The Yoke of the Torah
I was born in Morocco, in the village of Uled Musur which sits high up on a cliff. Below the village flows a river that can be reached only by descending a steep, winding path. Where it passes our village the river's banks are broad and flat, but further on they grow narrower and the water laps right up against the stones.
The river is of great use. Besides irrigating the fields and vineyards, it provides power to run the mills in the hundreds of Arab villages along its banks. It also swarms with fish of all kinds, some weighing as much as five pounds, and is important as a source of food and livelihood for the Jews in the area. They supply the fish to fellow Jews living in villages further inland. The Arabs do not eat fish, and hence are not fishermen. Some of the Jews also own plots of land on the river banks which they cultivate alongside their Arab neighbors.
The entire river plain is dotted with Arab villages, a half hour's journey by donkey from one to another. The few Jewish villages on the plain are several hours' riding time apart. Distances are reckoned in this way because the donkey is the main local means of transportation, and no one travels by bus except perhaps to get to the capital city of Marrakech, which is about sixty kilometers away.
My mind lets go of many things, but one dark day is forever imprinted on my heart, the day which separated me from my mother and kinfolk and eventually was to send me wandering from village to village and from town to town like some solitary wild bird.
I remember that as soon as I stepped down from the bus behind my father I was confounded, for I had never seen anything like it before. The streets throbbed with passers-by of every description, the dark and the fair, the lowly and the arrogant, the halt, the lame, and the blind. Crippled beggars held canes in one hand and thrust out wooden plates with the other—they stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the narrow, cramped way. Men of affairs trod on the heels of ne'er-do-wells, and sharp-eyed characters who seemed to be pickpockets roamed around, on the alert for any rooster flown into their coop.
As we set out for the mellah,1 my father seized me so hard by the elbow that I felt as though my skinny arm was being pulled from its socket. I stopped walking and knelt on the ground, like a goat at the drinking trough.
“Father,” I cried, “let go! There's no need to hold me so tight. I'm not a wild animal trying to get out of its cage.”
“Be quiet,” he roared, “and get moving!”
I began to tremble at his violence.
“Do you want to get lost in this crowd?” he continued, but more softly this time. “I could go on searching for you all day and never find you. And what would I do then?”
I tried to believe that my father had grabbed me so fiercely because he was solicitous of my welfare, so I tightened my lips and allowed myself to be dragged along like a dog on a rope. But it was a long way to the mellah, my legs ached and I was frightened. Finally, I could bear it no longer. “Please, father,” I cried, “Shorten your steps. My legs can't carry me any further. Please!”
“We have no time to lose. The rabbi won't wait for us. In an hour he'll leave the yeshiva and our trip will have been for nothing.”
“But there will be other days, father, won't there? The rabbi will come back tomorrow, won't he? It isn't like missing a chuppah or coming too late to usher in the Sabbath bride.”
Father flew into a rage. “Be quiet, you bone of a donkey! If you were down by the river now, you'd be skipping and jumping from rock to rock like a deer on the mountain peaks. But here where patience is needed, you complain. You and your crooked legs!”
Having reminded himself of my faults, my father raised his arm and hit me so hard on the back that I saw stars. I held my tongue, but from that time on, I hated him. The image of my mother came to me and I longed for her with all my soul. Yet I followed behind my father. What else was there to do? “Should the axe pit itself against him that heweth therewith?” I wept to myself but made no sound. I was still wiping the tears from the corners of my eyes, when we finally arrived at the mellah. I looked up at the sky and held out my arms. “May this place turn to ruins,” I cried, “for the suffering it has caused me. I have been beaten for no fault of my own.”
From a distance we could hear the sound of the students reciting in chorus. It grew louder as we approached the yeshiva. “Thank the good Lord,” said my father, slowing his steps, “the rabbi must still be there. Now we can both be happy, my son. Let us wait for him.” My father sat down on a bench and motioned me to join him, but I lay down at his feet, like a calf—I heavy of heart, he heavy of flesh. My father placed his hand on my head, stroked it, and gave me his blessing: “May God favor you and fill all your needs.” Then he reached into the straw hamper we had brought with us from home and took out a cloth, which he spread out on the bench between us. Next he peered with eyes as keen as a vulture's into the depths of the hamper, which was filled with bread, fowl, fish, figs, and grapes. After rummaging around inside for a while, he came out with a whole chicken and some fried fish, which filled me with homesickness. Only yesterday I had caught them myself and my mother had decreed that they must come along with us in the hamper. My father cut the chicken into pieces, finished laying the table and urged me to eat before the rabbi appeared.
“I'm tired,” I said, “let me rest a while. ‘I don't want your honey, and I don't want your sting.’”
My father sighed heavily, perhaps regretting that he had struck me. He rose and put his arms around me. He stroked my head and shoulders and embraced me so hard I felt my ribs cracking. I put my head between my knees. “Let me alone, father,” I said. “You had no pity on me before—you squeezed my arm, and you pushed me, and you hit me—do you think I am made of iron? For two hours, the sun beat in on me through the windows of the bus. When the journey was finally over I was drenched with sweat and dead tired, and the right thing would have been to rest before we went further. But you would not permit it. And here we have come too early, and the rabbi is still in the yeshiva!”
Father looked at me and said sadly, “You are right, my son, but if I forced you to hurry, I had my reasons. Had the rabbi departed, I would have had to delay my return home until late tomorrow. Then I would have failed to meet the Arab tomorrow morning at the marketplace as we agreed. And he—God forbid—would have sold the cow and the sheep shearings himself, taken the money and then—you go search for him!”
My father implored me with his gaze but I would not forgive him, for there was not a word of truth in it. My cousin was studying there at the yeshiva, and if worse had come to worse he could have interceded in my behalf with the rabbi. I told my father so and he grew silent. Then he took hold of his beard with one hand, dug his thumb into it and twisted it all the way around, all the time keeping his eyes fixed on me. When I said nothing, he repeated the whole performance. Finally, he let go of his beard, put his hand in his pocket, took out a 20-franc note, and handed it to me. As the proverb says, “Money answers all questions.”
Instantly I hit upon a plan. Very well, I would pretend to be soothed. My father would be leaving that same afternoon; on the very next morning I would make my way back to the village and to my mother. I took the 20-franc note, tied it in a knot in the tails of my striped shirt, and joined my father at his meal. After a few minutes the students began emerging from the yeshiva, and one by one as they passed, they looked at me. Here's another victim, they seemed to be thinking. Suddenly my father stood up. “Prepare to greet the rabbi,” he whispered urgently. I was altogether confused. What was I to do? I started fumbling at my clothes. “Don't take your shirt off,” he hissed. “Kiss his hand!” I felt like laughing. Was that what my father called “preparing” to meet the rabbi? Why, the smallest child in Morocco knows that when you meet a rabbi you kiss his hand—what else is there to do? As a matter of fact, you kiss the hand of any man with a long enough beard, even if his head is empty.
The rabbi continued down the steps, with my cousin following respectfully behind. Father hurried over, bent his head, seized the rabbi's hand, and kissed it. I did the same. The rabbi glanced in my direction.
“This is the boy I told you about,” said my cousin coming between us.
The rabbi looked me over for some time in silence. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder, felt along my arm for the elbow, and pressed it softly and delicately. Without moving my head, I stole a glance at his hand. The skin was white as goat's milk and soft as silk. The rabbi had probably never done a hard day's work in his life.
“What's your name, lad?”
“My real name is Mordechai,” I stammered, “but I am called Maridoch—it's my nickname.” I was unable to hide anything from him. If he had asked me what my father did for a living, or any other intimate questions about my family, I would have answered without a moment's hesitation.
But he asked nothing that was not directly to the point. He must have understood with whom he was dealing. Here was he, who spent his days poring over the most intricate treatises, pondering the most subtle of paradoxes, called upon to examine a child who had neither learning nor breeding, a child like a threshed sheaf, hollow and seedless, which the smallest breeze could uproot.
The rabbi paused for a moment. “Here your name will be Mordechai,” he said. “Tell me, Mordechai—have you studied the Five Books of Moses?”
“And the Ethics of the Fathers?”
“And the Proverbs of Solomon?”
“Mordechai, where does it say: ‘This is the way of the Torah—a morsel of bread with salt shall be thy portion, and water in measure to drink’?”
“In the Ethics of the Fathers.”
To myself I thought: “Ah yes, Maridoch—the exile in a strange city is beginning for you. ‘A morsel of bread with salt. . .’”
“And where does it say: ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard, study her ways and be wise’?”
“In the Book of Proverbs.”
There were many other questions. The examination lasted a long time, and I was frightened and anxious. I could not take my eyes off the rabbi. How well-fed he looked, how well-dressed. He seemed to glow with learning. But though everything about him was respectable and dignified, I was fiercely angry at him. Why did he torment me with questions? What is the ant to me, I thought, that this beardless man dwells so upon him—when my ancestors, perhaps all the way back to the Spanish Exile, never put a razor to their faces? I had imagined the rabbi would have a beard down to his navel.
At last it was over. The hand, soft as oil, stopped stroking my own. The rabbi turned to my father, stretched his neck, breathed deeply, opened his mouth, and delivered a judgment. “Since he has studied the Five Books of Moses, and a little of the Prophets and the Chronicles as well, it should not be too hard for him to study a bit of Talmud also.” Whereupon he bade us all farewell and departed.
The rabbi's decision filled me with consternation, but my father's face beamed, and his beard trembled with delight. “Dear son,” he cried, “who would have imagined that you would pass the test without a single error!” His cry of affectionate pride saddened me. I was already smarting with loneliness and thinking only of how best to carry out my plan of returning to mother. Money was no problem—I had more than enough tied up in my shirttails. But who could show me the way back to the bus station through the streets that wound like snakes, thronged with big city people of every kind?
I was preoccupied with these thoughts when my father, who had been deep in conversation with my cousin, turned his attention to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and tried, with soft words, to paint a glowing picture of my future:
“My dear son, heart's-ease and light of my eyes, do this thing for your own sake and not for mine, for the sake of your future and your honor. Study hard, day and night, and though your beginnings are humble your end will be lofty indeed. You will be maintained in comfort and property. From village and town the people will come unto you to pour water on your hands. Your name will be revered, and your whole family will share in its blessing. Oh source of my strength, first-born of my power, listen to what I have heard from the lips of my masters: A man must be willing to give his life to the study of Torah. For it is more precious than pearls and it cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir. And I for my part will send you enough every month to meet your needs. My beloved, I have told you my deepest feelings. I am sure you will take them to heart.”
Having finished his sermon, my father seized my cousin by the hand and drew him aside once again, motioning me away when I made as if to follow. Whatever secrets they were discussing clearly had to do with me, and I was determined to listen. It turned out to require no effort at all. So piercing was my father's stage whisper that every passerby was soon informed of the secret thoughts troubling his heart.
“Hear me, nephew, kinsman mine,” he hissed. “What I ask is that you keep a sharp eye on this lad of mine, since it is quite likely he will try to escape and return home. Don't for a moment imagine that he is the innocent lamb he appears to be. He's a devil, an outlaw deer, one of the green devils”—Father believed only in devils of that particular color. “Let him have his way and he'd be out on the river all day, and never bother to study at all.”
Waxing indignant, my father raised his right arm and flailed the air.
“How many nets of his have I torn to pieces, how many fishhooks have I thrown away, how many times have I beaten him with all my strength—but it does no good! No sooner is the punishment over than he's back by the river again with the devil twisting his net. And all I want is for something to come of him in the future, for him to be a credit to the family, and to bring back the old days.”
Father's secret stung me to the quick, causing my heart to beat faster and my knees to shake. And my cousin's reply only increased my despair. “Return home in peace,” he told my father. “There is nothing to worry about—my cousin will not escape my watchful eye. Beginning tomorrow he will take up the yoke of the Torah. In this place there is neither river nor sea to attract his heart and befuddle his mind; there is nothing to distract him from his studies.”
Father was delighted. He clasped Jacob by the shoulders and led him toward me, his face beaming with reassurance. It had not occurred to my father that another soul might have been privy to his confidences.
Seizing my reluctant hand in his own, he launched into another hymn of sweetness, turning now and then to wink at Jacob: “Oh heart's-ease and light of my eyes, crown and garland for my head! I was just talking to Jacob about you, and I told him to fulfill your every wish. Any time you need money, go straight to him. I will not be sparing with you. I shall sell our fat, heavy-treading cow; she will fetch a good price, and I shall send the proceeds to you.”
Mark you, he seemed to be telling Jacob all the while, how a shrewd man can put a pretty face on the most devious scheme.
When father had concluded this piece of hypocrisy, he delivered me into the custody of my cousin, urging him once again to attend to all my wants. Then he bade us farewell and set out on the homeward road. I did not take my eyes from his retreating figure until it had completely disappeared from sight.
My cousin and I threaded our way through the marketplace of the mellah, which was so noisy and crowded that, in the words of the proverb, “if you threw away a needle it would surely fall on someone's head.”
The air was filled with the fragrance of grilled meat and the shouts of the vendors describing the delicacies they had for sale: “Come and taste the heart, kidneys, and liver of a tender young calf!”
“Are you a connoisseur? Are you an epicurean? Taste the sea fish called buri which is the most delicious in the world. Incomparable! Sweeter than honey! Guaranteed to cure all afflictions.”
Continuing on our way, we passed a row of stores that were set back into the wall. Across their doors were bars as thick as railroad ties and locks weighing several pounds. My cousin looked down at me. “Have you ever seen such wonders in your life before? And this is but a drop in the sea.”
I whispered under my breath: “It's not enough to change my mind about going home.”
“Speak up,” said my cousin.
“It's all very fine, but there's too much noise.”
My cousin was silent for a moment. “Time will do its work,” he said.
It was already ten-thirty at night when Jacob and I left a tavern where we had eaten a strange dish—hash with pickled lemon. Again I followed him through the narrow twisted streets of the mellah as he conducted me to the lodgings we were to share during my stay at the yeshiva. When we arrived, Jacob opened the door and preceded me in, pausing to light a candle while I waited in the doorway. “Welcome to your new home,” he said. “You must be tired from all your travels today. Your bed is already prepared for you. Lie down and go to sleep and I'll be back quite soon.” I was terrified. How could he go off and leave me alone in a strange place? He explained that courtesy required him to visit his “master of the house”—as the yeshiva students called those at whose homes they regularly had their meals—and explain why he had failed to appear for dinner. Promising that he would be gone only briefly, my cousin departed.
By the flickering candlelight I examined my new surroundings. The room was large and bare with a high ceiling and whitewashed walls. In the center was a round table piled high with books and next to it stood two chairs. A few wooden pegs knocked into the wall formed a makeshift closet covered by a curtain.
I lay down on the bed, put my head on the pillow, and began talking to myself. Yesterday at this time I had been safe at home, asleep in a room together with my brothers. Now I was all alone. I shut my eyes and tried with all my might to fall asleep, but I could not stop thinking. I thought first about my father and his exhortations to study. Then I thought about His Honor the Rabbi and the verses he had tested me with, and about the meaning of it all. Finally I thought about my plan of returning home to my mother.
By squinting as hard as I could, I was able to conjure up a picture of the river near my village and of myself standing right there on the bank casting my net in front of me as I had been doing only two days before. How happy I had been! After a while I realized there was no point in trying any longer to fall asleep, so I got out of bed and sat down at the table. Leafing through my cousin's books in the hope of finding some distraction, I came across a psaltery. I read a few psalms aloud to myself and grew calm enough to go back to bed. But still I could not sleep. A voice inside me talked on and on: “Maridoch, you poor fellow, did you notice what quotations the rabbi chose to examine you on? What is the meaning of the verse, ‘A morsel of bread with salt shall be thy portion, and water in measure to drink . . . ’—and how does it go on?—‘. . . a life of suffering shalt thou live in an alien city.’ Why did the rabbi choose that particular passage and not some other one? The answer is clear. He chose it so that there would be no recriminations against him in the future. If you ever come and complain to him about your hard lot, he can always reply: ‘You knew the verse that first day you came to the yeshiva, you knew the fate of the student of Torah—so what right have you to complain to me now?’ And what will your fate be at the end of it all, Maridoch—when you have completed all the suffering and the toil and the labor? If you're lucky, you won't have to grow a terribly long beard and wander from town to town and village to village. You'll find some old ramshackle synagogue where you can teach pupils Talmud so you won't have to go canvassing from door to door armed with a letter of recommendation from some rabbi or other in Jerusalem. No, Maridoch!”—the voice grew much louder—“This life is not for you! Let the rabbi find someone else to train for the wretched life of a scholar. There is another verse, far more appropriate lo your temperament—why didn't the rabbi ask you about that one, the verse that reads: ‘He that tilleth his ground shall have plenty of bread’? Pick up your legs, Maridoch, and run back to the village of your birth as fast as you can. Grasp the plow with one hand and the reins with the other—as your fathers did before you and their fathers before them!”
How true it all was—yet how often does it happen that when a person begins to examine his plan of action too carefully, he discovers obstacles he hadn't dreamed of at first. For instance, how was I to face my father when I finally got back to my village—my father who had brought me all the way to the city in order to revive the dying reputation of our family, in order to restore our honorable lineage? If I were to thwart his desire by running away from the yeshiva, it would be as though I had wilfully flung sand in his face—and who would be there to defend me? Not my mother, surely, who is as meek as a lamb. One shout from him would be enough to make me an outcast forever.
As I lay there pondering these questions, my cousin Jacob suddenly returned. “Are you still awake?” He sounded surprised, though he had no reason to be. He had promised faithfully to come back at once, and had left me alone for more than an hour.
“I can't fall asleep. At this very time last night I was sound asleep in bed with my brothers, but here my eyes refuse to shut. I don't know why.”
I was not the only one who was lonely, Jacob replied—he, too, had wandered far from home. He assured me that the same thing happens to everyone who finds himself in a strange bed in a new place. “On the first night,” he declared, as though it were a law, “sleep escapes you.”
So saying, Jacob sat down at the table, opened one of his books and began to study. I was amazed. “He who wishes to gain knowledge of the Torah must work by night as well as by day,” he said, “for it is written: ‘This book of the Law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate thereon day and night.’ Besides, our sages, of blessed memory, said: ‘At night a man's mind is clearer and he is more capable of grasping things.’”
His homily concluded, my cousin returned to the volume and sank deeper and deeper into contemplation. After a time, his eyes closed and his head drooped, but when his chin landed on the pages of the open book, he awoke with a start and sighed deeply. “Time will come to an end, but the words of the sages are eternal.” And with that, he closed the volume, put out the candle, and climbed into bed. In a moment, he was sound asleep.
At the break of dawn, he awoke. He sprinkled water on his hands and face, dressed, and picked up the velvet bag containing his phylacteries, prayer shawl, and prayer book.
“Are you coming with me to the synagogue?”
I hesitated. “I don't have to. I am not yet bar-mitzvah.”
My cousin looked dubious, but he did not press the matter and left without me.
I watched through the window until he had disappeared from sight and then climbed back into bed. Suddenly I remembered my plan of the day before, and leapt out again. There was no time to lose. I dressed as quickly as I could, slipped into my shoes, and was checking to make sure that the 20-franc note was still tied in my shirttails, when there was a knock at the door.
I was amazed. Who could it be? I hesitated, not knowing whether to answer.
There was another knock.
“Open up, Mordechai,” a woman's voice called, “it's your neighbor.”
How did she know my name? After all, it was my very first morning there and I had arrived when it was already dark. No one had seen me come in. “What do you want, please?” I asked, confused and uncertain.
“Jacob asked me to bring you a cup of tea while he's away at the synagogue.”
So that was it! How cunning my cousin was, keeping me under surveillance so that I could not slip away to the river and my fishing net while he was off praying. Yet how could I refuse such a kind invitation? I followed the neighbor woman into her room, and she bade me sit down and wait until the tea was ready.
There was a low humming sound in the room from a copper kettle that was just coming to a boil. It stood on a special pan filled with pieces of charcoal, red hot and shooting off sparks. Most of the room was taken up by a huge bed that seemed to be full of children. Three babies lay fast asleep while two older boys who were already awake quarreled over which of them was to jump out of bed first. Their shouts soon awakened the babies, who promptly burst into tears. The bed swayed back and forth like a ship in a stormy sea, and the room grew more and more noisy.
The mother grimaced and waved her hands at the children, but it was no use. Finally she raised her voice: “Moshe! Abraham! That's enough!” she shouted. “You should be ashamed of yourselves, acting that way in front of the new yeshiva student.” But they paid not the slightest attention and went on hitting one another, draping the blanket around them and running up and down the room straight up to where the pot stood boiling on the fire; it was a miracle that no one was hurt.
In the meantime the kettle had quieted down and the boiling water sent a flow of steam through the spout. My neighbor wiped clean a few cups and a small incense kettle, into which she threw a handful of tea leaves. Then she stirred the leaves and added a handful of sugar. She stirred the concoction again, added still more sugar and finally after a good deal of further boiling and stirring, the tea was ready. She placed the spout of the incense kettle to the rim of my cup and a stream of brownish liquid flowed out—half water, half froth.
“Drink, Mordechai, don't be ashamed,” she said. I gulped the strange liquid down as best I could, thanked her, and returned to my own room.
I had been there only a moment when Moshe, the older of the two boys, made an unexpected appearance. He came straight into the room without a word, went over to the books lying on the table—Jacob's treasure—and began rummaging through them for all the world as though they belonged to him—opening them, riffling the pages, slamming them shut. I was quite sure it would end badly. He would tear Jacob's books or at the very least get them dirty, so I asked him kindly to please go back to his mother.
Moshe looked up at me with big, innocent eyes. “To my mother? But she was the one who sent me in here to make sure you don't go away.”
So Jacob had gotten not only our neighbor but her whole family to guard me. I was still reflecting on his cunning, when my cousin returned from the synagogue, full of solicitude about my breakfast. I told him I had had tea and he assured me that it would not be long before I would have a “master” to provide for my meals just as he did. Then I would be able to concentrate entirely on my studies. He, too, had suffered from hunger at first and had slept on a bench at the yeshiva without even a pillow for his head or a blanket to cover him. There were days when he hadn't even had the money to buy a piece of bread. But now he was well off. He had a place to eat as well as a place to sleep. So saying, my cousin produced a gold watch from his vest pocket, pressed down on a lid which made the cover spring open, and informed me that it was time to leave for the yeshiva.
Along the way, we met many other students, all hurrying to get to the yeshiva on time but even as they trotted along avidly discussing a problem in dialectics that had been raised by a student the day before. Was the problem, they asked one another, a genuine one, or had a solution already been achieved by the sages of the past? When we arrived, everyone took his assigned place on the bench, opened his book to the Treatise on Divorce and awaited the entrance of His Honor the Rabbi. When he appeared, all the students stood up and bowed their heads. I did the same. The air was filled with reverence and awe. His Honor the Rabbi sat down and motioned with his hand for us to do likewise. Then he proceeded to explicate the passage we had reached in the treatise, citing the wisdom of the masters, both early and late, Tannaim as well as Amoraim. The lesson went on and on until two o'clock in the afternoon.
To be a complete scholar it was necessary not only to be thoroughly familiar with the Bible and the Talmud but also to know by heart at least a few piyutim2 suitable for the various occasions when they are needed—at weddings, for example, or when one is called upon to read a portion of the Torah scroll. But the teaching of piyutim is not part of the yeshiva curriculum. Those who wish to learn them must seek out a hymnist of repute and study with him privately.
After a few months at the yeshiva, I was suddenly seized by a strong desire to study this art, for it seemed to me I had an undeniable gift for it. Before long, I thought to myself, who knows—people may be coming from far and wide to marvel at the melodies that come welling from my lips. I asked about among my fellow students and one of them proposed the name of a master hymnist who lived not too far away—and was a tinsmith by trade. I was doubtful at first. Could a man with a gift for composing piyutim labor also as a common smith? But my friends who had heard of the man reassured me. Some day, they promised, his hymns would make me famous.
Thus it came about that three of us met one afternoon and made our way together to that quarter of the city where the hymnist was to be found. I was taken aback by the squalor and the poverty that I saw all around. The tinsmith's shop was at the end of a kind of underground passageway through which a stream of sewage coursed, tossing and seething like some subterranean spring. The stench was overpowering. Leaping from one stone to another we arrived at last at a sort of cubicle at the far end of the passage, with a broken-down door that was held in place by two iron bars. Fastened to it was a crudely lettered sign: “Primuses, Keys, Everything Repaired. Completely Reliable.” The rest of us waited outside while the leader of our expedition—who had met the hymnist once before—went inside to explain why we had come. After a few moments, he called us in. What an incredible mess met our eyes. The place was piled high with hardware of all sorts, scrap metal, and ancient primuses dating back to the old days before the arrival of the French—our “redeemers”—in Morocco. The walls were hung with row upon row of old rusty keys, all the way up to the ceiling which was black with soot. What a place to find a singer of hymns! Yet there he was—with scarcely room enough to stand up in all the clutter—looking at us over the rims of his eyeglasses, and plucking at his rust-colored beard. When he opened his mouth to speak, the few teeth he had left showed yellow. “I am Shemtov, the maker of piyutim,” he said. “You have made no mistake in coming to me, for I am famous. I have taught dozens and dozens of students and all of them have won wide acclaim. Let there be no haggling over the fee. Every hymn I teach you costs twenty francs. You can each pay me ten francs in advance and then on Sunday, God willing, be at my house and we'll have our first lesson.” He extended a hand stained with spots of rust, like everything else in the store. The three of us looked at one another, shrugged, exchanged nods of agreement, and paid the teacher what he asked.
On the following Sunday we met at Adon Shemtov's house. He placed a mattress on the floor, invited us to be seated, and the lesson got under way. Mainly it was a matter of learning to follow the movements of his hand. When he raised his hand thus, we were to raise our voices; when he lowered his hand thus, we were to lower our voices. Was that clear? Clear as the sun, we replied. Next he recited a hymn and bade us note it down in our copy books: “Oh Lord, have compassion on me, have pity on me, for my hope is in Thee.” Though the text was by no means that hard to remember, we did as we were told, after which he demonstrated how the hymn was to be sung, urging us again to keep our eyes fixed on his hand: “Oh please, please, please, oh please, oh please!” he chanted, his hand climbing ever upward . . . “Oh please, oh please, oh please,” he continued, “have compassion on me.” Down it came. Over and over again he repeated these two phrases, and over and over again we sang them after him. After about twenty attempts we seemed to have masered half the first line at least, whereupon the hymnist consulted an ancient timepiece and pronounced the lesson over. The next time, he assured us, we would do much better, for beginnings are always the most difficult. On the way home, I expressed some doubts to my friends about the quality of our teacher's piyutim, but they urged me to have patience.
By the third or fourth lesson, however, it became clear that our hymnist was a fraud. The piyutim we were laboring over were merely fragments pieced together from the penitential hymns of the Yom Kippur service, and they were quite without interest or originality. There was nothing in them likely to charm a bride and groom at their wedding, for example, or a father at the circumcision of his son, nor did they seem particularly appropriate for any other occasion.
We consulted with one another and decided there was nothing to do but give up our lessons and demand the return of our ten francs. But this proved a lot more difficult than we had anticipated. Not only did Adon Shemtov refuse point blank to give back the money, he would not even listen to what we had to say. Instead he railed bitterly against us, hurling curses and imprecations. What right had we to cast aspersions on his hymns—we who were merely ignorant provincials, knowing nothing of such things?
“Do you want to hear the same piyutim year after year?” he argued. “I compose new ones each season—and what's more they're in rhyme. And those are the main things in a hymn—the rhyme and the rhythm, for the words matter least of all. But you ignoramuses understand nothing of this,” he shouted. “You understand only the old-fashioned piyutim you heard in your backwoods villages—which sound utterly ridiculous here in the big city, quite out of the question. With us it's new piyutim every year, just like the ones I have been teaching you.”
And then quite unexpectedly his wrath began to subside, to be replaced by a strange melancholy. Slowly he ran his fingers through his stained, unkempt beard, then felt around in his pockets for a small metal cigarette box, which he held tenderly in the palm of his hand. Then he leaned back with his eyes closed and seemed to be lost in all sorts of sad reflections, as though his whole world lay in ruins because of what we had done. Suddenly he opened his eyes and pressed the sides of the box together; it popped open, offering one cigarette at a time in a most ingenious fashion. It occurred to me that perhaps the hymnist had designed the box himself. Selecting a moldy match from a carton lying nearby, he lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply and breathed the smoke out through his nostrils. Then he sighed, nodded once or twice to himself, and rubbed his hands together.
Seeing that further negotiations would lead nowhere, the three of us turned and left. He did not even seem to notice.
Thus it was that my desire to become a singer of piyutim was disappointed, and my strange new life continued as before.
1 The Jewish quarter—Ed.
2 Liturgical hymns.