By Jacob Dinezon
From Der Pinkes (The Book of Records)
A yearbook of the history of Yiddish literatures and language,
folklore, criticism, and bibliography
Edited by Sh. Niger
Vilna: Publishing House of B. A. Kletzkin, 1911
Translated from the Yiddish by
my early childhood years and
my first attempt at writing
my first attempt at writing
When I think about the questions: When and how did I begin to write? What actually drove me or pushed me to this? My old recollections return which have remained in my memory from my early childhood years.
I do not know for sure if these recollections ever had any connection to my later writings or if they are of interest to anyone. My own character, which in any event is of interest to me, will never be full or complete if I would not recount these recollections, where I have tried once again on paper to walk through or run through that long, winding, faraway road on which a young Jewish child, without a guide and without a chaperone wandered, sometimes for an entire year, before a coincidence or a good angel led him to the place which was apparently decided for him from the beginning and to what would later occupy his life.
And here, I will tell you on paper the reasons that brought me to writing. Permit me first to recount my recollections which have remained in my memory from my early childhood years.
Before I even awakened to what writing was and began to write, I realized the first thing you needed was paper. I already loved a clean piece of writing paper. I had no idea what use this had, but whenever I saw other boys on the street or in my cheder who had a blank, beautiful, clean piece of writing paper, I wanted to make it mine. If I had a kopek, I bought it with this kopek. On this gem, I was ready to spend the breakfast money they gave me when I went to school. I remained sitting without eating, feeling faint until the Rebbe [teacher] looked at the large clock on the wall with the numbers and announced: “Time to go eat lunch but come back quickly!”
My early childhood was very religious. Even a small schoolboy of barely five years could not do anything in the morning before his Rebbe prayed with him or at least blessed his prayer fringes in cheder.
I would do such splendid things as exchange my breakfast for a piece of white writing paper with the Rebbe’s son Arye. He was already older and studying in the House of Study, but he would come to eat at his father’s, our teacher’s cheder. He would eat breakfast and lunch with us as we ate the food we brought from home.
Arye had all types of merchandise in his pockets: spinning tops for Chanukah, noisemakers for Purim, bows and arrows for Lag Ba’Omer, small swords for Tisha B’Av, and other useful things that a cheder boy, in those days, did not have; he not only had seasonal things but also regular items like all types of buttons in all sorts of colors, prisms which Arye would steal from the hanging candle holders in the large House of Study, so-called little knives, chisels and saws which every little boy wanted. Arye kept extra white writing paper in store for me. He accidentally found out I would give my soul for a piece of writing paper, and he quickly opened a “paper warehouse” in his pocket.
My mother noticed that I returned home from cheder hungry and weak. She did not believe my appetite was so big that the food she sent was not enough, and she began to question what was going on and why I was coming home hungry. I could not tell her the truth. We were warned by Arye not to tell anyone of his secret work and what was going on in cheder.
“If you tell anyone what’s going on,” Arye said, “you will be punished in the other world, in hell, with burning iron rods, and you will hang from the tip of your tongue for years until everything is solved! . . . ”
“Remember kids,” he would warn, “if your father asks, if your mother asks, if the whole world asks, you say nothing, remain as silent as the walls, say nothing at all! . . . ”
Understandably, I did not want to be beaten by burning rods even after my death or hang from the tip of my tongue in hell until this horrible crime was solved. I remained silent and did not answer a single word to anything my mother asked about breakfast.
My mother would respond to my stubbornness with these words: “Get out of my sight. I hate a stubborn child. I don’t want to look at you anymore!”
Such a punishment hurt my little heart even more than the burning rods in hell, but I still said nothing.
After one of these investigations, one of my older sisters proclaimed: “I will go to his cheder and find out the truth!” She really wanted to go, but my good mother held her back.
“You don’t need to, daughter,” she said to her, “one who is satiated would not take the breakfast from a child, and we are forbidden to blame one who is hungry. Children, may you never in your lives try to do this!”
From that day on, my mother began to send two breakfasts with me to cheder. However, this barely helped. Arye raised his rates for writing paper. Being considerate, he would leave me a bite to win my heart.
My blind love for writing paper was so great that it led me to a transgression.
One day my mother sent me to my father’s room to bring her a piece of paper, ink, and a feather pen to write down the list of laundry she was giving out to wash. At the time, my father was not in his room, so I began to search for a piece of paper. The ink and pen were on the table; I did not have to look for them. I pulled out a box from my father’s table and saw perhaps five beautiful packs of white writing paper. Real ones, not those little scraps that Arye the Rebbe’s son was selling to me.
My blind love for the paper flared up; I didn’t know what to do with myself. I shoved my hand into the box and took out a whole packet of paper, quickly folded them in half and shoved it into my inner pocket, and hid it with my coat. I totally forgot what I had been sent for. I began to run like a thief.
When I reached the door, I met my mother, who felt she had been waiting too long for me. She immediately sensed my confusion and fear and realized I must have done something wrong to make me tremble so much. But before she could ask me what happened, she saw something sticking out of my pocket under my jacket. She shoved her hand in and pulled out the stolen goods, and she herself became frightened by this shame she was experiencing.
“Really, are you a thief? Stealing paper from your father’s desk . . . Is this what I hoped would come of you? . . . ”
She led me back to the dining room like you lead a thief when he is caught. Then my father came in, and my day of judgment began.
Before anything else, he went to the new broom, which had been bought just the day before, and pulled out a few fresh twigs. He fanned them in the air to instill more fear in me. He walked over to me and, at that moment, told me I should confess to why I took the paper or if someone told me to take it. If not, he warned, he would beat me until my blood splashed the ceiling.
My mother stood there with a look on her face like she would save me from my father’s hand at the last minute, but meanwhile, she was allegedly at one with him and asked me to confess.
I stood there trembling in silence. I did not even know why I needed the paper. At that time, I did not even know what writing was and could not even write an Alef. And nobody told me to steal the paper.
“Why are you silent, huh?” asked my father in anger and gave me a few little slaps on my “thief’s fingers.”
My mother began to pity me and said if I told the truth, all would be forgiven, and she would love me as before. But I must tell the whole truth as to why I took the paper. Was it for me, or did someone put me up to it, and who was it?
I remained silent. She almost agreed I should be beaten.
My father sat down and stretched out his knee for me to lie on. My mother threatened she would hold my feet while my father beat me. Then the door opened, and our neighbor, the kind Reb Mikhl, grabbed me from my father’s hands and did not allow him to harm me.
They told him about my terrible stealing and showed him the folded, wrinkled paper, and asked him if I did not deserve to be beaten?
He looked at me, straight into my eyes, and I looked at him. I did not understand how the kind Reb Mikhl knew the truth, that nobody forced me to steal, and I was not guilty.
Reb Mikhl really understood me at that moment.
“Give him to me,” he said to my mother and father. “I will find out why he needed this paper or if someone else talked him into it.”
Of course, my mother agreed, but my father was a bit angry that Reb Mikhl always showed up at these moments.
Meanwhile, Reb Mikhl took my hand and took me back to my father’s room. He also took the stolen paper. He locked the door and did not allow anyone to enter.
He gave me the paper and told me to show him where I took it from and how I removed it. Then he told me to put it back where I found it.
It was then that I felt ashamed of what I had done and began to cry bitterly.
“Do you regret what you have done?” he asked.
“Regret!” I blurted out.
“You will not do this again?”
“Never again,” I continued to cry.
He caressed my little head to show me he had forgiven me.
“Put the paper back in the desk box.”
I obeyed him and waited for him to ask me to do something else. But he took me on his knee, caressed me, kissed me, and asked if I was angry with him or loved him as much as before? . . .
I replied, “I’m not angry, and I love you, I love you very much, Reb Mikhl!” And I kissed his hand.
He felt I was telling the truth.
“So, if you love me, tell me why you took the paper?”
“Just like that!”
“Just like that?”
“Because I love it, and I want to have paper.”
“But what would you do with it?”
“Nothing! Just look at it, hold it, and play with it.” I told him the honest truth, and the smart Reb Mikhl continued to look into my eyes as well as into my childlike soul.
“Now I know everything!” he told my mother when he brought me back to the dining room. My father had already left.
“What do you know?” my mother asked.
“I know he is a thief like I am a Rabbi,” he replied.
“So why did he do this?”
“If I tell you, would you believe me?” answered Reb Mikhl.
“Why shouldn’t I believe you?” wondered my mother.
“Because you will not understand!” he replied.
My mother promised she would understand.
“You should know that sometimes a child loves something but does not know why. Because he loves it, he wants to have it as his own. This is human nature. You want to have the things you love.”
“But what use is the paper to him? Why does he love it?” my mother asked again.
“He certainly has no use for the paper now, but there is a connection between the paper and his young soul . . . Who knows what will come from this? Maybe one day he will be a great Rabbi and write sacred teachings about Torah.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears!” said my mother finishing his sentence.
“And maybe he will be well educated and write little songs like I do!”
“Bite your tongue!” replied my mother.
“Either way, the paper is connected to his little soul. He is as guilty of this crime as you and I are.”
I would never have remembered this conversation if my dear good mother did not repeat it to me in detail later on at every opportunity.
Our neighbor, the kind Reb Mikhl, was actually the well-known, and, in his day, the most beloved folk poet Mikhl Gordon (1832–1890), who lived at that time in my hometown Zhager (Zager) and was good friends with my parents.
He was my godfather at my circumcision and later carried me in his arms until I began to walk.
Once they told me later, I became extremely ill. They were already standing around my bed with candles waiting for my soul to depart. He, the kind Reb Mikhl, arrived and sent all the women with the candles out of the room except my mother. He sat down beside me and did everything the doctor had requested, even though there was little hope that I would survive. Mikhl Gordon sat by my bed for twenty-four hours and did not move until he saw a noticeable improvement in my sickness. This is how my mother described how he saved me from the Angel of Death.
And this is why he displayed so much love toward me and would show up whenever they wanted to punish me. He would protect me more than my mother and father and would not allow anyone to lay a finger on me.
His song, “Sir, Have You Been in Poltava and Did You See Mikhl Gordon There?”, he actually taught me himself, and I sang it before I could even understand that he was the Mikhl Gordon in the song. I remember my sisters and their friends who would come to visit would sing his songs, “The Jew in Exile,” “The Step-Mother,” “Whisky,” and “Listen, Hene Leah, I’ll Tell You My Idea.”
The real Hene Leah, who became practically historical through this song, was actually a relative of mine. In those years, she studied German, Russian, and French with Mikhl Gordon. When they wanted to find a match for her who was worthy of her intelligence and education, Mikhl Gordon wrote this song and gave it to his and her acquaintances to sing.
I don’t remember if I knew this Hene Leah or if I ever actually saw her, but in my childhood, I was very acquainted with her well-known parents. I loved them, and they loved me even more.
Her father was Reb Khaim Zak, a great and wise Torah scholar. I believe he was the greatest and maybe the first of the great personalities who are still referred to by the title “The Wise Men of Zhager.”
Every three years, he would celebrate the completion of an entire Talmud tractate. In addition, he was highly educated in secular studies and philosophy. He knew ten languages, old and new. Without his help and explanations, the well-known educator Leo Mnadelshtam who was also from Zhager, would not have been able to translate Maimonides into German according to the rules of the Russian government of the day.
I was just a small child in those years when I had the good fortune to meet this great Jew, Reb Khaim Zak, in person, and I was too young to remember any of his great deeds and thoughts which I heard and saw. I do remember the great respect shown when his name was mentioned in my parent’s house and the honor bestowed on him even by those close to him at home.
Zhager was divided into two classes of Jews. Those who belonged to the first class, and obviously the larger one, were all the Talmudic scholars, distinguished scholars, pious, and the half-crazy adherents to the Musar religious movement, whose delusional acts in their Musar prayer houses would be discussed and laughed at. The enlightened Jews belonged to the other class. They were also great Torah scholars, and although they were not wildly religious, they were still quite pious. But at the same time, they studied and read secular science and literature. Reb Khaim Zak belonged to this class. Although the first class of wild Musar adherents was so fanatic and reprimanded the Jews of the second class, no one allowed a fleck of dust to fall upon Reb Khaim Zak: “If Rabbi Zak said it, we must listen”; “If Reb Khaim Zak asked us to do something, we must obey.”
He did not make this impact on young and old, pious and enlightened through power or wealth but rather with his clever, sensible words, which rarely did not achieve their goal. This by itself shows the true greatness of Reb Khaim Zak in Torah, wisdom, and most of all, good deeds and communal relations in his town.
I was told he left behind many important manuscripts on Torah and the wisdom of Israel, and these writings are with his daughter, the wealthy Mineh Frumkin from Grodno, who has been intending for years to publish them. It would be a grave injustice to her father’s great reputation if these manuscripts should, God forbid, get lost due to the neglect of the inheritors. Perhaps I have lingered on this point in my recollections for too long, but I must make these remarks.
In the remaining manuscripts of such a great Jew as Reb Khaim Zak, we can discover a large piece of Jewish history. I believe through his writings, we can clarify his world views as well as the world views of his spiritual friends at that time.
I also believe the following question can be answered in his writings: Why were the enlightened Jews privileged to be crowned with the title “The Wise Men of Zhager,” while enlightened Jews from other Jewish communities at that time only had the honor of being called “Maskilim” [adherents of the Haskakla or Jewish Enlightenment]?
Perhaps the difference between these titles lies in the differences in the outlets and turning points on the path which both types of enlightened Jews chose and wished to guide their people.
Either way, all that I have said here about Reb Khaim Zak, I learned at a later time. At that time, I was a small boy in Zhager and loved him because of his kindness toward me and for his clever, beautiful stories, which he would tell me as he looked into my eyes in order to notice the effect the story had on my little soul.
And his wife Hinde Gite! She was not only a true woman of valor but really from the type of brilliant Jewish women who are referred to in our bible as “Great Women.”
She was grand in her businesses and factories, which she ran in her own name. She was grand in her great intelligence and good deeds, which she performed her entire beautiful, long life, up until the last minute. When she was ninety years old, they told me, she could be seen playing her piano. Three years before she died, they said, having lived one hundred years, she was still able to write me a letter in which the handwriting, language, and style would make today’s educated women envious.
When I was barely three years old, Mikhl Gordon taught me a child’s little sermon on Gemara [the commentary on the Talmud], which I remember began with these words, “Our teacher tells us, if a baby can talk, his father must teach him Torah.” I had to give this little sermon to Hinde Gite when my mother brought me to her at night or even if I met her on the street. She beamed with delight as I pronounced each word with the correct Gemara melody and turned my thumb back and forth just as elderly scholars did.
For a sermon like that, she would fill my pockets with raisins or give me a nice toy from her large haberdashery store.
More than one mother envied my mother when I recited this little sermon that Mikhl Gordon taught me. They saw that God blessed her with a boy who gave sermons on the sacred Torah even though he was not yet three years old.
When I turned four, they handed me over to a Rebbe in cheder. Perhaps at that time, there were good teachers in Zhager who taught the older children; for the little boys in cheder, particularly the children from the pious class and the well-off, to which my parents belonged, there was no proper teacher.
At that time, there was a good teacher who knew a lot of grammar and whose students learned a different sort of Hebrew. This was the well-known teacher Kalman Marienhof. (He will be mentioned in my recollections in Yud). As the Preacher from Kelm said from the center of the synagogue, “Hell was always open under him.” Only the “German” students studied with him. Those whose fathers were already wearing short jackets, long pants, and weighted boots. Some even had trimmed beards. You could not even pay my father to send me to such a cheder. They sent me to the pious teachers but, forgive me, I had no luck with them.
I remember my first teacher as if in a dream. His name was Ayzik Hertze’s. That is all I remember, not his cheder nor the Torah he taught me. It seems to me that right after I began with him, I got sick with measles, and when I recovered, they did not send me back there.
My second teacher was called “Wolf the Pecker.” They said that instead of beating the children with rods, he had a large rooster. When he wanted to beat a little boy, he would lay the boy down on a bench, toss some grains on the spot where he would have used the whip, and let the rooster peck at the grains. This hurt more than the heaviest rods.
In the short time I was there, I never saw this.
They even told us that boys who had studied with him earlier captured the rooster and wrung its neck, and by virtue of this, we were spared. But I think his enemies made this up because he was not at all bad to us. He was a bit lazy in the way he taught us, but this was no reason to hate him.
I did not remain long in his cheder. My father wanted to send me to Khaim, Yekel Birzher’s son’s cheder.
“Why,” I remember my mother asking, “do you want to send him to none other than Khaim Yekel’s son’s cheder?”
“Because I learned with Reb Khaim Birzher’s father when I was a little boy like our Yankele; therefore, my son should learn with his son, I mean with Khaim, a poor Jew, may God help him!” my father explained.
I remember my father telling all sorts of little stories about his teacher Yekel Birzher. He was a great explainer. When he taught the Alef-Beys [the alphabet] to his pupils, he explained that with a dot, it is the letter “Pay,” and without the dot, it is a “Fay.”
“Do you remember children” he would repeat, “What is it with the dot?”
“A pay!” the children would have to shout out loud.
“And without a dot?”
“Wonderful, wonderful!” he would say, taking pleasure in what he taught.
“Since you are such a good boy, go children, and eat lunch,” he would command.
They once asked him why he spoke to such small children in the singular. He replied, “Did you ever hear such a request? Me, Reb Yekel Birzher, a seventy-year-old certified teacher, may he live to be one hundred and twenty, should speak in the plural [the polite form in Yiddish] to such small children? You can convince me of everything, but not this.”
In truth, he looked at all his pupils as one child. Therefore, when he needed to beat one, he beat them all.
His son Khaim, to whom my father sent me, had another virtue or fault: He was madly in love, may you forgive me, but guess with whom?
With the “Eyzohu Mekoman,” the “What a Place” portion from the morning prayer in the siddur, and this is all he taught his pupils. In the morning, he prayed “What a Place” with us; after praying, he taught us “What a Place,” which means he didn’t teach it but said it. After lunch, he repeated “What a Place,” and in the evening, before dismissal, he blessed us with the “Krishme” [the Shema] part of the morning prayer and read “What a Place” again. This is what he did every day.
The “What a Place” was stuck in our throats like a bitter onion. To this day, I cannot fathom why this man, who was considered to be a great Talmudic scholar, could not teach us anything else besides “What a Place”?
Reb Khaim, Yekel Birzher’s son, was the father of Arye the Rabbi’s son, the big boy who learned in the House of Study and ate our breakfasts. We loved him because he sold us the nice things he took out of his large pockets and because he told us nice stories.
At the end of the term, my father was convinced that his teacher’s son only taught his son “What a Place” and took me from there and put an end to my studying “What a Place.”
For the following term, my father sent me to Khaykl the teacher.
I remained there for four terms.
Reb Khaykl was, may my words not be too harsh on him, an angel broker. He was always staring toward the sky, to the angels, only concerned with them and only loving them. He could not look at people on earth.
He taught his students a lot and seriously but beat and tortured them even more.
He would beat without a reason and chopped our backs like cabbages. Even in the evening when he dismissed us, he would distribute advance payment for the next day. The advance was particularly large on Fridays, so we would remember him until after the Sabbath.
“Apostates!” He never called us anything else, just apostates. “Apostates, you will cause mischief on the Sabbath and won’t reply properly to the prayers. So here is your payment in advance.”
We left beaten and bruised and did not tell anyone what happened in cheder. One day as I was sitting at home eating lunch, a young woman ran in. I think she was my mother’s relative. She came straight to me, took off my jacket, opened the button on my shirt, and lowered it to my stomach. She shouted to my mother:
“Pessie, my dear! Look with your own eyes at how that murderer, his teacher, may this not be kept silent, beats and tortures your darling Yankele! There is not a spot on his skin without a brown and blue mark from his smacks and slaps . . . ”
My mother was shocked and became despondent, ready to faint. My three older sisters began to cry, and the young woman continued to speak:
“Since I live on the same street as your child’s cheder and my window faces the Rebbe’s window, I see the cruelty of this tyrant, the angel broker. Better this should not be seen! . . . He tortures these little babies more than they torture evil men in hell. Even the Preacher from Kelm said so. My heart melts from pity day after day. Please don’t take offense, but I will kill mothers who give their children to this highwayman. I once tried to tell Reb Mendele’s wife, Hinde, that the teacher was torturing her child, but she cursed me and asked that I stop bringing her such information. I sit and watch in silence as these babies are being tortured, and my heart is filled with pity, and suddenly, I realize your golden child also studies with that murderer. He hits, pinches, and bites with his teeth like an angry dog, your dear child along with all the others. I have lost my patience. Blood is not water; we are not strangers. I came to you to show . . . only to show you, the rest is up to you . . . ”
I began to cry. I was humiliated in front of all the women and girls who gathered when they heard my sisters’ crying. But this young woman did not let go of my hand and did not let me put my arm back in my sleeve. She shouted:
“By all means, everyone should see. All mothers who have children should see what kind of murderer they are handing their children to. A pity on these innocent babies falling into his hands. Dear God, those hands that torture these adorable little angels should be cut off!”
My mother felt sick. She fell onto the chair as pale as death. Women began to scream, “Water! Give her a little cold water; it will pass!” There was chaos and noise, and I was crying. The young woman helped me put my arm back in the sleeve of my shirt, and I ran to my beloved mother. She pulled me to her heart. Tears the size of pearls fell from her eyes onto both my cheeks, which she kissed.
A neighbor, the woman who reads the prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue, comforted my mother:
“May your tears be a sacrifice to the Creator of the Universe for your dear child. May no harm come to him, and may he grow up to be an important person who will compensate your troubles with a thousand times more pride.”
“What did you think?” called out another woman. “That it’s easy to be a Jew? From the eighth day on after his birth, he already tastes what it is to be a Jew. Then comes the cheder, the Rebbe, then piety, fasts, praying and serving God, and even the sacred Torah, may I not sin with my words, affects the health of those who study it. Have you ever seen a healthy Jewish scholar? They all have yellowed, withered faces; they are sick, broken coughers, living corpses, and nothing more! And God only knows if things will be better in Paradise, and if they will receive anything, and if they will have to answer why they did nothing for their health when they are already ten feet deep in the ground while their wives and children are alive . . . ”
Later on, I remember they discussed her sharp sinful words and concluded that she wasn’t speaking on her own; her troubles were speaking for her. Her husband was a great scholar but sickly and couldn’t even tie a cat’s tail. She worked extremely hard for him and their children from the day they got married, yet he controlled her and only referred to her as “Shrew.”
My beloved mother sat in a depressed silence. A few men arrived as well, but they merely laughed.
“Why are you women turning this into Tisha B’Av [a day of mourning]?” they wondered. And one said to my mother, “And if a friend in cheder would have mischievously done this to him would it be all right? But the Rebbe did it, so you turn the world upside down?”
For the next few days, my mother did not send me to cheder even though I told her I was afraid that if I did not go, my teacher, the angel broker, would beat me even more.
When my father returned home for the Sabbath, my mother told him what had happened a few days before and showed him the bruises on my skin. My father got angry with her. He said the end result would be that my good, loving mother will make me hate the Rebbe, and I will no longer want to go to cheder and grow up to be a peasant. He then said loud enough for me to hear how he was also beaten when he was a little boy like me.
“They beat me too,” my father mocked. “What are you so excited about? A slap, a pinch, a punch, a rip, this is what they call beating today? The whole world turns upside down when mothers see it. When I was a young cheder boy, we were beaten with leather whips, with ropes, with clubs. And in those days, half of all the children in Zhager were pure prodigies, one sharper than the next. And today? No more beatings and no more prodigies! . . . ”
“And why did you not turn out to be a prodigy?” asked my mother with a bit of irony.
My father became angry, did not answer, and left the table.
Saturday afternoon, my Rebbe came to us, hanging his head as if guilty.
I thought my mother would attack him and speak her mind until he turned hot and then cold. This is what she had been saying to herself while father was protecting him. In the end, the opposite was true. My mother left the table as soon as she saw the Rebbe and sat beside the window and pretended to stare out onto the street as father approached the Rebbe in a rage.
“Do you have the heart of a Tatar?” my father yelled. “Really, a Tatar beating such a small child? You do not have God in your heart. Your piety does not compare to a sniff of tobacco! . . . Where does it happen that someone leaves a child with blue and brown marks all over his skin and then has the audacity to come to the child’s father to ask him to continue to send his child to cheder so the hangman can continue to have someone to beat? . . . Get out! For all the happiness in the world, I will not allow my child to return to you!”
My Rebbe tried to answer that he really does not beat the children so severely and that he is not responsible for the marks on my skin. They are not from his pinches and punches but rather my skin bruises easily, even from a caress. But father did not let him speak.
“You will not convince me. My child will no longer go to your cheder!”
“Okay, let it be,” said the Rebbe, ostensibly in agreement, “but I pity the child. With another teacher, he will forget everything I taught him. He’ll surely forget! And you should really know how much he will forget with another teacher. Let me test him here with you, so at least you’ll know what he already knows.”
And not waiting until my father agreed, he opened the Chumash [the Pentateuch] and began.
I sharply and clearly said the Chumash and Rashi’s commentaries as well as all the safeguards and answered boldly and assuredly to all the questions posed by my father and teacher to test to see if I really understood on my own or if I was just repeating what I was taught.
My mother had already returned to the table, and while standing a bit apart from the men, I saw how happy and pleased she was with my learning.
My mother loved Torah more than riches, more than anything in the world. “There is nothing as beautiful in the world as Torah,” I would hear her say. “There is no picture more beautiful in the world than watching great scholars gather and argue amongst themselves over matters of the sacred Torah!”
My mother saw plenty of this at her parents’ home. Her grandfather was the Rabbi Reb Eliyahu, who seventy or eighty years earlier had been a rabbi in Zhager. He had many students, and even in my day, the expression was, “From Rabbi Eliyahu’s students, the following emerged: one-half great rabbis and geniuses and one-half well-known scholars and wealthy men.” My mother also did not know her grandfather. Her father, my grandfather, whom I barely remember, was a very well-known man with a keen mind who was skilled as well. His house was filled with Torah [learning].
My father came from a family of businessmen, and Torah without business was not a contradiction for him. Moreover, my mother’s first children were all girls (I was the fifth child, a boy), and she thought there would never be Torah in her home. Therefore, she was so happy when she heard my learning and saw the spark of Torah in my eyes which she had seen so often in her father’s home.
However, this was not enough for my teacher. He showed my father how I performed tricks and knew how each word in the entire Chumash was spelled. Actually, my teacher was not responsible for this. I myself could not tell you how I knew how each word was spelled. The words stood before my eyes, and I saw each letter clearly; I even had them memorized.
My father was even happier with this trick than my teacher. He kissed me and told me to thank my teacher for making me such a good little boy.
My mother did not know what to do with this joy. She brought my Rebbe lots of good things to eat and told him to eat heartily and to forget she had been angry with him. But before he left, she said, “Dearest Rebbe, do you have to beat such a brilliant child? I ask you, dear Rebbe, give me your sacred word that you will not beat him again. And if you don’t beat him, I’ll send the most beautiful gifts with my child, for you and even for your wife.”
My teacher promised, “Not hit? What’s this about hitting? What do I know, such an outcry as if who knows what happened.”
“What was, was, dear Rebbe. I’m asking you not to let this happen again!” asked my mother.
“It will not happen again,” said the Rebbe.
“On your honorable Jewish word?”
“On my honorable Jewish word,” replied the Rebbe as he wished us a good Sabbath, opened the door, and went out.
“A good year Rebbe, go in good health,” my mother wished him from her heart and hugged and kissed me.
The next morning, I went, as before, to cheder. The Rebbe was very pleased with me since I saved him from defeat with my excellence in learning. As he wanted to please my mother even more, he began to teach me the Book of Joshua and asked me to ask my father to send one with me to cheder.
My mother did not forget her promise, and a few days later, she gave me a beaver hat with a brown band to bring to cheder as a gift for the Rebbe and strands of beads as a gift for his wife.
I never had such a happy day in cheder before this day or after.
The Rebbe was particularly happy with the beaver hat, and every so often, he would take it out of its wrapping blow on the fur to check if it was real and not fake until he called in Shakhne the furrier and asked for an estimate. Shakhne estimated, “Six rubles. A great bargain!”
“He’s exaggerating!” said the Rebbe and thought Shakhne was mocking him.
“A Leipzig hat! You’re playing with a Leipzig hat, invaluable!”
“If so, it’s a shame to wear it during the week.”
“A real shame. This is a hat you wear when you lead your daughter to the wedding canopy with a thousand-ruble dowry, with good luck.”
However, my Rebbe quickly forgot his sacred, honest promise as well as my mother’s gift and continued to beat me. He even forgot he was beating me. He was so used to beating us that he hit and pinched even when he did not want to. He just needed things to be happy around the table where we studied. Once, he pinched me so hard he felt I would be left with a mark on my skin, and he immediately began to caress me. “Don’t cry. Trust me, it was not intentional! For that reason, I will begin today to teach you Talmud.”
I was so excited to begin studying Talmud, I forgot about the pain from the pinch.
I wanted to begin studying Talmud very badly. Older boys studied at Reb Khaykel’s, as well as a few from the younger class who never wanted to play. “How is it appropriate for Talmud students to play with little boys who are still learning Chumash?” I wanted to be a Talmud boy and play games with the big boys like “In Command,” “What’s Mine is Yours,” and “War.”
Even greater was my mother’s joy when I told her my Rebbe wanted me to study Talmud. I asked her to send me to cheder the next day with a Talmud, so I could begin to learn.
We had a Vilna Talmud in our bookcase with large empty margins. The empty margins were so wide that my father’s wagon driver, a simple Jew who barely knew how to pray but had a great sense of humor, said to my father when he saw him reading from this book, “Reb Binyomin,” that was my father’s name, “you really think I am an ignorant man, a boor and an oaf that does not know what Talmud is? But I bet you I know half of this book by heart!”
“You probably mean the empty margins!” my father replied.
“You guessed it,” the wagon driver admitted.
This joke was often repeated in town, and the wagon driver obtained the nickname, Leybke Half a Talmud.
When I shared this good news with my mother, my father, as usual, was not home. He would have never allowed me to take this Talmud, bound in yellow calf’s leather with me to cheder. My mother, on the other hand, had inherited this Talmud from her father and wanted me, I should live long, to learn from the same book from which her father learned.
And before she looked for the Bava Metziya tractate, which my Rebbe asked me to bring, she procrastinated for half an hour. With great joy, she gave me the Talmud and asked me to take very good care of it and bring it home every day when the Rebbe dismissed me.
I was seven years old at that time and small in stature. The book was almost bigger, wider, and heavier than me. I was barely able to get my little arms around it. I would carry it to and from cheder every day, sweating and realizing how heavy the yoke of the holy Torah was.
At first, I was very proud of my Talmud studies because my sisters developed a certain type of pride in me. But I soon learned that things were a lot better for me before I began studying Talmud. One day when I returned from cheder, I saw a pile of fresh, still-damp sand probably left there to rebuild a neighbor’s oven. You could make whatever you wanted with such a pile of sand: a cavern, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, a lime oven, a well, and a water mill. Even the children from the higher grades would build such things in the cheder yard. I felt like building one of those things from our own pile of sand and thought, Who would stop me?
I put my Talmud down on one side of the pile, sat down on the other side, and began to dig in the sand to build the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Suddenly I heard laughter and hands clapping. I lifted my head: My three sisters were laughing in the window above the pile. One of them shouted to my mother:
“Mother, come here and take a look at your beautiful Talmud boy. He left the Talmud abandoned on the ground and is playing in the sand like a three-year-old girl!”
I was ashamed and realized my silliness. Embarrassed, I picked up the Talmud and went into the house.
From that moment on, I received the nickname “Talmud Boy.” For everything I did that nobody noticed only a few days earlier, they now shouted: “Talmud Boy, you are not ashamed, disgraced?”
I noticed that this whole issue was not to my advantage. Just because of this bit of Talmud, I could not do this, and that was inappropriate . . . I wanted to listen to the lovely storybooks my sisters read on the Sabbath with their girlfriends, but they would chase me out of the room: “It is not appropriate for a Talmud Boy to be among girls!” . . . If I wanted to play with the neighborhood boys in the yard, they would shout: “How can he be learning Talmud if his head is still stuck in the silliness of boys who don’t even know Chumash?”
This continued until I asked myself: Why has a bit of Talmud study changed me? How come a Chumash boy can play and a Talmud boy cannot?
How often did my mother try to explain that a boy who studies Talmud is considered a Jew among Jews, and after a few years, I would have a Bar Mitzvah and a couple of years later, with good luck, I would become a bridegroom, get married and be a man, and other such explanations? The outcome was always that a Talmud boy could not be compared to a Chumash boy. My mind could not grasp this because my little heart was still filled with children’s games and playfulness. And if I said, in spite of it all, that I wanted to play, they shouted: “Take a look at this Talmud Boy!” And when I heard the mockery in their voices when they said “Talmud Boy,” I felt hurt and gave up playing games that I really loved to play. I felt that not only was Talmud difficult, it was also unfriendly to small children who studied it.
One thing did provide comfort: Because I was a Talmud boy, my mother felt it was time for me to learn to write and asked my older sister, who already knew how to write not only Yiddish but also German, to show me how to write and for this, she would pay her one gulden a week.
I loved working on my writing. My old love for paper was revived, and whenever I received a kopek, I would immediately buy a package of paper in the store. My sister taught me well. At first, I would copy what she wrote, and then when I could spell in Yiddish, I began to write anything I wanted.
If I wanted to ask my mother something, I would write her a note. If I wanted to tease my sisters, I would write it in rhyme on a piece of paper and throw it at them.
And meanwhile, my Rebbe continued to teach me Talmud, and now I was learning The Book of Judges, and I liked the Book of Judges more than The Book of Joshua.
I really liked the chapter where Yiftach [Jephthah] went to war with the King of the Ammonites and made a vow that if God helped him win the war and he returned home, the first thing he would do is make a sacrifice to God with the first thing he saw.
Impatiently and with a pounding heart, I waited for Yiftach to win the war, come home and see the one who would come toward him. I wanted the shepherd who led his sheep to come to him with the nicest and fattest from the flock so Yiftach could choose one or a few sheep or rams for a sacrifice to God in gratitude for the victory over the King of the Ammonites. Suddenly, the Rebbe turned over the page and told me: “His daughter comes toward him.”
The last words of this chapter felt like a bullet in my heart. I became pale, my heart was saddened, and I could not utter a word.
“Why are you silent? Why don’t you continue?” the Rebbe asked me, a bit frightened by my pale face.
“I can’t. It’s such a pity, a pity!” I said in a constricted voice.
“Whom do you pity?” the Rebbe asked me.
“Yiftach’s daughter!” I replied as tears filled my eyes.
“You found whom to pity!” my Rebbe, the angel broker, comforted me. “Silly boy, a story from a few thousand years ago, and now he decides to pity her!”
I then asked the Rebbe a question: “Why, when Abraham wanted to sacrifice Isaac, an angel called down from heaven, ‘Abraham, Abraham, do not stretch out your arm to the boy and do not harm him!’ Why couldn’t the same angel call out to Yiftach: ‘Yiftach, Yiftach! Do not stretch out your arm to the girl. Do not harm her?’”
“How can you compare Abraham our Forefather to Yiftach, you fool, and Isaac to Yiftach’s daughter? They are as similar as night and day!” explained the Rebbe.
“Why aren’t they the same?” I wanted to know.
“First of all, this was Abraham our Forefather. Do you even know who Abraham our Forefather was? Secondly, Isaac was a boy who learned Torah in the House of Study of our past ancestors and recited the afternoon prayers. Yiftach’s daughter was a girl with long hair and little brains. Did she study Torah? She played jacks! Why should God pity her?”
Even after all these explanations, I felt my heart exploding from pity for Yiftach’s daughter, an only daughter and so beautiful and lovely! . . .
I had no doubt she was beautiful and lovely. All girls in the Chumash were beautiful and lovely. Was Rebecca not beautiful? Were Rachel, Dina, and Moses’ sister Miriam, ugly girls? Why would Yiftach’s daughter not be beautiful?
My heart was aching. I couldn’t get her out of my mind for a moment.
My mother noticed I was distracted and sad from something that I was carrying in my heart and was troubling me. “What happened?” she asked.
With tears in my eyes, I told her the whole story about Yiftach’s daughter.
“Don’t be sad, my child,” my mother said. “In truth, such a decree that befell Yiftach’s beautiful Jewish daughter could break someone’s heart. It was hard for her to leave this world while still so young and fresh. But now my child, she’s in a good place, much better than us who are alive. She is now in Paradise on the lap of our Mother Sarah or one of the other holy mothers. And they, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, hug her and kiss her and ask her to be a good intercessor for all Jewish daughters whose fathers are no smarter than Yiftach and don’t treat their daughters seriously, as Yiftach treated his daughter . . . ”
My mother spoke these last words more for herself than for me.
At night I would dream about Yiftach’s daughter and talk to her. She would tell me things were now good for her, but earlier, when they bound her and burnt her as a sacrifice on the sacrificial altar, it was very painful. She cried and wailed to no avail.
The yeshiva student who ate with us on Tuesdays told me that the whole thing was a mistake. The Gemara says she was never made a sacrifice because Pinkhas Ben Eliezer Ben Aharon HaKohen freed Yiftach of his vow; however, she was never permitted to marry and died a virgin. So, there was no need to take what happened to her to heart. But even this did not heal my wounded heart.
By then, I was already barely believing in God. “These are all just words,” I would say to myself. It was explicitly written, “And he did with her according to the vow he made,” and God was not even present. So who knows better?
For a very long time, I could not get Yiftach’s beautiful, unlucky daughter out of my thoughts. I wrote her story in Yiddish, but not how it is told in the Book of Judges but rather how I saw it in my fantasies.
From that day on, I wrote regularly. When I had the time, I would just write and write. As soon as I obtained a kopek, I would go to the store and buy paper.
I do not remember what I wrote, but I do remember when I wrote, it seemed as if I was talking to her, with Yiftach’s daughter. I accompanied her to the sacrificial altar and cried with her girlfriends, who mourned her young death.
I did not stop writing for weeks on end. It was difficult for me to part from my own fantasies, which I poured onto the paper.
When my mother called me to come and eat, and I could not tear myself away from my writing, she said, “If a fool is half a prophet, the clever Mikhl Gordon was a full prophet.”
His prophecy about me as a child began to come true. Let’s hope, Master of the Universe, that it materializes as I want!