May 182014

The magic of fountain pens.


A short while later I found myself in Tehilla’s house and found her sitting at the table as if awaiting me with all her strength. The room was small and the walls pressed in closely and the ceiling was domed, as rooms had been in Jerusalem in past generations. Had it not been for a small bed in the corner and a clay pitcher standing on the table I would have likened her room to a prayer room. Even its few furnishings — a polished copper lamp, a copper washing cup, a copper candelabra with a few arms hanging from the ceiling, and indeed the table upon which lay a prayer book and a chumash1 and another book — gave the room something of the graceful atmosphere of a prayer room.

I inclined my head and imparted a greeting. She replied, welcome. I said, why, you live like a daughter of kings. She replied, all the daughters of Israel are daughters of kings, and I, Tehilla, by the living G-d, am a daughter of Israel. How wonderful of you to come. I asked to see you, and not just to see, but to talk with you. Might you be willing to do me a favor? I said, ‘til half the kingdom. She said, it’s good that you brought up kingdoms, because all Israel are sons of kings and their deeds are kingly deeds. And when a man of Israel does a favor for his fellow, a kingly deed he does. Sit down, my son, sit. Sitting’s better for speaking. I hope I’m not taking up your time. Surely you’re a busy man and you need time to make your living. Gone are the days when we had too much time on our hands and we were happy to steal a bit of break in the conversation. Now everyone rushes and races around in a frenzy. They make themselves used to running around, as if they might merit to run towards the Messiah. I see, my son, that I’ve once again become a chatterbox. Forgotten is the wise counsel of that old man who warned me not to speak excessively.

I sat down before Tehilla and waited to hear why she had summoned me. And she seemed as if she had been reminded afresh of that old man’s counsel and fell silent. She peered at me and turned her eyes away then looked at me again, like a man examining his delegate to determine whether he was worthy of the task. Finally she began by telling me of the passing of the rebbetzin, who had died during the night with her heater burning and her cat warming itself by its light, until the pallbearers had borne her out and someone or other came and took it for themselves. You see, my son, Tehilla said, a man does a mitzvah, and the mitzvah does a mitzvah. You did a mitzvah for that poor woman and the mitzvah itself did a mitzvah for some other person who also needed to warm up his bones in the cold. Again she peered at me and said, surely you’re surprised that I’ve bothered you to come see me. I said, on the contrary, I’m happy. She said, if you’re happy, then I am too. I’m happy that I’ve found a man willing to do me a favor, but you, why are you happy? She paused a moment and said, I’ve heard that you’re handy with a pen, what they call a writer nowadays, perhaps you’ll lend me your pen for a short letter. A few years I’ve been wanting to write a particular letter. If you’re truly willing, write a letter for me.

I took out a fountain pen. She looked at the pen and said, you carry your pen with you, like those who carry spoons with them, so just in case they come across some soup the spoon’s at the ready. I said, and the soup’s already in the spoon. I explained to her how the pen worked. She held it in her hand and said, you say there’s ink inside and I don’t see a drop of ink. I explained it once more. She said, if that’s so, then it’s unfair to disparage this generation by saying everything it invents is for the worse. Why, it’s invented a portable heater and it’s invented a pen like this, and maybe it’s invented other things for the good of all creation. The more your years, the more you see. Anyway, take this quill I’ve prepared and dip it in that ink. It’s not that I doubt your pen, but I want my letter to be written my way. Here’s a sheet of paper, imperial paper, that I’ve saved from days long past, back when they still made good paper. More than seventy years I’ve had it and it’s still like new. One more thing I ask of you, write in letters like in the prayerbook or a Torah scroll. Strength be upon the scribe; if he hasn’t merited to write a Torah scroll then I’m sure he’s written at least a megillah.2 I said, when I was a boy I wrote myself a proper kosher megillah. And believe it or not, everyone who saw it had nothing but praise for it. Tehilla said, even though I never saw it, I guessed that you knew how to write beautifully. I’ll go and warm you up a cup of something and you write in the meantime. I said, don’t trouble yourself, I just now had something to drink. She said, if so, then with what might I honor you? I’ll give you a piece of candy and you say the blessing and I’ll say amen.

She took out a piece of candy and gave it to me. She hesitated a short while and said, take the quill and dip it in the ink and write. I’ll talk to you in Yiddish and you write in the Holy Tongue. I hear they teach girls now to speak and write the Holy Tongue. You see, my son, the Holy One Blessed Be He in all His kindness guides His world more wonderfully with every passing generation. When I was a girl, such things weren’t done. But at any rate I understand the prayers in the siddur and the parshah and the Psalms and Pirkei Avoys.3 Oy, my son, I haven’t finished my day’s worth today.

I knew she was referring to the daily portion of the Psalms and said to her, you say oy, and yet you should be happy. — Be happy? I said, heaven itself delayed you, so it might add another to your days. She sighed and said, if I knew the Messiah were coming tomorrow I would be happy to live in this world another day. But when I add days and our righteous Messiah tarries and doesn’t come, what is my life and what is my happiness? G-d forbid, I’m not complaining about my years, if it pleases the Holy One Blessed Be He to keep me alive, then it pleases me too. It’s just that I ask myself how much longer this bundle of bones can carry itself around this earth. Women younger than me have merited to rest their bodies on the Mount of Olives and I grind my legs to dust until they do it of their own accord. Is it not better to depart for the world above when all one’s limbs are whole, and to return the surety of one’s body while still in good condition? I don’t mean one should add flesh to it, because that’s a bother to the pallbearers, but at any rate healthy limbs are good for the dead. Again I’m talking too much. But what difference does it make at this point. One word more, one word less. The surety I’m ready to return to its guarantor. Take the quill, my son, and write.

  1. The Five Books of Moses in book form.
  2. One of the five books in the Writings written in separate scroll form and read at various points during the year: the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther.
  3. Tehilla is selling herself a bit short – her grasp of Hebrew is far beyond one might expect from a woman of her generation and background.

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