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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 6/102 -
One of these was a man named Reb (Rabbi) Sender, an insignificant, ungainly little figure of a man, with a sad, child-like little face flanked by a pair of thick, heavy, dark-brown side-locks that seemed to weigh him down
His wife kept a trimming-store or something of the sort, and their only child, a girl older than I, helped her attend to business as well as to keep house in the single-room apartment which the family occupied in the rear of the little shop. As he invariably came to the synagogue for the morning prayer, and never left it until after the evening service, his breakfasts and dinners were brought to the house of worship. His wife usually came with the meal herself. Waiting on one's husband and "giving him strength to learn the law" was a "good deed."
She was a large woman with an interesting dark face, and poor Reb Sender cut a sorry figure by her side
Men of his class are described as having "no acquaintance with the face of a coin." All the money he usually handled was the penny or two which he needed to pay for his bath of a Friday afternoon. Occasionally he would earn three or four copecks by participating in some special prayer, for a sick person, for instance. These pennies he invariably gave away. Once he gave his muffler to a poor boy. His wife subsequently nagged him to death for it. The next morning he complained of her to one of the other scholars
"Still," he concluded, "if you want to serve God you must be ready to suffer for it. A good deed that comes easy to you is like a donation which does not cost you anything." I made his acquaintance by asking him to help me out with an obscure passage. This he did with such simple alacrity and kindly modesty as to make me feel a chum of his. I warmed to him and he reciprocated my feelings. He took me to his bosom. He often offered to go over my lesson with me, and I accepted his services with gratitude. He spoke in a warm, mellow basso that had won my heart from the first. His singsong lent peculiar charm to the pages that we read in duet. As he read and interpreted the text he would wave his snuff-box, by way of punctuating and emphasizing his words, much as the conductor of an orchestra does his baton, now gently, insinuatingly, now with a passionate jerk, now with a sweeping majestic movement. One cannot read Talmud without gesticulating, and Reb Sender would scarcely have been able to gesticulate without his snuff-box.
It was of tortoise shell, with a lozenge-shaped bit of silver in the center.
It gradually became dear to me as part of his charming personality.
Sometimes, when we were reading together, that glistening spot in the center of the lid would fascinate my eye so that I lost track of the subject in hand
He often hummed some liturgical melody of a well-known synagogue chanter.
One afternoon he sang something to me, with his snuff-box for a baton, and then asked me how I liked it
"I composed it myself," he explained, boastfully
I did not like the tune. In fact, I failed to make out any tune at all, but I was overflowing with a desire to please him, so I said, with feigned enthusiasm: "Did you really? Why, it's so beautiful, so sweet!"
Reb Sender's face shone
After that he often submitted his compositions to me, though he was too shy to sing them to older people. They were all supposed to be liturgical tunes, or at least some "hop" for the Day of the Rejoicing of the Law. When I hailed the newly composed air with warm approval he would show his satisfaction either with shamefaced reserve or with child-like exuberance.
If, on the other hand, I failed to conceal my indifference, he would grow morose, and it would be some time before I succeeded in coaxing him back to his usual good humor
Nor were his melodies the only things he confided to me. When I was still a mere boy, fourteen or fifteen years old, he would lay bare to me some of the most intimate secrets of his heart
"You see, my wife thinks me a fool," he once complained to me. "She thinks I don't see it. Do you understand, David? She looks up to me for my learning, but otherwise she thinks I have no sense. It hurts, you know." He was absolutely incapable of keeping a secret or of saying or acting anything that did not come from the depths of his heart. He often talked to me of God and His throne, of the world to come, and of the eternal bliss of the righteous, quoting from a certain book of exhortations and adding much from his own exalted imagination. And I would listen, thrilling, and make a silent vow to be good and to dedicate my life to the service of God
"Study the Word of God, Davie dear," he would say, taking my hand into his.
"There is no happiness like it. What is wealth? A dream of fools. What is this world? A mere curl of smoke for the wind to scatter. Only the other world has substance and reality; only good deeds and holy learning have tangible worth. Beware of Satan, Davie. When he assails you, just say no; turn your heart to steel and say no. Do you hear, my son?"
The anecdotes and sayings of the Talmud, its absurdities no less than its gems of epigrammatic wisdom, were mines of poetry, philosophy, and science to him. He was a dreamer with a noble imagination, with a soul full of beauty
This unsophisticated, simple-hearted man, with the mind of an infant, was one of the most quick-witted, nimble-minded scholars in town.
His great delight was to tackle some intricate maze of Talmudic reasoning.
This he would do with ferocious zest, like a warrior attacking the enemy, flashing his tortoise snuff-box as if it were his sword. When away from his books or when reading some of the fantastic tales in them he was meek and gentle as a little bird. No sooner did he come across a fine bit of reasoning than he would impress me as a lion
On one occasion, after Reb Sender got through a celebrated tangle with me, arousing my admiration by the ingenuity with which he discovered discrepancies and by the adroitness with which he explained them away, he said: "I do enjoy reading with you. Sometimes, when I read by myself, I feel lonely. Anyhow, I love to have you around, David. If you went to study somewhere else I should miss you very much." On another occasion he said: "You are like a son to me, Davie. Be good, be genuinely pious; for my sake, if for nothing else. Above all, don't be double-faced; never say what you do not mean; do not utter words of flattery."
As I now analyze my reminiscences of him I feel that he was a yearning, lonely man. He was in love with his wife and, in spite of her devotion to him, he was love-lorn. Poor Reb Sender! He was anything but a handsome man, while she was well built and pretty. And so it may be that she showed more reverence for his learning and piety than love for his person. He was continually referring to her, apparently thirsting to discuss her demeanor toward him
"The Lord of the Universe has been exceptionally good to me," he once said to me. "May I not forfeit His kindness for my sins. He gives me health and my daily bread, and I have a worthy woman for a wife. Indeed, she is a woman of rare merits, so clever, so efficient, and so good. She nags me but seldom, very seldom." He paused to take snuff and then remained silent, apparently hesitating to come to the point. Finally he said: "In fact, she is so wise I sometimes wish I could read her thoughts. I should give anything to have a glimpse into her heart. She has so little to say to me.
She thinks I am a fool. There is a sore in here "--pointing at his heart.
"We have been married over twenty-two years, and yet--would you believe it?--I still feel shy in her presence, as if we were brought together for the first time, by a match-maker, don't you know. But then you are too young to understand these things. Nor, indeed, ought I to talk to you about them, for you are only a child. But I cannot help it. If I did not unburden my mind once in a while I might not be able to stand it."
That afternoon he composed what he called a "very sad tune," and hummed it to me. I failed to make out the tune, but I could feel its sadness
I loved him passionately. As for the other men of the synagogue, if they did not share my ardent affection for him, they all, with one exception, liked him. The exception was a middle-aged little Talmudist with a tough little beard who held everybody in terror by his violent temper and pugnacity. He was a pious man, but his piety never manifested itself with such genuine fervor as when he exposed the impiety of others. He was forever picking quarrels, forever challenging people to debate with him, forever offering to show that their interpretation of this passage or that was all wrong. The sound of his acrimonious voice or venomous laughter grated on Reb Sender's nerves, but he bore him absolutely no ill-will. Nor did he ever utter a word of condemnation concerning a certain other scholar, an inveterate tale-bearer and gossip-monger, though a good-natured fellow, who not infrequently sought to embroil him with some of his warmest friends.
One Talmudist, a corpulent old man whose seat was next to Reb Sender's, was more inclined to chat than to study. Now and again he would break in upon my friend's reading with some piece of gossip; and the piteous air with which Reb Sender would listen to him, casting yearning glances at his book as he did so, was as touching as it was amusing
My mother usually brought my dinner to the synagogue. She would make her entrance softly, so as to take me by surprise while I was absorbed in my studies. It did her heart good to see me read the holy book. As a result, I was never so diligent as I was at the hour when I expected her arrival with the dinner-pot. Very often I discovered her tiptoeing in or standing at a distance and watching me admiringly. Then I would take to singing and swaying to and fro with great gusto. She often encountered Reb Sender's wife at
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