A YIDDISH IDYLL

In German they call it “Die Liebe.” The French, as every school-girl
knows, call it “L’Amour.” It is known to the Spanish and the Italians,
and, unless I am greatly mistaken, it was known even in Ur of the
Chaldeans, the city that was lost before the dawn of ancient Greece.

The sky has sung of it, the bright stars have sung of it, the birds and
the flowers and the green meadows have sung of it. And far from the
brightness and the sunshine of the world I can lead you to a dark room
where, night and day, the air is filled with the whirring and buzzing
and droning and humming of sewing machines, and if you listen intently
you can hear the song they sing: “Love! Love! Love!”

_Die Liebe ist eine alte Geschichte._

It is a foolish song, and somehow or other it has become sadly entangled
with the story of Erzik and Sarah, which is a foolish story that has
neither beginning nor end. Nor has it a plot or a meaning or anything at
all, for that matter, save the melody of spring and the perfume of
flowers.

You see, Sarah’s eyes were brown and Erzik’s were blue, and they sat
side by side in the sweatshop where the sewing machines whirred and
buzzed and droned and hummed. And side by side they had sat for almost a
year, speaking hardly a dozen words a day, for they are silent people,
those Eastern Jews, and each time that Sarah looked up she could see
that Erzik’s eyes were blue, and she saw a light in them that brought
the blood to her cheeks and filled her with a strange joy and a resolve
not to look up again.

And Erzik, wondering at the gladness in his heart, would smile, whereat
the sweater would frown, and the machines would whirr and buzz and drone
and hum more briskly.

It was the fault of the black thread—or was it the white thread? One of
them, at least, had become entangled in the bobbin of Sarah’s sewing
machine, and in disentangling it the needle’s point pierced her skin,
drawing—a tiny drop of blood. Erzik turned pale, and tearing a strip
from his handkerchief—a piece of extravagance which exasperated the
sweater beyond all bounds—hastened to bind it around the wound. Then
Sarah laughed, and Erzik laughed, too, and of course he must hold the
finger close to his eyes to adjust the bandage, and then, before the
whole room, he kissed her hand. Then she slapped him upon one cheek,
whereupon he quickly offered the other, and they laughed, and all the
room laughed, save Esther, whose face was always white and pinched.

Is it not a foolish story? That very night Erzik told Sarah that he
loved her, and she cried and told him she loved him, and then he cried,
and they both were happy. And on the next day they told the sweater that
they were soon going to be married, which did not interest him at all.

It was gossip for half a day, and then it fell into the natural order of
things. The machines went on whirring and buzzing and droning and
humming, and Erzik and Sarah frequently looked up from their work and
gazed smilingly into each other’s eyes. Of this they never tired, and
through the spring their love grew stronger and deeper, and the machines
in the room never ceased to sing of it; even the sparrows that perched
upon the telegraph wires close by the windows chirped it all day long.

Esther grew whiter and whiter, and her face became more and more
pinched. And one day she was not in her place. But neither Erzik nor
Sarah missed her. Another day and another, she was absent, and on the
following day they buried her. The rabbi brought a letter to Erzik.

“She said it was for your wedding.”

Carefully folded in a clean sheet of note paper lay three double eagles;
it was Esther’s fortune.

_Die Liebe ist eine alte Geschichte._

Erzik and Sarah have been married a year, and they still sit side by
side in the sweatshop. Spring has come again, and the sewing machines
whirr and buzz and drone and hum, and through it all you can hear that
foolish old song. When they look up from their work and their eyes meet,
they smile. They are content with their lot in life, and they love each
other.

The story runs in my head like an old song, and when the sky is blue,
and the birds sing, the melody is sweet beyond all words. Sometimes,
when the sky is grey and the air is heavy with a coming storm, it seems
as if there is a note of sadness in the song, as if a heart were crying.
But the sunshine makes it right again.

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URIM AND THUMMIM

The hall was packed to the point of suffocation, with thousands of
gaunt, hollow-eyed strikers, who hung upon the speaker’s impassioned
words with breathless interest. He was an eloquent speaker, with a pale,
delicate face, and dark eyes that shone like burning coals.

He had been speaking for an hour, exhorting the strikers to stand firm,
and to bear in patience their burden of suffering. When he dwelt on the
prospect of victory, and portrayed the ultimate moment of triumph that
would be theirs, if only they stood steadfast, a wave of enthusiasm
surged through the audience, and they burst into wild cheers.

“Remember, fellow-workmen,” he went on, “that we have fought before.
Remember that we have suffered before. And remember that we have won
before.

“How many are there of you who can look back to the famous strike of ten
years ago? Do you not remember how, for two months, we fought with
unbroken ranks, and after privation and distress far beyond what we are
passing through to-day, triumphed over our enemies and won a glorious
victory? It was but a pittance that we were striking for, but the life
of our union was at stake. With one exception, not a man faltered. The
story of our sufferings only God remembers! But we bore them without a
murmur, without complaint. There was one dastard—one traitor, recreant
to his oath—but we triumphed in spite of him. Oh, my fellow-workers, let
us——”

But now a mist gathered before my eyes; the sound of his voice died
away, and all that assemblage faded from my sight.

The speaker’s words had awakened in my mind the memory of Urim and
Thummim; all else was instantly forgotten.

* * * * *

Urim was a doll that had lost both legs and an arm, but its cheeks, when
I first saw it, were still pink, and, in spite of its misfortunes, it
wore a smile that never faded. Thummim was also a doll, somewhat more
rugged than Urim, but gloomy and frowning, in spite of its state of
preservation. Koppel and Rebecca agreed that Urim was by far the more
interesting of the two, but the two had come into the household
together, and to discard Thummim was altogether out of the question.

Koppel was a cloakmaker, and it was during the big strike that I first
met him. Of all the members of that big trades-union he alone had
continued to work when the strike was declared, and they all cursed him.
Pleading and threats alike were of no avail to induce him to leave the
shop; for the paltry pittance that he could earn he abandoned his union
and violated his oath of affiliation.

At every meeting he was denounced, his name was hissed, he was an
outcast among his kind.

When I tapped upon his door there was no response. I opened it and
beheld a child with raven hair, so busily occupied with undressing a
doll that she did not look up until I asked:

“Is Mr. Koppel in?”

She turned with a start and gazed at me in astonishment. Her big, brown
eyes were opened wide at the apparition of a stranger, yet she did not
seem at all alarmed. After a moment’s hesitation—the door was still
open—she approached me and held out the doll.

“Urim!” she said. I took it, and with a happy smile she ran to a corner
of the room, where, from under a table, she dragged another doll.

“T’ummim!” she said, holding it out to me.

Then Koppel entered the room. He knew me, although I had never seen him
before, and readily guessed the object of my errand.

“You are from the newspaper,” he said. “You want to know why I did not
strike.”

When the lamplight fell upon his countenance I saw that he was a
miserable-looking creature, servile in his manner, and repulsive to the
eye. He did not appear to be very strong, and the climb of the stairs
seemed to have exhausted him. He sat down, and the girl climbed upon his
knee. She threw her arm around his neck, and, looking up at me with a
pretty smile, said:

“Urim—T’ummim—mine!”

Koppel stroked her head, and a look of deep love came into his eyes, and
then I began to understand.

“She has no mother,” he said. “I must pay a woman to give her food. I—I
can’t strike—can I?”

One of the dolls slipped from my hand and fell to the floor.

“Urim!” cried the little one, slipping hastily from her father’s knee to
pick it up. Tenderly she examined the doll’s head; it was unscathed.
Then she looked up at me and held out her arms, and her mouth formed
into a rosebud. It was a charming picture, altogether out of
place—naïve, picturesque, utterly delightful.

“You must go to bed,” said her father, sternly. “The foolish thing wants
you to kiss her.”

We became friends—Koppel, Rebecca, Urim, Thummim, and I.

“I was reading the Pentateuch aloud one night,” explained Koppel, “and
she caught the words Urim and Thummim. They pleased her, and she has not
forgotten them.”

I have not said that Rebecca was pretty. She was more than pretty; there
was a light in her baby face that bespoke a glorious womanhood. There
was a quiet dignity in her baby manners that can be found only among the
children of the Orient. She was a winsome child, and during the day,
when her father was at work, the children from far and near would come
to make a pet of her.

The strike was at an end, and Koppel was discharged. When I came to the
house a few days later Rebecca was eating a piece of dry bread, saving a
few crumbs for Urim and Thummim. Koppel, in gloomy silence, was watching
her.

“She is not well,” he said. “She has had nothing to eat but bread for
three days. I must send her to an institution.”




The next morning the doctor was there, prescribing for her in a
perfunctory way, for it was merely a charity case. She smiled feebly
when she saw me, and handed me a doll that lay beside her.

“It’s Thummim,” I said. “Won’t you give me Urim?”

She shook her head and smiled. She was holding Urim against her breast.

* * * * *

It happened ten years ago, and it seems but yesterday. The day was warm
and sultry—almost as close as this crowded hall. The streets of the
Ghetto were filled with the market throng, and the air hummed with the
music of life. The whole picture rises clearly, now—as clearly as the
platform from which the enthusiastic speaker’s voice resounds through
the hall.

A white hearse stands before the house. The driver, unaided, bears a
tiny coffin out of the gloomy hallway into the bright sunshine. The
group of idlers make way for him, and look on with curiosity, as he
deposits his burden within the hearse.

There are no carriages. There are no flowers. Koppel walks slowly out of
the house, his eyes fastened upon the sidewalk, his lips moving as if he
were muttering to himself. In his hand he carries two broken dolls.
Without looking to right or left, he climbs beside the driver, and the
hearse rattles down the street.

I mounted the stairs to his home, and found everything as it had been
when I was there last—everything save Koppel and Rebecca, and Urim and
Thummim, and these I never saw again.

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THE POISONED CHAI

Bernstein sat in the furthest corner of the café, brooding. The fiercest
torments that plague the human heart were rioting within him, as if they
would tear him asunder. Bernstein was of an impulsive, overbearing
nature, mature as far as years went, yet with the untrained,
inexperienced emotions of a savage. To such natures the “no” from a
woman’s lips comes like a blow; the sudden knowledge that those same
lips can smile brightly upon another follows like molten lead.

That whole afternoon Bernstein had suffered the wildest tortures of
jealousy. Had Natzi been a younger man Bernstein’s resentment might not
have turned so hotly upon him. Yet Natzi was almost of his own age, a
weak-faced creature, with an eternal smile, incapable of intense
feeling, ignorant of even the faintest shade of that passion which he
(Bernstein) had laid so humbly, so tenderly at her feet—and it was Natzi
she loved! Bernstein’s hand darted to his inner pocket and came forth
clutching a tiny object upon which he gazed with the look of a fiend.

“I may not have her,” he murmured, “but she will never belong to him.”

He held the tiny thing in his lap, below the level of the table, so that
none other might see it, and looked at it intently. It was a small
phial; it contained some colourless liquid.

The thought entered his brain to drain the contents of that phial
himself and put an end to the fierce pain that was eating away his
heart. Would it not be for the best? There was no one to care. The world
held no one but her; perhaps his death would bring the tears to those
big brown eyes; she might even come and kiss his cold forehead. But
after that Natzi would be master of those kisses, upon Natzi’s lips hers
would be pressed all the livelong day.

The blood surged to his brain; he clutched the table as though he would
squeeze the wood to pulp; before his eyes rose a mist—a red mist—the red
of blood. Slowly this mist cleared away, and the face and form of Natzi
loomed up before him—Natzi, with patient, boyish eyes, smiling.

“It is the third time that I’ve said ‘Good-evening.’ Have you been
sleeping with your eyes open?”

“No. No. Just thinking,” said Bernstein, talking rapidly. “Sit down.
Here, opposite me. The light hurts my eyes. Come, let us have some chai.
Here, waiter! Two chais. Have them hot, with plenty of rum.”

“You seem nervous, Bernstein. Aren’t you well?” asked Natzi,
solicitously.

“Oh, smoking too much. But let us talk about yourself. How is the
wood-carving business? Any better?”

Natzi shook his head, ruefully. “Worse,” he answered. “They’re doing
everything by machinery these days, and the machines seem to be
improving all the time. The work is all mechanical now. The only real
pleasure I get out of my tools is at night when I am home. Then I can
carve the things I like—things that don’t sell.”

The waiter brought two cups of chai, with the blue flames leaping
brightly from the burning rum on the surface. Bernstein’s eyes were
intent upon the flames.

“I have not yet congratulated you,” he said.

He did not see the look that came into Natzi’s eyes—a look of
tenderness, of earnestness, a look that Bernstein had never seen there,
although he had known Natzi many years.

“Yes,” said Natzi, thoughtfully. “I am to be congratulated. It is more
than I deserve. I am not worthy.”

Bernstein’s gaze was fastened upon the flames. They were dancing
brightly upon the amber liquid.

“She is so beautiful, so sweet, so pure,” Natzi went on. “To think that
all that happiness is for me!”

The flames changed from blue to red. Bernstein’s brain whirled. He felt
a wild impulse to throw himself upon his companion and seize him by the
throat and strangle him, and cry aloud so that all could hear it: “You
shall never have that happiness. She belongs to me. She is part of my
life, part of myself. You cannot understand her. I alone of all men
understand her. Every thought of my brain, every impulse of my being,
every fibre of my body beats responsive to her. She was made for me. No
other shall have her!”

Then the thought of the phial in his hand recurred to his mind and he
became calm. The flames died out, and Natzi slowly drained his cup.
Bernstein watched him with bloodshot eyes. Looking up he met Natzi’s
gaze bent upon him anxiously.

“You are not well, Bernstein. Let us go home.”

“No, no,” Bernstein said, quickly. “It is just nervousness. I have
smoked too much.” He made a feeble attempt at a smile. “Come,” said he,
draining his cup. “Let us have another. The last. The very last. And
after that we will drink no more chai.”

Two more cups were set before them.

“Look,” said Bernstein, “is that lightning in the sky?”

Natzi turned his head toward the open doorway. Swiftly, yet stealthily,
Bernstein’s hand stretched forth until it touched the blue flames that
danced on Natzi’s cup, hovered there a moment, and then was withdrawn
just as Natzi turned around. His fingers had been scorched.

“No, I see no lightning. The stars are shining.”

“Let us drink,” said Bernstein. “The last drink.”

“I am not a fire-eater,” said Natzi, smiling. “Let us wait at least
until the rum burns out.”

Bernstein lowered the flaming cup that, in his eagerness, he had raised
toward his lips and looked at Natzi. Malice gleamed in his eyes.

“Yes. Let it cool. Then we will drink a toast.”

“With all my heart,” said Natzi. “It shall be a toast to her. A toast to
the sweetest woman in the world.”

There was a long pause. Once or twice Natzi glanced hesitatingly at his
companion, who sat with bowed head, his eyes intent upon the flames that
leaped so brightly from his cup. Then Natzi spoke, slowly at first, but
gradually more rapidly, and more animatedly as the intensity of his
emotion mastered him.

“Do you know, dear friend,” he began, “there was a time when I thought
she loved you? We were together so much, the three of us, and she had so
many opportunities to know you—to know you as I knew you—to know your
great, strong mind, your tender heart, your steadfastness, your generous
nature, that could harbour no unworthy thought. You pose as a cynic, as
a man who looks down upon the petty things that make up life for most of
us, but I—I, who have lived with you, struggled with you, known so many
of the trials and heart-breakings of everyday life with you—I know you
better. True, you have no love for women, and I often wondered how you
could be so blind to her sweetness, and to the charm that seemed to fill
the room whenever we three were together. But I never took my eyes from
her face, and when I saw with what breathless interest she listened
whenever you spoke, whenever you told us of your plans for uplifting the
down-trodden, of your innermost thoughts and hopes and feelings, I read
in her eyes a fondness for you that filled me with despair.”

Bernstein was breathing heavily. His lips quivered; his face twitched;
the blood had mounted to his cheeks. His eyes were downcast, fastened
upon the blue flames of the chai, dancing and leaping in fantastic
shapes.

“That time you were sick—do you remember? When the doctor said there was
no hope on earth, when everyone felt that the end had come, when you lay
for days white and still, hardly breathing, with the pallor of death
upon your face—do you remember? And I nursed you—sat at your bedside
through four days and four nights without a minute’s rest. And then,
when the doctor said the crisis had passed and you would get well, I
fainted away from sheer weakness—do you remember?”




Perspiration in huge drops was trickling slowly down Bernstein’s
forehead. His lips were dry. His teeth were tightly clenched.

“And you thought I had done it all for friendship’s sake, and I listened
to your outpouring of gratitude, taking it all for myself, without a
word—without a word! Ah, my dear friend, it was hateful to deceive you;
but how could I tell the truth? But now I have no shame in telling it. I
did it for her. All for her. To save you for her. That was the only
thought in my poor, whirling brain during those long, weary days and
nights. I felt that if you died she would die. I knew the intensity of
her nature, and I knew that if aught happened to the man she loved she
would die of grief. And now to think you never cared for her, and that
it was I whom she always loved!”

Natzi looked at the bowed head before him with tender smile. Bernstein
was trembling.

“I am glad, though, that all happened as it did. Had I nursed you only
for your own sake, much as I loved you, I might have weakened, my
strength might not have held out. For a man can do that for his love
which he cannot do for himself. And, perhaps, after all, it was an
excellent lesson for me to learn to bear bitter disappointment.”

The flames in Bernstein’s cup were burning low. With every breath of air
they flickered and trembled. They would soon die out.

“Look,” said Natzi, reaching into his pocket. “Look at this little piece
that I carved during the hours that I sat at your bedside—to keep me
awake. I have carried it over my heart ever since.”

Bernstein looked up. His eyes were frightfully bloodshot. His face was
ashen. In Natzi’s hand he beheld a tiny carving in wood, fashioned with
exquisite skill and grace, of a woman’s head. The flame in Natzi’s cup
caught a light gust of air that stirred for a moment, leaped brightly,
as if on purpose to illumine the features of the carved image, then
flickered and went out. Bernstein had recognised the likeness. Those
features were burning in his brain.

“Every night since then I have set this image before me, and I have
prayed to God to always keep her as sweet, as pure, and as beautiful as
He keeps the flowers in His woods. And every morning I have prayed to
Him to fill her life with sunshine and gladness, and to let no sorrow
fall upon her. And every day I carried it pressed against my heart and I
felt sustained and strengthened. Ah, Bernstein, God is good! He gave her
to me! He brought about the revelation that her heart was mine, her
sweetness, her beauty—all were mine. Come, comrade, we have gone through
many a struggle together. Let us drink a toast—you shall name it!”

Natzi held his cup aloft. With a hoarse cry Bernstein half rose from his
seat, swiftly reached forward, and tore the cup from Natzi’s grasp.

“To her!” he cried. “To her! May God preserve her and forgive me!”

He drained the cup, stared wildly at the astonished countenance of
Natzi, and, after a moment, during which he swayed slightly from side to
side, fell forward upon the table, motionless.

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