Commentary Magazine


Converts

It was early on a hot morning, when the only ones in Warsaw's Saxony Gardens are old usurers, consumptives, and people without the price of a meal. Sitting in my usual spot near the clock, I was absorbed in experimenting if I could actually feel a minute pass by counting to sixty. It was a rare means of forgetting my hunger.

Past my bench strolled a gentleman with a great shock of hair, eyeglasses, and a cape; he was walking a small dog with precisely the same hair and mincing step as his own. Even the dog's nose resembled the master's, it was flat and broad and lacked only the gold-rimmed glasses depending from the flaring ears.

I could sense the man's eyes on me. To be sure, the moment I looked up he dropped his eyes and made a show of scolding his dog: “Quiet, Beck!”

But soon he was again examining me. He lingered purposefully around the bench and asked suddenly: “May one sit down, sir?”

“Be my guest. The whole bench is free. . . .”

We sized each other up. There would be conversation and we were waiting to see who would begin it.

The gentleman in the cape coughs the dry, forced cough of a half-baked schoolboy trying to pick up a girl in the park. According to the ground rules, it is now up to me. All I have to say is a word or two, such as: “Awfully hot day” or “What a nice little doggie.”

But I don't say it. Maybe it's my hunger: ordinarily I would not be so cruel to another human being.

However, my neighbor can hold out no longer. “A most interesting country, yours. To find such a young man sitting in the park at this time of day—never happens at home. No, never!”

He has me trapped. His opening is so obvious that I don't dare pass it up.

“May one ask where that is?”

“Yes, of course, young man. England.”

I look up. How strange. They say the English are so fair, so reserved. Yet my companion is swarthy, curly-haired, and his nose seems to have been specifically built to hold up spectacles. Moreover, he apparently talks a blue streak.

“Hm. But what about the unemployed? People who don't—who—unh—well—”

“Have nothing to eat?”

“Right! Right! . . . Are there no such people in England?”

“Of course, but in any event, they don't sit in parks.”

“Then where?”

“There are houses in England put up by dedicated men of good will. There you can get a meal, a night's lodging, and a good book to read as well.”

I looked past him. I was deeply sorry I wasn't in England at that moment, where such decent and godly people exist.

My neighbor filled me in about the generosity found in his country: “We try to help everyone,” he said. “Negroes, and Gypsies and Chinese and Indians and heathens and Jews. . . .”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“You can make up your own mind, young man. Come along. . . .”

Again we looked each other over. I thought about it: I'm not a girl, I'm flat broke. So I rose eagerly. “Let's go. . . .”

He took the leash in one hand, my arm in the other.

“Benjamin Klebfish.”

As I walked at his side, I was further perplexed. In none of the English novels I had read in translation had I come across such a name. . . .

_____________

There was nothing to fear at the house of the Englishman—not for a girl, not even for a man with a bankroll. There were even some women there, ugly redheaded ones. I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. It sounded like the gibberish of children, talking in a make-believe language. They finally began speaking to me in the broken German of Galician Jews with its sprinkling of Yiddish expressions. They all had odd names for Englishwomen: Miss Katz, Miss Gold, Miss Barbanel, Miss Shapiro.

But even more strange were the two men I met. One was tall, lean, with yellow eyebrows and an unusually pointed adam's apple. He spoke in a rasping chant and wore a long surcoat buttoned to the neck. He introduced himself to me as “Pastor William Isaac Fishlzohn.” The other was a hunchback with a flowing, carefully combed beard and a high rabbinical forehead which bore the round mark of a discarded skullcap. As I was being led up to him he wiped his brow with a red kerchief, then extended a flabby, debilitated palm to press mine with all the tranquility of a pious Sabbath greeting.

One of the homely redheads introduced him as “Mister Ganz.”

I mumbled my name in acknowledgment and asked: “Also an Englishman?”

“Decidedly,” the hunchback said expansively, “my godfather was the famous Lord Kerton. . . .”

I coughed. I always cough when I have to keep from being rude, particularly by laughing. Fortunately, one of the redheaded girls quickly led me into a far-off room and asked: “Do you prefer your sour cream mixed with cheese or separate?”

I sat down and ate. From the room I had just left came the sounds of an organ—chords so righteous and frigid that one completely forgot the hot summer weather. I felt that I wasn't eating with propriety. This wasn't a feeling, but a fact. My enforced fast had loosened my teeth—especially the molars. I had the sensation that the cheese and sour cream could be seen through my wasted cheeks and that my jaws were trembling rapidly like an old cur's muzzle around a bone. Above me hung a naked Jesus, who was gazing with a deep concern into my eyes. He seemed to be pleading with me: “Don't bolt your food, my son, you're liable to choke. . . .”

_____________

Each morning thereafter I came to the “English.”

I ate sour cream and cheese separately, and I ate sour cream and cheese mixed. I listened to the hymns of the redheaded girls which sounded like a chorus of cats on a rainy March night. Afterward, I would go into the small chapel which was furnished with silk pillows. In the front stood a wooden statue of Jesus with a fair beard and red, gaping wounds at the heart, the hands, and the feet. Pastor Fishlzohn and Mister Ganz would be present, along with the quorum of Jews who had been coming here for weeks to learn the teachings and become members of the Anglican church—or, as Pastor Fishlzohn liked to phrase it, “to prepare to be reborn. . . .”

Among them were people from different parts of the world: One was a worried merchant from Russia who came with his wife and daughters. Having been driven out of his native city, he had dropped all of his business activities and journeyed to Warsaw to be converted. He wanted no part of the Greek Orthodox faith—not having the time to waste on attending its frequent services or consultations with priests. He merely wished for a speedy conversion so that he could get back to his business. There was a high-school graduate who was about to enter the university and already wore his blue uniform with shining brass buttons. A young engineer from Warsaw came with a technician's pin in his lapel; he was starting a job with the railroad. There was also a young widow newly married to a convert, and a crippled Jew from the provinces who had come to Warsaw to beg but had been brought here instead by Mister Klebfish. He now sat around day after day waiting for the matter to be disposed of so that he could grab the few gulden that went with his rebirth and then thumb his nose at “dear old England.”

Pastor Fishlzohn sat facing the group and slowly chanted the prayers, word after word, from an open book. He read first a chapter in English, then in Yiddish, just as the weekly portion of the Pentateuch is read in the synagogue.

“And the Lord Jesus went to Bethlehem. . . .

And Mary was driven forth. . . .”

The others hung their heads as they sat there, too ashamed to face one another. When Pastor Fishlzohn asked, “Do you understand?,” they would nod, although they understood little of the text. Mister Ganz tried to help them out. He knew that the merchant and his family spoke only Russian, the young engineer only Polish, and the cripple only Yiddish. Therefore he paced around the room with a silent, rabbinical tread, nibbling on the tip of his beard, tugging at his sideburns while he helped with the more difficult words, much like a Hebrew teacher at an examination.

“Matthew, chapter three. . . . Isaiah, chapter thirty-seven. . . .”

Now and then the merchant from Russia managed to catnap; he snored through his nose. Bored and disgusted, I would have a strong urge to catch the few flies that lighted on Jesus's maimed hands because they believed the blood was genuine. I felt sorry for Beck. He would steal surreptitiously into the chapel and. sit facing Pastor Fishlzohn—listening so avidly that I expected him at any moment to pose a question of such intricacy that not even the Pastor could answer it.

When the day's lesson ended, everyone would breathe easier except for the merchant's wife. Massaging a foot that had fallen asleep, she harangued her husband: “Well, Sasha, wouldn't it have been better to go to the priest at home? We'll be stuck here until—”

The merchant would rub his sleep-encrusted eyes: “Who knows? Go know what would be better. . . .”

_____________

My cheeks became filled out and ruddy. Besides the sour cream and cheese, the redheaded girls stuffed me with milk and chocolate. I no longer sat in the Saxony Gardens among the moneylenders, the consumptives, and the hungry, but frolicked in the paths with the nursemaids and governesses. I gave them the chocolate I had gotten from the “Englishwomen” and then we would sidle off into the thick forest while their charges in the carriages bawled “Nana! Oh! Nana! . . .”

I gave no thought to the lessons in the chapel. But one Sunday as I arrived, I stopped in surprise. The chapel had been prepared as if for a holiday. The organ kept playing incessantly. Pastor Fishlzohn wore a strange sort of frock, long, black, and shining, and without a single button. The redheads wore black dresses as fully cut as governesses' uniforms. Standing on tiptoes on a chair, Mister Ganz was placing a fresh crown of thorns on Jesus's head. The prospective converts were dressed in their best.

I could see that the “Englishmen” were now playing for keeps. As I debated whether to go inside or run away, one of the redheads suddenly took my arm: “What? Aren't you dressed yet? Come. . . .”

It all went smoothly at first. Pastor Fishlzohn asked for names, ages, addresses, and reasons for conversion. Everyone knew the proper reply by heart: “Conviction, Herr Pastor.”

Even the dour merchant from the interior of Russia seemed to glow. He looked frequently at his family with an air of satisfaction and said, “A man is a man, after all. . . .”

The redheaded ladies held hands and hugged, as old maids will, and tried to appear reverent and meditative. Mister Klebfish buffed his gold-rimmed eyeglasses, rearranged the book on the lectern, and moved the candles about. Mister Ganz padded about silently, chewed the end of his well-groomed beard, tried to adjust the frock coat to his infirmity, and altogether maintained the demeanor of a deacon at a lavish wedding who anticipated the banquet to follow.

Pastor Fishlzohn rose to his full height, opened the old book with its wooden covers and began to read. Before my eyes materialized a parade of wizened, bewhiskered people with shining halos about their saintly heads, bearing osier branches. Angels and deformed Gentile women, barefoot and in flowing robes, stretched out long arms and snatched corpses from their graves. Cherubim—stout, fleshy, moppets with aprons around their bellies—frolicked after lambkins with garlands woven into their spiraling horns. Half-naked creatures with thick legs and sheep's heads threw stones, cursed, and strained to strangle one and tear him to shreds.

The audience listened to all of it. The pastor's litany even intrigued the merchant from Russia although he understood not a word. Mister Ganz padded up silently and whispered: “The baptismal water is ready.”

Without warning Pastor Fishlzohn faced the group, coughed once or twice, and said to the young engineer: “What would you say, dear sir, if you were asked why the Lord Jesus ate of the sacred bread?”

The young engineer grew red in the face and began to stammer: “Yes . . . yes . . . well—”

Pastor Fishlzohn also blushed. Reverently lifting a finger he said with conviction: “No good! He who would be a good Christian must first be a good Jew. . . .”

He abruptly faced the merchant's family. “What would you say, ladies and sir, if you were asked why the Lord Jesus picked the corn on a Sunday?”

The merchant stared wide-eyed. His wife and daughters looked at him with terror. Pastor Fishlzohn had turned a deep crimson. His observation regarding Christians and Jews was one of his pet expressions. An aged Anglican minister had uttered those very words to him at his own conversion many years ago and they had rung true to him. Now he turned to the cripple: “Does not Matthew say in chapter—”

The silence in the chapel grew even more intense. It was so quiet that we could hear the rumbling in Mister Ganz's stomach. The hunchback knew that there was no possibility of an answer from the crippled Jew. I was the only hope left, and he came up to me and poked a pointed finger into my side: “Go on—say it! Chapter seventeeen . . . sev-en-teen! . . .”

I knew that there was a pre-arranged answer for this leading question. But while Pastor Fishlzohn's adam's apple bobbed up and down, and Mister Klebfish's nose grew even longer, and while the cowed Jews looked at me pleadingly, and Mister Ganz probed my ribs and urged, “Say it, numskull, say it!” my vocal chords somehow perversely reversed themselves. Laughter—vigorous, hearty, and liberated laughter—escaped my throat and resounded crashingly throughout the hushed chapel: “Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! . . .”

The Russian and his family began to bicker and gesticulate violently. The cripple stuttered. A redheaded girl went into hysterics, and Messrs. Ganz and Klebfish began to wring their hands furiously, to pant and to shriek like teachers in a cheder: “Glutton! Sot! Ingrate! Thief! You should be barred from every decent Jewish household!”

Above us, Jesus hung with his crown of thorns askew. With eyes cast heavenward and fair beard tinted yellow by the reflection from the candles, he now looked more like a small-town rabbi. . . .

About the Author




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