The City of the Threshold of this Century
by B. Demblin
(From the book, Before Night, Published Tel Aviv, 1954)
The Modjzitz Market Place
In Modjzitz people were making a living in one door and out the other. The
fortress of Ivangorod, which the Russian Czar had built after conquering
Poland, was full of military people and contractors and their employees. Jews
with stuffed purses of money busied themselves around the fairs and market
places, in the whole area. What they did was to buy the supplies that were
needed by the people who were in the military in the fortress. That included
feed and big silos full of grain, fields full of cabbage, potatoes and onions.
Besides that, there was a big train center in Ivangorod in Russian-Poland.
There was a whole town of red brick houses that had been built up around the
station. The train employees, conductors and clerks, were able to provide a
living to the little town of Jews. Through the station, finished goods from
half of Poland passed out to the broad Russian provinces. Also, from the other
directions towards Prussia and the empire in Austria, came trains full of
Russian wheat, fish from Rostov, sugar from Kiev and Polish pigs and fowl of
Jews of Modzjitz lived and laughed at that time. On Sundays the town was full
of soldiers. Organ grinders in gentile hats with shiny brims and polished boots
with lacquered polish, tapped on their organs in a very spirited way. They
would play Kamarkas [folk music] and very soulful, Ukranian songs. The white
mice, with transparent little pink ears, would creep on the organs in and out
of their little cages. The green parrots, with sharp, down turned beaks, sat
looking very wise and dignified on the little sticks across their cages. For a
little copper six cent piece, with their beaks, they would extract from a
little cookie a scroll with your fortune inside from little drawers. Sometimes
the little scrolls would be red, sometimes green and sometimes they would be
blue. And the parrot would carry this little scroll over to the soldier, who
stood impatiently, and who would quickly read the secret fortune that was his.
Moving away from the organ grinders, on both sides of the market, standing
there with their knife sharpeners and key makers, were tailors with their
journeymen. There were people with white bakery goods and sweet meats with
fruits and other goodies. Also in their little tents, behind their half leaning
doors where one didn't dare to violate the holy day with a few cents of
redemption, were packed with soldiers, making up for the whole week.
In the market place, forthright and free as the wind, the Jews moved around the
soldiers and bought little bits here and there of leather implements, old boots
and canvas packs. Everything that the Kunza [Czar] let the soldiers have for
their own use. Other Jews, not the pious kind, had their own little forbidden
taverns which their wives and underage daughters would quietly run for them.
Behind covered up windows, around bare, wooden tables, the soldiers and
peasants would drink booze, eat fried liver and broiled pieces of duck and
always try to grab a young woman with broad hips and pull her down onto their
[See PHOTO-A1 at the end of Section A]
Before the Modzjitzer shop keepers filled up their shelves again, after Sunday,
there was the Wednesday market, when the city was packed with horses and wagons
which the peasants had hitched up. When they got there they would unhitch the
horses facing the wagons and give them a pail of oats to eat while they were
gone and then they would take off into the market place.
The hurly burly of the market began even before dawn. On both sides of the
highway, the length of it, along where the channels where rain water would
flow, sat gypsies in bright colored, striped tents and around them were sacks
with produce with golden onions, silver-white garlic, tied up fowl and baskets
full of eggs.
A little bit further up the road on the other side, were little stalls where
little Holy things were sold. On broad tables under canvas awnings there were
pictures spread out of the Holy mother with the Holy child at her breast. There
were little necklaces of prayer beads, brown and black, with little and bigger
crucifixes. And they hung in little clumps, little Jesus' stuck with a pierced
bloodied heart and a crown of thorns on his head, others with his hands and
feet bound, carved into the cross. These were thrown in big piles. The peasant
men and women would go from stall to stall and they would chose and buy the
little images of God with the same suspicion and caution with which at other
stalls they would but their little candies and sweetmeats.
Near the area where the little Holy beads and crucifixes were sold were the
beggars, Djodis and Bobis [Grandfathers and Grandmothers], with their legs
wrapped up, barefoot, with crutches and canes near them. They would sit on
little bundles of straw with their feet behind them and they would rock back
and forth as if they didn't even have any bones in their body. With bare heads
and outstretched hands, to the people going by, they would repeat little Holy
verses and sing church songs and would cross themselves repeatedly every time a
penny fell into their hat.
Down the highway, in the middle of the market place, it was like an anthill.
Horses whinnied, pigs grunted, cows and calves mooed, hens crowed, ducks
quacked, geese whistled and bit the air. The Jews and peasants would slap each
other on the hands, finish a deal and with the prophets go off and drink a
little bottle of booze.
In front, on the other side of the market, there were big spreads of second
hand stuff. Under big, open awnings, there were all kinds of clothes hung and
spread out, boots and fancy shoes, furs, hats and near them, under the open
sky, piled up on the soft, moist earth beds and armoires, which smelled of
freshly finished wood.
In this way, from the Sunday market and the Wednesday market, the Jews of
Modzjitz made a living. Butchers bought livestock, tradesmen rented horses,
storekeepers weighed and measured and packed all of the goods and raw produce
that would come from the countryside. They put it in sacks and boxes and sent
it off into the fortress and got it loaded onto rail cars and sent it away to
cities that were far away. The craftsmen of Modzjitz, with their journeymen,
had more work than they could handle. They finished wood, they hammered and
they were busy from early in the morning until sundown. In winter, they worked
late into the night. Because of the volume of business on Sundays and
Wednesdays, the Jewish population of the town and of the surrounding villages
grew, and people made their way to Modzjitz to settle there. They could find a
roof over their heads and a little bit of bread to eat and so they came.
The Fifth Year  in Modjzitz
[Note in 1905 there was an aborted revolution in Russia]
In the middle of the summer, guests would come to Modzjitz who usually would
show up only before Passover and before Succoth. Very unexpectedly, they began
to come home, the daughters and sons of Modzjitz, from Warsaw and Lodz, where
they worked in shoe shops and tailor shops, in laundries, in carpenter shops
and in all different kinds of businesses. They weren't coming home as they
would sometimes do during the high holidays, on carriages, with certain
display. Their new clothes were packed into baskets and valises in fresh paper
and one by one, very quietly, with little bundles under their arms, they came
From the guests, Modzjitz learned, that in Warsaw and in Lodz and in all of the
big cities of the Russian state, things were growing dark. There are
strikes at factories, the workers are marching with red banners, shouting
Hurrah! and Down with the Czar!. In many places, in
Warsaw, they were getting ready to carry out pogroms.
Along with these scary stories about pogroms, the people also brought other
unheard of stories, which both uplifted and oppressed the mood and filled
people's hearts with a certain bit of awe and terror. The guests told about the
unity between Jews and gentile, about burning stoves and boiling pots of water
which people had ready to pour from the windows on people who tried to carry
Like the decrees about the schools that came before, theses kinds of stories
created two sides in the town. On one side were the fathers and mothers of the
kids who had come back. They were simple people, crafts people and butchers and
carriage drivers. They were the kinds of people whose blood ran hot in their
veins, Jews with fists like big heavy loads. People for whom bending their
heads down in humility wasn't an option. People who would honor the person who
attacked them with two smacks for one. Just folks who were well trained, even
as well as soldiers. These Jews felt inspired by the news they were getting
about revolvers and Kinshjalen, with which people prepared themselves to meet
those who wanted to carry out pogroms, and their blood boiled when they heard
about atrocities, their fists rolled up in fury.
On the other side were the bosses of the town, those who had journeymen working
for them as employees, the fine people, so to speak, of the town. Among them,
there really wasn't much of a difference as there used to be between Abel and
Simcha Puterflam. Each one, the Hasid as well as the businessman (the rich
merchant who was an undertaker), they all had the same reaction to this kind of
mood and talk and they felt it was just rebellion against God and against the
State with the only difference that for Abel and his folk, the rebellions were
a desecration of the Jewish religious way of life. For Simcha Puterflam and the
other bosses like him, it was a rebellion of shoemakers' apprentices and cooks
who wanted to run the world upside down. Both the aesthetic, religious Abel,
and the well turned out Simcha Puterflam, who was a nouveau-rich, with a big,
fat belly and a smoothly shaven, red head, both of them, mocked and disparaged
both the people who were bringing the news from the other parts about what was
happening with these kinds of issues as well as those who listened to them.
Simchala Puterflam even threatened the folks who were coming back with this
kind of news. Surrounded in the market place with a group of Jews who toadied
up to him because he was a rich man and a man of the world, he warned, In
Modzjitz, there's not going to be any strikes. All theses crazy people aren't
going to raise their heads up here. This is a fortress town. And don't forget
that the fortress has its own troops and people to take care of this kind of
Among the younger people who came back were three sons of Modzjitz, each one of
which had ripped out the heart of and caused great shame to their own parents.
There were Isaac (Yitzhak) Kanterovitch, the Purim businessman's son, Vladimir
(Velvel) Horwitz, the son of Yoel the butcher and Yaacov-Hershela,
These three boys were from a while back already quite out of step and at odds
with the town and with their parents.
The Purim businessman's young son really slapped his father in the face. The
father had hung all of his dreams on the son. He himself wasn't able to tear
himself away from his business life in exile. For that reason, he always
dreamed of bringing up his son according to the ideal that he carried in his
mind, to make him a new kind of Jew, who would go off to Israel and help build
up the Holy Land.
The Purim businessman didn't entrust all this to happen just by miracle, he
didn't give his son over to the religious teacher of Modzjitz who would teach
him a little bit of the Tenach, the old testament, nor to the other religious
schools, where they would stuff the children full of Gemorah. Since this was
before the era of the Lithuanian religious teacher, the father decided that he
was going to teach his son by himself. Every day after Ma'ariv [evening
prayer], he left his store in charge of his wife and sat down at his table with
his little boy in order to drill into him a little bit of Isaia and Jeremiah,
some grammar, but also the holy language Hatzfira. Even before
Modzjitz had heard of a State school, he had already sent his son to learn
Polish and Russian, and when he got his Bar-Mitzvah, he decked him out in a
student hat with a lacquered brim, dressed him up in the appropriate little
uniform, with the back pack, with books in it on his shoulders, and sent him
away to the agricultural school near Czenstechov.
The pale, half consumptive, Purim businessman, was always hoping for the day
when he would be able to send his son on his way to Israel so that his younger
brothers would someday be able to follow him there and he would be able to help
them and then he himself would be able to throw off the weight of his life in
Poland and he himself would follow and go to the Holy land and establish
himself there as well. But his son Yitzhak took a very different path. He
decided he didn't want to go to the agricultural school and left and entered a
polytechnic school in Warsaw. Well, that wasn't too terrible. After all, to
build the new land of Israel, you did need engineers, just as you needed people
who knew about agriculture. But, even worse, he not only walked out of the
agricultural school, he also threw out the Zionist ideals. He no longer had any
interest in speaking a single word of Hebrew and instead of the great dream of
liberating Eretz-Israel, he burned to liberate Poland. Poland, he said, was his
home, not Palestine. Even the yiddish language no longer found its way to his
lips. Just Polish, and more Polish. It didn't help, no matter how much his
father talked to him or how much his mother cried. Of course, his father would
have liked to find some way to resolve this with his son, but on the other hand
where is it written that he has to carry on his shoulders the burden of his son
until he becomes a regular Polish engineer, and for that matter a Polish
patriot. It might even be more of a mitzvah if he were to withhold the
allowance he sent his son every month, in order that he himself, that much
sooner, could get out of his business, close down his store, and save himself
by going to Israel before the younger children grew up and were led astray by
their wayward older brother. But God punished him. And Yitzhekel, the son, had
in fact inherited not only his father's stubbornness, but also his weak lungs.
The story is that Yitzhekel was just skin and bones. His pallor had turned an
ashen green, he was even coughing up drops of blood. Now, should Yitzhekel be
allowed to work in a factory, as he threatened to do, and then spend the whole
night buried in his books studying? And if that were to happen, it wouldn't be
very long before he wouldn't have a son to argue with about whether or not he
should go to Israel, or whether or not he should be a Zionist or not, or
whether or not he should be a Pole or not. This really tore up the father's
heart, this whole process. Maybe with the help of God something good would come
of all this. Also there was the anticipation of very, very unsettled times in
the world. The son, instead of studying, had taken to hanging out in the
cellars and attics of Warsaw. He all of a sudden became a proletarian, with the
P.P.S.. Day and night he ran around to meetings and talked his
weak, consumptive lungs out. God forbid if his father had not run to Warsaw to
bring him home, who knows what would have happened to him. He might even have
rotted away in prison.
The other individual who came back in those days was the butcher's son. He was
just the opposite of Yitzhekel. Just as thin and green and pale as Yitzhekel
was, Velvelva was red faced and healthy, just as if he'd been taken off the
butcher's chopping block. Until a little bit after his Bar-Mitzvah, he liked to
hang around the religious study house, he liked to study the Gemorah. But then
he began to secretly, instead of that, looked at secular books. He buried
himself in secular books. He prepared himself for the examination at the
But before Velvela lived to go to the University, his father, Yoel Katzev, a
bitter Jew, with a pair of heavy, menacing evil eyebrows, got infuriated. More
than once Velvela's father wanted to cut him off, and the wars between he and
his father just never stopped, until at one point, if the son hadn't had his
mother's, Yechbudel, the butcher's wife's big head on his own shoulders, he
wouldn't have come up with a really super idea or trick. In the middle of his
father's scolding him and telling him he was going tod rive him out of the
house and turn him out without a bite of bread in his mouth, Velvela came out
with this, I'm going to convert.
This little word worked like magic. Yoel the butcher was absolutely stunned
into silence, like an ox who gets hit over the head with an ax. From terror of
conversion he became soft as butter. The poor man wiped his mouth and in all
this business with his son he decided he was just going to turn it over to his
wife, a woman who was a head taller than him, a Cossack with a mannish voice
for whom the women who came into the butcher shop trembled. But this very
Yechbudel, just as she could be sharp and tough and boss people around, also
knew, when it was necessary, how to hide her toughness and wrap it up in sweet,
flattering tones, and speak in her manly voice so softly that it was like oil
flowing from her broad, big mouth. And in that way, she, Yechbudel, hearing of
her son's threat to convert, said to her husband, Let me take care of
this, Yoel, I'll work it out with him.
In truth, Yechbudel, the butcher's wife, felt that it really wasn't such a
dangerous situation. After all, the kid didn't go to a priest. It was just a
little conversion game. Nevertheless, you shouldn't tease the devil. And so she
prepared to talk to him in a very honey, sweet voice and she went back to the
house and she sat down across from him and laid her two butcher's hands, which
were all bloody, on the table, and began to talk to him in a very soft,
Tell me, what's really going on here Velvel? You don't want to study
[religious], you don't want to work in the butcher's shop, a person has to do
I want to study [secular], the boy raising his head from his book,
said calmly and sharply replied.
What is it with this, what are you talking about studying? How are you
going to do this? But, on that score, Velvel wasn't really worried. His
father and mother could cry all they wanted, but he knew that since the War the
father's business, though Simchela Puterflam, was going great guns, because he
supplied the meat to the fortress. In the process his leather wallet which he
kept under his shirt, was swollen with money. Not only did he now have a one
story house, but he had a wall around it to show for himself. So his father was
quite wealthy and he wasn't worried about his father's ability to take care of
It's not really going to take that much anyway for me to get an
education. He calmed his mother. Then they essentially started to haggle
with each other, he and his mother, until he pretty much got what he wanted.
Poor old Yoel the butcher, groaned and gave up the money to his wife and his
wife fixed her boy up with clean laundry and took care of his clothes with
money and a monthly allowance and sent him on his way. Frankly, people barely
knew where he went. A while later, people learned that he had gone to St.
Petersburg and was studying medicine there. Now, though, he came home, but the
person who came home was not Velvela the butcher's son, but Vladimir-Horowitz,
a medical student in a black satin shirt, buttoned all the way up to his throat
with a red silk belt and a thick, black curl over his brow. A regular
The third kid, Yaacov Hershela, was, to tell the truth, really not a student at
all. He wanted to study, but he stayed in his father's shop. The father, a very
well dressed Jew, with a black, meticulously combed beard, was a timber
merchant who had two sets of clothes, one for God and one for the World. He
wore a big fur hat, and a black coat on the Sabbath to pray at the Rabbis.
During the week, when he was on timber business, he wore a slightly battered
coat but of elegant gray material. His hat was narrow with a little brim, very
Jewish, yet foppish.
Moshe-Leizor wasn't particularly afraid of conversion, like simple Yoel the
butcher. And he also wasn't afraid of his son's threats that he would darken
the family name by becoming a wagon driver. Moshe-Leizor was of Abel's way of
thinking. He was not of an elite, Hasidic family, but he was a Hasid from
Modzjitz. He was a stubborn man and a powerful, influential person. His motto
essentially was, either his son follows the path he set out for him or he can
get out. He really wanted, this Moshe-Leizor, that his son, Yaacov-Hershela,
the only son of his first wife, should be like he was, a man who was devoted
both to God and to business. He didn't spare any money. He spent freely on the
best religious teachers. He also allowed him to learn to write and to do math,
because a Jew without a pen was, in Moshe-Leizor's mind, like a blind man
without a staff.
But, all of these things didn't appeal to Yaacov-Hershela at all. He really
didn't know what he wanted. He was an orphan without a real sense of belonging
from childhood on, in a house with a stepmother, his father always on the road
or in Danzig or in the forests. The boy grew up without a real sense of
respect. He was always at odds with everybody around him. Moshe-Leizor might
have allowed him to go and study but, he was afraid to entrust any money to
him, especially somewhere where he couldn't keep an eye on him. Even under his
father's roof, the boy wasn't a very respectful person. He never picked up a
religious book, and what's even worse, he was a thief. As soon as the father,
Friday evening, used to stick his purse with money into the cabinet, the boy,
with his own key, the hell with Sabbath, took the purse and used the money, not
only on himself, but with other kids, who he hung around with. They went around
to restaurants and pigged out on roast geese, they drank beer, and fooled
around with girls. And even if Moshe-Leizor hid his purse, so that his son
couldn't find it, he stole something from the house and he pawned it, whatever
he could get. He carried on so. One day he lifted his father's golden cigarette
case, his father's first wedding present.
For awhile, Yaacov-Hershela tried to fight it out with his father to try to get
his father to give him money so he could travel to Warsaw and prepare himself
with the University, meanwhile though, while he was still in Modzjitz, he
started to grow his hair long, like Gorky, whose picture he had, just to spite
his father, hanging over his head where he slept. He also had a shirt with a
silk belt, he used to wear all the time. Seeing his son acting this way, his
father, Moshe-Leizor, instead of giving him money so that he could go to the
University, just threw him out of the house all together. At that point the son
went away to Radom, and really got back at his father. He really darkened the
family name and spit on his inheritance by becoming a wagon driver.
Now, he came back home, Yaacov-Hershela, a regular socialist. Not even a
student. Still though, because of his family background, he hung around with
students like Vladimir-Horwitz and Isaac-Kanterovitch, but he would also scold
them and call them assimilationists and he used to say they danced at the
weddings of strangers. Not the P. P. S., that Isaac belonged to,
that's not going to free Poland, nor the Bund, the Socialist movement in Russia
of the Russian Proletariat that Horwitz belonged to, that isn't going to do any
good either, that's not going to help the Jewish people at all. Only a Jewish
Proletariat and a return to Israel is going to answer the Jewish question.
Little by little, the young people who came back, these three in particular,
became sort of important people in Modzjitz in their own way. Their word was
listened to, became a command almost. When they gave the word, the work place
would just shut down. And when they winked, the workers would go back to their
jobs. They started to dictate or give orders about just how much work the boss
could ask of one of their employees, and how many hours in a day they should
have to work. Girls who were servants came to them and complained about their
bosses. And poor folks came to them looking for justice against all kinds of
things that were done to them. Already people had stopped going to the Rabbi to
work things out and had begun to start going to the State courts. Not only poor
folk came to get some kind of resolution from these young men but even Yoel the
butcher who had awhile before made up with his son, said before his son's eyes,
the way it is now, it is my son's word about a given matter that has more
import now, even more than the Modjitzer Rabbi's!
Modzjitz really was truly and really turned upside down. The workers didn't
buddy around like they used to with the bosses. They didn't play around anymore
at cards with the bosses. They didn't go to the synagogue anymore to pray. Even
the school kids became a lot more bold.
With a mixture of fear, respect and mockery, the bosses looked on while their
workers quit work at six o'clock in the evening, washed up, changed their
clothes, took a little walking stick in their hands and walked up and down the
highway as if it were a Sabbath day!
And the police didn't even get mixed up in all this. The local troops were
never actually seen, they kept a very low profile. It seemed as if they were
hiding out at the tavern and looking out from behind the curtains, smiling into
their mustaches. The goyim were somehow in turmoil. Their peasant
heads weren't able to take in everything that was happening. They couldn't
understand why the State authorities were apparently just keeping quiet and why
they didn't ask them to get involved and why the fortress just made believe as
if nothing were happening. Event he army patrols and the Cossacks who roamed
over town with loaded rifles acted as if nothing were going on. If somebody
from some corner would scream out, Down with dictatorship, Hurrah!
the Cossacks just smiled and went on their way, as if it really didn't mean
Something like a very sunny, happy, magical holiday, had descended on the town.
The Rabbi's House
The Rabbi's house was just as few steps from the courtyard where Yarme-David,
with a whole bunch of other poor people lived, in little broken down houses,
yet the Rabbi's house seemed like it was on a different planet.
It was a very spacious, wooden house. It's color was a dark brick color, with
carved cornices over the door and big, broad windows. There were many acacia
trees in the front of the house and their perfume filled the air throughout the
summer. Their broad, thick branches covered and separated the house from the
open market and spread a cool shadow over the little park area.
In the courtyard, as in an office, the Rabbi had his own, big study hall. On
holidays, it was packed with Hasidim who had traveled there from all over
Poland. Behind the study hall there was a little bit of a field with a thick
orchard where rich Hasidim rented out spaces for their carriages that they
This particular Sabbath evening, when Yarme-Ddavid went in to see the Rabbi,
the house was very, very bright. The lights were on in all of the rooms as if
it were a holiday. The Rabbi's family, his sons and daughters, sons-in-laws and
daughters-in-laws, grandchildren, big and small, in rustling silk and quiet,
soft satin and fur, busied themselves throughout the rooms as if now it was the
week time again, it was no longer officially the Sabbath, and they were going
to start to make up for the time they were not doing anything.
It was very bright now in the Rabbi's courtyard. From all sides in the closed
courtyard Hasidim walked around with the remains of white challah loaves stuck
in their shirt. Some of them brought along a little bit of schnapps that was
left over from the Sabbath feast. Store owners brought fat, juicy herring in to
Tirtze, in the kitchen, so that she could chop them up with onions and apple,
mix it up with vinegar and make a very tasty borscht.
In the big kitchen, which was placed in the house as if it were a pack on the
back of the house, poor Hasidim worked over pots. They stirred them and lifted
them onto the big, blue colored lime stove in which fire crackled happily under
all the burners of the stove. In the middle of the kitchen the cook moved
around, she was an aguna [a wife who's husband has left her], with a big behind
and a pair of thick arms and a mouth that never stopped moving and never
stopped telling the Hasidim what to do with the baskets full of potatoes and
beets. She bossed them around like you would a shoemaker's apprentice.
Why are you peeling that so thick? There's not going to be anything left
to throw in the pot!
Also, in front of her, in a brightly lit study hall, it was very lively. Young
men with beards, in their Sabbath hats and coats with their belts hanging out,
busied themselves back and forth. They sat at the heavy, carved table and on
the benches and they sang Psalms in the original words of David the King, and
they sang out with joy and gusto, David, Melach Yisrael, Chai, Chai,
It was quiet though, in the other wing of the house and around the Rabbi's
room. The Modzjitzer Rabbi, a very distinguished man with big, wise gay eyes
and a broad, gray beard with curly payes, had just come in from the big dining
hall where he made havdala [end of Sabbath prayer] for the whole household over
a golden beaker of wine. Two little boys, the youngest grandchildren, in silk
coats with gold braided Yalmelkas stood on two chairs on the sides of the table
and held high the braided, many colored havdala candle, which flickered and
spritzed with joyous light over those for whom the Rabbi made the blessing,
Meanwhile, there in the lit up dining hall the sons-in-laws and sons sang the
Hamavdel Ben Kodesh Lechol, and while they were doing that, the
Modzjitzer Rabbi, with a wrinkled hat on his head, in a big silk coat and white
socks with soft slippers on his feet, went into his room and walked back and
forth, from the book case with the Holy books, to the table, and from the table
to the book case with the Holy books, and very quietly to himself he kind of
murmured a little melody that he just made up. He completely forgot his long,
blue porcelain pipe, freshly lit for him, which the Shames, Noteh, gave to him,
as a token of the beginning of the week. Deep in thought, he mulled over the
tone and rhythm of the new melody that he'd made up. He held one hand inside of
his garment as he did this and out of his garment there was just a little tip
of red, Turkish handkerchief.
It was very quiet in the anti-room that led to the Rabbi's room. Noteh, the
Rabbi's Shames, a short Jew, gray, hairy, with a lot of veins in his brow and
nose, whose appearance resembled that of an old tree, was already very much
involved with weekly activities. From one side he blew on the hollow part of
his boot, which he didn't have on, as if it were with the bellows, and he blew
over the chimney of the samovar.
Isaac told me, before praying in the morning, that you have to have a
conference with somebody.
The hairy little Jew started to scratch under his satin shirt. He was a little
bit uneasy because as long as he could remember nobody had come to see the
Rabbi on a consultation during the regular week.
Wait a minute, he said and began to pick up his boot. Now he slowly
walked to the window, wiped it a little bit with his forefinger on the moist
glass and put over his soft jacket a long coat and slowly walked into the
Yarme-David, with three groshen notes already in hand, which is the Rabbi's
fee, was standing now in front of the door of the anti-room. The whole time,
Noteh, the Shames stood. Yarme-David stood with his heart beating in a state of
trepidation. Rebenu Shalolem, God-almighty. Would he at least be
able to maintain his strength? Would he at least be able to tell the Rabbi
everything that was pressing his heart? Would he be able to confess that he
himself, with his own hands, had brought about this tragedy? First, he had
brought about his mother's death. Now Chana-Leah is so very, very sick, will
the Rabbi at least give him a hearing and would he be able to give him some
kind of counsel to guide him?
But just then the door to the Rabbi's room opened. Yarme-David kind of
twitched, as if he were about to lose his balance and he couldn't even go any
further and he just about fell in through the open door, Noteh, though, with
his own breath, his own body, stood in his way, said quietly, Wait,
and even more quietly to the Rabbi through the door behind him.
For the first time, the hairy little Jew, in a pretty unpleasant way, began to
berate Yarme-David about what the Rabbi was supposed to get.
Illiterate, bumpkin, cattle-driver! he said very sharply and
looking at the Jew with the red beard, who was almost on the verge of tears.
Before you go into the Rabbi, I better write out a little bill for you
about the transaction.
Of course, of course, Reb Noteshe , Yarme-David in a beaten down
way stammered. Of course I brought the fee for him. And he began to
open his hand with the three copper coins.
The little Jew slowly walked to the window, sat down by the table and began to
write something with a goose feather over a little bit of paper and while he
was doing this he frequently lifted his head and looked at Yarme-David.
How is the sick woman doing? And how is your mother? How is her mother
and how's your mother?
Like a very attentive and fearful child, Yarme-David stood near the hairy Jew
and answered with terror and fear everything he was asked.
Finally Noteh finished up his writing, he laid the quill down and took a little
sand scattering device and scattered the sand on the moist script with little
rows of white dry sand. Now he lifted up his very hairy hand to Yarme-David's
hand but since Yarme-David didn't grasp what the other Jew was waiting for he
just simply, without getting it, stuck out his hand with red hairs on it to get
the note that had been written out. Noteh said to him in an angry, belligerent
way, You cattle-driver! You know writing out this little piece of paper
here costs six groshens.
Yarme-David felt the blood rush to his face, not God forbid from anger, but
from shame. It was true, he had never even thought about Noteh. He had only
thought about the eight groshens that he had to pay for the consultation.
Reb Noteh, I will, with God's help, make this up to you.
Yarme-David said with shame. I don't have a cent more than 8 groshens for
the Rabbi, blessed be his name.
Noteh, the Shames, got very heated. The red veins in his hairy nose got redder.
What arrogance and chutzpah! He pushed his chair away. During
the week you're already trying to do things on credit. Do you always try to
borrow money and get off free from the doctor?
Yarme-David just stood there. He couldn't even think of anything to say. It
wasn't his way to fall down in front of somebody and beg. He could only try to
reply once, that was the best he could do rather than try and explain something
a second time. He'd rather be buried alive before he'd ask anybody to lend him
anything of God forbid, give him anything. He wasn't that kind of person. Reb
Noteh saw that there wasn't much point in proceeding this way and so he finally
just shoved the bill into his hand and led him into the Rabbi's room.
Good week, Rabbi, Yarme-David said very quietly, he stammered it
with fear in his voice.
The Rabbi didn't pay any attention to Yarme-David's greeting, he simply
answered, Good week, good year, and continued sitting with his back
to the inner part of the house. All that Yarme-David saw was a high back of a
very soft, red material chair, two long gray curled payes, and a little satin
hat on the top of his head. He heard a little bit of murmuring. The Rabbi was
murmuring something to himself and he was rocking back and forth, to the left
and to the right, like a metronome.
With great fear Yarme-David moved over to the table, with trembling hands he
laid the receipt he's gotten outside with the three sixer notes and then he
moved backward like a pious Jew would move backwards from a holy place.
Also at this moment, the Rabbi didn't look at him. He just sat there and pushed
away the little mound of money notes, took a hold of the receipt with the
information it had and brought it very, very close to his eyes.
His reading of it took a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to
Yarme-David. Finally the Rabbi turned his head towards him.
Yare-David, son of Perel, go home. The sick woman Leah, daughter of
Chava, is going to be all right, she's going to get a cure and feel
Yarme-David stood there dumbly. How can he go now. How can he pass up this
opportune moment with the Rabbi. Did he just come here for a cure for his wife
so that his wife would feel better? And what about him? What about his own
problems? He needed, unfortunate one that he was, to ask for some way of
getting out of his deep problem, from the Rabbi, his great feeling of guilt,
which he carried in himself since his mother's death, and now afterwards, when
it seemed that Chana-Leah had become so ill and in danger.
Holy Rabbi, he fell into the Rabbi's lap, Save me, I am
sinful. Only God, through you, Rabbi, can help me. I'm willing to take on
myself the most difficult kind of repentance.
Just now, Yarme-David began to really cry and a stream of imprecations, begging
and praying just flowed from him, as if from a full barrel where the spout had
just been opened. It was the first time in his life that a great whale of tears
had opened in him with such power.
Holy Saint, with my own hands I took my mother out of this world!
The Rabbi fell away from Yarme-David and he was really upset by what he was
saying. He was very, very unnerved by it. His very refined, white hands which
has been resting in the wide silk cuffs of his garment had quickly reached out
to help Yarme-David to stand up, now were trembling, as if they would, God
forbid, begin to really convulse seriously. After all, it's not a small thing
for a Jew to confess to killing his own mother, God forbid.
What are you talking about, Yarme-David! Have you, God forbid, gone
crazy? asked the Rabbi with his voice trembling and his face became even
whiter than it already was, even whiter than the broad, white collar of his
Little by little Yarme-David cried himself out and told the Rabbi what was
pressing his heart. The Rabbi, after hearing everything, calmed down. Praised
be God. This Jew, God forbid, isn't any real villain, hasn't committed any real
terrible crime. Maybe he fulfilled a curse which is mother called upon herself.
Just then the Rabbi very calmly laid his two outstretched hands on
Yarme-David's shoulders and spoke to him in a soft fatherly voice. Yes,
it certainly is a sin to bring a curse to your mother, or, God forbid, to
effectuate a curse that someone else has brought upon themselves. But God is
compassionate and He will forgive you, but of course it's important that you
will atone and atonement is a very, very important matter and this is what it
says, especially about this, in the Law, Where a repentant stands, even
the utterly righteous cannot stand. This is the interpretation,
Somebody who really is atoning with all their heart can purify themselves
in a way that even a saint can not achieve. So stand up, Yarme-David, and
promise me that you will fulfill everything that I tell you to do.
Yes Rabbi, I'll even rip out the stones of the bridge with my teeth.
Now, now, the Rabbi waived that away, as if he was just being much
too common and coarse about the whole thing. A Jew shouldn't talk that
way. Better, in the morning, immediately after you go and pray, go to your
mother's grave and ask for her forgiveness. You should say to her, I,
Yisrael, son of Malka, a sprout from the line of Zvolin, forgive me. Ask
her to undo the curse whish she originally, for your sake, brought upon
herself. I hope, merciful God, that she will forgive you. A mother always
forgives her children. Afterwards, go in peace back from the graveyard, and you
should immediately have a brit [circumcision ceremony] because, you have with
your fasting and the things that you're going to do to make up for all this,
you're not going to have a daughter born to you to disgrace the seed, you need
therefore to have a brit that is really sumptuous with fish and meat because
Natan is the interpretation given and Chaim's life. Rebenu Shalolem God gave
life and what God gives we should take without resistance. One doesn't say his
beloved name lightly, you hear, Yarme-David? And if you fulfill all of the
different things that I've just laid out, I tell you that, God willing, you'll
come to the brit and stand there holding a child, and the pregnant woman,
Chana-Leah, daughter of Chava, will as a result of what you've done, have a
cure and be healthy again.
Amen, Yarme-David said with a quiet, humble voice. Yarme-David
listened to what the Rabbi had to say with his head bent down and his eyes
turned down. Although the Rabbi didn't exactly comfort him, even scolded him,
still each word of the Rabbi's was like dew from heaven. He felt great stones
roll off his heart so that his heart was free again, and it was once again
possible to live in the world. He felt the real possibility of hope and life
again that He in heaven will forgive his sins. But a brit with fish and meat
and guests at the feast, how can he manage that?
Yarme-David began to stumble over this point in his own thoughts because it
wasn't exactly his way to take upon himself obligations or promises when he
knew that he couldn't fulfill them. It was clear to him that he didn't have the
means to take care of them. He wanted to ask, Holy Rabbi, a brit like
that? I'm just a poor cattle driver. However, the Rabbi already knew what
he was thinking and didn't even let him ask. He just responded to him,
About the brit, don't worry, with God's help, everything will
Yarme-David kissed the mezuzah. Quiet and humble, he said, God week,
Rabbi, and he went out of the Rabbi's room.
Coming outside, he wanted to run home and tell the good news, but outside there
he met up with a tall fellow, Isaac.
Isaac was a kind of a bent over fellow and always seemed to be in deep thought
with both hands folded into his sleeve. And he was kind of humming a little
melody of the Modzjitzer Rabbi. At this moment, tall Isaac was on his way to
the Rabbi in the prayer house to the meal that ushers out the Sabbath. Meeting
up with Yarme-David, with great contentment, he stopped.
Good week Yarme-David. I hope that you have some kind of great salvation
happen to you.'
Amen, Yarme-David very piously answered.
So, what did I tell you? tall Isaac said with some victory in his
voice, just as if he had known what the Rabbi said to Yarme-David. So you
want to follow me. Its like I told you Yarme-David, its nothing really that
terrible. There's a great God in the world. Now listen to me, come in, we'll
eat the feast together to usher out the Sabbath.
What are you talking about Isaakel? This kind of a Sabbath meal in the
Rabbi's house, I don't belong there. I'm just a cattle driver, I don't belong
among Hasidim and fine Jews.
That doesn't make sense, tall Isaac said with a wag of his head.
In the eyes of the Almighty, all Jews are equal.
But after all the talk, tall Isaac went alone to the study house and
Yarme-David went home. Before leaving the gateway of the Rabbi's place, he
turned around again once and he looked at the windows of the Rabbi's prayer
house and he heard the singing that flowed out from there and it moved him. The
sky was clear, the stars sparkled, a half moon like a silver horn hung over the
Rabbi's roof. In the prayer house, around the big study table, Hasidim sat,
bunched together. They had their big, flat black hats on, their black coats
with silk material and they rhythmically rocked back and forth and with their
rocking sang sweet, religious reverent song. And Yarme-David felt very warm
inside and it seemed to him that everything became brighter and the trees
became quieter and the mysterious fields and there roofs covered with snow and
the great expanse were holding their breath and listening to the Jews as they
Our descendents and wealth shall multiply as sand, and as stars at night!
Pesach Melamed's little School
Although the summer heat was awful, just like fire flowing down from heaven,
Peasach-Melamed, a pale Jew with a broad white beard and gray tearful eyes, sat
as always in a jacket garment of soft, black cotton which was buttoned up all
the way to his skinny throat.
Te hair on his head was yellow with age and on it there was a thick, saturated
by sweat, feathered, turning green, satin Yalmekah. Around him, on both sides
of the table, which had been nicked and carved with little boys' knives, sat
four and five year old students, bent over open, yellowed prayer books and they
rocked rhythmically back and forth singing after him with feeling, Yig
Higher, goyim, Pesach-Melamd encouraged them, Higher! I want
to hear it better. He encouraged the little Jews in their big prayer
shawls with the little curled payes. Higher, once again, Yud, Yud Gimel,
Petach Dalet, Lamed! Once again, Yig-Dal!
Just as Pesach-Melamed, with the little boys at the table in front, just as he
was working with them, in the same way, in another corner, near the door, sat
one of his assistant teachers, a tall young man, thin, with a pale face, which
was covered with red freckles. Around him, on both sides of the table, sat a
whole bunch of girls, some of them fairly old, with heavy braids and high, full
bosoms. The girls also rhythmically repeated what he had said, what they'd been
reading from open, yellowed prayer books. They read it and he just said it by
heart and they followed him.
Away from the table, over the whole breath of the big, four cornered room,
there were rows of long, black colored reading benches which actually were like
a gentile school. On the seats and on the reading desks there was a convergence
of a lot of little kids, it was like it was an anthill. Little boys of three to
six years in long overcoats with black satin and cotton hats on their heads
were gathered around there where they pushed each other and hit each other and
made a lot of noise just as if the rabbi wasn't even in the same room with
them. From time to time, when Pesach-Melamed just couldn't take it anymore, the
noise and the uproar just got to him, he raised his disciplinary whip, a goat's
foot with 12 thick tails, just like you raise up a flag, and peered over his
brass spectacles with ferocity, in his pale, parchment dry face, and when he
did that it became so quiet in the room that you could hear people breathing.
Little boys sat down again, very quietly, like little statues, and with nervous
hands held on to the edges of their desks. They cast terrified glances at the
Rabbi wondering if he was going to get up, as he did, I nthese situations, and
give somebody a good licking.
Because of this whip and because of that ferocious glance of his, Yarme-David
decided to entrust his sons to the old Pesach-Melamed. He thought that he could
really handle kids, that he wouldn't take any nonsense. The new fashions,
modern reading desks, which the Rabbi had to install to comply with the
regulations of the State, and he also had teaching there a couple of teachers
who had German style caps on their heads and black pinch-nez and they taught
the children Polish, although that part of it was a big flaw to Yarme-David,
instead of something positive, he liked the school because of its old fashioned
methods. Pesach-Melamed's whip, in Yarme-David's mind, overcame all the other
flaws of the school. Although in other schools he would only have had to pay
half as much tuition for his kids, Yarme-David skimped on the little bit of
bread that he did have and sent his kids to Pesach-Melamed. The older kid,
Leibel-Moshe, was already there and he already needed to begin studying
Gemorah. The other one, Avram-Yankel, was there in the third year. Now he was
bringing his third son, Natan-Chaim. Here he is Reb Pesach, teach him
Jewishness, he said, sitting down his kid, who was all sweaty and silent
and full of held back tears. The most important thing, Reb Pesach, don't
spare the whip!
Yarme-David was all worked up and full of sweat and angry from trying to deal
the whole way with his kid, who had been kicking him and fighting with him with
his little fists, just trying to get out of his grasp the whole time.
Here you are, you little piece of goy, here you are in the heder,
he screamed at his son, and slapped him on his hands, on his clenched up
resentful quiet little face, which was stubbornly holding back his tears.
His arrival at the heder with this struggling little boy under his arm, had
caused a sudden silence to descend on everything. The students, who had just
been singing and studying and rhythmically moving back and forth suddenly were
absolutely silent with terrified eyes. They looked at the Jew with the red
beard, who was panting so hard and wiping his angry face with his shirt.
Pesach-Melamed pushed the brass spectacles onto his brow and slowly turned his
easy chair closer to Natan-Chaim. He stroked his clenched up, silent little
face and he raised his chin and asked him with a lot of softness in his voice.
What's your name, little boy?
Instead of answering, little Natan-Chaim pushed the old man's hand away from
his head and he turned around so that he would not have to look at either his
father or the old Jew with the white beard.
Oh, he really is a little goy. Pesach Melamed said to
You play around with him, Yarme-David said in a very worried way to
his son. You play around with him, and you'll see what he can do with
that thing in his hand!
Now, now. The older Pesach waived that away with his pale yellow
hand. Just leave him alone for a minute. He'll be able to talk, you'll
see. And to show the little kid what he meant by what he said, he raised
up his whip in front of Natan-Chaim's face, You see little boy, he
warned him, if a little boy is stubborn, we lay him down, we role up his
shirt, and we give it to him!
Natan-Chaim wanted to run away, but the old man was quick enough to grab him by
one of his little hands and sit him down in his lap and keep his little legs
there between his two bony knees.
Just then the little boy began to try and tear away from and punch the old man,
screaming as loud as he could, letting out all the stuff he's been keeping in.
I don't want to be here! Mommy!
In his hitting the old white Jew, the little boy didn't see his father taking
off, but even if his father were there, he wouldn't have turned to him for
help. Only his mother. Mommy, I don't want to be here!
Pesach-Melamed, although he could be a very angry Jew at times, who was quite
used to raising up his whip and using it, decided to try to deal with his new
little pupil with good will. From long years of experience he knew, with a boy
like this, it was better to try and win him over.
You see, little boy, he pointed with his finger to the ceiling,
If you really want to study, an angel is going to drop a penny down for
you. And in order that the little boy should really believe him, he right
away took out a copper penny from his jacket pocket and let it fall from his
raised hand onto the table with a little ping.
The child opened his eyes. He looked up a few times, to the blue plaster of the
ceiling. Afterwards, he tried to take the little coin in his hands, looking at
the same time with distrust on the Jew with the white beard.
Take it, take it, the old man encouraged him. And he himself got
hold of the big alphabet chart from the wall. So, little boy, and
he turned to little Natan-Chaim, now take a look here.
And he pointed with his great bone pointer to the Aleph-Bet. Do you see
the little head on the top, and the little feet on the bottom? That's an Aleph.
Say after me, Aleph. And the little open box, do you see that? That's a Bet.
Say it loud.
Natan-Chaim liked the game. All at once, he forgot his stubbornness and he
himself began to trace with his little finger the Aleph-Bet and pick out the
letters which his mother and brothers had from time to time, taught him.
That's Kuf, he said loudly and happily, and pointed to the big Kuf.
That's a Lamed, that's a Fay!
Pesach-Melamed's troubled face lightened up quite a bit. Ach, you are a
good little boy, he said to him lovingly, and stroked the red, overheated
little face. Now come with me. He took the child off his lap and
took him by the hand and led him among the rows of study desks, over to
Avram-Yankel, his older brother, who the whole time had been sitting very
quietly and looking at what had been going on with his little brother.
Sit here, the old teacher said to his new little student. If
you follow and you really want to study, the angel always throws pennies down
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