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Children of the Ghetto A Study of a Peculiar People online

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He laid his finger cajolingly to the side of his nose.

"We shall see," repeated Guedalyah the greengrocer, impatiently.

"No, say! I love you like a brother. Grant me this favor and I will
never ask anything of you so long as I live."

"Well, if the others - " began Guedalyah feebly.

"Ah! You are a Prince in Israel," Pinchas cried enthusiastically. "If I
could only show you my heart, how it loves you."

He capered off at a sprightly trot, his head haloed by huge volumes of
smoke. Guedalyah the greengrocer bent over a bin of potatoes. Looking up
suddenly he was startled to see the head fixed in the open front of the
shop window. It was a narrow dark bearded face distorted with an
insinuative smile. A dirty-nailed forefinger was laid on the right of
the nose.

"You won't forget," said the head coaxingly.

"Of course I won't forget," cried the greengrocer querulously.

The meeting took place at ten that night at the Beth Hamidrash founded
by Guedalyah, a large unswept room rudely fitted up as a synagogue and
approached by reeking staircases, unsavory as the neighborhood. On one
of the black benches a shabby youth with very long hair and lank
fleshless limbs shook his body violently to and fro while he vociferated
the sentences of the Mishnah in the traditional argumentative singsong.
Near the central raised platform was a group of enthusiasts, among whom
Froom Karlkammer, with his thin ascetic body and the mass of red hair
that crowned his head like the light of a pharos, was a conspicuous
figure.

"Peace be to you, Karlkammer!" said Pinchas to him in Hebrew.

"To you be peace, Pinchas!" replied Karlkammer.

"Ah!" went on Pinchas. "Sweeter than honey it is to me, yea than fine
honey, to talk to a man in the Holy Tongue. Woe, the speakers are few in
these latter days. I and thou, Karlkammer, are the only two people who
can speak the Holy Tongue grammatically on this isle of the sea. Lo, it
is a great thing we are met to do this night - I see Zion laughing on her
mountains and her fig-trees skipping for joy. I will be the treasurer of
the fund, Karlkammer - do thou vote for me, for so our society shall
flourish as the green bay tree."

Karlkammer grunted vaguely, not having humor enough to recall the usual
associations of the simile, and Pinchas passed on to salute Hamburg. To
Gabriel Hamburg, Pinchas was occasion for half-respectful amusement. He
could not but reverence the poet's genius even while he laughed at his
pretensions to omniscience, and at the daring and unscientific guesses
which the poet offered as plain prose. For when in their arguments
Pinchas came upon Jewish ground, he was in presence of a man who knew
every inch of it.

"Blessed art thou who arrivest," he said when he perceived Pinchas.
Then dropping into German he continued - "I did not know you would join
in the rebuilding of Zion."

"Why not?" inquired Pinchas.

"Because you have written so many poems thereupon."

"Be not so foolish," said Pinchas, annoyed. "Did not King David fight
the Philistines as well as write the Psalms?"

"Did he write the Psalms?" said Hamburg quietly, with a smile.

"No - not so loud! Of course he didn't! The Psalms were written by Judas
Maccabaeus, as I proved in the last issue of the Stuttgard
_Zeitschrift_. But that only makes my analogy more forcible. You shall
see how I will gird on sword and armor, and I shall yet see even you in
the forefront of the battle. I will be treasurer, you shall vote for me,
Hamburg, for I and you are the only two people who know the Holy Tongue
grammatically, and we must work shoulder to shoulder and see that the
balance sheets are drawn up in the language of our fathers."

In like manner did Melchitsedek Pinchas approach Hiram Lyons and Simon
Gradkoski, the former a poverty-stricken pietist who added day by day to
a furlong of crabbed manuscript, embodying a useless commentary on the
first chapter of Genesis; the latter the portly fancy-goods dealer in
whose warehouse Daniel Hyams was employed. Gradkoski rivalled Reb
Shemuel in his knowledge of the exact _loci_ of Talmudical remarks - page
this, and line that - and secretly a tolerant latitudinarian, enjoyed the
reputation of a bulwark of orthodoxy too well to give it up. Gradkoski
passed easily from writing an invoice to writing a learned article on
Hebrew astronomy. Pinchas ignored Joseph Strelitski whose raven curl
floated wildly over his forehead like a pirate's flag, though Hamburg,
who was rather surprised to see the taciturn young man at a meeting,
strove to draw him into conversation. The man to whom Pinchas ultimately
attached himself was only a man in the sense of having attained his
religious majority. He was a Harrow boy named Raphael Leon, a scion of a
wealthy family. The boy had manifested a strange premature interest in
Jewish literature and had often seen Gabriel Hamburg's name in learned
foot-notes, and, discovering that he was in England, had just written to
him. Hamburg had replied; they had met that day for the first time and
at the lad's own request the old scholar brought him on to this strange
meeting. The boy grew to be Hamburg's one link with wealthy England, and
though he rarely saw Leon again, the lad came in a shadowy way to take
the place he had momentarily designed for Joseph Strelitski. To-night it
was Pinchas who assumed the paternal manner, but he mingled it with a
subtle obsequiousness that made the shy simple lad uncomfortable, though
when he came to read the poet's lofty sentiments which arrived (with an
acrostic dedication) by the first post next morning, he conceived an
enthusiastic admiration for the neglected genius.

The rest of the "remnant" that were met to save Israel looked more
commonplace - a furrier, a slipper-maker, a locksmith, an ex-glazier
(Mendel Hyams), a confectioner, a _Melammed_ or Hebrew teacher, a
carpenter, a presser, a cigar-maker, a small shop-keeper or two, and
last and least, Moses Ansell. They were of many birthplaces - Austria,
Holland, Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain - yet felt themselves of
no country and of one. Encircled by the splendors of modern Babylon,
their hearts turned to the East, like passion-flowers seeking the sun.
Palestine, Jerusalem, Jordan, the Holy Land were magic syllables to
them, the sight of a coin struck in one of Baron Edmund's colonies
filled their eyes with tears; in death they craved no higher boon than a
handful of Palestine earth sprinkled over their graves.

But Guedalyah the greengrocer was not the man to encourage idle hopes.
He explained his scheme lucidly - without highfalutin. They were to
rebuild Judaism as the coral insect builds its reefs - not as the prayer
went, "speedily and in our days."

They had brought themselves up to expect more and were disappointed.
Some protested against peddling little measures - like Pinchas they were
for high, heroic deeds. Joseph Strelitski, student and cigar commission
agent, jumped to his feet and cried passionately in German: "Everywhere
Israel groans and travails - must we indeed wait and wait till our hearts
are sick and strike never a decisive blow? It is nigh two thousand years
since across the ashes of our Holy Temple we were driven into the Exile,
clanking the chains of Pagan conquerors. For nigh two thousand years
have we dwelt on alien soils, a mockery and a byword for the nations,
hounded out from every worthy employ and persecuted for turning to the
unworthy, spat upon and trodden under foot, suffusing the scroll of
history with our blood and illuminating it with the lurid glare of the
fires to which our martyrs have ascended gladly for the Sanctification
of the Name. We who twenty centuries ago were a mighty nation, with a
law and a constitution and a religion which have been the key-notes of
the civilization of the world, we who sat in judgment by the gates of
great cities, clothed in purple and fine linen, are the sport of peoples
who were then roaming wild in woods and marshes clothed in the skins of
the wolf and the bear. Now in the East there gleams again a star of
hope - why shall we not follow it? Never has the chance of the
Restoration flamed so high as to-day. Our capitalists rule the markets
of Europe, our generals lead armies, our great men sit in the Councils
of every State. We are everywhere - a thousand thousand stray rivulets of
power that could be blent into a mighty ocean. Palestine is one if we
wish - the whole house of Israel has but to speak with a mighty unanimous
voice. Poets will sing for us, journalists write for us, diplomatists
haggle for us, millionaires pay the price for us. The sultan would
restore our land to us to-morrow, did we but essay to get it. There are
no obstacles - but ourselves. It is not the heathen that keeps us out of
our land - it is the Jews, the rich and prosperous Jews - Jeshurun grown
fat and sleepy, dreaming the false dream of assimilation with the people
of the pleasant places in which their lines have been cast. Give us back
our country; this alone will solve the Jewish question. Our paupers
shall become agriculturists, and like Antaeus, the genius of Israel
shall gain fresh strength by contact with mother earth. And for England
it will help to solve the Indian question - Between European Russia and
India there will be planted a people, fierce, terrible, hating Russia
for her wild-beast deeds. Into the Exile we took with us, of all our
glories, only a spark of the fire by which our Temple, the abode of our
great One was engirdled, and this little spark kept us alive while the
towers of our enemies crumbled to dust, and this spark leaped into
celestial flame and shed light upon the faces of the heroes of our race
and inspired them to endure the horrors of the Dance of Death and the
tortures of the _Auto-da-fé_. Let us fan the spark again till it leap up
and become a pillar of flame going before us and showing us the way to
Jerusalem, the City of our sires. And if gold will not buy back our land
we must try steel. As the National Poet of Israel, Naphtali Herz Imber,
has so nobly sung (here he broke into the Hebrew _Wacht Am Rhein_, of
which an English version would run thus):

"THE WATCH ON THE JORDAN.

I.

"Like the crash of the thunder
Which splitteth asunder
The flame of the cloud,
On our ears ever falling,
A voice is heard calling
From Zion aloud:
'Let your spirits' desires
For the land of your sires
Eternally burn.
From the foe to deliver
Our own holy river,
To Jordan return.'
Where the soft flowing stream
Murmurs low as in dream,
There set we our watch.
Our watchword, 'The sword
Of our land and our Lord' -
By the Jordan then set we our watch.

II.

"Rest in peace, lovèd land,
For we rest not, but stand,
Off shaken our sloth.
When the boils of war rattle
To shirk not the battle,
We make thee our oath.
As we hope for a Heaven,
Thy chains shall be riven,
Thine ensign unfurled.
And in pride of our race
We will fearlessly face
The might of the world.
When our trumpet is blown,
And our standard is flown,
Then set we our watch.
Our watchword, 'The sword
Of our land and our Lord' -
By Jordan then set we our watch.

III.

"Yea, as long as there he
Birds in air, fish in sea,
And blood in our veins;
And the lions in might.
Leaping down from the height,
Shake, roaring, their manes;
And the dew nightly laves
The forgotten old graves
Where Judah's sires sleep, -
We swear, who are living,
To rest not in striving,
To pause not to weep.
Let the trumpet be blown,
Let the standard be flown,
Now set we our watch.
Our watchword, 'The sword
Of our land and our Lord' -
In Jordan NOW set we our watch."

He sank upon the rude, wooden bench, exhausted, his eyes glittering, his
raven hair dishevelled by the wildness of his gestures. He had said. For
the rest of the evening he neither moved nor spake. The calm,
good-humored tones of Simon Gradkoski followed like a cold shower.

"We must be sensible," he said, for he enjoyed the reputation of a
shrewd conciliatory man of the world as well as of a pillar of
orthodoxy. "The great people will come to us, but not if we abuse them.
We must flatter them up and tell them they are the descendants of the
Maccabees. There is much political kudos to be got out of leading such a
movement - this, too, they will see. Rome was not built in a day, and the
Temple will not be rebuilt in a year. Besides, we are not soldiers now.
We must recapture our land by brain, not sword. Slow and sure and the
blessing of God over all."

After such wise Simon Gradkoski. But Gronovitz, the Hebrew teacher,
crypto-atheist and overt revolutionary, who read a Hebrew edition of the
"Pickwick Papers" in synagogue on the Day of Atonement, was with
Strelitski, and a bigot whose religion made his wife and children
wretched was with the cautious Simon Gradkoski. Froom Karlkammer
followed, but his drift was uncertain. He apparently looked forward to
miraculous interpositions. Still he approved of the movement from one
point of view. The more Jews lived in Jerusalem the more would be
enabled to die there - which was the aim of a good Jew's life. As for the
Messiah, he would come assuredly - in God's good time. Thus Karlkammer at
enormous length with frequent intervals of unintelligibility and huge
chunks of irrelevant quotation and much play of Cabalistic conceptions.
Pinchas, who had been fuming throughout this speech, for to him
Karlkammer stood for the archetype of all donkeys, jumped up impatiently
when Karlkammer paused for breath and denounced as an interruption that
gentleman's indignant continuance of his speech. The sense of the
meeting was with the poet and Karlkammer was silenced. Pinchas was
dithyrambic, sublime, with audacities which only genius can venture on.
He was pungently merry over Imber's pretensions to be the National Poet
of Israel, declaring that his prosody, his vocabulary, and even his
grammar were beneath contempt. He, Pinchas, would write Judaea a real
Patriotic Poem, which should be sung from the slums of Whitechapel to
the _Veldts_ of South Africa, and from the _Mellah_ of Morocco to the
_Judengassen_ of Germany, and should gladden the hearts and break from
the mouths of the poor immigrants saluting the Statue of Liberty in New
York Harbor. When he, Pinchas, walked in Victoria Park of a Sunday
afternoon and heard the band play, the sound of a cornet always seemed
to him, said he, like the sound of Bar Cochba's trumpet calling the
warriors to battle. And when it was all over and the band played "God
save the Queen," it sounded like the paean of victory when he marched, a
conqueror, to the gates of Jerusalem. Wherefore he, Pinchas, would be
their leader. Had not the Providence, which concealed so many
revelations in the letters of the Torah, given him the name Melchitsedek
Pinchas, whereof one initial stood for Messiah and the other for
Palestine. Yes, he would be their Messiah. But money now-a-days was the
sinews of war and the first step to Messiahship was the keeping of the
funds. The Redeemer must in the first instance be the treasurer. With
this anti-climax Pinchas wound up, his childishness and _naïveté_
conquering his cunning.

Other speakers followed but in the end Guedalyah the greengrocer
prevailed. They appointed him President and Simon Gradkoski, Treasurer,
collecting twenty-five shillings on the spot, ten from the lad Raphael
Leon. In vain Pinchas reminded the President they would need Collectors
to make house to house calls; three other members were chosen to trisect
the Ghetto. All felt the incongruity of hanging money bags at the
saddle-bow of Pegasus. Whereupon Pinchas re-lit his cigar and muttering
that they were all fool-men betook himself unceremoniously without.

Gabriel Hamburg looked on throughout with something like a smile on his
shrivelled features. Once while Joseph Strelitski was holding forth he
blew his nose violently. Perhaps he had taken too large a pinch of
snuff. But not a word did the great scholar speak. He would give up his
last breath to promote the Return (provided the Hebrew manuscripts were
not left behind in alien museums); but the humors of the enthusiasts
were part of the great comedy in the only theatre he cared for. Mendel
Hyams was another silent member. But he wept openly under Strelitski's
harangue.

When the meeting adjourned, the lank unhealthy swaying creature in the
corner, who had been mumbling the tractate Baba Kama out of courtesy,
now burst out afresh in his quaint argumentative recitative.

"What then does it refer to? To his stone or his knife or his burden
which he has left on the highway and it injured a passer-by. How is
this? If he gave up his ownership, whether according to Rav or according
to Shemuel, it is a pit, and if he retained his ownership, if according
to Shemuel, who holds that all are derived from 'his pit,' then it is 'a
pit,' and if according to Rav, who holds that all are derived from 'his
ox,' then it is 'an ox,' therefore the derivatives of 'an ox' are the
same as 'an ox' itself."

He had been at it all day, and he went on far into the small hours,
shaking his body backwards and forwards without remission.




CHAPTER XVI.

THE COURTSHIP OF SHOSSHI SHMENDRIK.


Meckisch was a _Chasid_, which in the vernacular is a saint, but in the
actual a member of the sect of the _Chasidim_ whose centre is Galicia.
In the eighteenth century Israel Baal Shem, "the Master of the Name,"
retired to the mountains to meditate on philosophical truths. He arrived
at a creed of cheerful and even stoical acceptance of the Cosmos in all
its aspects and a conviction that the incense of an enjoyed pipe was
grateful to the Creator. But it is the inevitable misfortune of
religious founders to work apocryphal miracles and to raise up an army
of disciples who squeeze the teaching of their master into their own
mental moulds and are ready to die for the resultant distortion. It is
only by being misunderstood that a great man can have any influence upon
his kind. Baal Shem was succeeded by an army of thaumaturgists, and the
wonder-working Rabbis of Sadagora who are in touch with all the spirits
of the air enjoy the revenue of princes and the reverence of Popes. To
snatch a morsel of such a Rabbi's Sabbath _Kuggol_, or pudding, is to
insure Paradise, and the scramble is a scene to witness. _Chasidism_ is
the extreme expression of Jewish optimism. The Chasidim are the
Corybantes or Salvationists of Judaism. In England their idiosyncrasies
are limited to noisy jubilant services in their _Chevrah_, the
worshippers dancing or leaning or standing or writhing or beating their
heads against the wall as they will, and frisking like happy children in
the presence of their Father.

Meckisch also danced at home and sang "Tiddy, riddy, roi, toi, toi, toi,
ta," varied by "Rom, pom, pom" and "Bim, bom" in a quaint melody to
express his personal satisfaction with existence. He was a weazened
little widower with a deep yellow complexion, prominent cheek bones, a
hook nose and a scrubby, straggling little beard. Years of professional
practice as a mendicant had stamped his face with an anguished suppliant
conciliatory grin, which he could not now erase even after business
hours. It might perhaps have yielded to soap and water but the
experiment had not been tried. On his head he always wore a fur cap with
lappets for his ears. Across his shoulders was strung a lemon-basket
filled with grimy, gritty bits of sponge which nobody ever bought.
Meckisch's merchandise was quite other. He dealt in sensational
spectacle. As he shambled along with extreme difficulty and by the aid
of a stick, his lower limbs which were crossed in odd contortions
appeared half paralyzed, and, when his strange appearance had attracted
attention, his legs would give way and he would find himself with his
back on the pavement, where he waited to be picked up by sympathetic
spectators shedding silver and copper. After an indefinite number of
performances Meckisch would hurry home in the darkness to dance and sing
"Tiddy, riddy, roi, toi, bim, bom."

Thus Meckisch lived at peace with God and man, till one day the fatal
thought came into his head that he wanted a second wife. There was no
difficulty in getting one - by the aid of his friend, Sugarman the __
soon the little man found his household goods increased by the
possession of a fat, Russian giantess. Meckisch did not call in the
authorities to marry him. He had a "still wedding," which cost nothing.
An artificial canopy made out of a sheet and four broomsticks was
erected in the chimney corner and nine male friends sanctified the
ceremony by their presence. Meckisch and the Russian giantess fasted on
their wedding morn and everything was in honorable order.

But Meckisch's happiness and economies were short-lived. The Russian
giantess turned out a tartar. She got her claws into his savings and
decorated herself with Paisley shawls and gold necklaces. Nay more! She
insisted that Meckisch must give her "Society" and keep open house.
Accordingly the bed-sitting room which they rented was turned into a
_salon_ of reception, and hither one Friday night came Peleg Shmendrik
and his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Sugarman. Over the Sabbath meal the
current of talk divided itself into masculine and feminine freshets. The
ladies discussed bonnets and the gentlemen Talmud. All the three men
dabbled, pettily enough, in stocks and shares, but nothing in the world
would tempt them to transact any negotiation or discuss the merits of a
prospectus on the Sabbath, though they were all fluttered by the
allurements of the Sapphire Mines, Limited, as set forth in a whole page
of advertisement in the "_Jewish Chronicle_, the organ naturally perused
for its religious news on Friday evenings. The share-list would close at
noon on Monday.

"But when Moses, our teacher, struck the rock," said Peleg Shmendrik, in
the course of the discussion, "he was right the first time but wrong the
second, because as the Talmud points out, a child may be chastised when
it is little, but as it grows up it should be reasoned with."

"Yes," said Sugarman the _Shadchan_, quickly; "but if his rod had not
been made of sapphire he would have split that instead of the rock."

"Was it made of sapphire?" asked Meckisch, who was rather a
Man-of-the-Earth.

"Of course it was - and a very fine thing, too," answered Sugarman.

"Do you think so?" inquired Peleg Shmendrik eagerly.

"The sapphire is a magic stone," answered Sugarman. "It improves the
vision and makes peace between foes. Issachar, the studious son of
Jacob, was represented on the Breast-plate by the sapphire. Do you not
know that the mist-like centre of the sapphire symbolizes the cloud that
enveloped Sinai at the giving of the Law?"

"I did not know that," answered Peleg Shmendrik, "but I know that
Moses's Rod was created in the twilight of the first Sabbath and God did
everything after that with this sceptre."

"Ah, but we are not all strong enough to wield Moses's Rod; it weighed
forty seahs," said Sugarman.

"How many seahs do you think one could safely carry?" said Meckisch.

"Five or six seahs - not more," said Sugarman. "You see one might drop
them if he attempted more and even sapphire may break - the First Tables
of the Law were made of sapphire, and yet from a great height they fell
terribly, and were shattered to pieces."

"Gideon, the M.P., may be said to desire a Rod of Moses, for his
secretary told me he will take forty," said Shmendrik.

"Hush! what are you saying!" said Sugarman, "Gideon is a rich man, and
then he is a director."

"It seems a good lot of directors," said Meckisch.

"Good to look at. But who can tell?" said Sugarman, shaking his head.
"The Queen of Sheba probably brought sapphires to Solomon, but she was
not a virtuous woman."

"Ah, Solomon!" sighed Mrs. Shmendrik, pricking up her ears and
interrupting this talk of stocks and stones, "If he'd had a thousand
daughters instead of a thousand wives, even his treasury couldn't have
held out. I had only two girls, praised be He, and yet it nearly ruined
me to buy them husbands. A dirty _Greener_ comes over, without a shirt
to his skin, and nothing else but he must have two hundred pounds in the
hand. And then you've got to stick to his back to see that he doesn't
take his breeches in his hand and off to America. In Poland he would



Online LibraryIsrael ZangwillChildren of the Ghetto A Study of a Peculiar People → online text (page 17 of 46)