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.
Roza was happy with herself and the whole world when she arrived home from the wedding in Kurland. In contrast, Yosef felt the whole world standing against him. He struggled to forge his heart against her and restrain his feelings—feelings that were stronger than his own strength. Roza did not surrender to such thoughts; her heart was filled with love.
At the wedding for the daughter of a rich merchant that her father knew well through business, Roza had learned about a new type of person. All her life, she had only known suburban youths in whom she found no faults, but no great merits, either. But at the wedding, Roza had met and danced with several young men. She had held her own with them, yet her thoughts kept returning to Yosef. She found a certain emptiness in the men she encountered, and told herself, This one’s too polite; he’ll make problems for me. This one says he likes my face and hovers around giving me unwanted compliments. He’s not embarrassed to look me in the eyes and say, “They’re like two stars in the night sky.” This one praises my hair, my fingers, my waist. God, how people flatter each other! No, Yosef wouldn’t find two words to exchange with these people. All the men gather around the women, standing like soldiers before a general. And the women act like painted dolls without hands to serve themselves. Yosef wouldn’t endure such “elevated people” for a moment. He’d say, “These women can’t even pour themselves a cup of tea. At least they can drink the tea once it’s poured, or they’d need their gentlemen to spoon it into their mouths.” What Yosef told me is right: “It’s understandable that men go after a pretty woman because of her looks, but a good woman is valued for her honor and worth.” Oh, empty men, empty women! Yosef would never love you. You are not worthy of his love!
Even when Roza encountered a young man she liked, she found herself comparing him to Yosef. He’s handsome, but not as handsome as Yosef, she told herself. Or, he speaks like Yosef, but Yosef is more refined and informed. As the evening progressed, she could clearly see there was only one Yosef.
She also felt uncomfortable with how the men presented themselves. One said his name was Moritz, and another said Peter. But Roza wondered, What are their Jewish names? Mordecai or Motke? Pinkhes or Peretz? Why do people think this is the thing to do? Silly, very silly! My Yosef is Yosef and will be called Yosef for as long as I am called Roza.
If Yosef were here with me, she thought, he’d show these foolish people how wrong it is to be embarrassed by their Jewishness. They’d fall in love with him, and come to know what it means to be a real Jew. These young women would quickly learn their idolizing gentlemen are empty and see there are better and more clever people in the world. I miss you, Yosef, and without you here my pleasure is reduced by half!
When Roza returned home from the wedding, she wanted to share her insights with Yosef. She felt delighted with herself, as the merry conversations had opened her heart. She was full of good feelings, and even Yosef’s indifference did not lessen her pleasure. She had not felt any hidden meanings in his words and took them at face value. She did not know or try to guess what was hidden in his thoughts. Just as it is natural that one who is always full does not understand the sufferings of the hungry, so it is only natural that the truly good person cannot suspect another’s dishonesty or guess their true intentions. The good-natured, happy one for whom the sun always shines, does not see those less-fortunate souls whose hearts are filled with worry and vexation.