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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 2/102 -
Dialogues such as this were heard at every turn
My boyhood recollections include the following episode: Mother once sent me to a tinker's shop to have our drinking-cup repaired. It was a plain tin affair and must have cost, when new, something like four or five cents. It had done service as long as I could remember. It was quite rusty, and finally sprang a leak. And so I took it to the tinker, or tinsmith, who soldered it up. On my way home I slipped and fell, whereupon the cup hit a cobblestone and sprang a new leak. When my mother discovered the damage she made me tell the story of the accident over and over again, wringing her hands and sighing as she listened. The average mother in our town would have given me a whipping in the circumstances. She did not
CHAPTER II WE lived in a deep basement, in a large, dusky room that we shared with three other families, each family occupying one of the corners and as much space as it was able to wrest. Violent quarrels were a commonplace occurrence, and the question of floor space a staple bone of contention. The huge brick oven in which the four housewives cooked dinner was another prolific source of strife. Fights over pots were as frequent and as truculent as those over the children
Of our room-mates I best recall a bookbinder and a retired old soldier who mended old sheepskin coats for a living. My memories of home are inseparable from the odors of sheepskin and paste and the image of two upright wooden screws (the bookbinder's "machine"). The soldier had finished his term of military service years before, yet he still wore his uniform--a dilapidated black coat with new brass buttons, and a similar overcoat of a coarse gray material. Also, he still shaved his chin, sporting a pair of formidable gray side-whiskers. Shaving is one of the worst sins known to our faith, but, somehow, people overlooked it in one who had once been compelled to practise it in the army. Otherwise the furrier or sheepskin tailor was an extremely pious man. He was very kind to me, so that his military whiskers never awed me. Not so his lame, tall wife, who often hit me with one of her crutches.
She was the bane of my life. The bookbinder's wife was much younger than her husband and one of the things I often heard was that he was "crazy for her because she is his second wife," from which I inferred that second wives were loved far more than first ones.
The bookbinder had a red-haired little girl whom I hated like poison. Red Esther we called her, to distinguish her from a Black Esther, whose home was on the same yard. She was full of fight. Knowing how repulsive she was to me, she was often the first to open hostilities, mocking my way of speaking, or sticking out her tongue at me. Or else she would press her freckled cheek against my lips and then dodge back, shouting, gloatingly: "He has kissed a girl! He has kissed a girl! Sinner! Shame! Sinner! Sinner!"
There were some other things that she or some of the other little girls of our courtyard would do to make an involuntary "sinner" of me, but these had better be left out
I had many a fierce duel with her. I was considered a strong boy, but she was quick and nimble as a cat, and I usually got the worst of the bargain, often being left badly scratched and bleeding. At which point the combat would be taken up by our mothers
The room, part of which was our home, and two other single-room apartments, similarly tenanted, opened into a pitch-dark vestibule which my fancy peopled with "evil ones." A steep stairway led up to the yard, part of which was occupied by a huddle of ramshackle one-story houses. It was known as Abner's Court. During the summer months it swarmed with tattered, unkempt humanity. There was a peculiar odor to the place which I can still smell.
(Indeed, many of the things that I conjure up from the past appeal as much to my sense of smell as to my visual memory.) It was anything but a grateful odor
The far end of our street was part of a squalid little suburb known as the Sands. It was inhabited by Gentiles exclusively. Sometimes, when a Jew chanced to visit it some of its boys would descend upon him with shouts of "Damned Jew!" "Christ-killer!" and sick their dogs at him. As we had no dogs to defend us, orthodox Jews being prohibited from keeping these domestic animals by a custom amounting to a religious injunction, our boys never ventured into the place except, perhaps, in a spirit of dare-devil bravado
One day the bigger Jewish boys of our street had a pitched battle with the Sands boys, an event which is one of the landmarks in the history of my childhood
Still, some of the Sands boys were on terms of friendship with us and would even come to play with us in our yard. The only Gentile family that lived in Abner's Court was that of the porter. His children spoke fairly good Yiddish
One Saturday evening a pock-marked lad from the Sands, the son of a chimney-sweep, meeting me in the street, set his dog at me. As a result I came home with a fair-sized piece of my trousers (knee-breeches were unknown to us) missing
"I'm going to kill him," my mother said, with something like a sob. "I'm just going to kill him."
"Cool down," the retired soldier pleaded, without removing his short-stemmed pipe from his mouth
Mother was silent for a minute, and even seated herself, but presently she sprang to her feet again and made for the door
The soldier's wife seized her by an arm
"Where are you going? To the Sands? Are you crazy? If you start a quarrel over there you'll never come back alive."
"I don't care!"
She wrenched herself free and left the room.
Half an hour later she came back beaming
"His father is a lovely Gentile," she said. "He went out, brought his murderer of a boy home, took off his belt, and skinned him alive."
"A good Gentile," the soldier's wife commented, admiringly
There was always a pile of logs somewhere in our Court, the property of some family that was to have it cut up for firewood. This was our great gathering-place of a summer evening. Here we would bandy stories (often of our own inventing) or discuss things, the leading topic of conversation being the soldiers of the two regiments that were stationed in our town. We saw a good deal of these soldiers, and we could tell their officers, commissioned or non-commissioned, by the number of stars or bands on their shoulder-straps. Also, we knew the names of their generals, colonels, and some of their majors or captains. The more important manoeuvers took place a great distance from Abner's Court, but that did not matter. If they occurred on a Saturday, when we were free from school--and, as good luck would have it, they usually did--many of us, myself invariably included, would go to see them. The blare of trumpets, the beat of drums, the playing of the band, the rhythmic clatter of thousands of feet, the glint or rows and rows of bayonets, the red or the blue of the uniforms, the commanding officer on his mount, the spirited singing of the men marching back to barracks--all this would literally hold me spellbound
That we often played soldiers goes without saying, but we played "hares" more often, a game in which the counting was done by means of senseless words like the American "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe." Sometimes we would play war, with the names of the belligerents borrowed from the Old Testament, and once in a while we would have a real "war" with the boys of the next street
I was accounted one of the strong fellows among the boys of Abner's Court as well as one of the conspicuous figures among them. Compactly built, broad-shouldered, with a small, firm mouth like my mother's, a well-formed nose and large, dark eyes, I was not a homely boy by any means, nor one devoid of a certain kind of magnetism
One of my recollections is of my mother administering a tongue-lashing to a married young woman whom she had discovered flirting in the dark vestibule with a man not her husband
A few minutes later the young woman came in and begged my mother not to tell her husband
"If I was your husband I would skin you alive."
"Oh, don't tell him! Take pity! Don't."
"I won't. Get out of here, you lump of stench."
"Oh, swear that you won't tell him! Do swear, dearie. Long life to you.
Health to every little bone of yours."
"First you swear that you'll never do it again, you heap of dung."
"Strike me blind and dumb and deaf if I ever do it again. There."
"Your oaths are worth no more than the barking of a dog. Can't you be decent? You ought to be knouted in the market-place. You are a plague. Black luck upon you. Get away from me."
"But I will be decent. May I break both my legs and both my arms if I am not. Do swear that you won't tell him."
My mother yielded
She was passionately devout, my mother. Being absolutely illiterate, she would murmur meaningless words, in the singsong of a prayer, pretending to herself that she was performing her devotions. This, however, she would do with absolute earnestness and fervor, often with tears of ecstasy coming to her eyes. To be sure, she knew how to bless the Sabbath candles and to recite the two or three other brief prayers that our religion exacts from
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