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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesChildren Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 5. The Pauper Alien
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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 5. The Pauper Alien Post by :Samoyedman Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :1634

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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 5. The Pauper Alien

BOOK I. CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO CHAPTER V. THE PAUPER ALIEN

Moses Ansell married mainly because all men are mortal. He knew he would die and he wanted an heir. Not to inherit anything, but to say _Kaddish for him. _Kaddish is the most beautiful and wonderful mourning prayer ever written. Rigidly excluding all references to death and grief, it exhausts itself in supreme glorification of the Eternal and in supplication for peace upon the House of Israel. But its significance has been gradually transformed; human nature, driven away with a pitchfork, has avenged itself by regarding the prayer as a mass, not without purgatorial efficacy, and so the Jew is reluctant to die without leaving some one qualified to say _Kaddish after him every day for a year, and then one day a year. That is one reason why sons are of such domestic importance.

Moses had only a mother in the world when he married Gittel Silverstein, and he hoped to restore the balance of male relatives by this reckless measure. The result was six children, three girls and three _Kaddishim_. In Gittel, Moses found a tireless helpmate. During her lifetime the family always lived in two rooms, for she had various ways of supplementing the household income. When in London she chared for her cousin Malka at a shilling a day. Likewise she sewed underlinen and stitched slips of fur into caps in the privacy of home and midnight. For all Mrs. Ansell's industry, the family had been a typical group of wandering Jews, straying from town to town in search of better things. The congregation they left (every town which could muster the minimum of ten men for worship boasted its _Kehillah_) invariably paid their fare to the next congregation, glad to get rid of them so cheaply, and the new _Kehillah jumped at the opportunity of gratifying their restless migratory instinct and sent them to a newer. Thus were they tossed about on the battledores of philanthropy, often reverting to their starting-point, to the disgust of the charitable committees. Yet Moses always made loyal efforts to find work. His versatility was marvellous. There was nothing he could not do badly. He had been glazier, synagogue beadle, picture-frame manufacturer, cantor, peddler, shoemaker in all branches, coat-seller, official executioner of fowls and cattle, Hebrew teacher, fruiterer, circumciser, professional corpse-watcher, and now he was a tailor out of work.

Unquestionably Malka was right in considering Moses a _Schlemihl in comparison with many a fellow-immigrant, who brought indefatigable hand and subtle brain to the struggle for existence, and discarded the prop of charity as soon as he could, and sometimes earlier.

It was as a hawker that he believed himself most gifted, and he never lost the conviction that if he could only get a fair start, he had in him the makings of a millionaire. Yet there was scarcely anything cheap with which he had not tramped the country, so that when poor Benjamin, who profited by his mother's death to get into the Orphan Asylum, was asked to write a piece of composition on "The Methods of Travelling," he excited the hilarity of the class-room by writing that there were numerous ways of travelling, for you could travel with sponge, lemons, rhubarb, old clothes, jewelry, and so on, for a page of a copy book. Benjamin was a brilliant boy, yet he never shook off some of the misleading associations engendered by the parental jargon. For Mrs. Ansell had diversified her corrupt German by streaks of incorrect English, being of a much more energetic and ambitious temperament than the conservative Moses, who dropped nearly all his burden of English into her grave. For Benjamin, "to travel" meant to wander about selling goods, and when in his books he read of African travellers, he took it for granted that they were but exploiting the Dark Continent for small profits and quick returns.

And who knows? Perhaps of the two species, it was the old Jewish peddlers who suffered the more and made the less profit on the average. For the despised three-hatted scarecrow of Christian caricature, who shambled along snuffling "Old clo'," had a strenuous inner life, which might possibly have vied in intensity, elevation, and even sense of humor, with that of the best of the jeerers on the highway. To Moses, "travelling" meant straying forlornly in strange towns and villages, given over to the worship of an alien deity and ever ready to avenge his crucifixion; in a land of whose tongue he knew scarce more than the Saracen damsel married by legend to a Becket's father. It meant praying brazenly in crowded railway trains, winding the phylacteries sevenfold round his left arm and crowning his forehead with a huge leather bump of righteousness, to the bewilderment or irritation of unsympathetic fellow-passengers. It meant living chiefly on dry bread and drinking black tea out of his own cup, with meat and fish and the good things of life utterly banned by the traditional law, even if he were flush. It meant carrying the red rag of an obnoxious personality through a land of bulls. It meant passing months away from wife and children, in a solitude only occasionally alleviated by a Sabbath spent in a synagogue town. It meant putting up at low public houses and common lodging houses, where rowdy disciples of the Prince of Peace often sent him bleeding to bed, or shamelessly despoiled him of his merchandise, or bullied and blustered him out of his fair price, knowing he dared not resent. It meant being chaffed and gibed at in language of which he only understood that it was cruel, though certain trite facetiae grew intelligible to him by repetition. Thus once, when he had been interrogated as to the locality of Moses when the light went out, he replied in Yiddish that the light could not go out, for "it stands in the verse, that round the head of Moses, our teacher, the great law-giver, was a perpetual halo." An old German happened to be smoking at the bar of the public house when the peddler gave his acute answer; he laughed heartily, slapped the Jew on the back and translated the repartee to the Convivial crew. For once intellect told, and the rough drinkers, with a pang of shame, vied with one another in pressing bitter beer upon the temperate Semite. But, as a rule, Moses Ansell drank the cup of affliction instead of hospitality and bore his share to the full, without the remotest intention of being heroic, in the long agony of his race, doomed to be a byword and a mockery amongst the heathen. Assuredly, to die for a religion is easier than to live for it. Yet Moses never complained nor lost faith. To be spat upon was the very condition of existence of the modern Jew, deprived of Palestine and his Temple, a footsore mendicant, buffeted and reviled, yet the dearer to the Lord God who had chosen him from the nations. Bullies might break Moses's head in this world, but in the next he would sit on a gold chair in Paradise among the saints and sing exegetical acrostics to all eternity. It was some dim perception of these things that made Esther forgive her father when the Ansells waited weeks and weeks for a postal order and landlords were threatening to bundle them out neck and crop, and her mother's hands were worn to the bone slaving for her little ones.

Things improved a little just before the mother died, for they had settled down in London and Moses earned eighteen shillings a week as a machinist and presser, and no longer roamed the country. But the interval of happiness was brief. The grandmother, imported from Poland, did not take kindly to her son's wife, whom she found wanting in the minutiae of ceremonial piety and godless enough to wear her own hair. There had been, indeed, a note of scepticism, of defiance, in Esther's mother, a hankering after the customs of the heathen, which her grandmother divined instinctively and resented for the sake of her son and the post-mundane existence of her grandchildren. Mrs. Ansell's scepticism based itself upon the uncleanliness which was so generally next to godliness in the pious circles round them, and she had been heard to express contempt for the learned and venerable Israelite, who, being accosted by an acquaintance when the shadows of eve were beginning to usher in the Day of Atonement, exclaimed:

"For heaven's sake, don't stop me--I missed my bath last year."

Mrs. Ansell bathed her children from head to foot once a month, and even profanely washed them on the Sabbath, and had other strange, uncanny notions. She professed not to see the value to God, man or beast of the learned Rabbonim, who sat shaking themselves all day in the _Beth Hamidrash_, and said they would be better occupied in supporting their families, a view which, though mere surface blasphemy on the part of the good woman and primarily intended as a hint to Moses to study less and work longer, did not fail to excite lively passages of arms between the two women. But death ended these bickerings and the _Bube_, who had frequently reproached her son for bringing her into such an atheistic country, was left a drag the more upon the family deprived at once of a mother and a bread-winner. Old Mrs. Ansell was unfit: for anything save grumbling, and so the headship naturally devolved upon Esther, whom her mother's death left a woman getting on for eight. The commencement of her reign coincided with a sad bisection of territory. Shocking as it may be to better regulated minds, these seven people lived in one room. Moses and the two boys slept in one bed and the grandmother and the three girls in another. Esther had to sleep with her head on a supplementary pillow at the foot of the bed. But there can be much love in a little room.

The room was not, however, so very little, for it was of ungainly sprawling structure, pushing out an odd limb that might have been cut off with a curtain. The walls nodded fixedly to one another so that the ceiling was only half the size of the floor. The furniture comprised but the commonest necessities. This attic of the Ansells was nearer heaven than most earthly dwelling places, for there were four tall flights of stairs to mount before you got to it. No. 1 Royal Street had been in its time one of the great mansions of the Ghetto; pillars of the synagogue had quaffed _kosher wine in its spacious reception rooms and its corridors had echoed with the gossip of portly dames in stiff brocades. It was stoutly built and its balusters were of carved oak. But now the threshold of the great street door, which was never closed, was encrusted with black mud, and a musty odor permanently clung to the wide staircase and blent subtly with far-away reminiscences of Mr. Belcovitch's festive turpentine. The Ansells had numerous housemates, for No. 1 Royal Street was a Jewish colony in itself and the resident population was periodically swollen by the "hands" of the Belcovitches and by the "Sons of the Covenant," who came to worship at their synagogue on the ground floor. What with Sugarman the _Shadchan_, on the first floor, Mrs. Simons and Dutch Debby on the second, the Belcovitches on the third, and the Ansells and Gabriel Hamburg, the great scholar, on the fourth, the door-posts twinkled with _Mezuzahs_--cases or cylinders containing sacred script with the word _Shaddai (Almighty) peering out of a little glass eye at the centre. Even Dutch Debby, abandoned wretch as she was, had this protection against evil spirits (so it has come to be regarded) on her lintel, though she probably never touched the eye with her finger to kiss the place of contact after the manner of the faithful.

Thus was No. 1 Royal Street close packed with the stuff of human life, homespun and drab enough, but not altogether profitless, may be, to turn over and examine. So close packed was it that there was scarce breathing space. It was only at immemorial intervals that our pauper alien made a pun, but one day he flashed upon the world the pregnant remark that England was well named, for to the Jew it was verily the Enge-Land, which in German signifies the country without elbow room. Moses Ansell chuckled softly and beatifically when he emitted the remark that surprised all who knew him. But then it was the Rejoicing of the Law and the Sons of the Covenant had treated him to rum and currant cake. He often thought of his witticism afterwards, and it always lightened his unwashed face with a happy smile. The recollection usually caught him when he was praying.

For four years after Mrs. Ansell's charity funeral the Ansells, though far from happy, had no history to speak of.

Benjamin accompanied Solomon to _Shool morning and evening to say _Kaddish for their mother till he passed into the Orphan Asylum and out of the lives of his relatives. Solomon and Rachel and Esther went to the great school and Isaac to the infant school, while the tiny Sarah, whose birth had cost Mrs. Ansell's life, crawled and climbed about in the garret, the grandmother coming in negatively useful as a safeguard against fire on the days when the grate was not empty. The _Rube's own conception of her function as a safeguard against fire was quite other.

Moses was out all day working or looking for work, or praying or listening to _Drashes_, by the _Maggid or other great preachers. Such charities as brightened and warmed the Ghetto Moses usually came in for. Bread, meat and coal tickets, god-sends from the Society for Restoring the Soul, made odd days memorable. Blankets were not so easy to get as in the days of poor Gittel's confinements.

What little cooking there was to do was done by Esther before or after school; she and her children usually took their mid-day meal with them in the shape of bread, occasionally made ambrosial by treacle The Ansells had more fast days than the Jewish calendar, which is saying a good deal. Providence, however, generally stepped in before the larder had been bare twenty-four hours.

As the fast days of the Jewish calendar did not necessarily fall upon the Ansell fast days, they were an additional tax on Moses and his mother. Yet neither ever wavered in the scrupulous observance of them, not a crumb of bread nor a drop of water passing their lips. In the keen search for facts detrimental to the Ghetto it is surprising that no political economist has hitherto exposed the abundant fasts with which Israel has been endowed, and which obviously operate as a dole in aid of wages. So does the Lenten period of the "Three Weeks," when meat is prohibited in memory of the shattered Temples. The Ansells kept the "Three Weeks" pretty well all the year round. On rare occasions they purchased pickled Dutch herrings or brought home pennyworths of pea soup or of baked potatoes and rice from a neighboring cook shop. For Festival days, if Malka had subsidized them with a half-sovereign, Esther sometimes compounded _Tzimmus_, a dainty blend of carrots, pudding and potatoes. She was prepared to write an essay on _Tzimmus as a gastronomic ideal. There were other pleasing Polish combinations which were baked for twopence by the local bakers. _Tabechas_, or stuffed entrails, and liver, lights or milt were good substitutes for meat. A favorite soup was _Borsch_, which was made with beet-root, fat taking the place of the more fashionable cream.

The national dish was seldom their lot; when fried fish came it was usually from the larder of Mrs. Simons, a motherly old widow, who lived in the second floor front, and presided over the confinements of all the women and the sicknesses of all the children in the neighborhood. Her married daughter Dinah was providentially suckling a black-eyed boy when Mrs. Ansell died, so Mrs. Simons converted her into a foster mother of little Sarah, regarding herself ever afterwards as under special responsibilities toward the infant, whom she occasionally took to live with her for a week, and for whom she saw heaven encouraging a future alliance with the black-eyed foster brother. Life would have been gloomier still in the Ansell garret if Mrs. Simons had not been created to bless and sustain. Even old garments somehow arrived from Mrs. Simons to eke out the corduroys and the print gowns which were the gift of the school. There were few pleasanter events in the Ansell household than the falling ill of one of the children, for not only did this mean a supply of broth, port wine and other incredible luxuries from the Charity doctor (of which all could taste), but it brought in its train the assiduous attendance of Mrs. Simons. To see the kindly brown face bending over it with smiling eyes of jet, to feel the soft, cool hand pressed to its forehead, was worth a fever to a motherless infant. Mrs. Simons was a busy woman and a poor withal, and the Ansells were a reticent pack, not given to expressing either their love or their hunger to outsiders; so altogether the children did not see so much of Mrs. Simons or her bounties as they would have liked. Nevertheless, in a grave crisis she was always to be counted upon.

"I tell thee what, Meshe," said old Mrs. Ansell often, "that woman wants to marry thee. A blind man could see it."

"She cannot want it, mother," Moses would reply with infinite respect.

"What art thou saying? A wholly fine young man like thee," said his mother, fondling his side ringlets, "and one so _froom too, and with such worldly wisdom. But thou must not have her, Meshe."

"What kind of idea thou stuffest into my head! I tell thee she would not have me if I sent to ask."

"Talk not thyself thereinto. Who wouldn't like to catch hold of thy cloak to go to heaven by? But Mrs. Simons is too much of an Englishwoman for me. Your last wife had English ideas and made mock of pious men and God's judgment took her. What says the Prayer-book? For three things a woman dies in childbirth, for not separating the dough, for not lighting the Sabbath lamps and for not--"

"How often have I told thee she did do all these things!" interrupted Moses.

"Dost thou contradict the Prayer-book?" said the _Bube angrily. "It would have been different if thou hadst let me pick a woman for thee. But this time thou wilt honor thy mother more. It must be a respectable, virtuous maiden, with the fear of heaven--not an old woman like Mrs. Simons, but one who can bear me robust grandchildren. The grandchildren thou hast given me are sickly, and they fear not the Most High. Ah! why did'st thou drag me to this impious country? Could'st thou not let me die in peace? Thy girls think more of English story books and lessons than of _Yiddishkeit_, and the boys run out under the naked sky with bare heads and are loth to wash their hands before meals, and they do not come home in the dinner hour for fear they should have to say the afternoon prayer. Laugh at me, Moses, as thou wilt, but, old as I am, I have eyes, and not two blotches of clay, in my sockets. Thou seest not how thy family is going to destruction. Oh, the abominations!"

Thus warned and put on his mettle, Moses would keep a keen look-out on his hopeful family for the next day, and the seed which the grandmother had sown came up in black and blue bruises or, the family anatomy, especially on that portion of it which belonged to Solomon. For Moses's crumbling trousers were buckled with a stout strap, and Solomon was a young rogue who did his best to dodge the Almighty, and had never heard of Lowell's warning,


You've gut to git up airly,
Ef you want to take in God.


Even if he had heard of it, he would probably have retorted that he usually got up early enough to take in his father, who was the more immediately terrible of the two. Nevertheless, Solomon learned many lessons at his father's knee, or rather, across it. In earlier days Solomon had had a number of confidential transactions with his father's God, making bargains with Him according to his childish sense of equity. If, for instance, God would ensure his doing his sums correctly, so that he should be neither caned nor "kept in," he would say his morning prayers without skipping the aggravating _Longe Verachum_, which bulked so largely on Mondays and Thursdays; otherwise he could not be bothered.

By the terms of the contract Solomon threw all the initiative on the Deity, and whenever the Deity undertook his share of the contract, Solomon honorably fulfilled his. Thus was his faith in Providence never shaken like that of some boys, who expect the Deity to follow their lead. Still, by declining to praise his Maker at extraordinary length, except in acknowledgment of services rendered, Solomon gave early evidence of his failure to inherit his father's business incapacity.

On days when things at the school went well, no one gabbled through the weary Prayer-book more conscientiously than he; he said all the things in large type and all the funny little bits in small type, and even some passages without vowels. Nay, he included the very preface, and was lured on and coaxed on and enticed by his father to recite the appendices, which shot up one after the other on the devotional horizon like the endless-seeming terraces of a deceptive ascent; just another little bit, and now that little bit, and just that last bit, and one more very last little bit. It was like the infinite inclusiveness of a Chinese sphere, or the farewell performances of a distinguished singer.

For the rest, Solomon was a _Chine-ponim_, or droll, having that inextinguishable sense of humor which has made the saints of the Jewish Church human, has lit up dry technical Talmudic, discussions with flashes of freakish fun, with pun and jest and merry quibble, and has helped the race to survive (_pace Dr. Wallace) by dint of a humorous acquiescence in the inevitable.

His _Chine helped Solomon to survive synagogue, where the only drop of sweetness was in the beaker of wine for the sanctification service. Solomon was always in the van of the brave boys who volunteered to take part in the ceremonial quaffing of it. Decidedly. Solomon was not spiritual, he would not even kiss a Hebrew Pentateuch that he had dropped, unless his father was looking, and but for the personal supervision of the _Bube the dirty white fringes of his "four-corners" might have got tangled and irredeemably invalidated for all he cared.

In the direst need of the Ansells Solomon held his curly head high among his school-fellows, and never lacked personal possessions, though they were not negotiable at the pawnbroker's. He had a peep-show, made out of an old cocoa box, and representing the sortie from Plevna, a permit to view being obtainable for a fragment of slate pencil. For two pins he would let you look a whole minute. He also had bags of brass buttons, marbles, both commoners and alleys; nibs, beer bottle labels and cherry "hogs," besides bottles of liquorice water, vendible either by the sip or the teaspoonful, and he dealt in "assy-tassy," which consisted of little packets of acetic acid blent with brown sugar. The character of his stock varied according to the time of year, for nature and Belgravia are less stable in their seasons than the Jewish schoolboy, to whom buttons in March are as inconceivable as snow-balling in July.

On Purim Solomon always had nuts to gamble with, just as if he had been a banker's son, and on the Day of Atonement he was never without a little tin fusee box filled with savings of snuff. This, when the fast racked them most sorely, he would pass round among the old men with a grand manner. They would take a pinch and say, "May thy strength increase," and blow their delighted noses with great colored handkerchiefs, and Solomon would feel about fifty and sniff a few grains himself with the air of an aged connoisseur.

He took little interest in the subtle disquisitions of the Rabbis, which added their burden to his cross of secular learning. He wrestled but perfunctorily with the theses of the Bible commentators, for Moses Ansell was so absorbed in translating and enjoying the intellectual tangles, that Solomon had scarce more to do than to play the part of chorus. He was fortunate in that his father could not afford to send him to a _Chedar_, an insanitary institution that made Jacob a dull boy by cutting off his play-time and his oxygen, and delivering him over to the leathery mercies of an unintelligently learned zealot, scrupulously unclean.

The literature and history Solomon really cared for was not of the Jews. It was the history of Daredevil Dick and his congeners whose surprising adventures, second-hand, in ink-stained sheets, were bartered to him for buttons, which shows the advantages of not having a soul above such. These deeds of derring-do (usually starting in a __school-room period in which teachers were thankfully accepted as created by Providence for the sport of schoolboys) Solomon conned at all hours, concealing them under his locker when he was supposed to be studying the Irish question from an atlas, and even hiding them between the leaves of his dog-eared Prayer-book for use during the morning service. The only harm they did him was that inflicted through the medium of the educational rod, when his surreptitious readings were discovered and his treasures thrown to the flames amid tears copious enough to extinguish them.

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