Well, in my last installment, I cut off the title character mid-monologue, which is probably bad form in serialization, but hey, you want good form, in the immortal words of that incomparable British rock ‘n’ roll foursome, “gimme some money.” So here we go with the rest of that aborted monologue, plus some cornstarch-gluey plot-thickening.
The manner of most men when they mention Jerusalem is to add Ir ha-Koydesh,1 but me, when I mention Jerusalem I don’t add a single word, because her holiness is in her name, in the name itself. Go on up, my son, go on up, and don’t trip on the steps. So many times I told the gabbai2 of the kollel3 that the stairs needed fixing, and what answer did he answer me with, the gabbai? The courtyard is old and about to fall into ruin and it’s not worth wasting a penny on. So come to ruin the houses of Israel until they’re abandoned and the Ishmaelites come and take them. Houses built with the tears of their fathers, the sons abandon. Again I’m babbling and bringing about my end.
I went into the rebbetzin’s apartment and found her bedridden. Her head was bandaged and a cast was around her neck and she was coughing so loudly that even the medicine phials arranged around her bed shook at the sound. I said, are you ill, rebbetzin? She heaved a heartfelt groan and her eyes filled with tears. I scrambled to comfort her yet could find no words of solace. I glued my eyes to the floor and said, ill and alone. She groaned and said, ill I am, utterly ill. In this whole world there’s no one as sick as me. But that aside I’m not alone. Even here in Jerusalem where they don’t know me and have no idea how much respect I was showered with in my city, even here one woman comes by, comes inside and brings me a bowl of soup and feeds me in bed. What do you hear from my grandson? He must be angry with me for not writing him a letter thanking him for the heater. Tell me yourself, is it like I can go and buy ink and a pen and paper and write letters? I can barely bring a spoonful of soup to my mouth. I’m surprised Tilly hasn’t come yet.
I said, if you referring to that same graceful old woman, she told me she was coming soon. The rebbetzin said, if she’s graceful, that I don’t know, but someone of a great many deeds, that I’m sure she is. Take a look at how many “righteous” women there are in Jerusalem who buzz like flies with prayers and supplications, maybe one of would come to ask me, rebbetzin, perhaps you need something? My head, my head, if the pain in my heart doesn’t take me from this world this headache will.
I said to her, I see that speaking’s hard on you. She said, you say speaking’s hard on me, I say all of me’s hard on me. Even the cat noticed it and picked up his paws and left. And still people say that the way of cats is to be bound to their homes. I’m sure my neighbors’ mice taste better than all the delicacies I feed him. What was I saying? Everything I mean to say I forget. Tilly’s not like that. She’s got bundles upon bundles of years on her shoulders, and all her senses still serve her. Why, she’s got twice the years I do. If my father, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, were still alive, he’d be considered a child next to her. I said, who is this Tilly? The rebbetzin said, weren’t you the one who brought her up? These days nobody knows Tilly, but back then everyone knew her, since she was enormously wealthy and a woman in charge of a great many affairs. And when she left all her affairs behind and went up to Jerusalem, she brought with her a few casks full of gold, and if not casks, then at least one chest full of gold she brought. My neighbors told me that their mothers told them that when Tilly came to Jerusalem, all the great men of the city were courting her, this one for himself, that one for his son. And she turned them down and stayed a widow. First a rich widow, then a widow of modest means, and finally just an old woman.
I said, when you look at Tilly she doesn’t seem like she’s ever seen hard times in all her days. The rebbetzin cackled derisively at me and said, you say she hasn’t seen hard times in all her days, and I say she hasn’t seen good times in all her days. Even my enemies I wouldn’t bless with the sorrows Tilly’s suffered. You think that since she doesn’t rely on handouts from the kollels her life is a life of blessings, I think that even a beggar who goes door-to-door wouldn’t exchange his own troubles for hers. These aches, these aches, I try to distract myself from them but they won’t distract themselves from me.
I could see that the rebbetzin knew more than what she had told me, but since I knew if I asked she wouldn’t answer, I got up from my chair to leave. She said, the chimney sweep hasn’t even gotten to the chimney and his face is already sooty. You’ve barely sat down and already you’re getting up to leave. What’s the hurry? I said, if you want me to sit, I’ll sit. She fell silent and didn’t say a word.
I began to speak to her about Tilly and said, perhaps you’ll tell me something about her. She replied, if I told you anything, would it make things any easier on me, or any easier on her? I don’t like telling life stories. You stick spiderwebs to spiderwebs and then call it a tapestry. I’ll tell you one thing, may the Holy One Blessed Be He have pity on that tzadik,4 for letting an evil spirit into that meshumedes,5 may her name and memory be erased. What are you staring at me for? What, Yiddish you don’t speak? I said, Yiddish I understand, but what you’re saying, rebbetzin, that I don’t. Who’s this tzadik and who’s this meshumedes whom you cursed? The rebbetzin said, should I bless her? Should I say, what a wonderful thing you’ve done, meshumedes, changing a gold dinar for a counterfeit penny? Again you’re gawping at me like I’m speaking Turkish. You’ve heard that my husband, may his memory be for a blessing, was a rabbi, that’s why they call me rebbetzin, but you haven’t heard that my father too was a rabbi, a rabbi against whom all the other rabbis were children. And when I say rabbis, I truly mean rabbis, not these ones here who don a rabbi’s mantle and call themselves rabbis. Oy, this world, this world, all you are is a lie and everything in you is falsehood and futility. But my father, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, was a real rabbi, since childhood even, and so every matchmaker in the whole country was in a frenzy to pair him off. There was one wealthy widow. And if I say wealthy, I truly mean wealthy. She had a single daughter, and would that she hadn’t. She took a cask full of gold dinars and said to them, to the matchmakers, if you pair him with my daughter, this cask is his, and if it’s not enough, I’ll add more. That daughter was unworthy of that tzadik, since he was a tzadik, and she, may her soul disappear, was a meshumedes, and since no man becomes what he already wasn’t, she ran off to a convent and converted. And when did she run off? When they were leading her to the huppah. Half her wealth her mother wasted on her to get her out of there. The emperor himself6 that poor mother got to, and even he couldn’t help, because anyone who enters a convent, they don’t ever let them leave. You know who that meshumdes was? She was the daughter of…shh, here she comes.
- “The Holy City.” ↩
- Sexton, synagogue caretaker. ↩
- An institution in which adult Jewish men study Jewish texts as a career, supported by charity. ↩
- An especially righteous and holy person. ↩
- Someone who converts from Judaism to another religion. ↩
- Agnon uses the word קיסר, “Caesar,” which could mean “tsar” or “emperor.” It’s not clear whether the events in question are taking place in Russia or in Austria-Hungary, but since Agnon tends to set his European stories in his native Galicia (in Austria-Hungary), I went with “emperor.” Ultimately it’s not terribly important. ↩