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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesChildren Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 2. The Grandchildren Of The Ghetto - Chapter 17. The Prodigal Son
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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 2. The Grandchildren Of The Ghetto - Chapter 17. The Prodigal Son Post by :blakekr Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :2324

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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 2. The Grandchildren Of The Ghetto - Chapter 17. The Prodigal Son


The New Year dawned upon the Ghetto, heralded by a month of special matins and the long-sustained note of the ram's horn. It was in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance which find their awful climax in the Day of Atonement that a strange letter for Hannah came to startle the breakfast-table at Reb Shemuel's. Hannah read it with growing pallor and perturbation.

"What is the matter, my dear?" asked the Reb, anxiously.

"Oh, father," she cried, "read this! Bad news of Levi."

A spasm of pain contorted the old man's furrowed countenance.

"Mention not his name!" he said harshly "He is dead."

"He may be by now!" Hannah exclaimed agitatedly. "You were right, Esther. He did join a strolling company, and now he is laid up with typhoid in the hospital in Stockbridge. One of his friends writes to tell us. He must have caught it in one of those insanitary dressing-rooms we were reading about."

Esther trembled all over. The scene in the garret when the fatal telegram came announcing Benjamin's illness had never faded from her mind. She had an instant conviction that it was all over with poor Levi.

"My poor lamb!" cried the Rebbitzin, the coffee-cup dropping from her nerveless hand.

"Simcha," said Reb Shemuel sternly, "calm thyself; we have no son to lose. The Holy One--blessed be He!--hath taken him from us. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Hannah rose. Her face was white and resolute. She moved towards the door.

"Whither goest thou?" inquired her father in German.

"I am going to my room, to put on my hat and jacket," replied Hannah quietly.

"Whither goest thou?" repeated Reb Shemuel.

"To Stockbridge. Mother, you and I must go at once."

The Reb sprang to his feet. His brow was dark; his eyes gleamed with anger and pain.

"Sit down and finish thy breakfast," he said.

"How can I eat? Levi is dying," said Hannah, in low, firm tones. "Will you come, mother, or must I go alone?"

The Rebbitzin began to wring her hands and weep. Esther stole gently to Hannah's side and pressed the poor girl's hand. "You and I will go," her clasp said.

"Hannah!" said Reb Shemuel. "What madness is this? Dost thou think thy mother will obey thee rather than her husband?"

"Levi is dying. It is our duty to go to him." Hannah's gentle face was rigid. But there was exaltation rather than defiance in the eyes.

"It is not the duty of women," said Reb Shemuel harshly. "I will go to Stockbridge. If he dies (God have mercy upon his soul!) I will see that he is buried among his own people. Thou knowest women go not to funerals." He reseated himself at the table, pushing aside his scarcely touched meal, and began saying the grace. Dominated by his will and by old habit, the three trembling women remained in reverential silence.

"The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with Peace," concluded the old man in unfaltering accents. He rose from the table and strode to the door, stern and erect "Thou wilt remain here, Hannah, and thou, Simcha," he said. In the passage his shoulders relaxed their stiffness, so that the long snow-white beard drooped upon his breast. The three women looked at one another.

"Mother," said Hannah, passionately breaking the silence, "are you going to stay here while Levi is dying in a strange town?"

"My husband wills it," said the Rebbitzin, sobbing. "Levi is a sinner in Israel. Thy father will not see him; he will not go to him till he is dead."

"Oh yes, surely he will," said Esther. "But be comforted. Levi is young and strong. Let us hope he will pull through."

"No, no!" moaned the Rebbitzin. "He will die, and my husband will but read the psalms at his death-bed. He will not forgive him; he will not speak to him of his mother and sister."

"Let _me go. I will give him your messages," said Esther.

"No, no," interrupted Hannah. "What are you to him? Why should you risk infection for our sakes?"

"Go, Hannah, but secretly," said the Rebbitzin in a wailing whisper. "Let not thy father see thee till thou arrive; then he will not send thee back. Tell Levi that I--oh, my poor child, my poor lamb!" Sobs overpowered her speech.

"No, mother," said Hannah quietly, "thou and I shall go. I will tell father we are accompanying him."

She left the room, while the Rebbitzin fell weeping and terrified into a chair, and Esther vainly endeavored to soothe her. The Reb was changing his coat when Hannah knocked at the door and called "Father."

"Speak not to me, Hannah," answered the Reb, roughly. "It is useless." Then, as if repentant of his tone, he threw open the door, and passed his great trembling hand lovingly over her hair. "Thou art a good daughter," he said tenderly. "Forget that thou hast had a brother."

"But how can I forget?" she answered him in his own idiom. "Why should I forget? What hath he done?"

He ceased to smooth her hair--his voice grew sad and stern.

"He hath profaned the Name. He hath lived like a heathen; he dieth like a heathen now. His blasphemy was a by-word in the congregation. I alone knew it not till last Passover. He hath brought down my gray hairs in sorrow to the grave."

"Yes, father, I know," said Hannah, more gently. "But he is not all to blame!"

"Thou meanest that I am not guiltless; that I should have kept him at my side?" said the Reb, his voice faltering a little.

"No, father, not that! Levi could not always be a baby. He had to walk alone some day."

"Yes, and did I not teach him to walk alone?" asked the Reb eagerly. "My God, thou canst not say I did not teach him Thy Law, day and night." He uplifted his eyes in anguished appeal.

"Yes, but he is not all to blame," she repeated. "Thy teaching did not reach his soul; he is of another generation, the air is different, his life was cast amid conditions for which the Law doth not allow."

"Hannah!" Reb Shemuel's accents became harsh and chiding again. "What sayest thou? The Law of Moses is eternal; it will never be changed. Levi knew God's commandments, but he followed the desire of his own heart and his own eyes. If God's Word were obeyed, he should have been stoned with stones. But Heaven itself hath punished him; he will die, for it is ordained that whosoever is stubborn and disobedient, that soul shall surely be cut off from among his people. 'Keep My commandments, that thy days may be long in the land,' God Himself hath said it. Is it not written: 'Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou that for all these things the Lord will bring thee into judgment'? But thou, my Hannah," he started caressing her hair again, "art a good Jewish maiden. Between Levi and thee there is naught in common. His touch would profane thee. Sadden not thy innocent eyes with the sight of his end. Think of him as one who died in boyhood. My God! why didst thou not take him then?" He turned away, stifling a sob.

"Father," she put her hand on his shoulder, "we will go with thee to Stockbridge--I and the mother."

He faced her again, stern and rigid.

"Cease thy entreaties. I will go alone."

"No, we will all go."

"Hannah," he said, his voice tremulous with pain and astonishment, "dost thou, too, set light by thy father?"

"Yes," she cried, and there was no answering tremor in her voice. "Now thou knowest! I am not a good Jewish maiden. Levi and I are brother and sister. His touch profane me, forsooth!" She laughed bitterly.

"Thou wilt take this journey though I forbid thee?" he cried in acrid accents, still mingled with surprise.

"Yes; would I had taken the journey thou wouldst have forbidden ten years ago!"

"What journey? thou talkest madness."

"I talk truth. Thou hast forgotten David Brandon; I have not. Ten years last Passover I arranged to fly with him, to marry him, in defiance of the Law and thee."

A new pallor overspread the Reb's countenance, already ashen. He trembled and almost fell backwards.

"But thou didst not?" he whispered hoarsely.

"I did not, I know not why," she said sullenly; "else thou wouldst never have seen me again. It may be I respected thy religion, although thou didst not dream what was in my mind. But thy religion shall not keep me from this journey."

The Reb had hidden his face in his hands. His lips were moving; was it in grateful prayer, in self-reproach, or merely in nervous trembling? Hannah never knew. Presently the Reb's arms dropped, great tears rolled down towards the white beard. When he spoke, his tones were hushed as with awe.

"This man--tell me, my daughter, thou lovest him still?"

She shrugged her shoulders with a gesture of reckless despair.

"What does it matter? My life is but a shadow."

The Reb took her to his breast, though she remained stony to his touch, and laid his wet face against her burning cheeks.

"My child, my poor Hannah; I thought God had sent thee peace ten years ago; that He had rewarded thee for thy obedience to His Law."

She drew her face away from his.

"It was not His Law; it was a miserable juggling with texts. Thou alone interpretedst God's law thus. No one knew of the matter."

He could not argue; the breast against which he held her was shaken by a tempest of grief, which swept away all save human remorse, human love.

"My daughter," he sobbed, "I have ruined thy life!" After an agonized pause, he said: "Tell me, Hannah, is there nothing I can do to make atonement to thee?"

"Only one thing, father," she articulated chokingly; "forgive Levi."

There was a moment of solemn silence. Then the Reb spake.

"Tell thy mother to put on her things and take what she needs for the journey. Perchance we may be away for days."

They mingled their tears in sweet reconciliation. Presently, the Reb said:

"Go now to thy mother, and see also that the boy's room be made ready as of old. Perchance God will hear my prayer, and he will yet be restored to us."

A new peace fell upon Hannah's soul. "My sacrifice was not in vain after all," she thought, with a throb of happiness that was almost exultation.

But Levi never came back. The news of his death arrived on the eve of _Yom Kippur_, the Day of Atonement, in a letter to Esther who had been left in charge of the house.

"He died quietly at the end," Hannah wrote, "happy in the consciousness of father's forgiveness, and leaning trustfully upon his interposition with Heaven; but he had delirious moments, during which he raved painfully. The poor boy was in great fear of death, moaning prayers that he might be spared till after _Yom Kippur_, when he would be cleansed of sin, and babbling about serpents that would twine themselves round his arm and brow, like the phylacteries he had not worn. He made father repeat his 'Verse' to him over and over again, so that he might remember his name when the angel of the grave asked it; and borrowed father's phylacteries, the headpiece of which was much too large for him with his shaven crown. When he had them on, and the _Talith round him, he grew easier, and began murmuring the death-bed prayers with father. One of them runs: 'O may my death be an atonement for all the sins, iniquities and transgressions of which I have been guilty against Thee!' I trust it may be so indeed. It seems so hard for a young man full of life and high spirits to be cut down, while the wretched are left alive. Your name was often on his lips. I was glad to learn he thought so much of you. 'Be sure to give Esther my love,' he said almost with his last breath, 'and ask her to forgive me.' I know not if you have anything to forgive, or whether this was delirium. He looks quite calm now--but oh! so worn. They have closed the eyes. The beard he shocked father so by shaving off, has sprouted scrubbily during his illness. On the dead face it seems a mockery, like the _Talith and phylacteries that have not been removed."

A phrase of Leonard James vibrated in Esther's ears: "If the chappies could see me!"

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