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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 5/102 -
appealing glances in my direction. Once when the teacher punished me with special cruelty her face twitched and she broke into a whimper, whereupon he gave her a kick, saying: "Is it any business of yours? Thank God your own skin has not been peeled off."
Once during the lunch hour, when we were alone, Sarah-Leah and I, in a corner of the courtyard, she said: "You are so strong, Davie! Nothing hurts you."
"Nothing at all. I could stand everything," I bragged
"You could not, if I bit your finger."
"Go ahead!" I said, with bravado, holding out my hand. She dug her teeth into one of my fingers. It hurt so that I involuntarily ground my own teeth, but I smiled
"Does it not hurt you, Davie?" she asked, with a look of admiration
"Not a bit. Go on, bite as hard as you can."
She did, the cruel thing, and like many an older heroine, she would not desist until she saw her lover's blood
"It still does not hurt, does it?" she asked, wiping away a red drop from her lips.
I shook my head contemptuously
"When you are a man you will be strong as Samson the Strong."
I was the strongest boy in her father's school. She knew that most of the other boys were afraid of me, but that did not seem to interest her. At least when I began to boast of it she returned to my ability "to stand punishment," as the pugilists would put it
One day one of my schoolmates aroused her admiration by the way he "played" taps with his fist for a trumpet. I tried to imitate him, but failed grievously. The other boy laughed and Sarah-Leah joined him. That was my first taste of the bitter cup called jealousy
I went home a lovelorn boy
I took to practising "taps." I was continually trumpeting. I kept at it so strenuously that my mother had many a quarrel with our room-mates because of it
My efforts went for nothing, however. My rival, and with him my lady love, continued to sneer at my performances
I had only one teacher who never beat me, or any of the other boys. Whatever anger we provoked in him would spend itself in threats, and even these he often turned to a joke, in a peculiar vein of his own
"If you don't behave I'll cut you to pieces," he would say. "I'll just cut you to tiny bits and put you into my pipe and you'll go up in smoke." Or, "I'll give you such a thrashing that you won't be able to sit down, stand up, or lie down. The only thing you'll be able to do is to fly--to the devil."
This teacher used me as a living advertisement for his school. He would take me from house to house, flaunting my recitations and interpretations. Very often the passage which he thus made me read was a lesson I had studied under one of his predecessors, but I never gave him away
Every cheder had its king. As a rule, it was the richest boy in the school, but I was usually the power behind the throne. Once one of these potentates (it was at the school of that kindly man) mimicked my mother hugging her pot of pea mush
"If you do it again I'll kill you," I said
"If you lay a finger on me," he retorted, "the teacher will kick you out.
Your mother doesn't pay him, anyhow."
I flew at him. His Majesty tearfully begged for mercy. Since then he was under my thumb and never omitted to share his ring-shaped rolls or apples with me
Often when a boy ate something that was beyond my mother's means--a cookie or a slice of buttered white bread--I would eye him enviously till he complained that I made him choke. Then I would go on eying him until he bribed me off with a piece of the tidbit. If staring alone proved futile I might try to bring him to terms by naming all sorts of loathsome objects. At this it frequently happened that the prosperous boy threw away his cookie from sheer disgust, whereupon I would be mean enough to pick it up and to eat it in triumph, calling him something equivalent to "Sissy."
The compliments that were paid my brains were ample compensation for my mother's struggles. Sending me to work was out of the question. She was resolved to put me in a Talmudic seminary. I was the "crown of her head" and she was going to make a "fine Jew" of me. Nor was she a rare exception in this respect, for there were hundreds of other poor families in our town who would starve themselves to keep their sons studying the Word of God
Whenever one of the neighbors suggested that I be apprenticed to some artisan she would flare up. On one occasion a suggestion of this kind led to a violent quarrel
One afternoon when we happened to pass by a bookstore she stopped me in front of the window and, pointing at some huge volumes of the Talmud, she said: "This is the trade I am going to have you learn, and let our enemies grow green with envy."
BOOK II ENTER SATAN CHAPTER I THE Talmudic seminary, or yeshivah, in which my mother placed me was a celebrated old institution, attracting students from many provinces. Like most yeshivahs, it was sustained by donations, and instruction in it was free. Moreover, out-of-town students found shelter under its roof, sleeping on the benches or floors of the same rooms in which the lectures were delivered and studied during the day. Also, they were supplied with a pound of rye bread each for breakfast. As to the other meals, they were furnished by the various households of the orthodox community. I understand that some school-teachers in certain villages of New England get their board on the rotation plan, dining each day in the week with another family. This is exactly the way a poor Talmud student gets his sustenance in Russia, the system being called "eating days."
One hour a day was devoted to penmanship and a sorry smattering of Russian, the cost of tuition and writing-materials being paid by a "modern" philanthropist
I was admitted to that seminary at the age of thirteen. As my home was in the city, I neither slept in the classroom nor "ate days." The lectures lasted only two hours a day, but then there was plenty to do, studying them and reviewing previous work. This I did in an old house of prayer where many other boys and men of all ages pursued similar occupations. It was known as the Preacher's Synagogue, and was famed for the large number of noted scholars who had passed their young days reading Talmud in it.
The Talmud is a voluminous work of about twenty ponderous tomes. To read these books, to drink deep of their sacred wisdom, is accounted one of the greatest "good deeds" in the life of a Jew. It is, however, as much a source of intellectual interest as an act of piety. If it be true that our people represent a high percentage of mental vigor, the distinction is probably due, in some measure, to the extremely important part which Talmud studies have played in the spiritual life of the race
A Talmudic education was until recent years practically the only kind of education a Jewish boy of old-fashioned parents received. I spent seven years at it, not counting the several years of Talmud which I had had at the various cheders
What is the Talmud? The bulk of it is taken up with debates of ancient rabbis. It is primarily concerned with questions of conscience, religious duty, and human sympathy--in short, with the relations "between man and God" and those "between man and man." But it practically contains a consideration of almost every topic under the sun, mostly with some verse of the Pentateuch for a pretext. All of which is analyzed and explained in the minutest and keenest fashion, discussions on abstruse subjects being sometimes relieved by an anecdote or two, a bit of folklore, worldly wisdom, or small talk. Scattered through its numerous volumes are priceless gems of poetry, epigram, and story-telling
It is at once a fountain of religious inspiration and a "brain-sharpener." "Can you fathom the sea? Neither can you fathom the depths of the Talmud," as we would put it. We were sure that the highest mathematics taught in the Gentile universities were child's play as compared to the Talmud
In the Preacher's Synagogue, then, I spent seven years of my youthful life.
For hours and hours together I would sit at a gaunt reading-desk, swaying to and fro over some huge volume, reading its ancient text and interpreting it in Yiddish. All this I did aloud, in the peculiar Talmud singsong, a trace of which still persists in my intonation even when I talk cloaks and bank accounts and in English
The Talmud was being read there, in a hundred variations of the same singsong, literally every minute of the year, except the hours of prayer.
There were plenty of men to do it during the day and the evening, and at least ten men (a sacred number) to keep the holy word echoing throughout the night. The majority of them were simply scholarly business men who would drop in to read the sacred books for an hour or two, but there was a considerable number of such as made it the occupation of their life. These were supported either by the congregation or by their own wives, who kept shops, stalls, inns, or peddled, while their husbands spent sixteen hours a day studying Talmud
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