" proved fruitful. My grandfather's business prospered, and my grandmother bore him children, several sons and one daughter. The sons were sent to heder, like all respectable boys; and they were taught, in addition, writing and arithmetic, enough for conducting a business. With this my grandfather was content; more than this he considered incompatible with piety. He was one of those who strenuously opposed the influence of the public school, and bribed the government officials to keep their children's names off the register of schoolboys, as we have already seen. When he sent his sons to a private tutor, where they could study Russian with their hats on, he felt, no doubt, that he was giving them all the education necessary to a successful business career, without violating piety too grossly.
If reading and writing were enough for the sons, even less would suffice the daughter. A female teacher was engaged for my mother, at three kopecks a week, to teach her the Hebrew prayers; and my grandmother, herself a better scholar than the teacher, taught her writing in addition. My mother was quick to learn, and expressed an ambition to study Russian. She teased and coaxed, and her mother pleaded for her, till my grandfather was persuaded to send her to a tutor. But the fates were opposed to my mother's education. On the first day at school, a sudden inflammation of the eyes blinded my mother temporarily, and although the distemper vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, it was taken as an omen, and my mother was not allowed to return to her lessons.