Two men, two Jews, unwittingly—and unknowingly—burned my first conscious awareness into me. They awakened in me a war from which I suffered for some time and which cost me many innocent tears. I mean that war in which the head is in opposition to the heart and reason cannot come to terms with feelings.
Reason has her clear, cold accounting, calculating what is good and what is fair. Feeling, however, does not want to know about that, and sometimes demands just the opposite. Both have their important claims, both pull with similar power, each to its own side. The human being stands in the middle, torn between the two until help comes from one side or the other and pulls this way or that. Then we are so happy with the resulting peace that we can barely imagine how we did not understand it earlier.
The first man, a poor Jew named Mayer Yeke, was the Talmud-Torah teacher. The other man, Kalmen Marinhof, was also a poor teacher. Mayer Yeke was a tall, strong Jew, if not as tall and strong as Og the King of Bashan, then no smaller and no weaker than Goliath the Philistine. I used to think that the only difference between Goliath and Mayer Yeke—not to mention them in the same breath—was Mayer Yeke’s incredibly long peyes, his earlocks, which Goliath did not have. I had seen a drawing of Goliath in my mother’s Yiddish prayer book and I could not picture any other.
I never saw Mayer Yeke—sitting, standing, or walking—except in the company of Borekh the Slaughterer and Arye the Judge. Mayer would stride, his energy carrying him forward, his peyes floating up, fluttering in the wind like two flags. The wide coattails of his kapote, his long black silk coat, would fill with air and spread out behind him like two billowing sails, carrying him along like a ship on the ocean.
No sooner did I see him in this company than I knew that something bad had happened in the town. Something was out of order: either there was a break in the eruv, the community boundary, or something was wrong with the mikvah, the ritual bath, or some other Jewish matter required repair or supervision, like the kosher meat in the butcher shops, or a suspicion of leaven at a matzo bakery. These men were always ready to reclaim or improve any place, and because of them, you could be certain that the Jews in our town would never fall into unknowing sin.
While praying at the big study house, I always saw Mayer Yeke’s giant body tossing about like a tree in a forest during a fierce storm. And his praying was not some ordinary praying like reading the words from the prayer book. His praying was like a long wild roar from an excited lion without a moment’s interruption between the opening psalm and the last “Redeemer of Yisroel.”
From his calling out, “His greatness is unsearchable,” I thought that it was not only the windows of the study house that shook but all seven heavens; and there above, among the angels, his words made a noise like a bomb falling or a marching army. His “holy, holy, holy” was the salute of a hundred cannons firing at once. That is the kind of voice Mayer Yeke had and the kind of power with which he prayed.
It was not without justification that the pious women of the town prayed to have such saintly children, or that we cheder boys considered him the greatest saint in the world. Perhaps even more of a saint than our rebbe, who was known as a great genius. We all knew that in learning and wisdom our rebbe was better than Mayer Yeke. Had that not been so, Reb Mayer could have been a rabbi himself and would not have needed to teach Khumesh with Rashi to ragged and barefoot little children.
There are several Borekhs in our town: Borekh Broder, Borekh Hillel the deaf, Borekh the watchmaker, Borekh “shokheyn od” (“You who dwell in eternity”), and many other Jews who have the name Borekh with some kind of an addition attached to it. But there was only one who was called Borekh and nothing more than Borekh. Indeed, nothing more was needed.
Everyone knew him, even a child, even a servant girl. And everyone had some business with him: he was a member of everyone’s household and everyone had an opinion about him.
Without Borekh, no proper housewife put in a pane of glass, or put up pickles or sauerkraut for the winter, or rendered chicken fat, or baked matzo. If there was a joyous event in the town—an engagement, a wedding, a circumcision—Borekh had already washed the long tables from the study house of their usual greasy residue and had carried those tables—alone or with a helper—to the celebrants’ house and toiled at setting them up and arranging them as long as he had the energy to do so.
He also made it his business to assemble plates, spoons, forks, and knives for the celebration, and after the celebration to return each item to the person it was borrowed from with no losses or displacements. Borekh knew who owned each object and he never broke his word.
If it happened that someone in town was, God forbid, sick, Borekh spent his days and nights near the patient, or he ran for the doctor, the barber-surgeon, or to the pharmacy. On a hot summer’s day he would not hesitate to go five miles outside of town to the beer brewery in order to bring back a bucket of ice to put on the patient’s head if the doctor or barber prescribed it.
One did not even get a proper Jewish burial without Borekh. He brought the stretcher for the body, attended to the ritual washing, and busied himself with the funeral. It was also his mitzvah to bring bagels and hardboiled eggs to the mourners, and to help make the minyans for the entire shiva period. And Borekh led daily services and recited the Kaddish for any family who did not have a male capable of the duty. He read from the Torah, called upon whoever he wanted, and conducted the service with all the respect due among Jews.
He was at home everywhere, a member of everyone’s household, and he sat down to each table without having to be asked. No housewife was afraid to have him; he was not picky about eating, and whatever was made, offered, or he found for himself in the kitchen, was acceptable to him. Even the cooks gave him food gladly. Borekh was not ashamed to carry water buckets and often set up the samovar himself while the cooks were busy with something else.
But Borekh was even more influential with the town’s children. What couldn’t Borekh think up and make for them! He could pick up a piece of paper and a pair of scissors and cut out all kinds of animals, human figures, soldiers, horses, goats, lions, bears, leopards and anything else you could think of. Whenever he came into a home where there were little children, boys or girls, the children brought him scissors and paper, and no matter how busy he was with anything else, for their sake, he would quickly cut out anything they asked for.
Borekh never permitted any boy in the town to be without a dreidel for Chanukah or a grogger for Purim to drown out Haman’s name, or a bow and arrow and a little wooden sword for Lag b’Omer and Tishah b’Av.
Borekh’s dreidels and groggers were especially famous. He had a special knife for woodcarving, which he always kept sharp as a razor, and which could shave the hair from a grown man’s arm from the hand to the elbow in one stroke. With that knife and other tools of his own making, he carved a pair of goats that butted one another with their horns, a pair of roosters that fought one another, eagles with two heads that beat their wings, and the dreidels and groggers that took him months to carve.
As people listened to the Megillah, the Purim story, they would notice Borekh’s new groggers and the artistic work and skill that went into them. “He seems like such a fool,” people would say, “Such a simple mind. Yet he has the brains to spend months making such things!”
“That’s why he has no head for learning,” others explained, “because he puts his whole brain, his whole life’s effort, into such foolishness!”
However, the children did not care about his inability to study, and they found Borekh very valuable. They may not have behaved properly for their parents, or for the rebbe at school, but they would do anything for Borekh with just a wink from him. And he loved the cheder boys and even smaller children more than anything else in the world. In an argument about the blade of an old knife, a fistfight over a brass button, or an old rusty pen, Borekh would become their court and judge. With great seriousness and fairness, he smoothed things over and made peace among them, just as one would do if he were handling an important matter.
Borekh was not only their court and judge, he was also their beloved friend, who played and joked with them, and who got the same enjoyment and fun from it as did the children, although he was three times bigger and two times their age.
MY FIRST LITERARY ACCOMPLISHMENT
Before I begin relating my memoirs from that time when I had already written an entire story or novel, and even dared to read what I had written to those older and more experienced than myself, or to listen to their advice about whether it was worth getting printed, I cannot ignore the influence of two events in my life that made an enormous impression on me at the time. Two events that it seems were the main reasons that I dared to take my pen in hand and try to write.
The first event happened just to me in those years when I was a little boy in cheder and the rebbe attempted to place me in the class with the Talmud students even though I was younger and smaller than they were. I recall that I did not feel any greater status that I was now supposedly studying Talmud than when I was studying Khumesh with Rashi, but other people—especially my good mother and my eldest sister—took this to mean that I was many years older than I was, practically an adult. So then, even though just a few days earlier I had done things that were completely unremarkable for a Torah boy, things that no one would have considered reprimanding me for since a Torah boy was just a child and did not have much sense; now, because of my Talmud study, I had to watch my every step.
The first time that I realized that I was, because of my Talmud study, no longer a child was by accident. My rebbe had asked me to come to cheder the next day with a volume of the Talmud called Bava Msetsie so that I would not have to share a book with one of the older boys. They used to pick on me while we were studying, and so if I had my own book I could keep away from them.
Our bookcase at home held a big set of the Vilna edition of the Talmud with wide page margins and leather covers, an edition that must have cost an arm and a leg. My father was rarely at home in those days as he was always traveling around to the various fairs. If he had been at home then, he would not have allowed such a treasure off his bookshelf for this little bit of Talmud study I was doing. He would have known that he could buy an inexpensive child’s Talmud and would not have sent his big Talmud to cheder with me.
My mother, however, was in seventh heaven with happiness that she had lived to see the day when her beloved child had begun Talmud study, and could make use of the great Talmud that had, until now, stood on the shelf almost as an ornament or decoration. So she allowed me to take the Bava Metsie to cheder. She made me promise to protect the book, not to tear it or get it dirty, and not to leave it at cheder, but to bring it home every evening when the rebbe let us go.
And I remember how happy I was to carry it to and from cheder every day, even though it was almost bigger and wider than I was myself. I could barely reach around it with both arms and it was heavy. I used to sweat from the load and I can say that I really felt the heavy “yoke of the Law.”
Coming home from cheder one warm summer evening holding the Talmud in both hands, I saw that there was a pile of fresh sand in our courtyard. Some neighbor was having his oven rebuilt and I loved to play in the sand, digging caves, building fortresses, piling up ramparts, and other such work at which I was a master and for which no one had ever said a cross word to me.
I did not stop to think. I laid the big Talmud volume there on the sandpile, rolled up both sleeves of my jacket, and started to dig a tunnel. Deeply involved in my work, I did not notice that my older sister and a group of other girls had come to the window and were watching what I was doing. Then I heard a peal of laughter and one of my sisters yelled, “Just look at the Talmud student, he’s playing in the sand like a little boy!”
Then one of her friends called out, “Bravo! Bravo! A Talmud student who still plays in the sand!”
I was very embarrassed and quickly realized that it was not appropriate for a Talmud student to be playing in the sand. And although the inclination to misbehavior was strong in me, I conquered it, and from then on I never played in the sand again.
But I was not able to overcome a second impulse in me: the inclination that pulled me to listen to the lovely storybooks that my three older sisters read aloud in Yiddish every Shabbes afternoon with a big group of friends, some already of marriageable age. For those storybooks, I gave up all my boyish games and jokes during Shabbes and would sit quietly in a corner in the women’s section and happily listen to the beautiful stories they read.
As long as I was not more than a Torah boy, my sisters and their friends did not say a word to me about it being inappropriate for a boy to sit in a group of women and listen to Yiddish stories. Rather, they liked the fact that I could occasionally translate a Hebrew term, and I always remembered where we had stopped and just what had been happening the previous Shabbes when it had gotten too late to keep reading. There were even some girls in the group who loved me and who hugged me to them, and sometimes I told them that I loved one of them better than the others.
But all that was before I started studying Talmud. Once I became a Talmud student, I could not understand what was going on with me, or with them. As far as I was concerned, I was the same boy I had always been, not a hair had changed. The girls were also exactly the same: not prettier, not uglier, not more dear or more pious than before, yet they drove me out of the room. “You are a Talmud student already,” they said. “Feh, you should be ashamed to sit in the same room with us and listen to these stories.”
It was in that state of despair that the thought came to me that it would be better if there was no Talmud in the world and that instead of being born a boy and having to say the blessing every day, “Who has not made me a woman,” if I had been born a girl I could read storybooks the whole day and no one would say a word to me.
Even my dear mother never seemed to scold my sisters for spending so much time—all Shabbes afternoon—with the storybooks, in which things were all mixed up and improbable things happened. She might have told them that they would do better to read the weekly Torah portion and additional readings in the Yiddish translation of the Torah. But my pious mother used to forget her speech, get caught up in the story being read, and sit for hours with the girls listening to the story to the end. I was jealous of the girls who did not know about the rebbe, and about studying Talmud in cheder, and who were allowed to read such beautiful stories that were so marvelous to listen to.
Yes, I became ever more convinced in the belief that instead of being born a boy and reciting, “Who has not made me a woman” every morning, and going to cheder to study Talmud, and not being allowed to have fun anymore, it would have been easier to be born a girl, long on hair and short on learning, but at least one could read the most beautiful stories and no one would say a word of reprimand. But all the doubt and pondering did not help me. With the beginning of Talmud study, not only was I no longer a Torah boy, I was no longer a boy anymore. I was a man like all Jewish men and whatever was inappropriate for a man was inappropriate for me. And like all Jewish men, I had to carry that heavy yoke of Yiddishkayt, of Jewishness: go to shul, pray three times a day, listen to a preacher, recite psalms, and certainly not laugh and joke.
Often, when the preacher gave a funeral oration and I was obligated to listen, I did not understand what he was complaining about. But it was at just such an oration that something happened to me that was the first push along the path that I would later follow.
Under the bimah in shul, there was a little room where they kept the boxes of sand for the Yom Kippur candles and two big barrels filled with all kinds of torn books and pages that were called “sheymos.” Today there may be young people, and not necessarily boors and ignoramuses, who do not understand the meaning of the word sheymos. But in those days, even little cheder boys knew that they were pages from old books that had God’s holy name written on them. So I knew why they collected the sheymos in the barrels.
It was said that once in a blue moon when the barrels were filled to overflowing, all the pious householders in town would gather at the shul with kosher clay pots from their kitchens. They would take the sheymos from the barrels and place them into the clay pots. Then the local wagon drivers would donate their horses and wagons and all the clay pots would be put onto the wagons. The rabbi, judges, circumciser, slaughterers, and all the religious functionaries came, and there was a grand funeral.
But this was not a funeral with the wailing and weeping of widows and orphans, not a funeral with “May righteousness go before you” and the din of “Charity delivers from death,” and alms boxes that scare you so. No, this was a funeral with singing by the town cantor with all his assistants, and music by the town musicians, who sang and played even better than for the most wealthy bride and groom under the chuppah. That is how they accompanied the holy sheymos in their kosher clay shrouds to the cemetery, where they were buried in a proper place of honor among the great holy men and people of the best families. After that, Kaddish was said, and everyone happily went home.
In the evening, there was a feast sponsored by the trustees of the Talmud-Torah. The rabbi gave a speech and the cantor recited a prayer for the well-being of all who had given donations to buy new books for those who studied the holy Law.
So once when the preacher gave a funeral oration for a great scholar and I did not understand a word of it, my friends and I dug around in the boxes under the bimah. Most of them were looking for the odd bit of wax from the Yom Kippur candles; others were looking for what the moyhel brought here in a dish of sand after each circumcision. I did not have any interest in either of those things, so I climbed up the hoops of one of the barrels, and holding on with one hand so that I would not fall in, began pulling out dusty and moldy pages, one after another, until I had collected a big tangle of them.
I wanted to look at all these pages, so I took them to the window where there was more light and arranged them before my eyes. I saw that it was a storybook in Yiddish and that it was so easy to read, it was marvelous! I could understand every word without a commentary and without having to ask anyone for a translation. Although I had already heard plenty of storybooks read aloud, until that day I had never read a page of Yiddish. The books were so dear to the people who bought or borrowed them that they would never let them out of their hands and I had to be satisfied with just listening to them read.
At home I separated the tangled mass of pages and laid them out in order, page by page, and realized that this was a whole book of several hundred pages. It was missing only the covers and the title page. At first, I, a Talmud student, was a little embarrassed with the storybook in Yiddish and only looked at it when no one else would notice. But as soon as I could steal through ten or twelve pages, I became so interested in the story that I entirely forgot my shame and the rest of the world!
Seeing that I was so entranced, life and limb, in the withered pages of a storybook, my mother wrung her hands and started shouting, “It must be a spell that has been put on him! He won’t let that book out of his hands! Imagine, a Talmud student, whoever heard of such a thing!”
But this time her complaints did not help. I would never let go of the book. I remember that once in the early morning, while I was completely immersed in the book, a criminal was being taken to be hanged. The entire town followed after the wagon to the place where the gallows had been set up. At such a moment, I managed to close the book, put it in my coat against my chest, and headed out to join my friends and run after the wagon.
There at the gallows, however, very lengthy preparations were taking place. Since it was boring for me to wait, I took out the book and right there among the thousands of fidgety spectators, began to read again. Then as I lifted my eyes from the words on the page, I discovered that I was the only one left: the arrestee was already hanging and the soldiers and the band had left the gallows. That’s how I missed the entire ceremony of the execution. Later my friends were all boasting that they had seen everything, but I had to keep silent because I had seen nothing.
And so the storybook ended, but the impression it made left me so distraught that I went around for weeks as in a fog. I did not know the name of the book as I said: it did not have a title page or any other name. But its contents were deeply etched on my soul.
THE YIDDISH THEATRE
Yiddish theatre was born in a wine cellar in Odessa. It first stood up on its own two feet in a Romanian coffeehouse during the time of the Russo-Turkish War. When I saw it for the first time in Warsaw, it was still a young child just learning to speak.
You do not expect much from a small child. Whatever kind of faces a small child makes, it is charming. Whatever a small child tries to say, it is clever. Whenever you encounter a small child who loves to mimic and copy the adults around him, it is considered an accomplished child. Parents and relatives cannot praise the cleverness and smartness enough; even strangers may grant it a kiss now and then, or express their pleasure with a pinch on the cheek. Of course, if an adult did such childish things and said that he had copied it from someone else, people would say that he was acting crazy or, in fact, was crazy. But everything is fun from a small child; everything is clever.
Looking with such eyes at the early Yiddish theatre in general, and in Warsaw in particular, I cannot deny that I got more than a little pleasure from it. For a small child, Ni be ni me ni kukeriku (Neither This, Nor That, nor Kukerikoo) was cute; Shmendrik was a joke; Kuni Lemls, with all its brothers and friends, was an imitation of a life.
Real art and true-to-life qualities come with age, with further development, not only of the artist himself, but of the public who have to be educated to get intellectual use from the art. The public was itself rather childish regarding the newborn Yiddish theatre, playing with the theatre as with another child, and both getting childish pleasure from it. There was a kind of childish innocence and Jewish charm in the Yiddish theatre then. That charm and innocence can be felt in the artless Yiddish songs that began the plays and with which they usually ended.
I do not know whether the father of Yiddish theatre, Avrom Goldfaden, ornamented his newborn child with so many pretty ditties because he took his example from the older Yiddish presentations such as Shprintse Haman from the Purim plays, Mekhires Yoysef, Melukhes Shoyl, and other plays that were based on neat rhymes and songs. Goldfaden himself was hard put to present Yiddish theatre without rhymes or a treatment of a Jewish theme without singing, or had he just calculated it that way?
Feeling that both he and the Jewish public were little prepared for serious theatre presentations, and recognizing the weak side of his pieces, Goldfaden may have thought that the problem was with his songs, which in many cases he made stronger. Many of Goldfaden’s songs were already familiar and loved by the public before he had even dreamed of the Yiddish theatre.
I am partly willing to believe that it was not the theatre that brought the songs to the world, but that the entire theatre was created for the songs. But it really does not matter which is so. I am certain that the entire interest in Yiddish theatre at that time, its entire charm for the masses and for the intellectual audience as well, was Goldfaden’s songs, and so one can say that Goldfaden’s Yiddish theatre songs can atone for all the childish mistakes and foolishness of his Yiddish theatre. Goldfaden’s theatre songs from that time—not including the couplets—are still Jewish songs. The Jewish audience took them as their own, and in time, they became Jewish folksongs.
A Talner Chassid, an expert in melodies, told this story about one of Goldfaden’s songs: “As is common knowledge, my Rebbe, Reb Dovidl Talner, may his merit sustain us, was, in a sense, King David of Israel returned, and although the world kept it a secret, it was possible to recognize it through his playing and singing. When he took the fiddle in his hands, even a Litvak would have to confess that this was no ordinary fiddle, but the harp of David, King of Israel. And what singing! Whoever did not hear his songs, especially those for Havdalah, did not know real singing.
“One time a Chassid from Odessa came to see Reb Dovidl. They called him Shepsl Odesser. During the day on Shabbes, when a group of Chassidim gathered at the Rebbe’s house, Shepsl sang a new song that melted everyone’s heart. Many of the young Chassidim recognized the melody and knew that it had come from a place where men and women sit together. But no one said a word, so no one would suspect that they went to places they should not have gone. As Shepsl sang, everyone sang with him, over and over, until Reb Dovidl heard the melody in his room and came out to the dining room from where the singing had reached him.
“Out of respect, everyone stopped singing. But he signaled that everyone should keep singing. He liked the song and they sang it again and again. When they finally stopped, the Rebbe said, ‘A wonderful idea! The words are also nice; it’s a good song. Will you sing that song again, Shepsl, when we sing zmiros after Havdalah?’
“Meanwhile, imagine what was going on in Shepsl’s heart! If the Rebbe wanted to hear the song again and no one said a word, this material Chassid from Odessa should confess and say, ‘Rebbe, this song came from an impure place. I heard it in Odessa in a Yiddish theatre hall!’ and the Rebbe would excuse him. But now, since the Rebbe had specifically said, ‘A wonderful idea! The words are also nice,’ and had asked Shepsl to sing the song at zmiros after Havdalah, he did not have the nerve to say, ‘No, Rebbe, this song is a coarse song because the father of the song is Avrom Goldfaden who does not even have a beard!’ Everyone kept silent and it was agreed that they would sing the song right after Havdalah.
“Anyway, the song with the beautiful Jewish melody was indeed a pleasure to hear, but the whole activity was an embarrassment for the Chassidim, because what if the Rebbe knew who wrote the song? But the truth was that nobody really knew who had written the song, and it could be that no one would ever know.
“Everyone knows about Beni the Cantor. In our circles, even little children in cheder talk about Beni’s voice. The bride and groom are led to and from the canopy to one of Beni’s marches. His knowledge of melodies cannot really be compared to the Rebbe’s knowledge of melodies—no one can stand against the Rebbe—but without comparing, it is truly rare to find such a fine voice.
“Back then, while this event was taking place, Beni was a fervent Chassid of the Talner Rebbe. Now he is in the Makarov sect. Do you know why he changed from Talner to Marakov? But that has nothing to do with our story.
“Once Beni wanted to write a new melody and give it as a gift to the Rebbe for a certain Shabbes. For Beni this was hardly any work; he just thought about it and out it came! So he came to Talner for Shabbes and brought along his merry new song.
“He was quiet all through Shabbes and did not speak a word about his new melody. But there are no secrets among the Chassidim. It became known and the Chassidim were talking the whole day about the new song that Beni would sing with the Rebbe’s musicians right after Havdalah.
“The audience waited for the right moment for Beni’s song. But there was a flaw. After Havdalah, the Rebbe gave the sign for Beni to introduce his new melody and Beni began to sing. But instead of appearing happy as usual, everyone noticed that a dark mood had descended over the Rebbe like a veil; and the longer Beni sang his song, the worse the Rebbe looked. The audience was worried that the Rebbe might fall into melancholy and perhaps the world might end.
Beni was signaled to stop singing, but he was stubborn and would not stop. He pretended not to see and kept right on singing. The audience was ready to throw him down and take him out of the Rebbe’s house wrapped in sheets. When the Rebbe saw this, he himself said, ‘Enough, Beni!’
“Nothing more was required. Beni’s voice broke and he stood silent, his face stricken, and his teeth chattered in his mouth. The audience took this as a sign: Beni had stumbled into sin and the Rebbe had sniffed it out.
“It was clear that Beni was regretting what he had done. When his regret was evident, the Rebbe’s face changed and he said, ‘How did this song come to you, Beni?’
“‘Rebbe, what is my error, what is my sin?’ said Beni, encouraged a little by the Rebbe’s smile.
“‘This silly song; where did it come from?’ asked the Rebbe, and perhaps meaning it differently, so that he would not shame him.
“‘It is my own idea!’ answered Beni. ‘I am its author!’
“‘Your own idea!’ the Rebbe repeated Beni’s boast. ‘You yourself are the author? So are you surprised that I do not like your song?’
“Beni’s eyes opened wide. He wondered why the Rebbe would not like his song just because it was his own creation, and he, Beni, was the author? The Rebbe understood what Beni’s question was and answered in a very kind voice: “‘A melody is obliged to be something that will please the whole community of Israel. It is not your own idea. One is not the author of such a melody. One does not sing such a melody. Such an idea falls from heaven into the heart of someone who knows music. There in his heart, the idea is clothed in the clothes of a melody, and when such a melody is torn from the heart, it is easy for it to penetrate the hearts of all Israel. You do not sing such a melody; the melody sings you. You may not even want to sing it; it sings itself even against your will. It sings itself and stirs your heart, so that you are possessed of the spirit of God, the source of melody and joyful song. Now do you understand, Beni, the difference between an idea and an inspiration, between a song and a joyful song?’
“Beni and the whole group of Chassidim heard the speech that went through all 248 limbs and all 365 veins of their bodies, but it was beyond their comprehension.
“‘Such a melody, Beni,’ the Rebbe continued, ‘such a melody is the lovely song that can be sung every Shabbes evening after Havdalah. Do you know the song God Spoke to Yankev? Sing it, Beni!’
“When the Rebbe said, ‘Sing!’, one sang. Beni sang the melody with his voice, trying to appease the Rebbe for the earlier song. The Chassidim were excited simply because of its sweetness. But the Rebbe was not pleased.
“‘Heart, Beni, heart!’ said the Rebbe. ‘You lack heart. A melody without heart has no vigor. The soul of such a melody is a cold, un-Chassidic soul!’
“So to demonstrate to the group and to Beni how to sing a song with heart, the Rebbe himself began to quietly sing the melody. Slowly the audience felt as though a kind of sweet fever had overtaken them. Soon the Rebbe’s sweet voice began to get louder and deeper, clearer, purer, and stronger, and the audience had no strength to contain itself, they began to sing along with him. Their mouths seemed to open on their own as they sweetly sang along with the Rebbe. It seemed as though the melody had embraced each one, wrapping each in sweet voices. Everyone, even a Litvak, could feel this detachment from the corporeal. The body stayed there in the room with the Rebbe, but the soul was carried far off into other worlds by the heartfelt melody; worlds where nothing was desired but singing, singing, singing.
“After awhile it felt as though everything in the world was singing: heaven and earth, the stars and the planets, inanimate things, growing plants, animals in the wilderness. Everything sang, everything was carried up in song, up, far off into the high, deep blue air. If you looked up, it seemed as though the whole world was flooded and covered with a deep flood of song; and in the flood of pure, clear, and sweet voices, you could see how the souls of the holy and pure immersed themselves, bathing and splashing, dipping under and coming back up, swimming back and forth, on and on to the end of the world.
“Suddenly it seemed as though you could not see any individual souls. All the souls seemed to flow together into one great soul, and the one great soul poured on and became fused with the Ayn Sof, the One Without Beginning or End. Boundaries disappeared. There was no weight, no time. You yourself are an ayn sof, without beginning or end, and the Ayn Sof sings the great song that also has no beginning and no end. Now you know the secret of the end of creation: you are the song; the soul is the end of creation.
“How long this elevation of the soul went on is difficult to determine. It could have been for whole generations or just the blink of an eye. But suddenly it was torn apart, and the congregation was back to perceiving where they were and what they were. No more flood, no more song, but the voices carrying on like waves that pull you off to the great beyond.
“Soon the congregation fell silent, each person feeling a kind of exhaustion, the soul free, it seemed, and the eyes full of tears. Some wanted to cry; why and for what? No one knew.
“Suddenly another quiet song is heard and it captures the heart. The Rebbe sits lost in thought it seems, but everyone hears how his soul pours out in a sweet, touching prayer, a kind of longing and pulling towards heaven. It pulls like that, the quiet song pulls and you can see clearly how it flies up like a bird from Paradise, higher and higher, becomes quieter and quieter until it disappears, and the sharpest ear cannot hear it anymore.
“And do you think that the Rebbe sang a new song? No! It was exactly Shepsl Odesser’s song, the one he had brought to the Rebbe from the Yiddish theatre. With that song the Rebbe had demonstrated that a holy, pure melody, even though a creation of Satan, can also come to the right people and be used to bring them back to the right path, and be brought back to the original inspiration for a Jewish heart to sing it.