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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 1/102 -
The Rise of David Levinsky
by Abraham Cahan
Book I - Home and School Book II - Enter Satan Book III - I Lose My Mother Book IV - Matilda Book V - I Discover America Book VI - A Greenhorn No Longer Book VII - My Temple Book VIII - The Destruction of My Temple Book IX - Dora Book X - On the Road Book XI - Matrimony Book XII - Miss Tevkin Book XIII - At Her Father's House Book XIV - Episodes of a Lonely Life
HOME AND SCHOOL
SOMETIMES, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America--in 1885--with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance
When I was young I used to think that middle-aged people recalled their youth as something seen through a haze. I know better now. Life is much shorter than I imagined it to be. The last years that I spent in my native land and my first years in America come back to me with the distinctness of yesterday. Indeed, I have a better recollection of many a trifle of my childhood days than I have of some important things that occurred to me recently. I have a good memory for faces, but I am apt to recognize people I have not seen for a quarter of a century more readily than I do some I used to know only a few years ago
I love to brood over my youth. The dearest days in one's life are those that seem very far and very near at once. My wretched boyhood appeals to me as a sick child does to its mother.
I was born in Antomir, in the Northwestern Region, Russia, in 1865. All I remember of my father is his tawny beard, a huge yellow apple he once gave me at the gate of an orchard where he was employed as watchman, and the candle which burned at his head his body lay under a white shroud on the floor. I was less than three years old when he died, so my mother would carry me to the synagogue in her arms to have somebody say the Prayer for the Dead with me. I was unable fully to realize the meaning of the ceremony, of course, but its solemnity and pathos were not altogether lost upon me. There is a streak of sadness in the blood of my race. Very likely it is of Oriental origin. If it is, it has been amply nourished by many centuries of persecution
Left to her own resources, my mother strove to support herself and me by peddling pea mush or doing odds and ends of jobs. She had to struggle hard for our scanty livelihood and her trials and loneliness came home to me at an early period.
I was her all in all, though she never poured over me those torrents of senseless rhapsody which I heard other Jewish mothers shower over their children. The only words of endearment I often heard from her were, "My little bean," and, "My comfort." Sometimes, when she seemed to be crushed by the miseries of her life, she would call me, "My poor little orphan." Otherwise it was, "Come here, my comfort," "Are you hungry, my little bean?" or, "You are a silly little dear, my comfort." These words of hers and the sonorous contralto in which they were uttered are ever alive in my heart, like the Flame Everlasting in a synagogue
"Mamma, why do you never beat me like other mammas do?" I once asked her
She laughed, kissed me, and said, "Because God has punished you hard enough as it is, poor orphan mine."
I scarcely remembered my father, yet I missed him keenly. I was ever awake to the fact that other little boys had fathers and that I was a melancholy exception; that most married women had husbands, while my mother had to bear her burden unaided. In my dim childish way I knew that there was a great blank in our family nest, that it was a widow's nest; and the feeling of it seemed to color all my other feelings. When I was a little older and would no longer sleep with my mother, a rusty old coat of my deceased father's served me as a quilt. At night, before falling asleep, I would pull it over my head, shut my eyes tight, and evoke a flow of fantastic shapes, bright, beautifully tinted, and incessantly changing form and color. While the play of these figures and hues was going on before me I would see all sorts of bizarre visions, which at times seemed to have something to do with my father's spirit
"Is papa in heaven now? Is he through with hell?" I once inquired of my mother. Some things or ideas would assume queer forms in my mind. God, for example, appealed to me as a beardless man wearing a quilted silk cap; holiness was something burning, forbidding, something connected with fire while a day had the form of an oblong box
I was a great dreamer of day dreams. One of my pastimes was to imagine a host of tiny soldiers each the size of my little finger, "but alive and real." These I would drill as I saw officers do their men in front of the barracks some distance from our home. Or else I would take. to marching up and down the room with mother's rolling-pin for a rifle, grunting, ferociously, in Russian: "Left one! Left one! Left one!" in the double capacity of a Russian soldier and of David fighting Goliath.
Often, while bent upon her housework, my mother would hum some of the songs of the famous wedding bard, Eliakim Zunzer, who later emigrated to America.
I distinctly remember her singing his "There is a flower on the road, decaying in the dust, Passers-by treading upon it," his "Summer and Winter," and his "Rachael is bemoaning her children." I vividly recall these brooding airs as she used to sing them, for I have inherited her musical memory and her passionate love for melody, though not her voice. I cannot sing myself, but some tunes give me thrills of pleasure, keen and terrible as the edge of a sword. Some haunt me like ghosts. But then this is a common trait among our people.
She was a wiry little woman, my mother, with prominent cheek-bones, a small, firm mouth, and dark eyes. Her hair was likewise dark, though I saw it but very seldom, for like all orthodox daughters of Israel she always had it carefully covered by a kerchief, a nightcap, or--on Saturdays and holidays--by a wig. She was extremely rigorous about it. For instance, while she changed her kerchief for her nightcap she would cause me to look away
My great sport during my ninth and tenth years was to play buttons. These we would fillip around on some patch of unpaved ground with a little pit for a billiard pocket. My own pockets were usually full of these buttons. As the game was restricted to brass ones from the uniforms of soldiers, my mother had plenty to do to keep those pockets of mine in good repair. To develop skill for the sport I would spend hours in some secluded spot, secretly practising it by myself. Sometimes, as I was thus engaged, my mother would seek me out and bring me a hunk of rye bread.
"Here," she would say, gravely, handing me it. And I would accept it with preoccupied mien, take a deep bite, and go on filliping my buttons
I gambled passionately and was continually counting my treasure, or running around the big courtyard, jingling it self-consciously. But one day I suddenly wearied of it all and traded my entire hoard of buttons for a pocket-knife and some trinkets
"Don't you care for buttons any more?" mother inquired
"I can't bear the sight of them," I replied
She shrugged her shoulders smilingly, and called me "queer fellow."
Sometimes I would fall to kissing her passionately. Once, after an outburst of this kind, I said: "Are people sorry for us, mamma?"
"What do you mean?"
"Because I have no papa and we have no money."
Antomir, which then boasted eighty thousand inhabitants, was a town in which a few thousand rubles was considered wealth, and we were among the humblest and poorest in it. The bulk of the population lived on less than fifty copecks (twenty-five cents) a day, and that was difficult to earn. A hunk of rye bread and a bit of herring or cheese constituted a meal. A quarter of a copeck (an eighth of a cent) was a coin with which one purchased a few crumbs of pot-cheese or some boiled water for tea. Rubbers were worn by people "of means" only. I never saw any in the district in which my mother and I had our home. A white starched collar was an attribute of "aristocracy." Children had to nag their mothers for a piece of bread
"Mamma, I want a piece of bread," with a mild whimper
"Again bread! You'll eat my head off. May the worms eat you."
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