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The synagogue in Brinitz
Total darkness. Before the curtain is raised, a soft, mystical chant is heard, as if from afar:
Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
Is contained within the fall.
The curtain rises slowly, revealing an ancient wooden synagogue, its walls blackened with age. Two wooden posts support the roof; an old brass lamp hangs from the center of the ceiling above the pulpit, which is covered with a dark cloth. A long bench stands against the rear wall under the small windows, which open into the women's gallery. In front of it is a long wooden table on which books are scattered; two half-melted candles set in clay candlesticks are burning near a pile of books. To the left of the table is a narrow door leading to the rabbi's private room. A cabinet filled with books stands at the far end of the wall. The Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls stands at the center of the right wall between two windows; to its left is the cantor's reading stand, on which a thick memorial candle is burning. The entire length of the wall is lined with benches and bookstands. A large tile stove stands against the left wall; near it is a long bench and a table covered with books, as well as a wash basin and a towel hanging from a ring. Next to the wide door leading to the street is a chest; above it the eternal light is burning in a niche in the wall.
Henekh, sitting near the cantor's platform, is bent over a bookstand completely absorbed in a sacred text. Five or six yeshiva students are half-reclining in various postures of weariness around a table near the front wall studying Talmud in a low, dreamy chant. Meyer is bent over the pulpit sorting the bags which contain prayer shawls and phylacteries. The three Batlonim are seated around the table at the left wall; they are lost in a world of their own as they sing and gaze into space. The Messenger lies on the bench near the stove, his backsack under his head. Khonon stands meditatively with his hand resting on the upper edge of the bookcase.
It is evening; a mystical atmosphere pervades the synagogue; shadows lurk in the corners.
THE THREE BATLONIM (Finish the song)
Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
Is contained within the fall.
(A long pause; all three sit motionless, transfixed, in a dreamlike world)
FIRST BATLEN (In the manner of a storyteller) Reb Dovidl of Talna, may his merits protect us, had a golden chair on which was carved: "David, King of Israel, lives forever." (Pause)
SECOND BATLEN (In the same manner) Reb Yisroel of Rizhin, of blessed memory, lived like a monarch. An orchestra of twenty-four musicians played at his table and when he traveled his carriage never had less than six horses.
THIRD BATLEN (With enthusiasm) And they say that Reb Shmuel of Kaminka wore golden slippers. (Entranced) Golden slippers!
THE MESSENGER (Sits up and speaks calmly and thoughtfully) The holy Reb Zushe of Annipol was poor all his life; he wore a peasant's blouse tied with a rope around his waist and had to beg for alms. Yet his good deeds were no less worthy than those of the rebbe of Talna or the rebbe of Rizhin.
FIRST BATLEN (Annoyed) Please don't take offense at what I say, but you don't even know what we're talking about and yet you intrude. When we speak about the greatness of the Talner rebbe or of the Rizhiner rebbe do you suppose that we refer to their wealth? Rich men are nothing special; the world is filled with them. But you must understand that the golden chair and the orchestra and the golden slippers are profoundly significant vehicles; they contain the deepest secrets.
THIRD BATLEN That's obvious! Who can't see that for himself?
SECOND BATLEN Those who have their eyes open see it. It is said that when the rebbe of Apt met the rebbe of Rizhin for the first time he threw himself on the ground and kissed the wheels of his carriage. And when he was asked why, he shouted: "Fools! Don't you see that this is the holy chariot of the Lord?"
THIRD BATLEN (Enraptured) Aah—aah—aah!
FIRST BATLEN The point is that the golden chair was not a chair, the orchestra was not an orchestra, and the horses were not really horses. They were all shadows and reflections which served as garments, cases to enclose their greatness.
THE MESSENGER True greatness requires no adornment.
FIRST BATLEN You are mistaken! True greatness must be suitably bedecked.
SECOND BATLEN (Shrugging his shoulders) Their greatness and might are beyond measure!
FIRST BATLEN Their power was very great. Do you know the story of Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his whip? Listen, it's worth a hearing. Once a poor man had a dispute with a certain rich man whom everyone feared because of his close connections with the court. Reb Shmelke was asked to settle the case, and after hearing both sides he ruled in favor of the poor man. Offended, the rich man declared that he would not abide by the judgment. Reb Shmelke spoke to him calmly: "You will honor the judgment. When a rabbi gives an order, the order must be obeyed." This made the rich man angry and he began to shout: "I don't give a fig for you or for your rabbinical judgments." Reb Shmelke pulled himself up to his full height and thundered back: "You will carry out the order immediately! If you do not I will use the whip." At this the rich man lost all control and in a frenzy he screamed insults and curses at the rabbi. Without another word Reb Shmelke opened the drawer of his desk and out jumped the Primordial Serpent, who immediately wrapped himself around the rich man's neck. What an uproar there was! The rich man shrieked and cried for mercy: "Help, Rebbe, forgive me! I will do everything you say, only take away the snake!" To which Reb Shmelke answered: "You must admonish your children, and your children's children, to obey the rebbe and to fear his whip." Then he removed the snake from the rich man's neck.
THIRD BATLEN Ha, ha, ha! That was quite a whip! (Pause)
SECOND BATLEN (To the first one) You must be wrong. It couldn't possibly have been the Primordial Serpent....
THIRD BATLEN What are you saying? Why not?
SECOND BATLEN Very simple. Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg would never have invoked the Primordial Serpent; it is the Evil One, it is Satan himself, may the merciful God preserve us. (He spits)
THIRD BATLEN Well, you can be sure that Reb Shmelke knew what he was doing!
FIRST BATLEN (Hurt) I don't understand you! I tell you about an event which occurred in a public place, which was witnessed by scores of people, and yet you claim that the incident could not possibly have taken place. Do you think it is all idle talk?
SECOND BATLEN Not at all! But I don't believe that incantations and kabbalistic letter combinations can call up the Evil One. (He spits)
THE MESSENGER The Devil can be summoned only by uttering the mighty double name of God whose flame dissolves the highest mountain crests and melts them into the deepest valleys. (Khonon lifts his head and listens intently)
THIRD BATLEN (Apprehensive) But what about the danger in using the holy name?
THE MESSENGER (Thoughtfully) The danger is ... that the vessel might shatter because of the great intensity of the spark's longing for the flame....
FIRST BATLEN There is a wonder worker in my shtetl who can perform the most astounding miracles. He can start a fire with one spell and make it vanish with another. He can see at a distance of one hundred miles. He can draw wine from the wall with his bare fingers. He once confided to me that he knows the spells for making a golem, for bringing back the dead, for making himself invisible, for calling up evil spirits ... even the Devil! (He spits) I have it from his very own lips.
KHONON (Who has been standing motionless, listening intently with his head cocked, walks to the table and turns his glance first to the Messenger and then to the First Batlen, as he says in a pensive, dreamy voice) Where is he? (The Messenger never takes his eyes off Khonon)
FIRST BATLEN (Surprised) Who?
KHONON The wonder worker.
FIRST BATLEN Where would he be? In my shtetl, of course, if he is still alive.
KHONON Is it far from here?
FIRST BATLEN The shtetl? Yes, very far, a long distance away, deep in Polesia!
KHONON How long does it take to walk there?
FIRST BATLEN To walk? A good month, perhaps more.... (Pause) Why do you ask? Do you want to go to him? (Khonon says nothing) The shtetl is called Krasne, the wonder worker is Reb Elkhonon.
KHONON (Amazed, speaks to himself) Elkhonon. El Khonon ... the God of Khonon.
FIRST BATLEN (To the Batlonim) I tell you, he is an incomparable miracle worker! One day, in broad daylight, he attempted to....
SECOND BATLEN (Interrupting) Enough of this kind of talk at night! And in a holy place, too. We might unintentionally utter a spell or an incantation which could bring about a catastrophe, God forbid ... such things have happened, may the merciful God preserve us. (Khonon exits slowly as everyone watches him; pause)
MESSENGER Who is that young man?
FIRST BATLEN A yeshiva student. (Meyer closes the gate in front of the pulpit and approaches the table)
SECOND BATLEN A first-rate scholar. A genius!
THIRD BATLEN A brilliant mind! He knows five hundred pages of Talmud by heart!
MESSENGER Where does he come from?
MEYER From somewhere in Lithuania. He was considered the outstanding student at the yeshiva and was granted rabbinical ordination. And then, without any warning, he disappeared; for an entire year no one knew where he was. Some said he had gone to perform the penance of exile, to afflict his body in order to shorten our exile from the holy land. He returned a changed person; he is lost in his own thoughts, he fasts from one Sabbath to the other, he performs endless ablutions.... (In a quieter tone) They say he studies Kabbalah.
SECOND BATLEN (Quietly) In town they say the same thing ... they've even started to ask him for charms, but he refuses.
THIRD BATLEN No one knows who he is. You can never tell, he might even be one of the great ones. But it would be dangerous to watch him too closely.... (Pause)
SECOND BATLEN (Yawning) It's late ... time to go to sleep.... (To the first Batlen, with a smile) What a pity that your wonder worker who draws wine from the bare walls isn't here ... I'd give anything for a good drink right now. I haven't had a bite of food all day!
FIRST BATLEN For me it's more or less a fast day, too. I only had a single occasion to recite the blessing on food today, and that was early this morning when I had a bite to eat after prayers.
MEYER (Half whispering, with a content expression) Just have a little patience. I think we will soon be toasting each other with good brandy. Sender has gone to arrange a match for his only daughter and if he signs the wedding agreement he will surely provide us with the best.
SECOND BATLEN Eh! I don't believe he will ever make up his mind. He has met with prospective bridegrooms three times already and always returned empty-handed. Either the young man doesn't appeal to him, or the family background isn't good enough, or the marriage dowry is too small ... it's wrong to be so demanding!
MEYER Sender has a right to be choosy. He's a rich man, he comes from a good family, and his only daughter is beautiful and clever, may no evil eye harm them....
THIRD BATLEN (With feeling) I'm very fond of Sender! He is a good Hasid and has the soul of the Miropolyer Hasidim.
FIRST BATLEN (Coldly) I'm not denying that he's a good Hasid. But he could have arranged for his only daughter's marriage in a better way.
THIRD BATLEN What do you mean?
FIRST BATLEN In the old days when a rich person from a good family sought a suitable match for a daughter, the financial situation and social status of the parents were far less important than the young man himself; it was the groom's qualities alone that interested him. He would go to one of the famous yeshivas, give the principal a sizable donation, and leave it up to him to choose the best of the scholars who studied with him. Sender could have done the same.
THE MESSENGER He might even have found a suitable bridegroom here in this yeshiva.
FIRST BATLEN (Surprised) What makes you think so?
THE MESSENGER I'm only speculating.
THIRD BATLEN (Snappily) Well, well, let's not gossip, especially about one of our own. Matches are made in heaven. (The door is flung open and an old woman, holding two small children by the hand, rushes in)
OLD WOMAN (Runs to the Holy Ark with the children, sobbing) Oh, woe is me, God of the universe, help me! (Approaches the Ark) Dearest children! Let us open the Holy Ark and embrace the Torah scrolls until our tears work a cure in your mother! (She opens the Ark, thrusts her head inside, and in a melancholy chant begins) God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, behold my affliction! Look upon the sorrow of these dear little children and do not take their young mother from them. Holy scrolls of the Torah, plead for a wretched widow! Blessed Fathers, dear Mothers, run to God and pray for mercy. Beg Him to keep the tender sapling from being uprooted, the fledgling bird from being cast from her nest, the gentle lamb from being separated from the flock! ... (Hysterical) I will leave no stone unturned ... I will split the very heavens ... I will not move from this spot until you give me back my precious jewel!
MEYER (Goes to her, holds her gently, and speaks to her softly) Hannah Esther, shall I gather ten men for a minyan to recite Psalms?
OLD WOMAN (Takes her head out of the Ark, looks bewildered at first, and then speaks abruptly) Oh! Yes, of course, gather a minyan to recite psalms! But hurry, hurry! Every minute is precious. For two days now the poor girl has been lying speechless, struggling with death.
MEYER I'm off to get ten men this minute. (In a pleading tone) But they ought to be paid for their trouble ... they are very poor.
OLD WOMAN (Searching her pocket) Here is a gilden. Make sure that they do everything that they are supposed to!
MEYER A gilden ... that makes only three groschen for each man ... it's not much.
OLD WOMAN (Doesn't hear him) Come children, let's go to the other synagogues. (Departs quickly)
THE MESSENGER (To the third Batlen) This morning a woman opened the Holy Ark and prayed for her daughter who has been in labor for two days and still has not given birth. Now a woman opened the Holy Ark to pray for her daughter who has been wrestling with death for two days.
THIRD BATLEN So? What are you getting at?
MESSENGER (Thoughtfully) When the soul of a person who has not yet died is destined to enter the body of a person who has not yet been born, a struggle takes place. If the sick person dies, the child will come into the world alive. If the sick person recovers, the child will be born dead.
THIRD BATLEN (Surprised) Ah! Man is so blind that he doesn't even see what is happening right next to him!
MEYER (Approaches the table) Well, God has provided us with drinks. We will recite psalms and toast lekhayim afterward and God, in His mercy, will restore the sick woman to health.
FIRST BATLEN (To the students who sit around the large table, drowsing) Gentlemen! Who is ready to recite psalms? There's a cake for everyone after you've finished. (The students get up) We'll go into the small room. (The three Batlonim, Meyer, and all the yeshiva students except for Henekh go into the rabbi's private room and soon the sad chant of "Blessed is the man" is heard; the Messenger remains seated at the smaller table, never lifting his eyes from the Holy Ark; a long pause; Khonon enters)
KHONON (Very sleepy and deep in thought, walks with apparent aimlessness to the Holy Ark, and notices with surprise that it is open) The Holy Ark open? Who opened it? For whom was it opened in the middle of the night? (Looks into the Holy Ark) The Torah scrolls lean against each other in silence. They contain all the secrets and allusions, all the possible combinations of words from the six days of creation to the end of the generations of man. And how difficult it is to learn the secrets and the allusions, how very difficult! (He counts the Torah scrolls) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight nine scrolls ... they add up to the numerical value of ernes, 'truth.' And every scroll has four wooden handles that we call the trees of life ... again thirty-six! Not an hour goes by that I don't come across that number. I don't know what it means, but I feel that it contains the essence of the matter, the truth that I seek. Thirty-six is the numerical value of the letters in Leah's name. Khonon adds up to three times thirty-six. But Leah also spells 'not God,' not through God. (Shudders) What a terrible thought! Yet how it draws me.
Excerpted from The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky, David G. Roskies, Golda Werman. Copyright © 2002 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.
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Posted April 10, 2014
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
All right, so I’m probably one of the few people who hadn’t heard of S. Ansky before reading this collection. Shame on me, I know. Anyway, The Dybbuk is actual a theatre play based on a folklore story S. Ansky gathered info for during his travels. The story is about a young bride who is possessed by a dybbuk – this can best be compared to an evil spirit, or demon. Her name is Leah’le, and she went to the graveyard before her wedding day, where not only she invited her mother’s spirit to attend the marriage, but also the spirits of a young couple who were murdered before their wedding could be consummated. She’s also drawn to one other grave, that of Hannan, a young scholar who as in love with her, and wanted her hand in marriage, but was refused so by her father.
Leah’le comes back from the graveyard a changed woman. A local sage tries to exorcise the Dybbuk who has possessed her, but fails, and is forced to call in the help of the rabbi. The rabbi decides that Leah’le’s father must appear before the court of rabbis, apparently upon the request of the spirit of Hannan’s father. What follows is a trial half debated in the world of the living, and half in the spirit world.
It’s certainly an intriguing story, and I wished I could’ve seen the actual play. This sounds right up my alley. I enjoyed reading it here though, but it must’ve been even more intriguing to see it on stage.
This collection also features other stories by S. Ansky, but the Dybbuk was by far the most notable one. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, mysticism and paranormal stories, then you’ll probably enjoy The Dybbuk and Other Writings.