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married women. But she was not contented with it, and the sight of a woman going to synagogue with a huge prayer-book under her arm was ever a source of envy to her.
Most of the tenants of the Court were good people, honest and pure, but there were exceptions. Of these my memory has retained the face of a man who was known as "Carrot Pudding" Moe, a red-headed, broad-shouldered "finger worker," a specialist in "short change," yardstick frauds, and other varieties of market-place legerdemain. One woman, a cross between a beggar and a dealer in second-hand dresses, had four sons, all of whom were pickpockets, but she herself was said to be of spotless honesty. She never allowed them to enter Abner's Court, though every time one of them was in prison she would visit him and bring him food
Nor were professional beggars barred from the Court as tenants. Indeed, one of our next-door neighbors was a regular recipient of alms at the hands of my mother. For, poor as she was, she seldom let a Friday pass without distributing a few half-groschen (an eighth of a cent) in charity. The amusing part of it was the fact that one of the beggars on her list was far better off than she
"He's old and lame, and no hypocrite like the rest of them," she would explain
She had a ferocious temper, but there were people (myself among them) with whom she was never irritated. The women of Abner's Court were either her devoted followers or her bitter enemies. She was a leader in most of the feuds that often divided the whole Court into two warring camps, and in those exceptional cases when she happened to be neutral she was an ardent peacemaker. She wore a dark-blue kerchief, which was older than I, and almost invariably, when there was a crowd of women in the yard, that kerchief would loom in its center
Growing as I did in that crowded basement room which was the home of four families, it was inevitable that the secrets of sex should be revealed to me before I was able fully to appreciate their meaning. Then, too, the neighborhood was not of the purest in town. Located a short distance from Abner's Court, midway between it and the barracks, was a lane of ill repute, usually full of soldiers. If it had an official name I never heard it. It was generally referred to as "that street," in a subdued voice that was suggestive either of shame and disgust or of waggish mirth. For a long time I was under the impression that "That" was simply the name of the street.
One summer day--I must have been eight years old--I told my mother that I had peeked in one of the little yards of the mysterious lane, that I had seen half-naked women and soldiers there, and that one of the women had beckoned me in and given me some cake
"Why, you mustn't do that, Davie!" she said, aghast. "Don't you ever go near that street again! Do you hear?"
"Because it is a bad street."
"Why is it bad?"
"Keep still and don't ask foolish questions."
I obeyed, with the result that the foolish questions kept rankling in my brain
On a subsequent occasion, when she was combing my dark hair fondly, I ventured once more: "Mamma, why mustn't I come near that street?"
"Because it is a sin to do so, my comfort. Fie upon it!"
This answer settled it. One did not ask why it was a sin to do this or not to do that. "You don't demand explanations of the Master of the World," as people were continually saying around me. My curiosity was silenced. That street became repellent to me, something hideously wicked and sinister
Sometimes some of the excommunicated women would drop in at our yard. As a rule, my mother was bitterly opposed to their visits and she often chased them out with maledictions and expressions of abhorrence; but there was one case in which she showed unusual tolerance and even assumed the part of father confessor to a woman of this kind. She would listen to her tale of woe, homesickness and repentance, including some of the most intimate details of her loathsome life. She would even deliver her donations to the synagogue, thus helping her cheat the Biblical injunction which bars the gifts of fallen women from a house of God
My mother would bid me keep away during these confabs of theirs, but this only whetted my curiosity and I often overheard far more than I should
Fridays were half-holidays with us Jewish boys. One Friday afternoon a wedding was celebrated in our courtyard. The procession emerged from one of the rickety one-story houses, accompanied by a band playing a solemn tune.
When it reached the center of the vacant part of the yard it came to a halt and a canopy was stretched over the principal figures of the ceremony.
Prayers and benedictions were chanted. The groom put the ring on the bride's finger, "dedicating her to himself according to the laws of Moses and Israel "; more prayers were recited; the bridegroom and the bride received sips of wine; a plate was smashed, the sound being greeted by shouts of "Good luck! Good luck!" The band struck up a lively tune with a sad tang to it
The yard was crowded with people. It was the greatest sensation we children had ever enjoyed there. We remained out chattering of the event till the windows were aglitter with Sabbath lights
I was in a trance. The ceremony was a poem to me, something inexpressibly beautiful and sacred.
Presently a boy, somewhat older than I, made a jest at the young couple's expense. What he said was a startling revelation to me. Certain things which I had known before suddenly appeared in a new light to me. I relished the discovery and I relished the deviltry of it. But the poem vanished. The beauty of the wedding I had just witnessed, and of weddings in general, seemed to be irretrievably desecrated
That boy's name was Naphtali. He was a trim-looking fellow with curly brown hair, somewhat near-sighted. He was as poor as the average boy in the yard and as poorly dressed, but he was the tidiest of us. He would draw, with a piece of chalk, figures of horses and men which we admired. He knew things, good and bad, and from that Friday I often sought his company. Unlike most of the other boys, he talked little, throwing out his remarks at long intervals, which sharpened my sense of his wisdom. His father never let him attend the manoeuvers, yet he knew more about soldiers than any of the other boys, more even than I, though I had that retired soldier, the sheepskin man, to explain things military to me.
One summer evening Naphtali and I sat on a pile of logs in the yard, watching a boy who was "playing" on a toy fiddle of his own making. I said: "I wish I knew how to play on a real fiddle, don't you?"
Naphtali made no answer. After a little he said: "You must think it is the bow that does the playing, don't you?"
"What else does it?" I asked, perplexed
"It's the fingers of the other hand, those that are jumping around."
I did not understand, but I was deeply impressed all the same. The question bothered me all that evening. Finally I submitted it to my mother: "Mamma, Naphtali says when you play on a fiddle it is not the bow that makes the tune, but the fingers that are jumping around. Is it true?"
She told me not to bother her with foolish questions, but the retired soldier, who had overheard my query, volunteered to answer it.
"Of course it is not the bow," he said
"But if you did not work the bow the strings would not play, would they?" I urged.
"You could play a tune by pinching them," he answered. "But if you just kept passing the bow up and down there would be no tune at all."
I plied him with further questions and he answered them all, patiently and fondly, illustrating his explanations with a thread for a violin string, my mother looking from him to me beamingly
When we were through she questioned him: "Do you think he understands it all?" "He certainly does. He has a good head," he answered, with a wink. And she flushed with happiness
CHAPTER III THE tuition fee at a school for religious instruction or cheder was from eight to ten rubles (five dollars) for a term of six months. My mother could not afford it. On the other hand, she would not hear of sending me to the free cheder of our town, because of its reputation for poor instruction. So she importuned and harassed two distant relatives of ours until they agreed to raise part of the sum between them. The payments were made with anything but promptness, the result being that I was often turned out of school.
Mother, however, would lose no time in bringing me back. She would implore the schoolmaster to take pity on the poor, helpless woman that she was, assuring him, with some weird oaths, that she would pay him every penny. If that failed she would burst into a flood of threats and imprecations, daring him to let a fatherless boy grow up in ignorance of the Word of God. This was followed by similar scenes at the houses of my cousins, until finally I was allowed to resume my studies, sometimes at the same cheder, sometimes at some other one. There were scores of such private schools in our town, and before I got through my elementary
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