Commentary Magazine


Two Memoirs

The two pieces below (translated from the Yiddish by Channah Kleinerman) are accounts of actual incidents which 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. Mr. Singerusing the evocative techniques of fiction, but keeping very close to actual facthas written a whole series of these memoirs (of which two more will be appearing in a future issue of COMMENTARY) ; they were published originally in the Jewish Daily Forward and were later collected into a book under the title Mein Taten’s Bes-din Shtub (“My Father’s Courtroom”). Mr. Singer’s newest book is The Spinoza of Market Street (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy).

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A Gruesome Question

The evening after the Sabbath always had a half-holiday air in our house, especially in winter. First, Father would sit with several other men to partake of the third Sabbath meal. The room was already almost totally dark as the men sang “The Sons of the Mansion” and other Sabbath hymns. The meal usually consisted of stale challah and a piece of fish or herring. My father had long dreamed of being a rebbe—a teacher and leader of disciples—and so he would expound some portion of the Law for his audience. I stood behind his chair and listened. He put to naught all worldly pleasures, and described the joys of the righteous in Paradise—how, with crowns on their heads, they recline on thrones, while the mysteries of the Torah are revealed to them. As he spoke, the stars began to glitter in the sky, and frequently the moon would also float past. Father’s words about the soul and the Throne of Glory became entwined in my imagination with the stars, with the moon’s pale face, with the strange shapes of clouds. The mysteries of the Torah became one with the mysteries of this world, which I never felt as intimately as in the last hours of the Sabbath, before the lights were lit. In the next room Mother would sit and softly murmur the prayer “God of Abraham.” In these twilight hours our house was filled with God, with angels and mysteries, and with a yearning inexpressible in words.

But at last the beloved Sabbath had departed and the weekday world was resumed. The lights were lit, the men said the evening prayers, and Father recited the Grace of Valediction. All dipped their fingers in the overflowing wine and put them in their pockets for a second—a charm to insure prosperity for the coming week. If it was a winter night, Mother would immediately begin to prepare supper in the kitchen. Father chanted the blessing, “So God give thee of the dew of heaven. . .” and then repeated the tale of the poor, pious man to whom the prophet Elijah appeared in the guise of a slave, so that the man was able to sell him for 800,000 gold pieces. The stove was lit, the naphtha lamp burned. A few of the men were still there, dressed in their Sabbath clothes, drinking tea with lemon and discussing Hasidic lore and worldly topics, too. The room was fragrant with an aroma compounded of its warmth, the wax of the braided candles, the scent of the cloves in the spice box, and miracles. My father was a smoker and he had looked forward to the moment when he could light a cigarette, or even a pipe.

On that particular Saturday night a fresh snow had fallen, and the street was luminous, as in a kind of nocturnal day. Frost-trees bloomed on the window panes and made me think of Siberia, and also of the Land of Israel.

Amidst all this bright hopefulness for the new week, full of the promise of blessings and good fortune, the door opened suddenly, and a man—a very poor man—entered. He looked not simply like a poor man, but rather like one of the paupers I had read about in books of fables. His overcoat was full of patches and rents through which one could see the dirty cotton wadding and the coarse lining. His cap was faded. His beard seemed to be frozen; I believe there were icicles hanging from it. The man brought with him the cold wind of the weekday world and the bitterness of winter.

“A good week to you, Rabbi.”

“A good week and a good year. What do you wish?”

My eyes opened wide. This poor man reminded me of the tales of the thirty-six hidden saints. To me he seemed like one of those unknown water-carriers and wood-choppers upon whose righteousness the world is founded.

“Rabbi, I want to ask you a question.”

“Ask.”

“Rabbi, is it permissible for me to sleep with my dead wife?”

The room had suddenly grown strangely still. A shiver went through my limbs. The faces of the men grew pale. My father’s face seemed to have become petrified.

“I. . . I don’t know what you are talking about,” he stammered at last.

“Rabbi, I am not insane,” said the man. “My wife died on Friday. I live in a cellar, and the mice run over the floors. The funeral will be tomorrow. I can’t leave the body lying on the floor—the mice would get at it. I have only one bed. So she must lie on the bed. But neither can I sleep on the floor. The rats would devour me. Last night I sat up all night. But I have no more strength. Therefore, Rabbi, I must know whether I may lie down on the bed next to the dead woman. . . .”

As soon as the man had spoken these last words, I saw something in my father’s face that I had never before seen. His face was literally washed in tears. There was a sudden flow and everything was wet—his eyes, his cheeks, his red beard. Among the other men there was a muttering, a turmoil. A sob seemed to burst forth from every throat. The only sounds were the scraping of chair legs over the floor, the tapping of fingers against the table. Father took out his kerchief and began to wipe his eyes and blow his nose. His voice was broken as he said, “Jews, have you heard? Woe is us, woe is us!”

“God have mercy!” exclaimed one Hasid.

“May He preserve us!” answered a second.

“Jews, why are you silent? Let us do something!”

The men had no money in the pockets of their satin coats. But they were all neighbors. Each one ran home to bring money. Father always kept his few rubles in a tin box, and he immediately opened it and took out several silver pieces. Mother in the kitchen had heard the tumult in the “big room” and came in to ask what had happened. She became pale, flushed, and grew pale again. In such moments her matron’s wig would immediately become disarranged. Strands (they were made of silk, not of human hair) straggled over her forehead and cheeks. A hairpin fell on the floor. The Greek knot at her nape loosened. She ran into the kitchen and brought out refreshments for the man: tea, a cookie, the remains of our prune dessert. The pauper went into the kitchen to wash his hands. One young man came back and said he had brought not only money but a folding bed also. Some women ran in, wrung their hands, mingled with the menfolk.

“We have to go over there!” said someone.

My father, who was of priestly descent, was not allowed to enter a house in which a corpse lay. But the others were simple Israelites. While the poor man sat and ate of the refreshments, people began to come in with gifts. One brought a quilted jacket, another an undershirt, a pair of socks, a cap. A complete outfit was quickly asembled. As soon as he had eaten and said a hurried grace, he rose to go and the group followed him. Some carried the folding bed, others the food. I went along, though I too was not allowed to go into the house with the others, for I too was, of course, a descendant of Aaron. Besides, from early childhood I had had a terrible fear of such things. Most of the people remained standing outdoors. Some started down the dark stairs. Through a small window I glimpsed a frightening scene. This was not a cellar, but rather a black pit, a deep hole dug into the earth. The walls were covered with soot like a chimney. In the darkness glimmered two candles, and on the bed lay a twisted form, covered with a blanket or a shawl. One could see nothing distinctly, because the windowpanes were almost entirely blurred over with frost and caked ice. This man actually lived in the earth. There, in the dark, in the cold, in the damp, in the mud, he had endured his bitter life together with his wife and with mice who waged war against him, against his body and against his crust of bread. Now they wanted to devour the pain-wracked remains of the dead.

Two emotions struggled in me. Fear ordered me to look away. Curiosity demanded another look, another glimpse. I knew that every look would have to be paid for with nightmares, with fear and trembling, with visions that suck the marrow from one’s bones—but again and again I bent my head down to take one more look. It seemed to me that I could see ghosts, imps, goblins scampering about, hovering together in the shadows, taking on fearful shapes. Can a human being live in such an abyss? Can a man spend his days and nights here and not go mad? My scalp tightened. An icy shiver ran down my back. Perhaps this poor man was himself one of the evil spirits, a messenger from Satan’s kingdom?

Men and women bustled about the room. Something was lifted. Someone moved the candles. Now I wanted to run away—but to go home alone after what I had seen was more than I could do. Someone would have to take me up our stairway, which sometimes was totally dark while at other times it was lighted only by a small oil lamp. A man said he would escort me home. I was trembling in every limb; my teeth were chattering. Something inside me wept and asked: Can God bear to look on this? . . .

When they brought me into the house, Mother smote her hands together in fright.

“Woe is me, just look at the child!”

They warmed and comforted me. Mother murmured a protective blessing. I was given tea, jam, every delicacy she could find in the kitchen. Father paced back and forth in his study. He chewed on his beard and from time to time stroked his high forehead. He was by nature a believer, but this incident had apparently awakened doubts even in him. . . .

“O, o, sweet Father! Woe, woe!” he exclaimed. “The time for Thy help has come! The time has come. . . it has come.”

It was a gloomy night, and a lean week followed, for Father had given a large portion of his funds for the week to the pauper. I heard people argue that it was an almost incredible thing for any Jew to have only one bed in his home. That was the way the Gentile peasants lived; it was unheard of even among the poorest Jews. But who knows? Perhaps the other bed had recently broken? Perhaps the wood of the second bedstead had been used as kindling to warm the cellar? Such poverty as could be found in the big city of Warsaw was not even dreamed of in the smaller towns. For a long, long time this awesome incident was talked of in our house, and I suffered with dreadful dreams and nightmares for many weeks.

Afterward, I would often see this same poor man. He did a little peddling, busied himself with errands, mingled with other people. But I was afraid of him. I could not forget his appearance that Saturday night, and his gruesome question.

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Strange Merchandise

Things happen in life so fantastic that the imagination could not have invented them.

One day the door opened, and a man entered our kitchen who looked different from any Jew I had ever seen. He wore the usual rabbinic hat, but his alpaca jacket reached only to his knees, in the German style. His beard was white, but too even to have grown naturally; this beard had been trimmed by shears. His trousers were striped, his boots glistened. He also wore white earlocks. But his face was young and rosy, not at all like the face of an old man, and in his black eyes shone a youthful vitality, and a strange pensiveness, too.

“Is the reverend Rabbi at home?” he asked in heavily Germanic Yiddish.

My mother and I were not used to hearing my father called “the reverend Rabbi,” but after a moment my mother realized who was meant, and she motioned the visitor into the adjoining room.

My father welcomed the man with an open-hearted greeting (as he welcomed everyone, rich or poor), and asked him to be seated. After a few minutes, my father inquired what had brought him, but the stranger was evasive. It seemed that he had come simply to chat. In his Germanized speech, he began to show off his familiarity with Jewish learning, and I saw that my father was impressed. He apparently knew the Mishnah by heart. Naming several scholarly books, he recited lengthy passages from them. The conversation became more and more involved, and although my father was a scholar, himself the author of a number of commentaries, he could barely keep up with the man, who seemed to remember everything, even the exact pages where certain passages were to be found. He tossed out quotations from Maimonides left and right. He appeared to shake responsa and laws from his sleeves, and he led the conversation around to what the Aramaic translator had said about a certain Biblical verse—then he recited Onkelos and Jonathan ben Uzziel.

My father as a rule refrained from praising a man to his face, but this time he could not hold back and exclaimed, “How can a man—may no evil befall you—have such a memory? You are indeed to be compared to ‘a limed cistern that loses not a drop.’”

“Permit me to show you some affidavits. . . .”

The stranger drew out a packet of letters bearing the seals of many rabbis. Famous rabbis called him a “genius,” a “Prince of the Torah,” “one who uproots mountains and reduces them to dust. . . .” One rabbi attested that he had examined this man and that “his hands were filled” with the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, Sifri, Safra, Tosefta, Mehilta. . . . Father rubbed his forehead and almost smacked his lips. He said, “It is a privilege to have you in my house!”

He told me to go ask Mother to prepare tea and refreshments for our guest. Soon, Father himself came into the kitchen to tell Mother about the visitor. She was equally enthusiastic. Mother was the daughter of a renowned rabbi, and in our house learning was looked upon as the greatest wealth.

Back in my father’s study, I stood with my ears cocked so as not to lose a word. Father asked the stranger where he was from, and it turned out that he came originally from Hungary and had visited many lands—had even studied with a Sephardic Hacham in one of the provinces of the Turkish Empire. He had been to Palestine and had wandered as far as Damascus and Babylon—he had traversed the world. He knew several languages—not Russian, but Hungarian, German, Arabic. With great deliberation he produced an Austrian passport and showed my father the numerous visas issued by all sorts of consulates. This was the first time I heard the words “visa” and “consulate.” Generally, my father attached little value to such secular matters. But here they were combined with learning, and my father esteemed the combination of Torah and worldly glory. He called me over and ordered me to shake hands with this extraordinary man—apparently he wanted me to have this honor. The man pinched my cheek: “What are you studying?”

Then he recited by heart the passage of the Gemara that I was studying at the time, and in addition, bits of Rashi and the commentaries of the Tosefot.

In the meantime my mother had served tea, cookies, and fruit. She seemed almost embarrassed by the presence of this modern-looking scholar. Father told the visitor whose daughter she was, and I was pleased to hear that he knew my grandfather by reputation.

After a while he whispered something to my father, who turned to me and said, “Leave the room now.”

Mother had already gone out, and after a slight demurral I began to walk slowly toward the kitchen. I passionately desired to listen to this man’s scholarly Germanic speech, but such was the way of adults that as soon as the conversation became involved, and every word drew me like a magnet, they would suddenly decide to send “the boy” away. I left the door slightly ajar as I went out, but the stranger himself walked over and closed it tight. Obviously, he had an extraordinary secret to confide.

In the kitchen, Mother began to lecture me. “How does one become a scholar like that?” she argued. “By studying, not by being idle. But, instead of studying, you read foolish storybooks, about things that never were and never will be.” Then she told me a story she had read in a newspaper. A professor had a wife who never had dinner ready on time. Every day he had to sit and wait. Suddenly it occurred to him that he could utilize this time. He began to write a book, and a few years later published a work which he had composed entirely in the time spent waiting for his dinner. Now, if scholars can show such diligence in secular knowledge—for which there is no divine reward—how much more important is such effort in the study of Torah? One can become a scholar and at the same time attain merit for the Hereafter.

Mother’s words made a deep impression upon me. Yet I was also filled with curiosity as to what the stranger from those faraway lands was telling my father so secretively. Through the closed door I could hear whispering, mumbling, sighs. I even thought that I heard a stifled cry. The voice was my father’s, and it sounded as though he were angry at someone, barely restraining himself from breaking into a rage. But why would Father be angry at that man? What was going on? Mother, too, began to look puzzled. The voices from the study were rising higher and higher, and there was no longer any doubt that a dispute—indeed a quarrel—was taking place. Could they be arguing so heatedly about a passage from the Gemara? Or over the interpretation of a law? It did not seem likely. Mother went over to the door and tried to listen. Then she said, almost resentfully, “Why is your father shouting?”

Suddenly the door was flung open by my father. I had never seen him so flushed and disheveled. His forehead was covered with beads of sweat. His red beard and his earlocks, which were nearly black, quivered. Confusion, dismay, and fright were apparent in his eyes. He said to Mother: “Give me some money quick!”

“How much do you need?”

“As much as you have.”

Mother was upset. “But I cannot give away my last groshen!”

“I beg of you, don’t keep me waiting. I don’t want that vile creature in my house another minute! May his name and memory be wiped out. . . .”

“What happened? Why is he vile?”

“Give me the money—if not, I’ll leave the house at once! His very presence defiles. . . .”

Tears came to my eyes. Mother with trembling fingers began to search in the drawer of the kitchen table. I could see our visitor through the open door. He stood in the center of the study, plucking at his beard and examining our oil lamp. My father returned to argue with him a while longer. Then the door of the study opened again and the stranger came out. He looked at my mother and said, in his precise neo-German, “Good day.”

The minute he had gone, Father stormed into the kitchen and cried out:

Woe is us—such a thing has not been heard of since the days of the Creation! The man is a heretic—a spiteful apostate—an insolent heathen—a willful sinner! Such learning—yet he is the lowest of curs!

Why are you shouting so? What did he want of you?

He came to sell me Eternal Life. . . .

Father’s voice sounded strange.

“What?”

Yes, you heard. He wanted to sell me his share in the Hereafter for a hundred rubles.

He must be a lunatic!

Not a lunatic, but an atheist! A total unbeliever! An Elisha ben Abuya!

And my father, so agitated that he was barely able to get his words out, told how the man had made an offer. By amassing so much knowledge of Torah and sacred lore, he had won for himself a large portion of Eternal Life, which he had come to sell to my father. To my father’s warning that an unbeliever has no share at all in the Hereafter, the visitor cited Talmudic passages to prove otherwise: that his learning had earned him a share in the World-to-Come, and that it was permitted to sell this share. Since he needed the money, he argued, and since he himself did not believe in life after death, he was willing to do business with his portion.

Mother looked at Father reproachfully. “And why did you give him our last few rubles?”

“I had to get rid of him. He threatened that he would not leave the house without the money. . . .”

“But how shall I prepare for the Sabbath now?”

Father did not know what to say. He ran to the sink and washed his hands, as though to wash off defilement. He remained standing, his head bowed, confused, almost as though he had been struck. So much learning—and such heresy! Such a scholar—and a reprobate! Esau had exchanged his right of the firstborn for a mess of pottage, and this scoundrel was prepared to throw away Eternal Life for a few rubles. . . . “World’s end! World’s end!” my father muttered to himself. “How many days are left him on this earth? He is already an old man. . . .”

Then he looked scowlingly at me and added, “Let this be a lesson to you!”

Soon we heard that the stranger had visited all the rabbis, scholars, and men of substance of Warsaw, offering to each the same unholy deal. Everywhere he had been given at least a few rubles. This was a shnorrer who practiced psychology on his victims: first he inspired admiration, then anger, abhorrence, fear, and finally he let himself be paid off just for going away. It was even rumored that here and there he had snared a rich fool who had paid the hundred rubles he demanded for his portion of the Hereafter. With such merchandise did he make his way through the world.

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