Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Neilah in Gehenna

Born in Russian Poland, Isaac Loeb Peretz (1825-1915) began writing at a very early age, but was educated for the law, and practiced it successfully in his native Zamoshch until he moved to Warsaw, where he worked for the Kehillah (the organized community) until his death. This activity did not prevent him from turning out an almost uninterrupted stream of stories, plays, poems, and essays; these earned him a place next to Sholom Aleichem and Mendele as one of the “greats” of Yiddish literature.

The last selection from Peretz’s work to appear in these pages, in February 1953, was a rather sober factual report on life in a shtetl sixty years ago, which ran in the “Study of Man” department. The present short story shows Peretz in quite a different vein, and one in which he is better known: as a creator of fantasies and parables.

The translation of the story published here was made by A. M. Klein, who is one of Canada’s outstanding contemporary poets, and a novelist as well. He is also known for his translations of Chaim N. Bialik’s Hebrew verse. In 1951 Mr. Klein received a prize from the Jewish Book Council of America for his contribution to Anglo-Jewish poetry.—Ed.

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The town square. An ordinary day, neither a market day nor a day of the fair, a day of drowsy small activity. Suddenly there is heard, coming from just outside the town, approaching nearer and nearer, a wild impetuous clatter, a splutter and splashing of mud, a racket of furious wheels! In-ter-est-ing, think the merchants, wonder who it is? At their booths, at their storefronts, they peer out, curious.

As the galloping horse, the thundering wagon, turn into and careen through the square, they are recognized! The townsfolk recoil, revulsion and fear and anger upon their faces: the Informer of the neighboring town is at it again. Post-haste to the capital! God alone knows on whom he is going to do a job now.

Suddenly a stillness falls upon the market place. Reluctantly, with loathing, the townsfolk look around. The wagon has come to a halt. The horse is lazily nuzzling in the mire of the wheel ruts. And the Informer, fallen from his seat, lies stretched on the ground!

Well, even an informer has a soul, they can’t just let him lie there, so the townsfolk rush forward to the body, motionless in the mud. Dead—like every other corpse! Finished! The members of the Burial Society make ready to do the deceased his last rites.

Horse and wagon are sold to pay for the funeral expense; the Informer is duly interred; and those little imps of dispatch, who crop up just there where you won’t see them, snatch up his soul and bear it off to the watchers of the gates of Gehenna.

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There, at the gates, the Informer is detained while the fiend of reception, he who keeps Hell’s register of admission and discharge, wearily puts the questionnaire to him and as wearily, with his leaking pen, enters the answers: Who, When, How.

The Informer—in Hell he feels cut down to size—respectfully answers:

Born in such and such a place; became a son-in-law in such and such a place; was supported by father-in-law for such and such a number of years; abandoned wife and children; pursued, in such and such places, his chosen profession, until, his time having come, as he was passing with horse and wagon through the market place of Ladam—

At the mention of this name, the fiend of reception, in the middle of a yawn, pricks up his ears.

“How do you say it? La-ha-”

“Ladam!”1

The fiend goes red in the face, little lights of puzzlement twinkle in his eyes, and he turns to his assistants. “Ever hear of such a town?”

The assistant imps shrug their shoulders. Their tongues stuck between their teeth, they shake their heads. “Never heard of it!”

Is there such a town?”

Now in the records of Gehenna every community has its own file, and these files are all alphabetically arranged, and every letter has its own filing cabinet. So a careful search is made through L—Lublin, Lemberg, Leipzig, they’re all there—but no Ladam!

“Still, it’s there,” the Informer persists, “a town in Poland.”

“Contemporary or historical?”

“Founded twenty years ago. The Baron built it up. It boasts, in fact, two fairs per year. Has a synagogue, a house of study, a bathhouse. Also two Gentile taverns.”

Again the Registrar addresses himself to his assistants. “Any of you remember—did we ever get anybody here from Ladam?”

“Never!”

Impatiently they turn to the Informer. “Don’t they ever die in this Ladam of yours?”

“And why shouldn’t they?” he answers, Jewish-wise, with a question returned. “Close, congested hovels that stifle you. . . . A bathhouse where you can’t catch your breath. . . . The whole town—a morass!”

The Informer is now in his element.

“Never die!” he continues. “Why, they have a completely laid-out cemetery! It’s true that the Burial Society will flay you for the costs of burial before they bring you to eternal rest, but still a cemetery they do have. And not so long ago, they had an epidemic, too. . . .”

The interrogation at an end, due judgment is rendered concerning the Informer, and concerning the town of Ladam clue investigation instituted. A town twenty years old, a town with an epidemic history—and not one soul landed in Gehenna! This was a matter one couldn’t let drop.

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The imps of inquiry, therefore, are sent forth diligently to search the thing out.

They return.

True!

And they report as follows: That in the realm of Poland there is indeed a town called Ladam; that it is still extant; that it boasts its tally of good deeds and admits to a quantum (greater) of misdeeds; that its economy presents the usual occupations and the usual struggle; and that the Spirit of Evil in the said place representing Hell’s interest, that he, too, therein is not unemployed.

Why, then, have there never been any candidates for Gehenna from Ladam?

Because Ladam has a cantor! There lies the explanation. And what a cantor! Himself—he’s nothing. But his voice!. . . .A voice for singing, so sweet, so poignant-sweet, this voice, that when it weeps it penetrates right into hearts of iron, through and through, it melts them to wax! He has but to ascend the prayer stand, this cantor, and lift his voice in prayer, and behold, the entire Congregation of Ladam is made one mass of repentance, wholehearted repentance, all its officers and members reduced, as if one person, to singlehearted contrition! With what result? With the result that Up There, Ladam’s sins are nullified, voided, made of no effect! With the result that for Ladam the gates of Paradise-because of this cantor—are forthwith flung apart! . . . Comes somebody before those gates and says he’s from Ladam—no further questions asked!

It was quite easy to see that, with such a cantor in the vicinity, Gehenna would have to operate in Ladam at a loss. Accordingly, the matter was taken over by—That Certain Party—himself! Head of Hell, he would deal with the cantor, personally.

So he orders that there be brought to him alive from the regions mundane a crowing Calcutta rooster, with comb of fiery red.

Done.

The Calcutta cock, frightened and bewildered in its new roost, lies motionless on the Satanic altar, while he—may his name be blotted out!—circles about him and about, squats down before him, never takes his eye off him, his evil eye upon that bright red crest of his, winds about him, environs him, until, the spell having worked, the red crest blenches and pales and grows white as chalk. But suddenly, in the midst of this sorcery, an ominous rumbling is heard—from Up There. The Holy One, blessed be He, waxes wrathful! So he—may his name be blotted out!—in alarm desists, but not before he spits out a farewell curse:

“Cockcrow, begone! Begone his singing voice! Until the hour of his death!”

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Against whom he really launched this . curse, you, of course, have already surmised, and indeed even before the blood returned to the crest of the comb of (he Calcutta rooster, the cantor of Ladam was minus his voice. Smitten in the throat. Couldn’t bring out a note.

The source and origin of this affliction was known, but known, naturally, only to truly holy Jews, and even of these, perhaps not to all. But what could one do? One couldn’t, of course, explain it, the cantor just wouldn’t understand. It was one of those things. . . . Now, had the cantor himself been a man of good deeds, worth, and piety, one might perhaps have interceded for him, hammered at the gates of Heaven, clamored against injustice, but when the cantor was, as all knew, a man of insignificant merit, a trifle in the scales, a nothing, why, then. . . .

So the cantor himself went knocking at the doors of the great Rabbis, soliciting their help, imploring their intervention before the Heavenly Throne.

To no avail. It couldn’t be done.

At last, winning his way into the court of the Zaddik of Apt, he cleaves to the Zaddik, won’t be sundered from him, weeps, begs, and unless and until he is helped, won’t budge a step from the court. It is a most pitiable thing to see. Not being able to suffer the poor cantor’s plight any longer, the Zaddik of Apt finally prevails upon himself to tell him the irrevocable, but not without mixing in it some measure of consolation. “Know, cantor,” he says, “that your hoarseness will persist until your death, but know also that when, at the hour of your death, you come to say the Prayer of Repentance, you will say it with a voice so clear, you will sing it with a voice so musical, that it will resound through all the corridors of Heaven!”

“And until then?”

“Lost!”

The cantor still refuses to depart. “But Rabbi, why? Rabbi, what for?”

He persists so long that at last the Zaddik tells him the whole story—Informer, rooster, and curse.

“If that’s the case,” the cantor cries out in all his hoarseness, “if that’s the case, I—will—have—my—revenge!” And he dashes out.

“Revenge? How and from whom?” the Zaddik calls after him.

But the cantor is gone.

This was on a Tuesday, some say Wednesday, and that Thursday, in the evening, when the fishermen of Apt, out on the river to catch their fish for the Sabbath, drew up their nets, they drew forth—the drowned body of the cantor of Ladam!

A suicide! From the little bridge over the river. For the saying of the Prayer of Repentance his singing voice had indeed come back to him, even as the Zaddik of Apt had promised, the learned Zaddik interpreting the words of That Certain Party and stressing them, “until the hour of his death”—but not the hour of his death.

Yet despite this assurance, the cantor—and this was his revenge, as you will soon see—had purposely, in that last hour, both on the bridge and in the water, refrained from saying the Prayer of Repentance!

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No sooner is the cantor buried, according to the rite of suicides, when the imps are at his soul and to Gehenna he is brought. At the gates the questions are put to him, but he refuses to answer. He is prodded with a pitchfork, stimulated with glowing coals, still he keeps mum, won’t answer.

“Take him as is!”

For these questionings in Hell are but a matter of form; Hell’s own agents have all these years lain in wait and ambushed again and again the unsuspecting cantor; Hell knows in advance the answers to Who, When, What For. The cantor is led to his proper place. A caldron boils before him.

But here, here the cantor at last permits himself the privilege of his voice. Clear and ringing he sings it forth:

Yis-ga-da-al. . . .

The Kaddish of Neilah!

He intones it, he sings it, and in singing his voice grows bolder, stronger . . . melts away . . . revives . . . is rapturous . . . glorious as, in the world, aforetime . . . no, better . . . sweeter . . . in the heart, deeper . . . from the depths clamorous . . . resurgent. . . .

Hushed are all the boiling caldrons from which up to now there had issued a continual sound of weeping and wailing; hushed; until, after a while, from these same caldrons, an answering hum is heard. The caldron lids are lifted, heads peer out, burnt lips murmur accompaniment.

The fiends of calefaction, at their stances at the caldrons, refuse, of course, to make the responses. Bewildered, abashed, they stand there as if lost, one with his faggots for the fire, another with his steaming ladle, a third with his glowing rake. Faces twisted . . . mouths agape . . . tongues lolling . . . eyes bulging from the sockets. . . . Some fall into an epilepsy, and roll, convulsed and thrashing, on the ground.

But the cantor continues with his Neilah.

The cantor continues, and the fires under the caldrons diminish and fade and go out. The dead begin to crawl forth from their caldrons.

The cantor sings on, and the Congregation of Hell in undertone accompanies him, prays with him; and passage by passage, as the prayer is rendered, hurt bodies are healed, become whole, torn flesh unites, skin is renewed, the condemned dead grow pure. . . .

Yes, when the cantor comes to the verse where he cries out, “Who quickeneth the dead,” and hell’s poor souls respond “Amen, Amen,” it is as if a resurrection, there and then, took place!

For such a clamor arises at this Amen that the Heavens above are opened, and the repentance of the wicked reaches to the Heaven of Heavens, to the Seventh Heaven, and comes before The Throne itself! And, it being a moment of grace and favor, the sinners, now saints, suddenly grow wings! One after the other out of Gehenna they fly . . . to the very gates of Paradise. . . .

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Thereafter there remained in Gehenna only the fiends, rolling in their convulsions, and the cantor, stock-still at his stand. He did not leave. True, here in Hell he had brought, as he had brought on earth, his congregation to repentance, but himself he had not known a true repentance. . . . That unsaid Prayer of Resurrection. . . .That matter of suicide. . . .

In the course of time, Gehenna was filled again, and although additional suburbs were built, still remains crowded.

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Footnotes

1 Ladam: the original Hebrew has L H D M, which are the initial letters of the words lo hoyu dvorim m’olam, meaning: these things never were; a pure fiction.

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