Commentary Magazine


From My Father's Courtroom

Like “A Gruesome Question” and “Strange Merchandise,” which appeared in our January issue, the two pieces below (translated from the Yiddish by Channah Kleinerman and taken from the volume Mein Taten’s Bes-din Shtub—“My Father’s Courtroom”) are accounts of actual incidents that Isaac Bashevis Singer remembers from his childhood in Warsaw. His father was a rabbi in a particularly rough quarter of the city, and a great variety of types passed in and out of the elder Singer’s house, coming for rulings on points of Jewish law, for adjudication of their disputes, and for personal advice and comfort. Among Mr. Singer’s translated works are The Magician of Lublin, Satan in Goray, Gimpel the Fool, and The Spinoza of Market Street.

The Will

The door opened, and a man with a beard so long I’ve seen its equal only once in my life, entered. The great beard, black as pitch, and with a rich gloss and density that made one think of a thickly foliaged tree, reached to the man’s knees, and then branched out into a separate little “beardkin.” The man was short and stoutish, dressed in an expensive-looking overcoat, goatskin boots, and silk hat. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles padded with cotton at the bridge to protect his nose. An aura of complacency and Hasidic good nature enveloped him.

My father welcomed the stranger into the study and bade him be seated. Soon my father asked, “And what good news do you bring us?”

“I wish to draw up my will,” said the stranger.

My father sat motionless. I, who was also present, became frightened. My father began to stammer. It was rare that anyone came to him with such a request, and the few who did were very old men. He turned toward his visitor. “But you look like a man in the prime of life.”

“First of all, I’m not a youngster. Secondly, one never knows what tomorrow may bring.”

And the visitor cited verses from the Bible and the Talmud to prove that every man should be prepared at all times for his death. Even as he spoke, he lit a cigar. Then he took out a snuffbox and offered it to my father. It was an unusual box, made of ivory decorated with carving, the kind of souvenir one brought back from a summer resort. He removed his overcoat and remained in his brand-new coat and a vest with a gold watch-chain dangling over it. He took out his watch and I saw that it had three lids and a face with Hebrew letters instead of numerals. It was obvious that this was a man of some wealth and of a Hasidic background steeped in traditional Jewish ways.

“What is your profession?” My father asked the direct question without ceremony.

“I own a bookstore on Šwietokrzyska Street.”

“Books?”

“Not the books of the Enlightenment, God forbid, but books for Gentiles, in Polish, Russian, German, French—all languages. The Yiddish and Hebrew books of the atheists I don’t take into my shop.”

“And you know all these languages?”

“I frequently speak with the most famous professors at the universities. If they need a Polish or a Latin book, they come to me and I tell them where to look. I am known throughout Poland. I receive letters from professors in Cracow. I have a worldwide reputation. I am what is known as a bibliographer.”

“As long as it is for the Gentiles. . . .” my father said.

After a while the man began to dictate his will to my father. It was a will to cast terror upon the listener. He prescribed what prayers were to be recited at the moment he drew his last breath; how the body was to be carried; what Psalms were to be said by those keeping watch before the funeral; how he was to be handled at the moment of burial. He was well-versed in the wills of famous rabbis, and whenever my father objected that something was not according to the Law, he would cite one or another such testament and my father was unable to refute him. He knew everything better. My father covered a large sheet with his fine script and the man read it over slowly and apparently with great satisfaction. Then he signed, “These are the words of the deceased.” He embellished his signature with fine flourishes.

The man paid three rubles for the writing of the will. He confided to my father that although he looked well enough, his lungs were diseased and the doctors had given him but little longer to live. Strangely enough, he had discussed only questions of religious ceremony in the will: prayers, charities, scholarly quotations, the observance of the annual anniversary of his death. He had dictated nothing about his business affairs. For these worldly matters he had perhaps had another will drawn up by a notary public.

After the writing of the will, the stranger seemed to have developed an appetite. He sent me down to fetch half a buttercake and a pint of boiled milk. He washed his hands and pronounced the benediction. When he finished eating, he recited a leisurely grace. Then he smoked a cigar, exhaling rings of smoke, and turned to me.

“Are you studying?”

“Yes.”

“What are you learning?”

“Babba Kama.”

He questioned me on this beginner’s text from the Talmud and pinched my cheek. I was frightened. Although the man’s fingers were soft and warm, I felt as though a corpse had touched me. He gave me a coin and said, “Don’t get into any mischief now.”

Three rubles were a welcome addition to my father’s meager income, but there was an uncanny silence in our house when the stranger had left. He had expressed such precise wishes about how his shroud should be sewn, how his body was to be purified. He had already bought a plot and ordered his headstone, in the cemetery on Gesia Street. He had specified to the last detail how the pallbearers were to carry the coffin, and how they should arrange the head, the hands, the feet, the boards. It was too much. At the same time I had the eerie feeling that the man took a perverse kind of pleasure in the morbid details. He had indeed eaten the cake I brought him with a hearty appetite, and when a crumb fell into the tangle of his beard, he had carefully extricated it and swallowed it down. He had also warned me to be sure that the boiled milk had formed a skin.

Some time later I had occasion to be on Šwietokrzyska Street. Perhaps I even went there just to see this man? He stood in his shop, which was filled with books. University and high-school students, boys and girls, crowded around the shelves, searching, browsing. The man was arguing with someone in Polish. On his face shone the joy of doing business, the pleasure of a man of means. Behind the counter stood a plump woman wearing a matron’s wig, together with a young girl—probably their daughter. I stood at the window and looked in. Not only old books were on display, but other antiques too: a porcelain figurine with a naked belly, a plaster-of-Paris bust, all sorts of candlesticks (but not the Jewish kind), and other bric-a-brac of brass, copper, and bronze. Everything in the shop looked pagan, strange. But the owner was a Jew immersed in Torah and the Hereafter.

A long time passed. Suddenly the man appeared once more in our house. A few gray hairs showed in his pitch-black beard, but otherwise he looked as stout and as fresh as the first time. It was winter and he wore a rich fur coat and galoshes lined with a soft material. He carried an umbrella with a silver handle. He explained that he had come to alter his will.

“How is your health?”

“What is the good of asking about my health?” he answered. “I am—may no evil befall you—a very sick man.”

“The Almighty will grant you a full recovery.”

“Of course, He—blessed be His name—can perform miracles. But if nature takes its course, I cannot keep going much longer. How long can a man live without lungs?”

Father paled and reminded the man of the miracle that had been performed on behalf of the wife of Rabbi Hanina ben Dussa. One Friday, instead of filling the lamp with oil, she had filled it with vinegar. But Rabbi Hanina said: “He Who commanded oil to burn can also command vinegar to burn.” And the lamp burned on that Sabbath just as on every other Sabbath. The same is true of lungs—if the Creator desires that a man should live, he will live.

The man did not receive my father’s comforting words kindly. He coughed, spat into his handkerchief, and cited a verse of the Gemara in answer: “Not every day does a miracle occur.”

“One of our Sages declared that even the normal course of nature is miraculous.”

“Of course, of course. But yet, without lungs one cannot breathe, and when you don’t breathe. . . . After all, the body is only a body. . . .”

The changes in the will were thoroughgoing. He had in the meantime studied countless other wills, and he now introduced all sorts of innovations. He wanted the shards placed over his eyes in a very special manner. The switch, or myrtle twig, that is put in the hands of the deceased was to be different, too. The purification of the body was to be done with the yolk of an egg and with a silver spoon he had bought in some distant town and that had been used by an old-time Burial Association.

I could tell by the look on my father’s face that the exaggerated interest the man took in these melancholy matters was not to his liking. He raised his eyebrows and silently seemed to say: Too much . . . too much. . . . But the candidate for the next world spent hours upon hours in our house. He worked out a list of instructions with a multitude of details. From time to time he would ask for something to be erased, and something else substituted for it. All during this time he smoked, took snuff, sneezed. Again he felt hungry and again I went down to buy milk and cake.

From that day the man came every year, and sometimes twice a year. His beard turned gray slowly, without haste. His face remained rosy and fat, and his rolling black eyes shone with the joy of life and the pleasures of a successful businessman. He kept changing his will, adding new paragraphs each time. My father was far from being a humorist, but even he began to make occasional jests about the man who so steadfastly maintained that he already had one foot in the grave. Many apparently healthy men during these years had passed on to the next world. But the bookseller of Šwietokrzyska Street was still rewriting his will. My father barely managed to suppress a smile whenever he appeared at our door. Even I, who had once been so afraid of him and his morbid conversation, began to get used to him. This was a man who played with death as the children in the street played their games. The three rubles he paid for rewriting his will became a regular part of our income.

Gradually his beard grew white as milk. As it had formerly glistened in its blackness, it now sparkled in its whiteness. In order to complete the story I must rush time on. The war broke out. The Germans entered Warsaw. But even amidst battles, famine, and uprising, the bookseller did not forget his will. He now paid marks instead of rubles for amending it. The will itself had become a thick brochure. My mother stitched the pages together with heavy thread.

In 1917 my mother left Warsaw with us children. But a short time before our departure from the capital I passed Šwietokrzyska Street. The bookseller still stood busily behind his counter, and students were still searching through the shelves. This time there were also German officers in the shop.

Eventually, I suppose, the man died. By then he must have been quite old, and I doubt whether his will was ever carried out. It would have required an entire squadron of members of the Burial Association, who would have had to spend days studying and memorizing his instructions. Most probably no one read or seriously thought about his will. But while the man lived, this document had given him a great deal of pleasure.

_____________

 

Reb Moishe Ba-Ba-Ba

He was known as Reb Moishe Ba-ba-ba. Why “Ba-ba-ba”? Because that was how he talked. “Ba-ba-ba, the Almighty will help. . . . Ba-ba-ba, the Messiah will come and the world finally will be redeemed. . . . Ba-ba-ba, it is good to be a Jew. What greater pleasure can there be than being a Jew? I’ll give up all theaters, all riches, all delicacies for one Mincha prayer, for one chapter of Psalms, one Asher Yotzar! If a person were to offer me all the gold in the world, all the palaces and fortresses and soldiers and Cossacks, on condition that I skip one blessing, I would laugh in his face. These are vanity, trifles, not worth an empty egg-shell. But when I recite the blessing: ‘By Whose word all things exist,’ I feel renewed strength in my very bones. Just think of it: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, by Whose word all things exist.’ All things, all! The heavens, the earth, I, you, even—forgive the comparison—the dog in the street. All were created by Him, the Creator, and to us He gave the power to praise Him. Is not this sufficient earthly pleasure? I’d exchange all fancy balls and all pleasure resorts for the words of one saint—his sighs and his gestures. You are only a boy—what does a boy understand?—but I give you my word, the second night of a festival at the court of Kuzmir was a pleasure greater than can be known by any worldling, emperor, general, or reveler. Every minute savored of Paradise. He who has never spent a holiday in Kuzmir, has no idea of true pleasure, ba-ba-ba!”

Reb Moishe must have been very ancient, for he had been a frequenter of the court of Rabbi Haskele Kuzmirer. He looked to be nearly a hundred. His white beard was turning yellow. The hairs of his earlocks were falling out, and his brow was wrinkled like parchment. He wore an old-fashioned gaberdine, a velvet hat with a high crown, half-boots, pantaloons, and white socks. His ritual fringes reached below his knees. His sons supported him. Reb Moishe himself had only one occupation : being a devout Jew. He was always either praying, or studying, or poring over the Zohar, or reciting the midnight service. He never had a minute to spare. But he found time to visit my father and talk of Hasidic lore. Reb Moishe, having been to the courts of almost all the miracle rabbis of Poland, was an expert on the Hasidic dynasties.

As long as we lived at No. 10 Krochmalna Street, Reb Moishe had no difficulty in visiting us. There the entrance gate was wide. But when we moved, years later, to No. 12, the trouble began. The gate was narrow and right in the middle sat Mirele, the baker’s daughter, by her side baskets heaped with bread, Sabbath loaves and rolls. Mirele was a girl of seventeen, but she had the bosom of a mature woman. Her chest filled half the entryway. Also, Mirele had the habit of keeping her money in her stocking. Whenever she was handed a paper bill, she lifted her skirt and displayed a leg as round as a cholent pot. Her stocking was held up by a pink garter. Mirele had no false modesty. And there was always a group of women and girls standing around her, feeling the rolls to see whether they were fresh and their crusts crisp. Some young fellows were also usually there, gossiping with Mirele and the servant girls who came to buy her wares.

To pass through such a gate, filled with women and the lure of the Tempter, was something Reb Moishe could not do. He would approach and begin to pound with his walking stick—a signal for the women to clear his path. Once Mirele angrily shouted at Reb Moishe:

You pious old oaf, what are you so afraid of? What makes you think that I want you?

But Reb Moishe would continue pounding with his stick until Mirele and the women stepped aside out of his way. Then Reb Moishe would grab the nearest boy and pass through the gate holding on to him. For, according to the Law, two men together may walk through a group of women, since one can guard the other.

Not only the gateway, the entire courtyard was filled with obstacles. Servant girls sang, and Reb Moishe stopped his ears, for the voice of woman leads to lewdness. The sound of gramophones came through open windows, and sometimes a troupe of magicians and acrobats gave a performance in the courtyard; a half-naked girl, wearing short breeches and a beaded jacket, walked on her hands. Every step of the way was fraught with danger. Servants sat on the stairs, grating horseradish and slicing onions. All the world’s females seemed to be waylaying Reb Moishe Ba-ba-ba, trying to deflect him from the narrow path of righteousness and lead him to Gehenna. But Reb Moishe carried his weapon—his walking stick. He closed his eyes and pounded the stone flags with his stick.

“Nu! . . . nu! . . . nu! . . .”

Even passing through our kitchen was not easy. My mother was indeed a pious woman, a Rebbetzin. But a female is still a female. Reb Moishe would not even ask her whether my father was at home: he did not wish to hear her voice. He went straight into the study. Only there did he open his eyes and call out:

Ba-ba-ba! Praised be the Almighty!

Welcome, Reb Moishe! . . . Sit down. . . .

And they would begin to talk about “good Jews”—that is, Hasidic miracle-rabbis. Reb Moishe told of one such rabbi who prayed that he might have only a small group of followers. He told of another who performed so many miracles that they sprawled under the tables and benches of his court. Of a third he related that even the dead came to see him, and that he therefore never extinguished the light in his chamber. I was fascinated most by the story of the rabbi who, six nights a week, slept fully dressed. Why? Because the Messiah might come at any moment, and the rabbi did not want to waste time dressing. This way he would be able to run to greet him at once. Then, why didn’t he do the same on Sabbath nights? The Messiah will not come on the Sabbath, for the holiness of the Sabbath is so great that even the Redemption is, by comparison, a profane thing. . . . All these stories Reb Moishe told with extraordinary brevity. At the same time he would mutter to himself, gesticulate with his hands, pluck at his beard, and call out from time to time: “Ba-ba-ba.” My father each time was astonished over again by his tales of the saints.

Mother would enter to serve tea. At once Reb Moishe turned his head and closed his eyes. The notion that my mother might arouse the evil inclination in anyone seemed very far-fetched to me. I saw her as an elderly woman, well in her thirties. . . .

“Reb Moishe, how did Reb Haskele look?” my father asked.

Reb Moishe good-humoredly pretended to be annoyed by the question.

“How he looked? Like an angel of God! Who could look straight at his face? One’s eyes were blinded. On Friday nights he would wear a white gaberdine, like the saints of ancient times. He himself recited the benediction over the Sabbath lights. That was his way.”

“Not the Rebbetzin?”

“The Rebbetzin too.”

“It is the first time I have ever heard of that!” my father exclaimed.

“What do you youngsters know?” Reb Moishe showed his irritation with my father. “You are children . . . mere schoolchildren. You missed it all. Is this what you call a generation? Boys, only boys. . . . Are there today any true Hasidim? You sit in a train and ride to the Rabbi. What art is there in that? In my days we went on foot. If you wanted to reach Kuzmir for Rosh Hashonah, you left home right after the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av. You went from inn to inn, and drank a toast in each. The journey there was a great event in itself. We walked through the fields and sang Kuzmirer melodies. Sometimes we spent a night in the woods. In one tavern they used to keep a keg of brandy in the main room. There was a straw stuck in the keg, and whoever came in took a sip. To the side, there was some cold veal, and everyone had a bite. Hasidim from every town and city met together and talked for days. When older Hasidim talked in those days, the young fellows did not dare to interrupt. Now every snot-nose has something to say. . . . There was a time when, if a young fellow was insolent, they held him down on a wooden bench and gave him a thrashing. And afterward he had to treat the entire company to drinks. . . . Approaching within a few miles of Kuzmir, one could already feel its sanctity in the air. We began to dance and danced our way into Kuzmir. . . .”

“Was it easy to see the Rabbi in person?”

“Easy? Why should things be easy? Sometimes the Rabbi made his appearance immediately, and sometimes he remained secluded in his chamber, and one had to wait for days. The beds in the lodging houses were made up for us, but we slept on the hard benches in the study house, just in case the Rabbi should come out of his chamber. But when the Rabbi did at last appear, the study house was filled with light, literally full with light. . . .”

While Reb Moishe spoke, the door opened and a girl in a red dress, with red slippers on her bare feet, entered.

“I came to ask the Rabbi. . . .”

“Nu, ask!” said my father.

“We were cooking a meat broth, and on the stove some milk boiled over and spilled into it.”

“How much was there? How much meat were you cooking?”

“Ten pounds of meat and two chickens.”

“All in one pot?”

“Yes.”

“And how much milk spilled into it?”

“Half a quart.”

“Half a quart of milk spilled into the broth? How much milk were you boiling?”

“Six quarts.”

My father was constantly amazed by the size of the cooking pots used in Warsaw. We never cooked more than a pound of meat at a time, and if one wanted milk, one boiled a half pint or a pint. But it seemed that the Jews of Warsaw were great eaters. They used, not ordinary pots, but veritable caldrons. Again Father asked the girl for the particulars. He could hardly believe that half a quart of milk could boil over all at once. According to the Law, in order for the broth to remain kosher, there had to be sixty times as much meat as milk. He questioned her over and over. It was no light matter to pronounce unclean food that had been bought with hard-earned money. After much hesitation and thought, my father declared:

It is treif. The broth may not be eaten, nor may it be sold even to a non-Jew. It must be poured into the sewer.

The girl laughed.

“But we’ve already eaten the broth and the meat too.”

My father shuddered.

“When? And why did you come to consult me now?”

“I came about the pot.”

“But why did you eat without asking? You have eaten forbidden food!” Father shouted at her.

“Well, everybody was hungry. Mother was not home . . . my older sister was serving. . . .”

While the girl spoke, Reb Moishe hissed like a snake. Had it not been a girl, but a man, he would have slapped his face. “First they eat unclean food, these scoundrels, and afterward they come to ask questions of the Rabbi. . . . Woe is us, the world has been abandoned! . . .” Reb Moishe began to grumble, to cough, to grimace. “They rebel against their Creator. They devour all manner of vileness and defilement. Is it any wonder that the coming of the Messiah is delayed? Is it surprising that we are sinking into the iniquities of the Egyptians? . . .”

The girl left. Reb Moishe shook his head from side to side. “Nu-nu-nu, ba-ba-ba!”

Father tried to resume the talk about Kuzmir, but Reb Moishe would no longer discuss Hasidic lore. That the gateway and the courtyard were filled with levity—that was an old story. But lawlessness could enter even here, into the Rabbi’s own study. Then there was no escape! Reb Moishe stamped his foot.

“I am fortunate. I am already an old man,” he declared. “But I pity you young men. I pity you. There may be—God have mercy—another Deluge. . . .”

“Who can tell? Perhaps this is the beginning of the End?” my father half-asked, half-answered himself.

“Even wickedness must have a limit.”

Suddenly Reb Moishe looked at me.

“Come, you will take me through the gate!”

I went down to the courtyard with Reb Moishe and we approached the gate together. Mirele was about to give a customer change and was searching through the paper money in her stocking. Never again have I seen such a heavy leg. The higher up, the heavier. Unbelievably fat and thick. . . .

Reb Moishe began to pound with his stick and grabbed my shoulder. Mirele stuck out her tongue.

“Here he is, banging away again, the Freemason! Such an old billy goat . . . as though I were likely to sin with him!”

“Nu-nu-nu, you hussy!”

Mirele moved aside. Reb Moishe passed by. He leaned heavily upon me, and I thought of the sacrificial animals in the Temple upon whom the Priest laid his hands. Once outside, Reb Moishe took out his kerchief and his snuff-box in order to refresh his disturbed spirit.

“And you—are you studying, ha?”

“Yes, I’m studying.”

“You will grow up to be a Jew?”

“Of course.”

“Be a real Jew. Perhaps in your day the Messiah will come. . . .”

_____________

 

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