There were three in the circle: Zalman the glazier, Meyer the eunuch, and Isaac Amshinover. Their meeting place was the Radzyminer study house where they visited daily to tell each other stories. Meyer was only present two weeks out of every month; being one of those whom the Talmud calls periodic madmen, he was out of his mind the other two. On nights when the full moon shone, Meyer paced up and down in the study house, rubbing his hands together, and muttering to himself. Though tall, his shoulders were so stooped, he looked like a hunchback. His bony face was as smooth, or perhaps even smoother, than a woman's. He had a long chin, high forehead, crooked nose. His eyes were those of a scholar. It was said that he knew the Talmud by heart. When he was not deranged, he peppered his talk with Hasidic proverbs and quotations from learned books. He had known the old rabbi of Kotsk and remembered him well. Both summer and winter, he dressed in an alpaca gaberdine that reached to his ankles, wore mules and white stockings on his feet, and two skullcaps, one in the front and one on the back of his head; on top of them he put his silk hat. Though already an old man, Meyer had straight-hanging earlocks and a head of black hair. When he was in his sick periods, he apparently didn't eat, but the other half of the month fed on oatmeal porridge and chicken soup brought to the study house by pious women. He slept in a dark alcove at the house of a teacher.
It being the end of the month and a moonless night, Meyer the eunuch was rational. Opening a bone snuffbox, he took a pinch of tobacco mixed with ether and alcohol. He then offered pinches to Zalman the glazier and Isaac Amshinover, even though they had their own snuffboxes. So absorbed was he in his own thoughts that he scarcely heard what Zalman was saying. Wrinkling his brow, he pulled with his thumb and index finger at his beardless chin.
Isaac amshinover's hair had not turned entirely gray; here and there traces of red were still to be seen in his eyebrows, earlocks, and beard. Reb Isaac suffered from trachoma and wore dark glasses; he supported himself on a cane that had once belonged to Rabbi Chazkele of Kuzmir. Reb Isaac swore that he had been offered a large sum of money for the cane. But who would think of selling a stick that had known the hand of so saintly a rabbi? Reb Isaac earned his living with that cane. Women who were having difficult pregnancies borrowed it; it was used to cure children suffering from scarlet fever, whooping cough, and croup and was said to be helpful in exorcising demons and dybbuks, stopping hiccups, and locating buried treasure. Reb Isaac did not lay the cane down even when praying. Saturdays and holidays, however, he locked it in the lectern. At the moment it was firmly clasped in his hairy, blue-veined hands. Reb Isaac had a weak heart, bad lungs, and defective kidneys. The Hasidim remarked that he would have been dead if he hadn't had Reb Chazkele's cane.
Zalman the glazier, a tall, broad-shouldered man, had a bushy beard the color of pepper and eyebrows as thick as brushes. Though eighty years old, he still drank two tumblers of vodka daily. For breakfast he had an onion, a radish, a two-pound loaf of bread, and a pitcher of water. Zalman's wife, born crippled, was half mute, and could use neither her arms nor her legs. In her youth, Zalman had transported her to the ritual bath in a wheelbarrow. This broken shell of a woman had borne him eight sons and daughters. Zalman no longer worked at his craft because he received a pension of twelve rubles a month from his oldest son, a wealthy man. He and his wife lived in a small room which had a balcony that was reached by a ladder. Zalman did his own cooking and fed his wife like a baby. He even emptied the chamber pots.
Tonight he was telling of the time when he had lived in Radoshitz and traveled from village to village bearing a wooden frame loaded with glass on his back.
“Are there any real frosts today?” he inquired. “I wouldn't give you two kopeks for what they consider a freeze today. Now they think it's winter when there's ice on the Vistula. In my day the cold began just after the Feast of Tabernacles and at Passover you could still cross the river on foot. It was so cold then, the trunks of oak trees burst. Wolves used to steal into Radoshitz at night and run off with chickens. Their eyes shone like candles. Their howling would drive you crazy. Once it hailed stones as big as goose eggs. They broke the shingles on the roofs. Some of the hail fell through the chimneys into the pots. I remember a storm when living fish and little animals fell from the sky. You could see them crawling in the gutters.”
“How come there were fish in the sky?” Isaac Amshinover asked.
“Don't the clouds drink from the rivers? In one of the villages near Radoshitz a snake dropped down. The fall killed it, but before it died it crawled into a well. The peasants were afraid to touch it; the rotting carcass made the most awful stink.”
“There are many similar occurrences mentioned in the Midrash Talpioth,” interrupted Meyer the eunuch.
“What do I need the Midrash Talpioth for? I've seen it all with my own eyes. Nowadays there aren't many highwaymen. But in my time the forests were infested with them. They lived in caves. My father remembered seeing the king of them all, the notorious bandit, Dobosh. Everyone was scared stiff of him. But he was only a figurehead; his mother was the power behind the throne. She was ninety years old, and she planned out everything, told them where and how to rob, how to hide the loot and where to get rid of it. She was also a witch and that's why everyone was frightened of her. She'd see someone, mumble a few words, and down he'd fall with a burning fever. You probably never heard what happened between her and Rabbi Leib Saras. She was still young and lusty at the time, a shameless harlot. Well, the rabbi liked to go into the woods and immerse himself in a pool there before saying his prayers. One morning he looked up and saw the Dobosh woman standing naked before him with her unloosened hair falling down her back. When he cried out the Holy Name, a whirlwind caught hold of her and carried her to the top of a tree. ‘Rabbi, marry me,’ she called out from the branch from which she was sitting, ‘and we'll rule the world together.’”
“What a brazen female,” Isaac Amshinover said.
“There's no mention of the story in the Community of the Hasidim,” Meyer the eunuch remarked.
“The Community of the Hasidim doesn't contain everything. I had an encounter with a warlock myself. It happened in a forest just outside one of the villages near Radoshitz. It was a clear day and I'd been toting glass as usual. The night before I'd slept in a granary. But I always went home for the Sabbath. I was walking along deep in thought when suddenly I saw the tiniest man; he was even smaller than a dwarf. I swear he wasn't any bigger than my arm. I looked at him and I couldn't figure out what he was. He was dressed like the gentry in a green coat, feathered hat, and red boots. In his hand he carried a hunter's leather bag. It seems to me that he was also bearing a rifle—you know, the small kind boys carry on the Feast of Omer. I just stood and gawked. Even if he was a midget or a freak, what was he doing walking by himself? I stopped to let him pass by, but he stopped, too. When I started to walk, he walked beside me. How could he take such long steps with such short legs, I asked myself? Well, it was clear enough that he was one of the devil's people. I recited, ‘Hear, O Israel,’ and ‘Shaddai, destroy Satan,’ but it didn't do any good. Laughing, he aimed his rifle at me. Things looked bad, and so when I caught sight of a stone, I picked it up and heaved it at him. The guffaw he let loose made me shiver. Then he stuck out his tongue. You know how long it was? Right down to his navel.”
“Didn't he hurt you?”
“No, he ran away.”
“Were you wearing a charm?”
“I had a bag around my neck in which there was the tooth of a wolf and a talisman blessed by the saintly rabbi of Kozhenitz. I started wearing it when I was a child.”
“Well, that must have been helpful.”
“How do you know that it was a warlock?” Meyer the eunuch asked. “It could have been an imp or a mock demon.”
“I found out his story later. His father, a rich landowner, left him his manor, but the boy got interested in witchcraft. He knew how to make himself small or large, could change himself into a cat or dog or whatever he pleased. He lived with an old servant who was deaf as a wall and did his cooking for him. He had more money than he knew what to do with. It was his wife's death that drove him to magic. Sometimes he used his sorcery to help people. But not often. He preferred to make fun of the villagers and frighten them.”
“What happened to him?” Isaac Amshinover asked.
“I don't know. He was still alive when I moved away from Radoshitz. You know what happens to such people. In the end they fall into the bottomless pit.”
There was silence when Zalman the glazier finished speaking. Then Isaac Amshinover, having taken out his pipe and lit it, inquired: “What's so amazing about a Gentile sorcerer? There were sorcerers even in Egypt. Didn't the Egyptian magicians vie with Moses? But I knew of a Jewish one. Well, maybe not really a sorcerer, but someone who did business with the evil ones. His father-in-law was an acquaintance of mine, Mordecai Liskover. A very wealthy man and learned, too. He had five sons and one daughter. The girl was named Pesha and he was crazy about her. His sons all married well. Half the town belonged to them. He had a water-mill that was always busy. The peasants came there from miles around to line up with their carts. They thought that flour ground in his mill was blessed. Mordecai wanted to find Pesha—she was his youngest—the finest possible husband. He gave her a large dowry and promised to support her husband and her for the rest of their lives. So he went to a yeshiva and asked the principal to show him his smartest student. ‘That's him,’ the principal said, indicating a not very large boy. ‘His name is Zeinvele. He may look small but he has more brains than all the scholars of Poland put together.’ What more could one want?
“The boy was an orphan and supported by the town. He was taken to Reb Mordecai's house, dressed up like a king, and given the betrothal papers to sign. Then Zeinvele was put up at an inn because it is forbidden for a man to live in the same house as his fiancée. He fed on squabs and marzipan. When he came to the study house, all the other boys tried to engage him in learned conversation, but he didn't say much. He was the sort of person to whom a word is like a gold coin. But what he did say was worth hearing. I can still see him as he was then, small, light-skinned, and beardless, standing in the study house reeling off an entire page of the Commentaries from memory. Reb Mordecai gave him clothes a size too large for him expecting him to grow into them. His gaberdine dragged along the floor. Actually he never did get any bigger, but that's another story. When he discussed learned matters, he spoke very softly; he didn't speak about worldly matters at all, merely said yes or no when he was asked something. Sometimes he just nodded his head. He always sat by himself in some remote corner of the study house. The boys complained that he wasn't friendly. When he prayed, he stood looking out the window and didn't turn his head until he was finished. The window faced Synagogue Street and overlooked the cemetery.
“Well, so he wasn't interested in the world. The town respected him. Why shouldn't they have? He was to be Reb Mordecai's son-in-law. Then an odd thing happened. One night a boy walked into the study house looking as white as chalk. ‘What's happened to you?’ the others asked. ‘Who scared you?’ At first the fellow refused to answer. Then he took three of his friends aside, and after swearing them to secrecy, told them the following: While he was walking in the synagogue yard, he'd caught sight of Zeinvele standing near the poorhouse making curious motions with his hands. He knew that Zeinvele never studied at night. And anyway what was he doing near the poorhouse? Everyone knew the poorhouse was a dangerous place; the cleansing board on which the corpses were washed was kept leaning against its door. Two paths led to it; one from the town's outskirts and the other from the cemetery. The boy thought that perhaps Zeinvele, being a stranger, had lost his way, and called out, ‘Zeinvele, what are you doing there?’ No sooner did he say this than Zeinvele began to shrink until he became so small there was nothing left of him but a puff of smoke. Finally, even the smoke disappeared. The amazing thing was that the boy hadn't died of fright. ‘Are you sure the tassels on your ritual garment are all there?’ the other fellows asked. ‘Maybe one of the letters in your mezuzah is missing?’ It was clear to all of them that it was really one of the evil ones in disguise as Zeinvele. The incident was kept a secret. The town would have been saved a lot of trouble had it not been.
“The wedding was a noisy one. Musicians were brought from Lublin, Yukele the jester from faraway Kovle. But Zeinvele didn't participate in the usual discussion of the Torah with his fellow students, or pass around the cookies and drinks. He just sat at the head of the table as if he weren't there. He had such thick eyebrows it was difficult to tell whether he was meditating or asleep. There were those who even thought he was deaf. But all things pass away quickly. Zeinvele was married and moved in with his father-in-law. Now he sat in his corner of the study house reading the Tractate on Ablutions prescribed for newly married couples. It wasn't very long, however, before Pesha started complaining that he didn't act like a young husband should. Though he did come to her bed after she had been to the ritual bath, he acted as cold as ice. Early one morning Pesha ran weeping into her mother's bedroom. ‘What's happened, daughter?’ Well, according to Pesha, she'd been to the ritual bath the evening before and Zeinvele had gotten into bed with her. But when she'd glanced over at his bed expecting to find it empty, she'd found a second Zeinvele lying there. She'd become so frightened that she'd crawled under the featherbed and refused to come out. As soon as it was light, Zeinvele had gotten up and gone to his study. ‘Daughter, you're imagining things,’ her mother told her. But Pesha solemnly swore that she was telling the truth. ‘Mother, I'm terrified,’ she screamed. And her anxiety was so great that she fainted.
“How long can such matters be concealed? There really were two Zeinveles. Everybody realized it. Grabovitz did have a few skeptics who as usual with that sort made light of the matter. You know their kind of explanation: it was a hallucination, a fantasy, a morbid tendency, but for all of that, they were just as scared as everyone else. Zeinvele would be locked in his room lying asleep in his bed, but also he'd be wandering around the synagogue yard, or the market place. Sometimes he'd appear in the antechamber of the study house and stand there motionless near the wash basin until somebody realized that he was only the false Zeinvele. When that happened, he floated off and disintegrated like a cobweb.
“For some time no one said anything about this to Zeinvele. He may have had no idea himself of what was going on. But finally his wife Pesha refused to be quiet any longer. She announced that she would not sleep in the same room with him. They had to hire a night watchman. His father-in-law, thinking that Zeinvele would become alarmed and deny everything, confronted him with the facts, but he just stood there like a statue, not saying a word. So Reb Mordecai took him to the rabbi of Turisk who completely covered Zeinvele's body with talismans. But when Zeinvele returned home, nothing had changed. At night his mother-in-law locked the bedroom door from the outside and propped a heavy chair against it, but in spite of this Zeinvele continued to wander. At the sight of him dogs growled and horses reared in terror. The women didn't dare go out at night without putting on two aprons—one in the front and one in the rear. One evening a young townswoman went to the ritual bath and, after being washed down by the attendant in the anteroom, entered the bath chamber itself. As she descended the steps, she saw someone splashing around in the water. The candle in the room was flickering so badly she couldn't make out who it was. When she came closer and saw it was Zeinvele, she screamed and fainted. If the attendant hadn't been nearby, she would have drowned.
“The real Zeinvele happened to be in the study house at the moment. I was there myself and saw him. But it had become impossible to know which was the real Zeinvele and which the phantom. The townsboys now began to say that Zeinvele visited the ritual bath to peek at the naked women. Pesha said that she would no longer live with him. If he had had parents they would have shipped him home, but where can you send an orphan? His father-in-law took him to the rabbi and gave him a hundred gulden to divorce Pesha. I was one of the witnesses to the divorce papers. Pesha couldn't stop crying, but Zeinvele sat quietly on the bench as if none of this concerned him. He seemed to be sleeping. The rabbi looked at the wall to make sure that Zeinvele was casting a shadow. Demons don't, you know. After the divorce Zeinvele was put in a cart Reb Mordecai had hired and taken to a yeshiva. The cart was driven by a Gentile, no Jew being willing to accept the job. When the coachman returned he claimed the Jews had bewitched him. His horses, though he had kept on whipping them, had refused to pull the wagon. He pointed to his team. They had left the market place healthy and had returned sick and wasted. Mordecai Liskover had to pay him damages. I was told that both horses died soon after.
“Even though Zeinvele was gone, people still continued to see him. They met him after dark at the flour mill, at the river where the women washed their linens, near the outhouse. Several times he was seen in the middle of the night standing like a chimney sweep on top of a roof. Students stopped studying in the evening knowing that Zeinvele liked to wander in the synagogue yard. Then when Pesha remarried, he disappeared. No one knows what happened to him. Somebody who visited the yeshiva he was supposed to have been taken to, said he never got there.”
“Do you mean to imply by your story that the talismans of the rabbi of Turisk are ineffective?” Zalman the glazier asked.
“Not every talisman works.”
“All of the rabbi of Kozhenitz's talismans do.”
“How many such rabbis are there?”
Meyer the eunuch pulled at his naked chin. His left eye shut tightly and his right eye stared. Though he was now in his good period, he laughed insanely.
“What's so terribly novel about all that? We all know sorcerers exist. Maybe Zeinvele was innocent. He could have been bewitched. He might have been a mooncalf or a freak. Besides when a man sleeps, his spirit leaves him. Usually you can't see the spirit leaving the body, but sometimes it's visible. There was a woman in Kasnot-stav who emitted a green light when she slept. When they put out the lamp, the wall near her bed lit up. I also know of a cat which, after it had been drowned by a coachman, came back to bite his nose. Everyone recognized the creature. It started to spit and mew and would have clawed out his eyes if he hadn't covered his face with his hands. The body dies but the spirit lives on. I speak of the spirit, not the soul. Not everything has a soul. One has to have a certain merit to be worthy of having a soul. But even animals possess a spirit.
“Let me tell you about the Jenukah. You may not know it, Reb Zalman, but Jenukah means child in Aramaic. The Jenukah, as he was called, was the sixth child of Zekele, an ordinary water carrier. There didn't seem to be anything unusual about him when he was born. He was circumcised just like his brothers. His real name was Zaddock, after his grandfather. However, his mother began to complain that the baby was growing too fast. But who listens to such talk from a woman? Every mother thinks her child is the most wonderful. But three months later, the whole town was gossiping about Zekele's amazing child. At five months the boy was talking; at six months he walked. When he was a year old, they wrapped him in a prayer shawl and took him to school. We have newspapers nowadays; in those times the Jews didn't. The boy was written up in one of the Gentile papers. The governor sent a delegation to interview him and make a report. The town doctor sent copies of his findings to Warsaw and Petersburg. All kinds of university professors and experts visited the town. They didn't believe that little Zaddock was only fifteen months old, but there were plenty of witnesses. The birth had been registered at the town hall and the midwife had kept her own record. The man who performed the circumcision, the rabbi who held the baby at the ceremony, and the woman who had handed the child to the latter, gave corroborating evidence. Zaddock had to be taken out of school. To begin with, all of the furor interrupted the classroom routine, and in the second place he was just too bright for the other children. He took one look at the alphabet and knew it by heart. When he was eighteen months old, he was deep in the study of the Pentateuch and the Commentaries of Rashi. At two, he began his study of the Gemara.
“I know it's hard to believe, but I myself can attest to its truth. Zekele, who was our water carrier, used to bring the boy to our house to show him off. At three, Zaddock preached in the synagogue. He opened his mouth and out spouted the Torah. Anyone who wasn't present on that great Sabbath before Passover doesn't know what a miracle is. Even a blind man could see that the child must be the reincarnation of some ancient saint. At four he was as tall as an adolescent and began to sprout a beard. That was when they started calling him the Jenukah, after the holy child in the Zohar. But we'd sit here all night, if I told you everything about him. Why elaborate? At five Zaddock had a long beard. It was time for him to have a wife, but who would marry a daughter to a five-year-old boy? Anyway, Zaddock was completely immersed in the Cabbala. The community gave him a room and Zaddock spent his time there studying the Zohar, the Tree of Life, the Book of Creation, and the Book of the Esoterics. People offered to give him money to pray for them, but he refused. There are unbelievers everywhere, but whoever looked at Zaddock no longer doubted. On the Sabbath he sat at the head of the table presiding like a rabbi, and only a few select people were allowed to be with him. Even these learned men found it difficult to understand his exegesis. He had a special genius for translating the alphabet into numbers and creating acrostics. Sometimes, when he was in a forgetful mood, he would speak entirely in Aramaic. His handwriting was such that what he wrote had to be read in a mirror.
“Then suddenly the news came that the Jenukah was engaged. It seemed that in the neighboring town there was a rich man, seven of whose children had died before they were three. His only surviving child was a girl whom he dressed in white linen and called Altele, Little Old One, to fool the Angel of Death. I don't remember the man's name, but he was advised by some rabbi to marry his daughter to the Jenukah. The girl was fourteen. The Jenukah at five looked like a man of forty. They didn't think he would consent, but he did. I went to the engagement party myself. The girl looked as if she were marrying her father. They signed the contract and broke plates for good luck. Throughout the ceremony, the Jenukah kept mumbling to himself. He was probably receiving instructions from Heaven. I don't know why, but both sides were anxious to get the wedding over with quickly. The engagement took place on Chanukah and the wedding was set for the Sabbath after Shavouth. It took place not in the bride's town, as was the custom, but in the bridegroom's, because it was feared that the sight of the Jenukah would be too much for people not accustomed to him. Eighty rabbis, all specialists in miracles, were invited. They came not only from Poland proper, but also from Volhynia and Galicia. Many freethinkers, doctors, and philosophers also attended. Among the guests were the governor of Lublin and I think the vice governor, too. Barren women came, hoping that their presence there would cure them. Someone brought a girl whose hiccups sounded like the barking of a dog. She recited whole chapters from the Mishnah and when she sang from the prayer book, her voice was deep as a cantor's. The inns were packed, word having got about that whoever attended the wedding would never be condemned to the fires of Gehenna. Many visitors had to sleep in the streets. The stores were emptied so quickly of food that wagons had to be sent to Lublin for more provisions.
“Now listen to this. Three days before the wedding the Jenukah's mother entered his room to bring him a cup of tea. She took one look and saw that his beard was as white as snow. His face was yellow and as lined as parchment. She called the rest of the family. Though a child not yet six-years-old, he had turned into a hoary sage. A crowd gathered, but was not let into the house. Someone informed the bride's parents of what had happened. But they didn't dare break the engagement.
“The day of his wedding, at the feast for the young men, the Jenukah divulged mystery upon mystery. When the time came to lift the veil from the bride, the crowd surged forward wildly. The groom's attendants did not escort, but carried him. He seemed to be completely debilitated. When the bride saw that the Jenukah was an old man, she began to weep and protest, but finally was quieted. I was there myself and saw everything. When the bride and groom were served the golden soup, they scarcely touched it, though both had fasted. The musicians were afraid to play. The jester didn't open his mouth. The Jenukah sat at the head of the table, holding his hands over his eyes. I don't remember whether he danced with the bride or not. He lived only three months more. Each day he became whiter and more shrunken. He drooped and melted like a wax candle. The last few days of his life no strangers were allowed in his room, not even the doctor. The Jenukah, dressed in a white robe, and wearing his prayer shawl and phylacteries, sat like an ancient saint not of this world. He stopped eating. When they gave him a spoonful of soup, he couldn't swallow it. I happened to be out of town when the Jenukah died, but I was told that at the moment of death his face shone like the sun. You couldn't pass near the house without feeling the heat of his saintly radiance. An apothecary who came to ridicule him became a believer and put peas in his boots as penance. A priest was converted. Those who were at the deathbed heard the beating of an angel's wings. The Jenukah had ordered that his shroud be made while he was still living. He died with the finishing of the last stitch.
“When the men from the Burial Society came, they found almost no body left to wash. With such saints, even matter turns into spirit. The pallbearers said that the corpse was lighter than a bird's. The eulogies took three days to complete. Afterward, the community raised money to build a chapel on the grave in which was to burn an eternal light. Zekele was provided with a pension. One should receive something for being the father of such a son.”
“What happened to the widow?” Zalman the glazier asked.
“She never remarried.”
“Was there a child?”
“Did she live long?”
“She's still alive.”
“Who was the Jenukah really?” Isaac Amshinover wanted to know.
“How can you tell? Sometimes a soul is sent down from Heaven which has to fulfill its mission in a hurry. Why are some babies born who live only one day? Every soul descends to earth to correct some error. It's the same with souls as with manuscripts; there may be few or many errors. Everything that's wrong on this earth has to be corrected. The world of evil is the world of correction. This is the answer to all questions.”
1 Copyright © 1964 by Isaac Bashevis Singer.