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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 12. The Sons Of The Covenant
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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 12. The Sons Of The Covenant Post by :Samoyedman Category :Long Stories Author :Israel Zangwill Date :May 2012 Read :3284

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Children Of The Ghetto: A Study Of A Peculiar People - Book 1. Children Of The Ghetto - Chapter 12. The Sons Of The Covenant

BOOK I. CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO CHAPTER XII. THE SONS OF THE COVENANT

The "Sons of the Covenant" sent no representatives to the club balls, wotting neither of waltzes nor of dress-coats, and preferring death to the embrace of a strange dancing woman. They were the congregation of which Mr. Belcovitch was President and their synagogue was the ground floor of No. 1 Royal Street--two large rooms knocked into one, and the rear partitioned off for the use of the bewigged, heavy-jawed women who might not sit with the men lest they should fascinate their thoughts away from things spiritual. Its furniture was bare benches, a raised platform with a reading desk in the centre and a wooden curtained ark at the end containing two parchment scrolls of the Law, each with a silver pointer and silver bells and pomegranates. The scrolls were in manuscript, for the printing-press has never yet sullied the sanctity of the synagogue editions of the Pentateuch. The room was badly ventilated and what little air there was was generally sucked up by a greedy company of wax candles, big and little, struck in brass holders. The back window gave on the yard and the contiguous cow-sheds, and "moos" mingled with the impassioned supplications of the worshippers, who came hither two and three times a day to batter the gates of heaven and to listen to sermons more exegetical than ethical. They dropped in, mostly in their work-a-day garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused prayers with a zeal that shook the window-panes, and there was never lack of _minyan_--the congregational quorum of ten. In the West End, synagogues are built to eke out the income of poor _minyan-men or professional congregants; in the East End rooms are tricked up for prayer. This synagogue was all of luxury many of its Sons could boast. It was their _salon and their lecture-hall. It supplied them not only with their religion but their art and letters, their politics and their public amusements. It was their home as well as the Almighty's, and on occasion they were familiar and even a little vulgar with Him. It was a place in which they could sit in their slippers, metaphorically that is; for though they frequently did so literally, it was by way of reverence, not ease. They enjoyed themselves in this _Shool of theirs; they shouted and skipped and shook and sang, they wailed and moaned; they clenched their fists and thumped their breasts and they were not least happy when they were crying. There is an apocryphal anecdote of one of them being in the act of taking a pinch of snuff when the "Confession" caught him unexpectedly.

"We have trespassed," he wailed mechanically, as he spasmodically put the snuff in his bosom and beat his nose with his clenched fist.

They prayed metaphysics, acrostics, angelology, Cabalah, history, exegetics, Talmudical controversies, _menus_, recipes, priestly prescriptions, the canonical books, psalms, love-poems, an undigested hotch-potch of exalted and questionable sentiments, of communal and egoistic aspirations of the highest order. It was a wonderful liturgy, as grotesque as it was beautiful--like an old cathedral in all styles of architecture, stored with shabby antiquities and side-shows and overgrown with moss and lichen--a heterogeneous blend of historical strata of all periods, in which gems of poetry and pathos and spiritual fervor glittered and pitiful records of ancient persecution lay petrified. And the method of praying these things was equally complex and uncouth, equally the bond-slave of tradition; here a rising and there a bow, now three steps backwards and now a beating of the breast, this bit for the congregation and that for the minister, variants of a page, a word, a syllable, even a vowel, ready for every possible contingency. Their religious consciousness was largely a musical box--the thrill of the ram's horn, the cadenza of psalmic phrase, the jubilance of a festival "Amen" and the sobriety of a work-a-day "Amen," the Passover melodies and the Pentecost, the minor keys of Atonement and the hilarious rhapsodies of Rejoicing, the plain chant of the Law and the more ornate intonation of the Prophets--all this was known and loved and was far more important than the meaning of it all or its relation to their real lives; for page upon page was gabbled off at rates that could not be excelled by automata. But if they did not always know what they were saying they always meant it. If the service had been more intelligible it would have been less emotional and edifying. There was not a sentiment, however incomprehensible, for which they were not ready to die or to damn.

"All Israel are brethren," and indeed there was a strange antique clannishness about these "Sons of the Covenant" which in the modern world, where the ends of the ages meet, is Socialism. They prayed for one another while alive, visited one another's bedsides when sick, buried one another when dead. No mercenary hands poured the yolks of eggs over their dead faces and arrayed their corpses in their praying-shawls. No hired masses were said for the sick or the troubled, for the psalm-singing services of the "Sons of the Covenant" were always available for petitioning the Heavens, even though their brother had been arrested for buying stolen goods, and the service might be an invitation to Providence to compound a felony. Little charities of their own they had, too--a Sabbath Meal Society, and a Marriage Portion Society to buy the sticks for poor couples--and when a pauper countryman arrived from Poland, one of them boarded him and another lodged him and a third taught him a trade. Strange exotics in a land of prose carrying with them through the paven highways of London the odor of Continental Ghettos and bearing in their eyes through all the shrewdness of their glances the eternal mysticism of the Orient, where God was born! Hawkers and peddlers, tailors and cigar-makers, cobblers and furriers, glaziers and cap-makers--this was in sum their life. To pray much and to work long, to beg a little and to cheat a little, to eat not over-much and to "drink" scarce at all, to beget annual children by chaste wives (disallowed them half the year), and to rear them not over-well, to study the Law and the Prophets and to reverence the Rabbinical tradition and the chaos of commentaries expounding it, to abase themselves before the "Life of Man" and Joseph Cam's "Prepared Table" as though the authors had presided at the foundation of the earth, to wear phylacteries and fringes, to keep the beard unshaven, and the corners of the hair uncut, to know no work on Sabbath and no rest on week-day. It was a series of recurrent landmarks, ritual and historical, of intimacy with God so continuous that they were in danger of forgetting His existence as of the air they breathed. They ate unleavened bread in Passover and blessed the moon and counted the days of the _Omer till Pentecost saw the synagogue dressed with flowers in celebration of an Asiatic fruit harvest by a European people divorced from agriculture; they passed to the terrors and triumphs of the New Year (with its domestic symbolism of apple and honey and its procession to the river) and the revelry of repentance on the Great White Fast, when they burned long candles and whirled fowls round their heads and attired themselves in grave-clothes and saw from their seats in synagogue the long fast-day darken slowly into dusk, while God was sealing the decrees of life and death; they passed to Tabernacles when they ran up rough booths in back yards draped with their bed-sheets and covered with greenery, and bore through the streets citrons in boxes and a waving combination of myrtle, and palm and willow branches, wherewith they made a pleasant rustling in the synagogue; and thence to the Rejoicing of the Law when they danced and drank rum in the House of the Lord and scrambled sweets for the little ones, and made a sevenfold circuit with the two scrolls, supplemented by toy flags and children's candles stuck in hollow carrots; and then on again to Dedication with its celebration of the Maccabaean deliverance and the miracle of the unwaning oil in the Temple, and to Purim with its masquerading and its execration of Haman's name by the banging of little hammers; and so back to Passover. And with these larger cycles, epicycles of minor fasts and feasts, multiplex, not to be overlooked, from the fast of the ninth of Ab--fatal day for the race--when they sat on the ground in shrouds, and wailed for the destruction of Jerusalem, to the feast of the Great Hosannah when they whipped away willow-leaves on the _Shool benches in symbolism of forgiven sins, sitting up the whole of the night before in a long paroxysm of prayer mitigated by coffee and cakes; from the period in which nuts were prohibited to the period in which marriages were commended.

And each day, too, had its cycles of religious duty, its comprehensive and cumbrous ritual with accretions of commentary and tradition.

And every contingency of the individual life was equally provided for, and the writings that regulated all this complex ritual are a marvellous monument of the patience, piety and juristic genius of the race--and of the persecution which threw it back upon its sole treasure, the Law.

Thus they lived and died, these Sons of the Covenant, half-automata, sternly disciplined by voluntary and involuntary privation, hemmed and mewed in by iron walls of form and poverty, joyfully ground under the perpetual rotary wheel of ritualism, good-humored withal and casuistic like all people whose religion stands much upon ceremony; inasmuch as a ritual law comes to count one equally with a moral, and a man is not half bad who does three-fourths of his duty.

And so the stuffy room with its guttering candles and its Chameleon-colored ark-curtain was the pivot of their barren lives. Joy came to bear to it the offering of its thanksgiving and to vow sixpenny bits to the Lord, prosperity came in a high hat to chaffer for the holy privileges, and grief came with rent garments to lament the beloved dead and glorify the name of the Eternal.

The poorest life is to itself the universe and all that therein is, and these humble products of a great and terrible past, strange fruits of a motley-flowering secular tree whose roots are in Canaan and whose boughs overshadow the earth, were all the happier for not knowing that the fulness of life was not theirs.

And the years went rolling on, and the children grew up and here and there a parent.

* * * * *

The elders of the synagogue were met in council.

"He is greater than a Prince," said the Shalotten _Shammos_.

"If all the Princes of the Earth were put in one scale," said Mr. Belcovitch, "and our _Maggid_, Moses, in the other, he would outweigh them all. He is worth a hundred of the Chief Rabbi of England, who has been seen bareheaded."

"From Moses to Moses there has been none like Moses," said old Mendel Hyams, interrupting the Yiddish with a Hebrew quotation.

"Oh no," said the Shalotten _Shammos_, who was a great stickler for precision, being, as his nickname implied, a master of ceremonies. "I can't admit that. Look at my brother Nachmann."

There was a general laugh at the Shalotten _Shammos's bull; the proverb dealing only with Moseses.

"He has the true gift," observed _Froom Karlkammer, shaking the flames of his hair pensively. "For the letters of his name have the same numerical value as those of the great Moses da Leon."

_Froom Karlkammer was listened to with respect, for he was an honorary member of the committee, who paid for two seats in a larger congregation and only worshipped with the Sons of the Covenant on special occasions. The Shalotten _Shammos_, however, was of contradictory temperament--a born dissentient, upheld by a steady consciousness of highly superior English, the drop of bitter in Belcovitch's presidential cup. He was a long thin man, who towered above the congregation, and was as tall as the bulk of them even when he was bowing his acknowledgments to his Maker.

"How do you make that out?" he asked Karlkammer. "Moses of course adds up the same as Moses--but while the other part of the _Maggid's name makes seventy-three, da Leon's makes ninety-one."

"Ah, that's because you're ignorant of _Gematriyah_," said little Karlkammer, looking up contemptuously at the cantankerous giant. "You reckon all the letters on the same system, and you omit to give yourself the license of deleting the ciphers."

In philology it is well known that all consonants are interchangeable and vowels don't count; in _Gematriyah any letter may count for anything, and the total may be summed up anyhow.

Karlkammer was one of the curiosities of the Ghetto. In a land of _froom men he was the _froomest_. He had the very genius of fanaticism. On the Sabbath he spoke nothing but Hebrew whatever the inconvenience and however numerous the misunderstandings, and if he perchance paid a visit he would not perform the "work" of lifting the knocker. Of course he had his handkerchief girt round his waist to save him from carrying it, but this compromise being general was not characteristic of Karlkammer any more than his habit of wearing two gigantic sets of phylacteries where average piety was content with one of moderate size.

One of the walls of his room had an unpapered and unpainted scrap in mourning for the fall of Jerusalem. He walked through the streets to synagogue attired in his praying-shawl and phylacteries, and knocked three times at the door of God's house when he arrived. On the Day of Atonement he walked in his socks, though the heavens fell, wearing his grave-clothes. On this day he remained standing in synagogue from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M. with his body bent at an angle of ninety degrees; it was to give him bending space that he hired two seats. On Tabernacles, not having any ground whereon to erect a booth, by reason of living in an attic, he knocked a square hole in the ceiling, covered it with branches through which the free air of heaven played, and hung a quadrangle of sheets from roof to floor; he bore to synagogue the tallest _Lulav of palm-branches that could be procured and quarrelled with a rival pietist for the last place in the floral procession, as being the lowliest and meekest man in Israel--an ethical pedestal equally claimed by his rival. He insisted on bearing a corner of the biers of all the righteous dead. Almost every other day was a fast-day for Karlkammer, and he had a host of supplementary ceremonial observances which are not for the vulgar. Compared with him Moses Ansell and the ordinary "Sons of the Covenant" were mere heathens. He was a man of prodigious distorted mental activity. He had read omnivorously amid the vast stores of Hebrew literature, was a great authority on Cabalah, understood astronomy, and, still more, astrology, was strong on finance, and could argue coherently on any subject outside religion. His letters to the press on specifically Jewish subjects were the most hopeless, involved, incomprehensible and protracted puzzles ever penned, bristling with Hebrew quotations from the most varying, the most irrelevant and the most mutually incongruous sources and peppered with the dates of birth and death of every Rabbi mentioned.

No one had ever been known to follow one of these argumentations to the bitter end. They were written in good English modified by a few peculiar terms used in senses unsuspected by dictionary-makers; in a beautiful hand, with the t's uncrossed, but crowned with the side-stroke, so as to avoid the appearance of the symbol of Christianity, and with the dates expressed according to the Hebrew Calendar, for Karlkammer refused to recognize the chronology of the Christian. He made three copies of every letter, and each was exactly like the others in every word and every line. His bill for midnight oil must have been extraordinary, for he was a business man and had to earn his living by day. Kept within the limits of sanity by a religion without apocalyptic visions, he was saved from predicting the end of the world by mystic calculations, but he used them to prove everything else and fervently believed that endless meanings were deducible from the numerical value of Biblical words, that not a curl at the tail of a letter of any word in any sentence but had its supersubtle significance. The elaborate cipher with which Bacon is alleged to have written Shakspeare's plays was mere child's play compared with the infinite revelations which in Karlkammer's belief the Deity left latent in writing the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi, and in inspiring the Talmud and the holier treasures of Hebrew literature. Nor were these ideas of his own origination. His was an eclectic philosophy and religionism, of which all the elements were discoverable in old Hebrew books: scraps of Alexandrian philosophy inextricably blent with Aristotelian, Platonic, mystic.

He kept up a copious correspondence with scholars in other countries and was universally esteemed and pitied.

"We haven't come to discuss the figures of the _Maggid's name, but of his salary." said Mr. Belcovitch, who prided himself on his capacity for conducting public business.

"I have examined the finances," said Karlkammer, "and I don't see how we can possibly put aside more for our preacher than the pound a week."

"But he is not satisfied," said Mr. Belcovitch.

"I don't see why he shouldn't be," said the Shalotten _Shammos_. "A pound a week is luxury for a single man."

The Sons of the Covenant did not know that the poor consumptive _Maggid sent half his salary to his sisters in Poland to enable them to buy back their husbands from military service; also they had vague unexpressed ideas that he was not mortal, that Heaven would look after his larder, that if the worst came to the worst he could fall back on Cabalah and engage himself with the mysteries of food-creation.

"I have a wife and family to keep on a pound a week," grumbled Greenberg the _Chazan_.

Besides being Reader, Greenberg blew the horn and killed cattle and circumcised male infants and educated children and discharged the functions of beadle and collector. He spent a great deal of his time in avoiding being drawn into the contending factions of the congregation and in steering equally between Belcovitch and the Shalotten _Shammos_. The Sons only gave him fifty a year for all his trouble, but they eked it out by allowing him to be on the Committee, where on the question of a rise in the Reader's salary he was always an ineffective minority of one. His other grievance was that for the High Festivals the Sons temporarily engaged a finer voiced Reader and advertised him at raised prices to repay themselves out of the surplus congregation. Not only had Greenberg to play second fiddle on these grand occasions, but he had to iterate "Pom" as a sort of musical accompaniment in the pauses of his rival's vocalization.

"You can't compare yourself with the _Maggid_" the Shalotten _Shammos reminded him consolingly. "There are hundreds of you in the market. There are several _morceaux of the service which you do not sing half so well as your predecessor; your horn-blowing cannot compete with Freedman's of the Fashion Street _Chevrah_, nor can you read the Law as quickly and accurately as Prochintski. I have told you over and over again you confound the air of the Passover _Yigdal with the New Year ditto. And then your preliminary flourish to the Confession of Sin--it goes 'Ei, Ei, Ei, Ei, Ei, Ei, Ei'" (he mimicked Greenberg's melody) "whereas it should be 'Oi, Oi, Oi, Oi, Oi, Oi.'"

"Oh no," interrupted Belcovitch. "All the _Chazanim I've ever heard do it 'Ei, Ei, Ei.'"

"You are not entitled to speak on this subject, Belcovitch," said the Shalotten _Shammos warmly. "You are a Man-of-the-Earth. I have heard every great _Chazan in Europe."

"What was good enough for my father is good enough for me," retorted Belcovitch. "The _Shool he took me to at home had a beautiful _Chazan_, and he always sang it 'Ei, Ei, Ei.'"

"I don't care what you heard at home. In England every _Chazan sings 'Oi, Oi, Oi.'"

"We can't take our tune from England," said Karlkammer reprovingly. "England is a polluted country by reason of the Reformers whom we were compelled to excommunicate."

"Do you mean to say that my father was an Epicurean?" asked Belcovitch indignantly. "The tune was as Greenberg sings it. That there are impious Jews who pray bareheaded and sit in the synagogue side by side with the women has nothing to do with it."

The Reformers did neither of these things, but the Ghetto to a man believed they did, and it would have been countenancing their blasphemies to pay a visit to their synagogues and see. It was an extraordinary example of a myth flourishing in the teeth of the facts, and as such should be useful to historians sifting "the evidence of contemporary writers."

The dispute thickened; the synagogue hummed with "Eis" and "Ois" not in concord.

"Shah!" said the President at last. "Make an end, make an end!"

"You see he knows I'm right," murmured the Shalotten _Shammos to his circle.

"And if you are!" burst forth the impeached Greenberg, who had by this time thought of a retort. "And if I do sing the Passover _Yigdal instead of the New Year, have I not reason, seeing I have _no bread in the house_? With my salary I have Passover all the year round."

The _Chazan's sally made a good impression on his audience if not on his salary. It was felt that he had a just grievance, and the conversation was hastily shifted to the original topic.

"We mustn't forget the _Maggid draws crowds here every Saturday and Sunday afternoon," said Mendel Hyams. "Suppose he goes over to a _Chevrah that will pay him more!"

"No, he won't do that," said another of the Committee. "He will remember that we brought him out of Poland."

"Yes, but we shan't have room for the audiences soon," said Belcovitch. "There are so many outsiders turned away every time that I think we ought to let half the applicants enjoy the first two hours of the sermon and the other half the second two hours."

"No, no, that would be cruel," said Karlkammer. "He will have to give the Sunday sermons at least in a larger synagogue. My own _Shool_, the German, will be glad to give him facilities."

"But what if they want to take him altogether at a higher salary?" said Mendel.

"No, I'm on the Committee, I'll see to that," said Karlkammer reassuringly.

"Then do you think we shall tell him we can't afford to give him more?" asked Belcovitch.

There was a murmur of assent with a fainter mingling of dissent. The motion that the _Maggid's application be refused was put to the vote and carried by a large majority.

It was the fate of the _Maggid to be the one subject on which Belcovitch and the Shalotten _Shammos agreed. They agreed as to his transcendent merits and they agreed as to the adequacy of his salary.

"But he's so weakly," protested Mendel Hyams, who was in the minority. "He coughs blood."

"He ought to go to a sunny place for a week," said Belcovitch compassionately.

"Yes, he must certainly have that," said Karlkammer. "Let us add as a rider that although we cannot pay him more per week, he must have a week's holiday in the country. The Shalotten _Shammos shall write the letter to Rothschild."

Rothschild was a magic name in the Ghetto; it stood next to the Almighty's as a redresser of grievances and a friend of the poor, and the Shalotten _Shammos made a large part of his income by writing letters to it. He charged twopence halfpenny per letter, for his English vocabulary was larger than any other scribe's in the Ghetto, and his words were as much longer than theirs as his body. He also filled up printed application forms for Soup or Passover cakes, and had a most artistic sense of the proportion of orphans permissible to widows and a correct instinct for the plausible duration of sicknesses.

The Committee agreed _nem. con. to the grant of a seaside holiday, and the Shalotten _Shammos with a gratified feeling of importance waived his twopence halfpenny. He drew up a letter forthwith, not of course in the name of the Sons of the Covenant, but in the _Maggid's own.

He took the magniloquent sentences to the _Maggid for signature. He found the _Maggid walking up and down Royal Street waiting for the verdict. The _Maggid walked with a stoop that was almost a permanent bow, so that his long black beard reached well towards his baggy knees. His curved eagle nose was grown thinner, his long coat shinier, his look more haggard, his corkscrew earlocks were more matted, and when he spoke his voice was a tone more raucous. He wore his high hat--a tall cylinder that reminded one of a weather-beaten turret.

The Shalotten _Shammos explained briefly what he had done.

"May thy strength increase!" said the _Maggid in the Hebrew formula of gratitude.

"Nay, thine is more important," replied the Shalotten _Shammos with hilarious heartiness, and he proceeded to read the letter as they walked along together, giant and doubled-up wizard.

"But I haven't got a wife and six children," said the _Maggid_, for whom one or two phrases stood out intelligible. "My wife is dead and I never was blessed with a _Kaddish_."

"It sounds better so," said the Shalotten _Shammos authoritatively. "Preachers are expected to have heavy families dependent upon them. It would sound lies if I told the truth."

This was an argument after the _Maggid's own heart, but it did not quite convince him.

"But they will send and make inquiries," he murmured.

"Then your family are in Poland; you send your money over there."

"That is true," said the _Maggid feebly. "But still it likes me not."

"You leave it to me," said the Shalotten _Shammos impressively. "A shamefaced man cannot learn, and a passionate man cannot teach. So said Hillel. When you are in the pulpit I listen to you; when I have my pen in hand, do you listen to me. As the proverb says, if I were a Rabbi the town would burn. But if you were a scribe the letter would burn. I don't pretend to be a _Maggid_, don't you set up to be a letter writer."

"Well, but do you think it's honorable?"

"Hear, O Israel!" cried the Shalotten _Shammos_, spreading out his palms impatiently. "Haven't I written letters for twenty years?"

The _Maggid was silenced. He walked on brooding. "And what is this place, Burnmud, I ask to go to?" he inquired.

"Bournemouth," corrected the other. "It is a place on the South coast where all the most aristocratic consumptives go."

"But it must be very dear," said the poor _Maggid_, affrighted.

"Dear? Of course it's dear," said the Shalotten _Shammos pompously. "But shall we consider expense where your health is concerned?"

The _Maggid felt so grateful he was almost ashamed to ask whether he could eat _kosher there, but the Shalotten _Shammos_, who had the air of a tall encyclopaedia, set his soul at rest on all points.

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