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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 10/102 -
suppress her feeling, but from time to time a sigh would escape her, as though the rush of happiness was too much for her heart
Alas! this happiness of hers was not to last much longer
BOOK III I LOSE MY MOTHER CHAPTER I IT was Purim, the feast of Esther. Our school-boys were celebrating the downfall of Haman, and they were doing it in the same war-like fashion in which American boys celebrate their forefathers' defiance of George III. The synagogues roared with the booming of fire-crackers, the report of toy pistols, the whir-whir of Purim rattles. It was four weeks to the great eight-day festival of Passover and my mother went to work in a bakery of unleavened bread. She toiled from eighteen to twenty hours a day, so that she often dozed off over her rolling-pin from sheer exhaustion. But then she earned far more than usual. Including tips from customers (the baker merely acted as a contractor for the families whose flour he transformed into fiat, round, tasteless Passover cakes, or "matzoths") she saved up, during the period, a little over twenty rubles. With a part of this sum she ordered a new coat for me and bought me a new cap. I remember that coat very well. It was of a dark-brown cotton stuff, neat at the waist and with absurdly long skirts, of course. The Jewish Passover often concurs with the Christian Easter. This was the case in the year in question. One afternoon--it was the seventh day of our festival--I chanced to be crossing the Horse-market. As it was not market day, it was deserted save for groups of young Gentiles, civilians and soldiers, who were rolling brightly colored Easter eggs over the ground. My new long-skirted coat and side-locks provoked their mirth until one of them hit me a savage blow in the face, splitting my lower lip.
Another rowdy snatched off my new cap--just because our people considered it a sin to go bareheaded. And, as I made my way, bleeding, with one hand to my lip and the other over my bare head, the company sent a shower of broken eggs and a chorus of jeers after me
It was only a short distance from Abner's Court. When I entered our basement and faced my mother, she stared at me for a moment, as though dumfounded, and then, slapping her hands together, she sobbed: "Woe is me! Darkness is me! What has happened to you?"
When she had heard my story she stood silent awhile, looking aghast, and then left the house.
"I'm going to kill him. I am just going to kill him," she said, in measured accents which still ring in my ears
The bookbinder's wife, the retired soldier, and I ran after her, imploring her not to risk her life on such a foolhardy errand, but she took no heed of us
"Foolish woman! You don't even know who did it," urged the soldier
"I'll find out!" she answered
The bookbinder's wife seized her by an arm, but she shook her off. I pleaded with her with tears in my eyes
"Go back," she said to me, trying to be gentle while her eyes were lit with an ominous look
These were the last words I ever heard her utter
Fifteen minutes later she was carried into our basement unconscious. Her face was bruised and swollen and the back of her head was broken. She died the same evening
I have never been able to learn the ghastly details of her death. The police and an examining magistrate were said to be investigating the case, but nothing came of it
There was no lack of excitement among the Jews of Antomir. The funeral was expected to draw a vast crowd. But the epidemic of anti-Jewish atrocities of 1881 and 1882 were fresh in one's mind, so word was passed round "not to irritate the Gentiles." The younger and "modern" element in town took exception to this timidity. They insisted upon a demonstrative funeral. They were organizing for self-defense in case the procession was interfered with, but the counsel of older people prevailed. As a consequence, the number of mourners following the hearse was even smaller than it would have been if my mother had died a natural death. And the few who did take part in the sad procession were unusually silent. A Jewish funeral without a chorus of sobbing women was inconceivable in Antomir. Indeed, a pious matron who happens to come across such a scene will join in the weeping, whether she had ever heard of the deceased or not. On this occasion, however, sobs were conspicuous by their absence
"'S-sh! 's-sh! None of your wailing!" an old man kept admonishing the women
I spent the "Seven Days "(of mourning) in our basement, where I received visits from neighbors, from the families of my two distant relatives, from Reb Sender and other Talmudists of my synagogue. Among these was the Pole.
This time my rival begged my forgiveness. I granted it, of course, but I felt that we never could like each other
There was a great wave of sympathy for me. Offers of assistance came pouring in in all sorts of forms. Had there been a Yiddish newspaper in town and such things as public meetings, the outburst might have crystallized into what, to me, would have been a great fortune. As it was, public interest in me died before anything tangible was done. Still, there were several prosperous families of the old-fashioned class, each of which wanted to provide me with excellent board. But then Reb Sender's wife, in a fit of compassion and carried away by the prevailing spirit of the moment, claimed the sole right to feed me
"I'll take his mother's place," she said. "Whatever the Upper One gives us will be enough for him, too." Her husband was happy, while I lacked the courage to overrule them
As to lodgings, it was deemed most natural that I should sleep in some house of worship, as thousands of Talmud students did in Antomir and other towns.
To put up with a synagogue bench for a bed and to "eat days" was even regarded as a desirable part of a young man's Talmud education. And so I selected a pew in the Preacher's Synagogue for my bed. I was better off than some others who lived in houses of God, for I had some of my mother's bedding while they mostly had to sleep on hay pillows with a coat for a blanket
It was not until I found myself lying on this improvised bed that I realized the full extent of my calamity. During the first seven days of mourning I had been aware, of course, that something appalling had befallen me, but I had scarcely experienced anything like keen anguish. I had been in an excited, hazy state of mind, more conscious of being the central figure of a great sensation than of my loss. As I went to bed on the synagogue bench, however, instead of in my old bunk at what had been my home, the fact that my mother was dead and would never be alive again smote me with crushing violence. It was as though I had just discovered it. I shall never forget that terrible night
At the end of the first thirty days of mourning I visited mother's grave.
"Mamma! Mamma!" I shrieked, throwing myself upon the mound in a wild paroxysm of grief
The dinners which Reb Sender's wife brought to the synagogue for her husband and myself were never quite enough for two, and for supper, which he had at home, she would bring me some bread and cheese or herring. Poor Reb Sender could not look me in the face. The situation grew more awkward every day. It was not long before his wife began to drop hints that I was hard to please, that she did far more than she could afford for me and that I was an ingrate. The upshot was that she "allowed" me to accept "days" from other families. But the well-to-do people had by now forgotten my existence and the housewives who were still vying with one another in offering me meals were mostly of the poorer class. These strove to make me feel at home at their houses, and yet, in some cases at least, as I ate, I was aware of being watched lest I should consume too much bread. As a consequence, I often went away half hungry. All of which quickened my self-pity and the agony of my yearnings for mother. I grew extremely sensitive and more quarrelsome than I am naturally. I quarreled with one of my relatives, a woman, and rejected the "day" which I had had in her house, and shortly after abandoned one of my other "days."
Reb Sender kept tab of my missing "days" and tried to make up for them by sharing his dinner with me. His wife, however, who usually waited for the dishes and so was present while I ate, was anything but an encouraging witness of her husband's hospitality. The food would stick in my throat under her glances. I was repeatedly impelled abruptly to leave the meal, but refrained from doing so for Reb Sender's sake. I obtained two new "days." One of these I soon forfeited, having been caught stealing a hunk of bread; but I kept the matter from Reb Sender. To conceal the truth from him I would spend the dinner hour in the street or in a little synagogue in another section of the city. Tidy Naphtali had recently returned to Antomir, and this house of worship was his home now. His vocal cords had been ruined by incessantly reading Talmud at the top of his lungs. He now spoke or read in a low, hoarse voice. He still spent most of his time at a reading-desk, but he had to content himself with whispering
I found a new "day," but lost three of my old ones. Naphtali had as little to eat as I, yet he scarcely ever left his books. One late afternoon I sat by his side while he was reading in a spiritless whisper. Neither of us had lunched that day. His curly head was propped upon his arm, his near-sighted eyes close to the book. He never stirred. He was too faint to sway his body or to gesticulate. I was musing wearily, and it seemed as though my hunger was a living thing and was taking part in my thoughts
"Do you know, Naphtali," I said, "it is pleasant even to famish in company.
If I were alone it would be harder to stand it. 'The misery of the many is a consolation.'" He made no answer. Minutes passed.
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