To Die In Jerusalem
by Israel Zangwill
The older Isaac Levinsky grew, and the more he saw of the world after business hours, the more ashamed he grew of the Russian Rabbi whom Heaven had curiously chosen for his father. At first it seemed natural enough to shout and dance prayers in the stuffy little Spitalfields synagogue, and to receive reflected glory as the son and heir of the illustrious Maggid (preacher) whose four hour expositions of Scripture drew even West End pietists under their spell. But early in Isaac's English school-life—for cocksure philanthropists dragged the younger generation to anglicization—he discovered that other fathers did not make themselves ridiculously noticeable by retaining the gabardine, the fur cap, and the ear-locks of Eastern Europe: nay, that a few—O, enviable sons!—could scarcely be distinguished from the teachers themselves.
When the guardian angels of the Ghetto apprenticed him, in view of his talent for drawing, to a lithographic printer, he suffered agonies at the thought of his grotesque parent coming to sign the indentures.
"You might put on a coat to-morrow," he begged in Yiddish.
The Maggid's long black beard lifted itself slowly from the worm-eaten folio of the Babylonian Talmud, in which he was studying the tractate anent the payment of the half-shekel head-tax in ancient Palestine. "If he took the money from the second tithes or from the Sabbatical year fruit," he was humming in his quaint sing-song, "he must eat the full value of the same in the city of Jerusalem." As he encountered his boy's querulous face his dream city vanished, the glittering temple of Solomon crumbled to dust, and he remembered he was in exile.
"Put on a coat?" he repeated gently. "Nay, thou knowest 'tis against our holy religion to appear like the heathen. I emigrated to England to be free to wear the Jewish dress, and God hath not failed to bless me."
Isaac suppressed a precocious "Damn!" He had often heard the story of how the cruel Czar Nicholas had tried to make his Jews dress like Christians, so as insidiously to assimilate them away; how the police had even pulled off the unsightly cloth-coverings of the shaven polls of the married women, to the secret delight of the pretty ones, who then let their hair grow in godless charm. And, mixed up with this story, were vaguer legends of raw recruits forced by their sergeants to kneel on little broken stones till they perceived the superiority of Christianity.
How the Maggid would have been stricken to the heart to know that Isaac now heard these legends with inverted sympathies!
"The blind fools!" thought the boy, with ever growing bitterness. "To fancy that religion can lie in clothes, almost as if it was something you could carry in your pockets! But that's where most of their religion does lie—in their pocket." And he shuddered with a vision of greasy, huckstering fanatics. "And just imagine if I was sweet on a girl, having to see all her pretty hair cut off! As for those recruits, it served them right for not turning Christians. As if Judaism was any truer! And the old man never thinks of how he is torturing me—all the sharp little stones he makes me kneel on." And, looking into the future with the ambitious eye of conscious cleverness, he saw the paternal gabardine over-glooming his life.
One Friday evening—after Isaac had completed his 'prentice years—there was anxiety in the Maggid's household in lieu of the Sabbath peace. Isaac's seat at the board was vacant. The twisted loaves seemed without salt, the wine of the consecration cup without savour.
The mother was full of ominous explanations.
"Perturb not the Sabbath," reproved the gabardined saint gently, and quoted the Talmud: "'No man has a finger maimed but 'tis decreed from above."
"Isaac has gone to supper somewhere else," suggested his little sister, Miriam.
"Children and fools speak the truth," said the Maggid, pinching her cheek.
But they had to go to bed without seeing him, as though this were only a profane evening, and he amusing himself with the vague friends of his lithographic life. They waited till the candles flared out, and there seemed something symbolic in the gloom in which they groped their way upstairs. They were all shivering, too, for the fire had become gray ashes long since, the Sabbath Fire-Woman having made her last round at nine o'clock and they themselves being forbidden to touch even a candlestick or a poker.
The sunrise revealed to the unclosed eyes of the mother that her boy's bed was empty. It also showed—what she might have discovered the night before had religion permitted her to enter his room with a light—that the room was empty, too: empty of his scattered belongings, of his books and sketches.
"God in Heaven!" she cried.
Her boy had run away.
She began to wring her hands and wail with oriental amplitude, and would have torn her hair had it not been piously replaced by a black wig, neatly parted in the middle and now grotesquely placid amid her agonized agitation.
The Maggid preserved more outward calm. "Perhaps we shall find him in synagogue," he said, trembling.
"He has gone away, he will never come back. Woe is me!"
"He has never missed the Sabbath service!" the Maggid urged. But inwardly his heart was sick with the fear that she prophesied truly. This England, which had seduced many of his own congregants to Christian costume, had often seemed to him to be stealing away his son, though he had never let himself dwell upon the dread. His sermon that morning was acutely exegetical: with no more relation to his own trouble than to the rest of contemporary reality. His soul dwelt in old Jerusalem, and dreamed of Israel's return thither in some vague millennium. When he got home he found that the postman had left a letter. His wife hastened to snatch it.
"What dost thou?" he cried. "Not to-day. When Sabbath is out."
"I cannot wait. It is from him—it is from Isaac."
"Wait at least till the Fire-Woman comes to open it."
For answer the mother tore open the envelope. It was the boldest act of her life—her first breach with the traditions. The Rabbi stood paralyzed by it, listening, as without conscious will, to her sobbing delivery of its contents.
The letter was in Hebrew (for neither parent could read English), and commenced abruptly, without date, address, or affectionate formality. "This is the last time I shall write the holy tongue. My soul is wearied to death of Jews, a blind and ungrateful people, who linger on when the world no longer hath need of them, without country of their own, nor will they enter into the blood of the countries that stretch out their hands to them. Seek not to find me, for I go to a new world. Blot out my name even as I shall blot out yours. Let it be as though I was never begotten."
The mother dropped the letter and began to scream hysterically. "I who bore him! I who bore him!"
"Hold thy peace!" said the father, his limbs shaking but his voice firm. "He is dead. 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' To-night we will begin to sit the seven days' mourning. But to-day is the Sabbath."
"My Sabbath is over for aye. Thou hast driven my boy away with thy long prayers."
"Nay, God hath taken him away for thy sins, thou godless Sabbath-breaker! Peace while I make the Consecration."
"My Isaac, my only son! We shall say Kaddish (mourning-prayer) for him, but who will say Kaddish for us?"
"Peace while I make the Consecration!"
He got through with the prayer over the wine, but his breakfast remained untasted.
Re-reading the letter, the poor parents agreed that the worst had happened. The allusions to "blood" and "the new world" seemed unmistakable. Isaac had fallen under the spell of a beautiful heathen female; he was marrying her in a church and emigrating with her to America. Willy-nilly, they must blot him out of their lives.
And so the years went by, over-brooded by this shadow of living death. The only gleam of happiness came when Miriam was wooed and led under the canopy by the President of the congregation, who sold haberdashery. True, he spoke English well and dressed like a clerk, but in these degenerate days one must be thankful to get a son-in-law who shuts his shop on the Sabbath.
One evening, some ten years after Isaac's disappearance, Miriam sat reading the weekly paper—which alone connected her with the world and the fulness thereof—when she gave a sudden cry.
"What is it?" said the haberdasher.
"Nothing—I thought—" And she stared again at the rough cut of a head embedded in the reading matter.
But no, it could not be!
"Mr. Ethelred P. Wyndhurst, whose versatile talents have brought him such social popularity, is rumoured to have budded out in a new direction. He is said to be writing a comedy for Mrs. Donald O'Neill, who, it will be remembered, sat to him recently for the portrait now on view at the Azure Art Club. The dashing comédienne will, it is stated, produce the play in the autumn season. Mr. Wyndhurst's smart sayings have often passed from mouth to mouth, but it remains to be seen whether he can make them come naturally from the mouths of his characters."
What had these far-away splendours to do with Isaac Levinsky? With Isaac and his heathen female across the Atlantic?
And yet—and yet Ethelred P. Wyndhurst was like Isaac—that characteristic curve of the nose, those thick eyebrows! And perhaps Isaac had worked himself up into a portrait-painter. Why not? Did not his old sketch of herself give distinction to her parlour? Her heart swelled proudly at the idea. But no! more probably the face in print was roughly drawn—was only accidentally like her brother. She sighed and dropped the paper.
But she could not drop the thought. It clung to her, wistful and demanding satisfaction. The name of Ethelred P. Wyndhurst, whenever it appeared in the paper—and it was surprising how often she saw it now, though she had never noticed it before—made her heart beat with the prospect of clews. She bought other papers, merely in the hope of seeing it, and was not unfrequently rewarded. Involuntarily, her imagination built up a picture of a brilliant romantic career that only needed to be signed "Isaac." She began to read theatrical and society journals on the sly, and developed a hidden life of imaginative participation in fashionable gatherings. And from all this mass of print the name Ethelred P. Wyndhurst disengaged itself with lurid brilliancy. The rumours of his comedy thickened. It was christened The Sins of Society. It was to be put on soon. It was not written yet. Another manager had bid for it. It was already in rehearsal. It was called The Bohemian Boy. It would not come on this season. Miriam followed feverishly its contradictory career. And one day there was a large picture of Isaac! Isaac to the life! She soared skywards. But it adorned an interview, and the interview dropped her from the clouds. Ethelred was born in Brazil of an English engineer and a Spanish beauty, who performed brilliantly on the violin. He had shot big game in the Rocky Mountains, and studied painting in Rome.
The image of her mother playing the violin, in her preternaturally placid wig, brought a bitter smile to Miriam's lips. And yet it was hard to give up Ethelred now. It seemed like losing Isaac a second time. And presently she reflected shrewdly that the wig and the gabardine wouldn't have shown up well in print, that indeed Isaac in his farewell letter had formally renounced them, and it was therefore open to him to invent new parental accessories. Of course—fool that she was!—how could Ethelred P. Wyndhurst acknowledge the same childhood as Isaac Levinsky! Yes, it might still be her Isaac.
Well, she would set the doubt at rest. She knew, from the wide reading to which Ethelred had stimulated her, that authors appeared before the curtain on first nights. She would go to the first night of The Whirligig (that was the final name), and win either joy or mental rest.
She made her expedition to the West End on the pretext of a sick friend in Bow, and waited many hours to gain a good point of view in the first row of the gallery, being too economical to risk more than a shilling on the possibility of relationship to the dramatist.
As the play progressed, her heart sank. Though she understood little of the conversational paradoxes, it seemed to her—now she saw with her physical eye this brilliant Belgravian world, in the stalls as well as on the stage—that it was impossible her Isaac could be of it, still less that it could be Isaac's spirit which marshalled so masterfully these fashionable personages through dazzling drawing-rooms; and an undercurrent of satire against Jews who tried to get into society by bribing the fashionables, contributed doubly to chill her. She shared in the general laughter, but her laugh was one of hysterical excitement.
But when at last amid tumultuous cries of "Author!" Isaac Levinsky really appeared,—Isaac, transformed almost to a fairy prince, as noble a figure as any in his piece, Isaac, the proved master-spirit of the show, the unchallenged treader of all these radiant circles,—then all Miriam's effervescing emotion found vent in a sobbing cry of joy.
"Isaac!" she cried, stretching out her arms across the gallery bar.
But her cry was lost in the applause of the house.
She wrote to him, care of the theatre. The first envelope she had to tear up because it was inadvertently addressed to Isaac Levinsky.
Her letter was a gush of joy at finding her dear Isaac, of pride in his wonderful position. Who would have dreamed a lithographer's apprentice would arrive at leading the fashions among the nobility and gentry? But she had always believed in his talents; she had always treasured the water-colour he had made of her, and it hung in the parlour behind the haberdasher's shop into which she had married. He, too, was married, they had imagined, and gone to America. But perhaps he was married, although in England. Would he not tell her? Of course, his parents had cast him out of their hearts, though she had heard mother call out his name in her sleep. But she herself thought of him very often, and perhaps he would let her come to see him. She would come very quietly when the grand people were not there, nor would she ever let out that he was a Jew, or not born in Brazil. Father was still pretty strong, thank God, but mother was rather ailing. Hoping to see him soon, she remained his loving Miriam.
She waited eagerly for his answer. Day followed day, but none came.
When the days passed into weeks, she began to lose hope; but it was not till The Whirligig, which she followed in the advertisement columns, was taken off after a briefer run than the first night seemed to augur, that she felt with curious conclusiveness that her letter would go unanswered. Perhaps even it had miscarried. But it was now not difficult to hunt out Ethelred P. Wyndhurst's address, and she wrote him anew.
Still the same wounding silence. After the lapse of a month, she understood that what he had written in Hebrew was final; that he had cut himself free once and forever from the swaddling coils of gabardine, and would not be dragged back even within touch of its hem. She wept over her second loss of him, but the persistent thought of him had brought back many tender childish images, and it seemed incredible that she would never really creep into his life again. He had permanently enlarged her horizon, and she continued to follow his career in the papers, worshipping it as it loomed grandiose through her haze of ignorance. Gradually she began to boast of it in her more English circles, and so in course of time it became known to all but the parents that the lost Isaac was a shining light in high heathendom, and a vast secret admiration mingled with the contempt of the Ghetto for Ethelred P. Wyndhurst.
In high heathendom a vast secret contempt mingled with the admiration for Ethelred P. Wyndhurst. He had, it is true, a certain vogue, but behind his back he was called a Jew. He did not deserve the stigma in so far as it might have implied financial prosperity. His numerous talents had only availed to prevent one another from being seriously cultivated. He had had a little success at first with flamboyant pictures, badly drawn, and well paragraphed; he had written tender verses for music, and made quiet love to ugly and unhappy society ladies; he was an assiduous first-nighter, and was suspected of writing dramatic criticisms, even of his own comedy. And in that undefined social segment where Kensington and Bohemia intersect, he was a familiar figure (a too familiar figure, old fogies grumbled) with an unenviable reputation as a diner-out—for the sake of the dinner.
Yet some of the people who called him "sponge" were not averse from imbibing his own liquids when he himself played the gracious host. He was appearing in that rôle one Sunday evening before a motley assembly in his dramatically furnished studio, nay, he was in the very act of biting into a sandwich scrupulously compounded with ham, when a telegram was handed to him.
"Another of those blessed actresses crying off," he said. "I wonder how they ever manage to take up their cues!"
Then his face changed as he hurriedly crumpled up the pinkish paper.
"Mother is dying. No hope. She cries to see you. Have told her you are in London. Father consents. Come at once.—Miriam."
He put the crumpled paper to the gas and lit a new cigarette with it.
"As I thought," he said, smiling. "When a woman is an actress as well as a woman—"
After his wife died—vainly calling for her Isaac—the old Maggid was left heart-broken. It was as if his emotions ran in obedient harmony with the dictum of the Talmud: "Whoso sees his first wife's death is as one who in his own day saw the Temple destroyed."
What was there for him in life now but the ruins of the literal Temple? He must die soon, and the dream that had always haunted the background of his life began to come now into the empty foreground. If he could but die in Jerusalem!
There was nothing of consequence for him to do in England. His Miriam was married and had grown too English for any real communion. True, his congregation was dear to him, but he felt his powers waning: other Maggidim were arising who could speak longer.
To see and kiss the sacred soil, to fall prostrate where once the Temple had stood, to die in an ecstasy that was already Gan-Iden (Paradise)—could life, indeed, hold such bliss for him, life that had hitherto proved a cup of such bitters?
Life was not worth living, he agreed with his long-vanished brother-Rabbis in ancient Babylon, it was only a burden to be borne nobly. But if life was not worth living, death—in Jerusalem—was worth dying. Jerusalem! to which he had turned three times a day in praying, whose name was written on his heart, as on that of the mediaeval Spanish singer, with whom he cried:—
Who will make to me wings that I may fly ever Eastward,
Until my ruined heart shall dwell in the ruins of thee?
Then will I bend my face to thy sacred soil and hold precious
Thy very stones, yea e'en to thy dust shall I tender be.
Life of the soul is the air of thy land, and myrrh of the purest
Each grain of thy dust, thy waters sweetest honey of the comb.
Joyous my soul would be, could I even naked and barefoot,
Amid the holy ruins of thine ancient Temple roam,
Where the Ark was shrined, and the Cherubim in the Oracle had their home.
To die in Jerusalem!—that were success in life.
Here he was lonely. In Jerusalem he would be surrounded by a glorious host. Patriarchs, prophets, kings, priests, rabbonim—they all hovered lovingly over its desolation, whispering heavenly words of comfort.
But now a curious difficulty arose. The Maggid knew from correspondence with Jerusalem Rabbis that a Russian subject would have great difficulty in slipping in at Jaffa or Beyrout, even aided by bakhshîsh. The only safe way was to enter as a British subject. Grotesque irony of the fates! For nigh half a century the old man had lived in England in his gabardine, and now that he was departing to die in gabardine lands, he was compelled to seek naturalization as a voluntary Englishman! He was even compelled to account mendaciously for his sudden desire to identify himself with John Bull's institutions and patriotic prejudices, and to live as a free-born Englishman. By the aid of a rich but pious West End Jew, who had sometimes been drawn Eastwards by the Maggid's exegetical eloquence, all difficulties were overcome. Armed with a passport, signed floridly as with a lion's tail rampant, the Maggid—after a quasi-death-bed blessing to Miriam by imposition of hands from the railway-carriage window upon her best bonnet—was whirled away toward his holy dying-place.
Such disappointment as often befalls the visionary when he sees the land of his dreams was spared to the Maggid, who remained a visionary even in the presence of the real; beholding with spiritual eye the refuse-laden alleys and the rapacious Schnorrers (beggars). He lived enswathed as with heavenly love, waiting for the moment of transition to the shining World-To-Come, and his supplications at the Wailing Wall for the restoration of Zion's glory had, despite their sympathetic fervour, the peaceful impersonality of one who looks forward to no worldly kingdom. To outward view he lived—in the rare intervals when he was not at a synagogue or a house-of-learning—somewhere up a dusky staircase in a bleak, narrow court, in one tiny room supplemented by a kitchen in the shape of a stove on the landing, itself a centre of pilgrimage to Schnorrers innumerable, for whom the rich English Maggid was an unexpected windfall. Rich and English were synonymous in hungry Jerusalem, but these beggars' notion of charity was so modest, and the coin of the realm so divisible, that the Maggid managed to gratify them at a penny a dozen. At uncertain intervals he received a letter from Miriam, written in English. The daughter had not carried on the learned tradition of the mother, and so the Maggid was wont to have recourse to the head of the philanthropic technical school for the translation of her news into Hebrew. There was, however, not much of interest; Miriam's world had grown too alien: she could scrape together little to appeal to the dying man. And so his last ties with the past grew frailer and frailer, even as his body grew feebler and feebler, until at last, bent with great age and infirmity, so that his white beard swept the stones, he tottered about the sacred city like an incarnation of its holy ruin. He seemed like one bent over the verge of eternity, peering wistfully into its soundless depths. Surely God would send his Death-Angel now.
Then one day a letter from Miriam wrenched him back violently from his beatific vision, jerked him back to that other eternity of the dead past.
Isaac, Isaac had come home! Had come home to find desolation. Had then sought his sister, and was now being nursed by her through his dying hours. His life had come to utter bankruptcy: his possessions—by a cruel coincidence—had been sold up at the very moment that the doctors announced to him that he was a doomed man. And his death-bed was a premature hell of torture and remorse. He raved incessantly for his father. Would he not annul the curse, grant him his blessing, promise to say Kaddish for his soul, that he might be saved from utter damnation? Would he not send his forgiveness by return, for Isaac's days were numbered, and he could not linger on more than a month or so?
The Maggid was terribly shaken. He recalled bitterly the years of suffering, crowned by Isaac's brutal heedlessness to the cry of his dying mother: but the more grievous the boy's sin, the more awful the anger of God in store for him.
And the mother—would not her own Gan-Iden be spoilt by her boy's agonizing in hell? For her sake he must forgive his froward offspring; perhaps God would be more merciful, then. The merits of the father counted: he himself was blessed beyond his deserts by the merits of the Fathers—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem; perhaps his prayers would be heard at the Mercy-Seat.
With shaking hand the old man wrote a letter to his son, granting him a full pardon for the sin against himself, but begging him to entreat God day and night. And therewith an anthology of consoling Talmudical texts: "A man should pray for Mercy even till the last clod is thrown upon his grave.... For Repentance and Prayer and Charity avert the Evil Decree." The Charity he was himself distributing to the startled Schnorrers.
The schoolmaster wrote out the envelope, as usual, but the Maggid did not post the letter. The image of his son's death-bed was haunting him. Isaac called to him in the old boyish tones. Could he let his boy die there without giving him the comfort of his presence, the visible assurance of his forgiveness, the touch of his hands upon his head in farewell blessing? No, he must go to him.
But to leave Jerusalem at his age? Who knew if he would ever get back to die there? If he should miss the hope of his life! But Isaac kept calling to him—and Isaac's mother. Yes, he had strength for the journey. It seemed to come to him miraculously, like a gift from Heaven and a pledge of its mercy.
He journeyed to Beyrout, and after a few days took ship for Marseilles.
Meantime in the London Ghetto the unhappy Ethelred P. Wyndhurst found each day a year. He was in a rapid consumption: a disorderly life had told as ruinously upon his physique as upon his finances. And with this double collapse had come a strange irresistible resurgence of early feelings and forgotten superstitions. The avenging hand was heavy upon him in life,—what horrors yet awaited him when he should be laid in the cold grave? The shadow of death and judgment over-brooded him, clouding his brain almost to insanity.
There would be no forgiveness for him—his father's remoteness had killed his hope of that. It was the nemesis, he felt, of his refusal to come to his dying mother. God had removed his father from his pleadings, had wrapped him in an atmosphere holy and aloof. How should Miriam's letter penetrate through the walls of Jerusalem, pierce through the stonier heart hardened by twenty years of desertion!
And so the day after she had sent it, the spring sunshine giving him a spurt of strength and courage, a desperate idea came to him. If he could go to Jerusalem himself! If he could fall upon his father's neck, and extort his blessing!
And then, too, he would die in Jerusalem!
Some half-obliterated text sounded in his ears: "And the land shall forgive sin."
He managed to rise—his betaking himself to bed, he found, as the sunshine warmed him, had been mere hopelessness and self-pity. Let him meet Death standing, aye, journeying to the sun-lands. Nay, when Miriam, getting over the alarm of his up-rising, began to dream of the Palestine climate curing him, he caught a last flicker of optimism, spoke artistically of the glow and colour of the East, which he had never seen, but which he might yet live to render on canvas, winning a new reputation. Yes, he would start that very day. Miriam pledged her jewellery to supply him with funds, for she dared not ask her husband to do more for the stranger.
But long before Ethelred P. Wyndhurst reached Jaffa he knew that only the hope of his father's blessing was keeping him alive.
Somewhere at sea the ships must have passed each other.
When the gabardined Maggid reached Miriam's house, his remains of strength undermined by the long journey, he was nigh stricken dead on the door-step by the news that his journey was vain.
"It is the will of God," he said hopelessly. The sinner was beyond mercy. He burst into sobs and tears ran down his pallid cheeks and dripped from his sweeping white beard.
"Thou shouldst have let us know," said Miriam gently. "We never dreamed it was possible for thee to come."
"I came as quickly as a letter could have announced me."
"But thou shouldst have cabled."
"Cabled?" The process had never come within his ken. "But how should I dream he could travel? Thy letter said he was on his death-bed. I prayed God I might but arrive in time."
He was for going back at once, but Miriam put him to bed—the bed Isaac should have died in.
"Thou canst cable thy forgiveness, at least," she said, and so, without understanding this new miracle, he bade her ask the schoolmaster to convey his forgiveness to his son.
"Isaac will inquire for me, if he arrives alive," he said. "The schoolmaster will hear of him. It is a very small place, alas! for God hath taken away its glory by reason of our sins."
The answer came the same afternoon. "Message just in time. Son died peacefully."
The Maggid rent his bed-garment. "Thank God!" he cried. "He died in Jerusalem. Better he than I! Isaac died in Jerusalem! God will have mercy on his soul."
Tears of joy sprang to his bleared eyes. "He died in Jerusalem," he kept murmuring happily at intervals. "My Isaac died in Jerusalem."
Three days later the Maggid died in London.
End of To Die In Jerusalem by Israel Zangwill