MIDNIGHT IN THE STUDY HOUSE
On that cold and quiet night as the watchmen slept, there sat in a study house in the suburb of the great, old-fashioned Jewish city of Mohilev, a fresh new “idler,” or as they are often called in such places, “yeshiva boy,” “poor boy,” “synagogue studier,” and other endearing names that denote the impracticality of their lives. The study house clock, which was always a half-hour slow or fast, had already struck twelve, and the whole place was quiet except for the snoring of the sons of the rich who, thinking they would adopt the scholarly mode of studying all night, lay with their fur coats rolled up under their heads near the Wiseman from Lizshanke.
Incomprehensible words burbled up from the sleepers. The shammes, the caretaker of the study house, a Jew from Kurenos with long sidelocks, was asleep on the bimah. Near him lay his son, perhaps three years old, who the shammes routinely brought to spend the night so his young mind could be imbued with Torah, or with the politics discussed by the followers of the Wiseman of Lizshanke. From time to time, the child gave out a little cry like a bird in the forest dreaming in his nest.
The idler was toiling over a complicated passage in a holy text. He sat wracking his brain, but something was not right, and he could not grasp the meaning. He sat as always, studying with diligence, digging and searching, not noticing how time hurried by. Suddenly he jumped up. Hot wax had fallen on his hand from the candle that had just sputtered out. He looked for the candle stub he had hidden away, but could not find it. He stood and went to the clock to see how late it was, then looked around for a place to sleep. All the places were taken, and he stood for a moment not knowing what to do.
I don’t even have a place to lay my head, he told himself. I never imagined such a thing. Not long ago, I was a rich man’s son. I, too, came to study all night, but I never took the place of a poor boy who lived in the study house. Now here I am, a poor boy myself. Back then, when times were good, and my mother happily waited for me to come home from cheder, could she have ever imagined someone saying, “Your dear child, your coddled little Yosefke, has been tossed out into the wild world where he has exhausted himself.”
He knew his mother would wash him in her tears if she saw how he lived and spent his time and health. For what? he wondered. Who can explain this even to me? Mama, how could what you and Father so desired for me as an infant lead to such a place as this in spite of all my sweat and toil? No, I am not a child anymore and can suffer with sealed lips. I will gladly sit and study Talmud as you always wanted for me if only I knew for certain this would make you happy. Because I love you, dear parents, more than life itself.
Unfortunately, I also know that a child, a boy who is a treasure, who knows a thousand pages of Talmud by heart and leads the afternoon service, must still struggle to make a life for himself. Although he may be a great joy and pleasure to his parents, how does he exchange a few pages of Talmud for a loaf of bread, a pair of shoes, a dress for a wife, or clothes for a child when the cash value of his learning has fallen? I know, dear parents, this is a great misfortune for you, a bitter grievance to see what the years of work have brought to your son. I don’t blame you. Your eyes have always been bound by trust in God’s goodness, and you do not see how times have changed. But I have new books in Yiddish and other languages, and my eyes are half-opened. The blindfold of trust has been torn off, and I cannot play blindfolded anymore!
The idler went over to the cantor’s stand and picked up a flickering yortsayt candle, then opened a little chest and took out a small book in Russian which he began to read. Akh, he thought, what if a synagogue official caught me reading a Russian book—and by the light of a yortsayt candle no less! Fortunately, everyone is asleep, and if the dead man knows I’m using his candle while it burns in his memory, I suppose he also knows the kind of book it is. Perhaps he would even thank me for reading Rabinovich’s Shtrafnoi by the flame of his candle, instead of lighting my pipe with it the way the good and pious Chassidim do!
He asked himself, Why do people call these books “devil books” or “Berliner books”? Why do Jews call everything “heretical” that is not Talmud or written by some rabbi-genius? Why condemn these books without even knowing what’s in them? These books talk about our troubles and offer consolation to Jews who sometimes need to shed tears over the useless suffering of our brethren. Or do they disdain these books because they benefit all Jews, rather than just those who devote themselves to studying holy texts?
This dilemma confounds me. Just when I think I understand the principles of our faith, I must figure out why it is forbidden to be an educated person who does not go blindly through the world. I thank you, Rabinovich, for being a holy writer! Every tear that you have called forth from my eyes is like a balm to me, and I understand from you that I must do all I can to help my people.