WITHOUT FEAR OF GOD

Be pleased to remember that this tale points no moral, that there is
absolutely nothing to be deduced from it, and that in narrating it I am
but repeating a curious incident that belongs to the East Side. It is a
strange place, this East Side, with its heterogeneous elements, its
babble of jargons. Its noise and its silence, its impenetrable mystery,
its virtues, its romance, and its poverty—above all, its poverty! Some
day I shall tell you something about the poverty of the East Side that
will tax your credulity.

* * * * *

There lived on the East Side once a man who had no fear of God. His name
was Shatzkin, and there had been a time when he was a learned man,
skilled in the interpretation of Talmudic lore, fair to look upon and
strong.

Like many another outcast he had come with his story and his mystery out
of the “poisonous East,” and there was no tie between him and his
neighbours save the tie of Judaism. It is a wonderful bond between men,
this tie of Judaism, a bond of steel that it has taken four thousand
years of suffering and death to forge, and its ends are fastened to
men’s hearts by rivets that are stronger than adamant, and the rabbis
call these rivets “The fear of God.”

The heat of summer came on. You who swelter in your parlour these sultry
days—do you know what the heat of summer means to two families chained
by poverty within a solitary room in a Ghetto tenement, where there is
neither light nor air, where the pores of the walls perspire, where the
stench of decay is ever present, where there is nothing but heat, heat,
heat? You who have read with horror the tale of the Black Hole of
Calcutta—have you seen a child lie upon a bare floor, gasping, and
gasping and gasping for breath amid the roomful of silent people who are
stitching for bread? I would give a year of my life to wipe out a
certain memory that is awakened each time I hear a child cry—it was
terrible.

But I was telling you the story of Shatzkin.

The heat of summer came on, and his youngest-born died in his arms for
lack of nourishment. And while his wife sat wringing her hands and the
other children were crying, Shatzkin laid the lifeless body upon the
bare floor, and, donning his praying cap, raised his voice and chanted:

“Great is my affliction, O God of Israel, but Thou knowest best!”

And it grew hotter, and the other children succumbed.

“You had better send them to the country,” said the doctor, and, seeing
Shatzkin staring at him dumbly, “Don’t you understand what I mean?” he
asked. Shatzkin nodded. He understood full well and—and that night
another died, and Shatzkin bowed his head and cried:

“Great is my affliction, O God of Israel, but Thou knowest best!”

Within a week the Shatzkins were childless—it was a terrible summer—and
when the congregation B’nai Sholom assembled upon the following Sabbath
and the rabbi spoke words of comfort, Shatzkin, with his face buried in
his hands, murmured:

“My sorrow is nigh unbearable, O God of Israel, but Thou knowest best!”

And now the heat grew greater, and the sweatshops, with all their
people, were as silent as the grave. The men cut the cloth and ironed
it, and the women stitched, stitched, stitched, with never a sound, and
there was no weeping, for their misery was beyond the healing power of
tears.

Shatzkin’s wife fell to the floor exhausted, and they carried her to her
room above, and sent for a doctor.

“The sea air would do her good,” said the doctor.

“The sea air,” repeated Shatzkin, stupidly. “The sea air.”

“Keep her as cool as you can. I will call again in the morning.”

“The sea air,” was all that Shatzkin said. “The sea air.”

In the middle of the night the woman cried, “Shatzkin! Shatzkin!”

He looked down, for her head lay upon his lap.

“Shatzkin!” She was smiling feebly. “The baby—Aaron—Esther—dear
Shatzkin——”

* * * * *

The congregation of B’nai Sholom had assembled for Sabbath eve worship.
The rabbi was in the midst of the service.

“Blessed be God on high!” he read from the book. “Blessed be the Lord of
Israel, who holds the world in the palm of His hand. For He is a
righteous God——”

“Ho! ho!” shouted a derisive voice. The startled worshippers hastily
turned their heads. They beheld a gaunt figure that had risen in the
rear of the room, and seemed to be shaking with laughter. It was
Shatzkin, but so pale and worn that few recognised him.

“Who are you that disturb this holy service?” cried the rabbi. “Have you
no fear of God in your heart?”

The man ceased laughing and stared the rabbi in the eyes. “No,” he said,
slowly. “I have no fear of God.”

A terrible hush had fallen upon the assemblage, and the man, looking
vacantly from one to another of the faces that were turned to him, said,
in a hollow voice:

“I am Shatzkin. Does no one remember Shatzkin? I sat here only last
week,” and, slowly, “my—wife—went—to—the—seashore!”

The rabbi’s face softened.

“Good, brother Shatzkin,” his voice was trembling. “God has tried——”

“You lie!” cried Shatzkin, fiercely. “Do not speak to me of God! I have
no fear of Him! He killed my youngest-born, and I prayed to Him—on my
knees I prayed and cried, ‘Thou knowest best!’ And He killed the
others—all the others, and I blessed Him and on my knees I prayed, ‘Thou
knowest best!’ And He killed my wife—my darling wife—in my arms He
killed her. And I am alone—alone—alone, and I fear no God!
Curse—curse—curse! Ha! ha! ha! ho! ho! ho! Why should I fear God?”

And throwing a prayer-book to the floor he trampled it under foot, and
rushed out into the street.

* * * * *

For many years there worked in one of the sweatshops on the East Side a
shrivelled little man, with keen blue eyes, who was always laughing.
From sunrise until midnight he toiled, sometimes humming an old melody,
but always with a smile upon his lips. The other workers laughed and
chatted merrily in the winter time, and became grave and silent in the
summer, but rarely did they pay attention to the old man who seemed
always happy. Strangers that visited the place were invariably attracted
by the cheerful aspect of the man, but when they spoke to him he would
smile and answer:

“I must earn money to send my wife to the sea air!”

And if they asked, “Who is this man?” they would be told in a whisper of
awe:

“He has no fear of God!”

And then a significant shake of the head.

* * * * *

The heat of summer is here again. Shatzkin has been dead a long time,
and the story is almost forgotten. But in the Ghetto each day his cry is
repeated, and through the heat and the foul air there arises from a
thousand hearts the tearless murmur:

“Great is my affliction, O God of Israel, but Thou knowest best!”