Apr 272014

Though I’m a notoriously stingy footnoter, I’ve decided to footnote and explain some of the references and language Agnon assumes his readership will be familiar with. If I’ve learned anything from contemporary undergraduates, it’s that you shouldn’t assume anyone is familiar with anything.


I said hello to her and told her that I had come from outside the Land bearing tidings of blessing from her grandson. She extricated a hand from her blankets and pulled one up to her neck and asked how many houses he had, and whether the houses had servants, and whether he had fine rugs in every room. Finally she groaned and said, this cold will take me from this world. Seeing how hard the cold was on her, I said to myself that an oil heater would alleviate her sorrows. Summoning a bit of slyness, I told her that her grandson had sent with me a bit of money to buy her a heater, a portable heater you filled with oil and kindled the wick, and it lit up and gave off heat. I took out my wallet and said, here’s the money. She responded wrathfully, and how am I supposed to go and buy a heater, is it legs I have? Icicles I have. This cold, until it brings me to the Mount of Olives,1 will drive me out of my mind. And they say outside the Land that the Land of Israel is warm. Warm for the wicked in Gehinoym,2 it’s warm. I told her, tomorrow the sun will shine and drive away the cold. She said, before there’s a reprieve, the soul will take its leave. I said, give me an hour or two, and I’ll send you the heater. She shrunk back into her blankets and pillows, as if to show her supposed benefactor there was no trusting in his favors.

I took my leave and went to Jaffa Street and entered a housewares store, bought a portable heater of the highest quality, and had it delivered to the old rebbetzin. An hour later I returned to her, perhaps she wasn’t experienced with portable heaters and I’d show her how to light it. I mused as I walked along that a word of thanks I was certain not to hear from her lips. Not all old women are created equal. The one who had shown me the house of that scholar had been pleasant to every man, and this one I’d sent to the heater to wasn’t pleasant even to those trying to do her a favor.

But here I need to take a little step back. I don’t mean to sing the praises of one by defaming the other, more to simply tell a story of the city and its inhabitants. The orb of a man’s eye is narrow and can’t take in the whole of the city of the Holy One Blessed Be He. If so, why do I bring up the story of the rebbetzin? Because as I walked in, that same old woman happened to arrive too.

I turned aside and cleared the way for her. She stood and asked after my wellbeing, like someone asking after a relative. I stood dumbfounded. Could it be she was one of those same old women I’d known in Jerusalem before I’d left for outside the Land? Surely most if not all of them had perished in the famine during the war,3 and if a fraction of a fraction remained, surely I had changed too, because I had been a boy when I left Jerusalem, and now the years I’d spent outside the Land had made me old, and yet this one knew me.

She saw I was amazed. She laughed and said, don’t you know me? Surely you’re the one who asked to carry my water jug on your way to someone-or-other’s house. I said, you’re the one who showed me the way, and here I am standing dumb, as if I didn’t know you. She laughed again and said, and is it your job to know every old woman in Jerusalem? I said, and how did you know me? She responded, Jerusalem, whose eyes keep watch over all Israel, everyone who comes here is engraved in our hearts and we don’t forget them. I said, it’s cold today, a day of rains and winds, and here I am standing and keeping you outside. She answered affectionately, I’ve already seen colds worse than the ones in Jerusalem. And as far as winds and rains, for those we thank G-d and say meyshiv ho-ruakh u-moyrid ha-geshem.4 A great mitzvah you’ve done, you’ve brought some life to old bones. The heater you sent to the rebbetzin has warmed up her spirit. I lowered my head like a man ashamed to hear his own praise. She sensed my feelings and said, it was not given to us to be ashamed of a mitzvah. Our forefathers who would do a great many mitzvoys wouldn’t call attention to them, but we, we who do fewer and fewer mitzvoys, it’s a mitzvah to call attention to every mitzvah we do, so others will hear and learn from our example. Now, my son, go to the rebbetzin and take in a bit of the warmth of the mitzvah you’ve done.

I went inside the rebbetzin’s dwelling and found her sitting by the burning heater, drops of light dripping out from the heater’s grille, the house filled with light and a bony cat laid upon her knees, and she gazed at the heater and spoke to the cat, saying, it looks to me like you’re enjoying the heat more than I am.

I said to her, I see the heater’s burning nicely and giving off heat. Are you happy with it? The rebbetzin said, and if I were happy with it, would that make it smell less or get hotter? A furnace I had in my house that would blaze from the end of Sukkos to Pesach eve, and it would bring in heat like the sun in Tammuz,5 and everyone would take pleasure in it, not like these little heaters that only get warm for a minute. Really, you can’t ask this new generation to do a job right, it’s enough for them to pretend like they do. That’s what I told them, the people in my city after my husband passed away, may he be for me a just advocate, when the city brought in a new rabbi. I said to them, what do you expect, that maybe he’ll be like your old rabbi who passed away? For this one it’s enough not to make a fuss. And the same thing I said to my neighbors who came to see the heater my grandson sent me through you. I told them, the heater’s like the generation, and the generation’s like the heater. What did my grandson write to you? He didn’t write anything? Even to me he doesn’t write. He’s so sure that because he sent me this kezayis6 of a heater he doesn’t owe me a thing anymore.

After taking my leave of the rebbetzin I said to myself, I’m sure too that I don’t owe her anything anymore after sending her that kezayis of a heater, and I won’t need to go there again. But in the end I did return to her, because of that same graceful old woman, whom I had not yet seen all the times I had been fated to see her.

And once again I should say, I don’t mean to recount everything that happened to me in those days. Many are the affairs of man, and even if we’d come to tell them all, the mouth would not suffice. But anything related to that old woman is worth recounting.

On the eve of Rosh Chodesh7 I went to the Western Wall, as the people of Jerusalem do: on Rosh Chodesh eve they come to pray at the Western Wall.

Winter had already mostly passed and the buds of spring could be seen, and the heavens stood in their purity and the land stripped away its gloom. The sun laughed amidst the firmament and the city flowed with its light. And were it not for the sorrows that harried us we would have been overjoyed. But oh, such great and terrible sorrows had come over us, truly as if as soon as the first had arrived, the second hastened to meet it.

From the Jaffa Gate and onwards up to the Western Wall were continuously drawn men and women of all the Jewish communities in Jerusalem, along with new immigrants whom the One Who Is Every Place had brought to their place, but their place they’d not yet found.

In the square before the Wall there sat in a booth two Mandatory policemen8 so that everyone might see that there was no protection for the worshipers other than them. Some of our troublemakers saw that indeed, and indeed they would make trouble. The worshipers pressed close and clung tightly to the stones of the Wall. Some cried, some stood amazed. And you, Lord, how long? We’ve fallen already to lowest level and still you tarry to redeem us.

I found myself a scrap of space by the Wall. At times I stood among the worshipers, at times among the amazed. Myself, I was amazed at the nations of the world. It wasn’t enough for them to harry us from every land, they had to harry us even here in our Home.

  1. The ancient Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem.
  2. Gehinnom, an actual valley outside the city walls of Jerusalem (called “the valley of the Sons of Hinnom” in the Bible) was associated with non-Israelite cultic worship in Biblical times, including perhaps child sacrifice, and eventually, as the idea of some form of afterlife began to develop in Judaism, the valley was conflated with a place of temporary punishment after death akin to the Catholic Purgatory.
  3. World War I. The ailing Ottoman Empire, which had long neglected Jerusalem, could provide neither adequate defense nor provisions for the city during the war’s Middle Eastern theater, and with both the war and multiple devastating plagues of locusts, thousands of Palestinians died of starvation, malnutrition and outbreaks of disease — Muslim, Jewish and Christian alike.
  4. “He who makes the winds to blow and the rains to fall” — a request for rain added to the Amidah, the central daily prayer in Judaism, during the rainy season. I’ve transliterated it in Ashkenazi Hebrew because the narrator and Tehilla, though it is not explicitly stated, are speaking Yiddish to one another.
  5. July, roughly.
  6. Ke-zayit, “as (the size of) an olive.” A standard unit of measure in various areas of Jewish law, indicating, as one might expect, a very small amount.
  7. The first of the Jewish month.
  8. Great Britain took control of Palestine as the European powers divvied up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and established a temporary government known as the Mandate that would supposedly stand until a final status agreement was reached between the Jewish and Arab Palestinians. As tensions rose over the years, Muslims increasingly attacked Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, so the Mandatory police were sent to maintain the peace, though they often did nothing to intervene in the violence, and indeed were known to sometimes join in.

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