The Imported Bridegroom
by Abraham Cahan
Flora was alone in the back parlor, which she had appropriated for
a sort of boudoir. She sat in her rocker, in front of the parlor
stove, absorbed in Little Dorrit. Her well-groomed girlish
form was enveloped in a kindly warmth whose tender embrace tinged her
interest in the narrative with a triumphant consciousness of the
Little by little the rigid afternoon light began to fade into a
melancholy gray. Dusk was creeping into the room in almost visible
waves. Flora let the book rest on her lap and fixed her gaze on the
twinkling scarlet of the stove-glass. The thickening twilight, the
warmth of the apartment, and the atmosphere of the novel blended
together, and for some moments Flora felt far away from herself.
She was the only girl of her circle who would read Dickens, Scott,
or Thackeray in addition to the Family Story Paper and the Fireside Companion, which were the exclusive literary purveyors
to her former classmates at the Chrystie Street Grammar School. There
were a piano and a neat little library in her room.
She was rather tall and well formed. Her oblong ivory face,
accentuated by a mass of unruly hair of a lusterless black, was never
deserted by a faint glimmer of a smile, at once pensive and arch.
When she broke into one of her hearty, good-natured laughs, her deep,
dark, appealing eyes would seem filled with grief. Her nose, a
trifle too precipitous, gave an unexpected tone to the extreme
picturesqueness of the whole effect, and, when she walked, partook of
the dignity of her gait.
A month or two before we make Flora's acquaintance she had
celebrated her twentieth birthday, having been born in this little
private house on Mott Street, which was her father's property.
A matchmaker had recently called, and he had launched into a eulogy
of a young Jewish physician; but old Stroon had cut him short, in his
blunt way: his only child was to marry a God-fearing business man, and
no fellow deep in Gentile lore and shaving his beard need apply. As
to Flora, she was burning to be a doctor's wife. A rising young
merchant, a few years in the country, was the staple matrimonial
commodity in her set. Most of her married girl friends,
American-born themselves, like Flora, had husbands of this
class—queer fellows, whose broken English had kept their own
sweethearts chuckling. Flora hated the notion of marrying as the
other Mott or Bayard Street girls did. She was accustomed to use her
surroundings for a background, throwing her own personality into high
relief. But apart from this, she craved a more refined atmosphere
than her own, and the vague ideal she had was an educated American
gentleman, like those who lived uptown.
Accordingly, when the word "doctor" had left the match-maker's
lips, she seized upon it as a great discovery. In those days—the
early eighties—a match of this kind was an uncommon occurrence in
the New York Ghetto.
Flora pictured a clean-shaven, high-hatted, spectacled gentleman
jumping out of a buggy, and the image became a fixture in her mind.
"I won't marry anybody except a doctor," she would declare, with
conscious avoidance of bad grammar, as it behooved a doctor's wife.
But what was to be done with father's opposition? Asriel Stroon
had never been the man to yield, and now that he grew more devout
every day, her case seemed hopeless. But then Flora was her father's
daughter, and when she took a resolve she could not imagine herself
otherwise than carrying it out, sooner or later.
Flora's thoughts were flowing in this direction when her father's
gruff voice made itself heard from the dining room below. It was the
anniversary of his father's death. In former years he would have
contented himself with obit services, at the synagogue; this time,
however, he had passed the day in fasting and chanting psalms at
home, in addition to lighting his own candle in front of the cantor's
desk and reciting Kaddish for the departed soul, at the
house of prayer. It touched Flora's heart to think of him fasting
and praying all day, and, with her book in her hand, she ran down to
"Just comin' from the synagogue, papa?" she greeted him
affectionately, in English. "This settles your fast, don't it?"
"It is not so easy to settle with Him, my daughter," he returned,
in Yiddish, pointing to the ceiling. "You can never be through
serving the Uppermost. Hurry up, Tamara!" he added, in the direction
of the adjoining kitchen.
"You ain' goin' to say more Thilim [Psalms] tonight, are you, pa?"
"Why, does it cost you too much?" he snarled good humoredly.
"Yes it does—your health. I won't let you sing again. You are
weak and you got enough."
"Hush! It is not potato soup; you can never have enough of it." He
fell to tugging nervously at his white beard, which grew in a pair of
tiny imperials. "Tamara! It's time to break the fast, isn t it?"
"You can wash your hands. Supper is ready," came the housekeeper's
He took off his brown derby, and covered his steel-gray hair with a
velvet skullcap; and as he carried his robust, middle-sized body into
the kitchen, to perform his ablutions, his ruddy, gnarled face took
on an air of piety.
When supper was over and Asriel and Tamara were about to say grace,
Flora resumed the reading of her novel.
"Off with that lump of Gentile nastiness while holy words are being
said!" the old man growled.
Flora obeyed, in amazement. Only a few months before she had
seldom seen him intone grace at all. She was getting used to his new
habits, but such rigor as he now displayed was unintelligible to her,
and she thought it unbearable.
"You can read your book a little after. The wisdom of it will not
run away," chimed in Tamara, with good-natured irony. She was a poor
widow of forty. Asriel had engaged her for her piety and for the
rabbinical learning of her late husband, as much as for her culinary
fame in the Ghetto.
Asriel intoned grace in indistinct droning accents. By degrees,
however, as he warmed up to the Hebrew prayer, whose words were a
conglomeration of incomprehensible sounds to him, he fell to swaying
to and fro, and his voice broke into an exalted, heart-rending
singsong, Tamara accompanying him in whispers, and dolefully nodding
her bewigged head all the while.
Flora was moved. The scene was novel to her, and she looked on
with the sympathetic reverence of a Christian visiting a Jewish
synagogue on the Day of Atonement.
At last the fervent tones died away in a solemn murmur. Silence
fell over the cozy little room. Asriel sat tugging at his scanty beard
as if in an effort to draw it into a more venerable growth.
"Flora!" he presently growled. "I am going to Europe."
When Asriel Stroon thought he spoke, and when he spoke he acted.
"Goin' to Europe! Are you crazy, papa? What are you talkin'
"Just what you hear. After Passover I am going to Europe. I must
take a look at Pravly."
"But you ain't been there over thirty-five years. You don't
remember not'in' at all."
"I don't remember Pravly? Better than Mott Street; better than my
nose. I was born there, my daughter," he added, as he drew closer to
her and began to stroke her glossless black hair. This he did so
seldom that the girl felt her heart swelling in her throat. She was
yearning after him in advance.
Tamara stared in beaming amazement at the grandeur of the
enterprise. "Are you really going?" she queried, with a touch of
"What will you do there?—It's so far away!" Flora resumed, for
want of a weightier argument at hand.
"Never mind, my child; I won't have to walk all the way."
"But the Russian police will arrest you for stayin' away so long.
Didn't you say they would?"
"The kernel of a hollow nut!" he replied, extemporizing an
equivalent of "fiddlesticks!" Flora was used to his metaphors,
although they were at times rather vague, and set one wondering how
they came into his head at all. "The kernel of a hollow nut! Show a treif [impure] gendarme a
kosher [pure] coin, and he
will be shivering with ague. Long live the American dollar!"
She gave him a prolonged, far-away look, and said, peremptorily:
"Mister, you am' goin' nowheres."
"Tamara, hand me my Psalter, will you?" the old man grumbled.
When the girl was gone, the housekeeper inquired: "And Flora—will
you take her along?"
"What for? That she might make fun of our ways there, or that the
pious people should point their fingers at her and call her Gentile
girl, hey? She will stay with you and collect rent. I did not have
her in Pravly, and I want to be there as I used to. I feel like
taking a peep at the graves of my folks. It is pulling me by the
heart, Tamara," he added, in a grave undertone, as he fell to turning
over the leaves of his Psalter.
When Asriel Stroon had retired from business, he suddenly grew
fearful of death. Previously he had had no time for that. What with
his flour store, two bakeries, and some real estate, he had been too
busy to live, much less to think of death. He had never been seen at
the synagogue on weekdays; and on the Sabbath, when, enveloped in his
praying-shawl, he occupied a seat at the East Wall, he would pass the
time drowsing serenely and nodding unconscious approval of the
cantor's florid improvisations, or struggling to keep flour out of
his mind, where it clung as pertinaciously as it did to his long
The first sermon that failed to lull him to sleep was delivered by
a newly landed preacher, just after Asriel had found it more
profitable to convert his entire property into real estate. The
newcomer dwelt, among other things, upon the fate of the wicked after
death and upon their forfeited share in the World to Come. As Asriel
listened to the fiery exhortation it suddenly burst upon him that he
was very old and very wicked. "I am as full of sins as a watermelon
is of seeds," he said to himself, on coming out of the synagogue.
"You may receive notice to move at any time, Asriel. And where is
your baggage? Got anything to take along to the other world, as the
preacher said, hey?"
Alas! he had been so taken up with earthly title deeds that he had
given but little thought to such deeds as would entitle him to a
"share in the World-to-Come"; and while his valuable papers lay
secure between the fireproof walls of his iron safe, his soul was
left utterly exposed to the flames of Sheol.
Then it was that he grew a pair of bushy sidelocks, ceased trimming
his twin goatees, and, with his heart divided between yearning after
the business he had sold and worrying over his sins, spent a
considerable part of his unlimited leisure reading psalms.
What a delight it was to wind off chapter after chapter! And how
smoothly it now came off, in his father's (peace upon him!) singsong,
of which he had not even thought for more than thirty years, but
which suddenly came pouring out of his throat, together with the first
verse he chanted! Not that Asriel Stroon could have told you the
meaning of what he was so zestfully intoning, for in his boyhood he
had scarcely gone through the Pentateuch when he was set to work by
his father's side, at flax heckling. But then the very sounds of the
words and the hereditary intonation, added to the consciousness that
it was psalms he was reciting, "made every line melt like sugar in
his mouth," as he once described it to the devout housekeeper.
He grew more pious and exalted every day, and by degrees fell prey
to a feeling to which he had been a stranger for more than three
Asriel Stroon grew homesick.
It was thirty-five years since he had left his birthplace; thirty
years or more since, in the whirl of his American successes, he had
lost all interest in it. Yet now, in the fifty-eighth year of his
life, he suddenly began to yearn and pine for it.
Was it the fervor of his religious awakening which resoldered the
long-broken link? At all events, numerous as were the examples of
piety within the range of his American acquaintance, his notion of
genuine Judaism was somehow inseparably associated with Pravly.
During all the years of his life in New York he had retained a vague
but deep-rooted feeling that American piety was as tasteless an
article as American cucumbers and American fish—the only things in
which his ecstasy over the adopted country admitted its hopeless
inferiority to his native town.
On a serene afternoon in May, Asriel drove up to Pravly in a
peasant's wagon. He sat listlessly gazing at the unbroken line of
wattle-fences and running an imaginary stick along the endless zigzag
of their tops. The activity of his senses seemed suspended.
Presently a whiff of May aroma awakened his eye to a many-colored
waving expanse, and his ear to the languorous whisper of birds. He
recognized the plushy clover knobs in the vast array of placid
magnificence, and the dandelions and the golden buttercups, although
his poor mother tongue could not afford a special name for each
flower, and he now addressed them collectively as tzatzkes
—a word he had not used for thirty-five years. He looked at the
tzatzkes, as they were swaying thoughtfully hither and thither, and
it somehow seemed to him that it was not the birds but the clover
blossoms which did the chirping. The whole scene appealed to his soul
as a nodding, murmuring congregation engrossed in the solemnity of
worship. He felt as though there were no such flowers in America, and
that he had not seen any since he had left his native place.
Echoes of many, many years ago called to Asriel from amid the
whispering host. His soul burst into song. He felt like shutting his
eyes and trusting himself to the caressing breath of the air, that it
might waft him whithersoever it chose. His senses were in confusion:
he beheld a sea of fragrance; he inhaled heavenly music; he listened
to a symphony of hues.
"What a treat to breathe! What a paradise!" he exclaimed in his
heart. "The cholera take it, how delicious! Do you deserve it, old
sinner you? Ten plagues you do! But hush! the field is praying—"
With a wistful babyish look he became absorbed in a gigantic
well-sweep suspended from the clear sky, and then in the landscape it
overhung. The woody mass darkling in the distance was at once racing
about and standing still. Fleecy clouds crawled over a hazy hilltop.
And yonder—behold! a long, broad streak of silver gleaming on the
horizon! Is it a lake? Asriel's eyes are riveted and memories stir
in his breast. He recalls not the place itself, but he can remember
his reminiscences of it. During his first years in America, at times
when he would surrender himself to the sweet pangs of homesickness and
dwell, among other things, on the view that had seen him off to the
unknown land, his mind would conjure up something like the effect now
before his eyes. As a dream does it comes back to him now. The very
shadows of thirty-five years ago are veiled.
Asriel gazes before him in deep reverence. The sky is letting
itself down with benign solemnity, its measureless trough filled with
melody, the peasant's wagon creaking an accompaniment to it all—to
every speck of color, as well as to every sound of the scene.
At one moment he felt as though he had strayed into the other
world; at another, he was seized with doubt as to his own identity.
"Who are you?" he almost asked himself, closing and reopening his
hand experimentally. "Who or what is that business which you call
life? Are you alive, Asriel? Whereupon he somehow remembered
Flora's photograph, and, taking it out of his bosom pocket, fell to
The wagon turned into a side road, and the Polish peasant, leaning
forward, cursed and whipped the animal into a peevish trot. Presently
something gray hove in. sight. Far away, below, hazy blotches came
creeping from behind the sky. The wagon rolls downhill. Asriel is in
a flurry. He feels like one on the eve of a great event, he knows not
The wagon dashes on. Asriel's heart is all of a flutter.
Suddenly—O Lord of the Universe! Why, there glistens the brook—what
do you call it? "'Repka?"' he asks the driver.
"Repka!" the other replies, without facing about.
"Repka, a disease into her heart! Repka, dear, may she live long!
Who could beat Asriel in swimming?" Over there, on the other side, it
was where Asriel's father once chased him for bathing during Nine
Days. He bumped his head against the angle of a rock, did the little
scamp, and got up with a deep, streaming gash in his lower lip. The
mark is still there, and Asriel delights to feel it with his finger
now. As he does so the faces of some of his playmates rise before
him. Pshaw! he could whip every one of them! Was he not a daredevil
of a loafer! But how many of those fellow truants of his will he
find alive? he asks himself, and the question wrings his heart.
Asriel strains his eyes at the far distance till, behold! smoke is
spinning upward against the blue sky. He can make out the chimney
pots. His soul overflows. Sobs choke his breath. "Say!" he begins,
addressing himself to the driver. But "say" is English. "
Sloukhai!" he shouts, with delight in the Polish word. He utters
the names of the surrounding places, and the dull peasant's nods of
assent thrill him to the core. He turns this way and that, and in his
paroxysm of impatience all but leaps out of the wagon.
The rambling groups of houses define their outlines. Asriel
recognizes the Catholic church. His heart bounds with joy. "Hush,
wicked thing! It's a church of Gentiles." But the wicked thing
surreptitiously resumes its greeting. And over there, whitening at
some distance from the other dwellings—what is it? "The nobleman's
palace, as sure as I am a Jew!" He had forgotten all about it, as sure
as he was a Jew! But what is the nobleman s name? Is he alive?—And
there is the mill—the same mill! "I'll swoon away!" he says to
Asriel regains some composure.
Half an hour later he made his entry into his native town. Here he
had expected his agitation to pass the bounds of his physical
strength; but it did not. At this moment he was solemnly serene.
The town had changed little, and he recognized it at once. Every
spot greeted him, and his return of the salutation was a speechless
devotional pathos. He found several things which had faded out of
his enshrined picture of the place, and the sight of these moved his
soul even more powerfully than those he had looked forward to. Only
in one instance was he taken aback. Sure enough, this is Synagogue
Lane, as full of puddles as ever; but what has come over him? He
well remembers that little alley in the rear; and yet it runs quite
the other way. Length has turned into width.
And here is Leizer Poisner' s inn. "But how rickety it has
become!" Asriel's heart exclaims with a pang, as though at sight of a
friend prematurely aged and run to seed. He can almost smell the
stable occupying the entire length of the little building, and he
remembers every room Hello! The same market place, the same church
with the bailiff's office by its side! The sparse row of huts on the
river bank, the raft bridge, the tannery—everything was the same as
he had left it; and yet it all had an odd, mysterious, far-away
air—like things seen in a cyclorama. It was Pravly and at the same
time it was not; or, rather, it certainly was the same dear old
Pravly, but added to it was something else, through which it now gazed
at Asriel. Thirty-five years lay wrapped about the town.
Still, Stroon feels like Asrielke Thirteen Hairs, as his nickname
had been here. Then he relapses into the Mott Street landlord, and
for a moment he is an utter stranger in his birthplace. Why, he could
buy it all up now! He could discount all the rich men in town put
together; and yet there was a time when he was of the meanest
hereabout. An overpowering sense of triumph surged into his breast.
Hey, there! Where are your bigbugs—Zorach Latozky, Reb Lippe, Reb
Nochum? Are they alive? Thirty-five years ago Asrielke considered it
an honor to shake their palm branch on the Feast of Tabernacles, while
now out with your purses, you proud magnates, measure fortunes with
Asrielke the heckler, if you dare! His heart swells with exultation.
And yet—the black year take it!—it yearns and aches, does Asriel's
heart. He looks at Pravly, and his soul is pining for Pravly—for the
one of thirty-five years ago, of which this is only a reflection—for
the one in which he was known as a crack-brained rowdy of a mechanic,
a poor devil living on oatmeal and herring.
With the townspeople of his time Asriel's experience was somewhat
different from what he felt in the case of inanimate Pravly. As he
confronted them some faces lighted up with their identity at once;
and there were even some younger people in whom he instantly
recognized the transcribed images of their deceased parents. But
many a countenance was slow to catch the reflection of the past which
shone out of his eyes; and in a few instances it was not until the
name was revealed to Asriel that the retrospective likeness would
begin to struggle through the unfamiliar features before him.
"Shmulke!" he shrieked, the moment he caught sight of an old crony,
as though they had been parted for no more than a month. Shmulke is
not the blooming, sprightly young fellow of yore. He has a white
beard and looks somewhat decrepit. Asriel, however, feels as if the
beard were only glued to the smooth face he had known. But how
Asriel's heart does shrink in his bosom! The fever of activity in
which he had passed the thirty-five years had kept him deaf to the
departing footsteps of Time. Not until recently had he realized that
the words "old man" applied to him; but even then the fact never came
home to him with such convincing, with such terrible force, as it did
now that he stood face to face with Shmulke. Shmulke was his mirror.
"Shmulke, Angel of Death, an inflammation into your bones!" he
shouted, as he suddenly remembered his playmate's byname and fell on
Shmulke feels awkward. He is ashamed of the long-forgotten
nickname, and is struggling to free himself from the unwelcome
embrace; but Asriel is much the stronger of the two, and he continues
to squeeze him and pat him, grunting and puffing for emotion as he
Aunt Sarah-Rachel, whom Asriel had left an elderly but exceedingly
active and clever tradeswoman, he found a bag of bones and in her
"Don't you know me, auntie?" he implored her. She made no reply,
and went on munching her lips. "Can it be that you don't know
Asrielke, who used to steal raisins from your grocery?"
"She does not understand anything!" Asriel whispered, in
Asriel's first Sabbath in the native place he was revisiting was
destined to be a memorable day in the annals of that peaceful little
At the synagogue, during the morning service, he was not the only
object of interest. So far as the furtive glances that came through
the peepholes of the women s compartment were concerned, a much
younger guest, from a hamlet near by, had even greater magnetism than
he. Reb [Rabbi, or Mister] Lippe, for forty years the "finest
householder" of the community, expected to marry his youngest daughter
to an Illoui (a prodigy of Talmudic lore), and he now came
to flaunt him, and the five-thousand rouble dowry he represented,
before the congregation.
Only nineteen and a poor orphan, the fame of the prospective
bridegroom, as a marvel of acumen and memory, reached far and wide.
Few of the subtlest rabbinical minds in the district were accounted
his match in debate, and he was said to have some two thousand
Talmudical folios literally at his finger's ends. This means that if
you had placed the tip of your finger on some word of a volume, he
could have told you the word which came under your pressure on any
other page you might name. As we shall have to cultivate the young
man's acquaintance, let it be added that he was quite boyish of
figure, and that had it not been for an excess of smiling frankness,
his pale, blue-eyed face would have formed the nearest Semitic
approach to the current portraits of Lord Byron. His admirers
deplored his lack of staidness. While visiting at Pravly, in a
manner, as the guest of the town, he was detected giving snuff to a
pig, and then participating with much younger boys in a race over the
His betrothment to Reb Lippe's daughter was still the subject of
negotiation, and there were said to be serious obstacles in the way.
The prodigy's relatives were pleased with Reb Lippe's pedigree and
social rank, but thought that the boy could marry into a wealthier
family and get a prettier girl into the bargain. Nevertheless Reb
Lippe's manner at the synagogue was as though the engagement were an
accomplished fact, and he kept the young man by his side, his own seat
being next the rabbi's, which was by the Holy Ark.
Asriel, as a newcomer, and out of respect for his fabulous wealth,
was also accorded a seat of honor on the other side of the Ark.
Before he had expatriated himself his place used to be near the
door—a circumstance which was fresh in the mind of Reb Lippe, who
chafed to see him divert attention from the prodigy and his purchaser.
Now Reb Lippe was a proud old gentleman, too jealous of the memory
of his rabbinical ancestry and of his own time-honored dignity to give
way to a mere boor of a heckler, no matter how much American gold he
had to atone for his antecedents. Accordingly, when his fellow trustee
suggested that the American ought to be summoned to the reading of
the Third Section in the week's portion of the Pentateuch—the highest
honor connected with the reading of the Law, and one for which the
visiting nabob was sure to pay a liberal donation—the venerable
countenance turned crimson.
"Let the sections be auctioned off!" he jerked out.
The proceeding was seldom practiced on an ordinary Sabbath; but Rep
Lippe's will was law, as peremptory and irresistible as the Law of
Moses, with which it was now concerned. And so the worshippers
presently found themselves converted into so many eyewitnesses of a
battle of purses.
"Five gildens for the Third!" called out the weazen-faced little
sexton from the reading platform, in the traditional sing-song that
became his draggling black beard so well. As a bona-fide business
transaction is not allowed on the holy day, even though the house of
God be the sole gainer by it, the sexton's figures were
fictitious—in so far, at least, as they were understood to represent
double the actual amount to be paid to the synagogue by the purchaser
of the good deed.
"Six gildens for the Third!" he went on in interpretation of a
frowning nod from Reb Lippe.
A contemptuous toss of Asriel's head threw another gilden on top of
the sum. Two other members signaled to the auctioneer, and, warming
up to his task, he sang out with gusto, "Eight gildens for the
Then came in rapid succession: "Nine gildens for the Third! Ten
gildens for the Third! Eleven gildens, twelve, thirteen, fourteen
gildens for the Third!"
The other bidders, one by one, dropped out of the race, and when
the sum reached sixty gildens the field was left to Reb Lippe and
The congregation was spellbound. Some with gaping mouths, others
with absorbed simpers on their faces, but all with sportsman-like fire
in their eyes, the worshipers craned their necks in the direction of
the two contestants alternately.
The prodigy had edged away from his seat to a coign of vantage. He
was repeatedly called back by winks from his uncle, but was too deeply
interested in the progress of the auction to heed them.
"Seventy gildens for the Third! Seventy-one, seventy-two, three,
four, five, seventy-six, seventy-seven, eight, nine, eighty gildens
for the Third!"
The skirmish waxed so hot, shots flew so thick and so fast, that
the perspiring sexton, and with him some of the spectators, was
swiveling his head from right to left and from left to right with the
swift regularity of gymnastic exercise.
It must be owned that so far as mute partisanship was concerned,
Asriel had the advantage of his adversary, for even some of Reb
Lippe's stanchest friends and admirers had a lurking relish for
seeing it brought home to their leading citizen that there were
wealthier people than he in the world.
The women, too, shared in the excitement of the morning. Their
windows were glistening with eyes, and the reports of their lucky
occupants to the anxious knots in the rear evoked hubbubs of
conflicting interjections which came near involving the matronly
assemblage in civil war.
The Third Section brought some twenty-eight rubles, net. Asriel
was certain that the last bid had been made by him, and that the honor
and the good deed were accordingly his. When it came to the reading,
however, and the Third Section was reached, the reader called out Reb
Asriel was stupefied.
"Hold on! That won't do!" he thundered, suddenly feeling himself
an American citizen. "I have bought it and I mean to have it." His
face was fire; his eyes looked havoc.
A wave of deprecation swept over the room. Dozens of reading desks
were slapped for order. Reb Lippe strode up to the platform, pompous,
devout, resplendent in the gold lace of his praying-shawl and the
flowing silver of his beard, as though the outburst of indignation
against Asriel were only an ovation to himself. He had the cunning
of a fox, the vanity of a peacock, and the sentimentality of a woman
during the Ten Days of Penance. There were many skeptics as to the
fairness of the transaction, but these were too deeply impressed by
the grandeur of his triumphal march to whisper an opinion. The
prodigy alone spoke his mind.
"Why, I do think the other man was the last to nod—may I be ill if
he was not," the enfant terrible said quite audibly, and was
hushed by his uncle.
"Is he really going to get it?" Asriel resumed, drowning all
opposition with his voice. "Milk a billy goat! You can't play that
trick on me! Mine was the last bid. Twenty-eight scurvy rubles!
Pshaw! I am willing to pay a hundred, two hundred, five hundred. I
can buy up all Pravly, Reb Lippe, his gold lace and all, and sell him
at a loss, too!" He made a dash at the reading platform, as if to take
the Third Section by force, but the bedlam which his sally called
forth checked him.
"Is this a market place?" cried the second trustee, with conscious
"Shut the mouth of that boor!" screamed a member, in sincere
"Put him out!" yelled another, with relish in the scene.
"If he can't behave in a holy place let him go back to his
America!" exclaimed a third, merely to be in the running. But his
words had the best effect: they reminded Asriel that he was a
stranger and that the noise might attract the police.
At the same moment he saw the peaked face of the aged rabbi by his
side. Taking him by the arm, the old man begged him not to disturb
Whether the mistake was on Asriel's side or on the sexton's, or
whether there was any foul play in the matter, is not known; but
Asriel relented and settled down at his desk to follow the remainder
of the reading in his Pentateuch, although the storm of revenge which
was raging in his breast soon carried off his attention, and he lost
The easy success of his first exhortation brought the rabbi to
Asriel's side once again.
"I knew your father—peace upon him! He was a righteous Jew," he
addressed him in a voice trembling and funereal with old age. "Obey
me, my son, ascend the platform, and offer the congregation a public
apology. The Holy One—blessed be He will help you."
The rabbi's appeal moved Asriel to tears, and tingling with devout
humility he was presently on the platform, speaking in his blunt,
"Do not take it hard, my rabbis! I meant no offense to any one,
though there was a trick—as big as a fat bull. Still, I donate two
hundred rubles, and let the cantor recite 'God full of Mercy' for the
souls of my father and mother—peace upon them."
It was quite a novel way of announcing one's contribution, and the
manner of his apology, too, had at once an amusing and a scandalizing
effect upon the worshipers, but the sum took their breath away and
silenced all hostile sentiment.
The reading over, and the scrolls restored, amid a tumultuous
acclaim, to the Holy Ark, the cantor resumed his place at the Omud,
chanting a hurried Half-Kaddish. "And say ye Amen!" he
concluded abruptly, as if startled, together with his listeners, into
Nodding or shaking their heads, or swaying their forms to and fro,
some, perhaps mechanically, others with composed reverence, still
others in a convulsion of religious fervor, the two or three hundred
men were joined in whispering chorus, offering the solemn prayer of Mussaff. Here and there a sigh made itself heard amid the
monotony of speechless, gesticulating ardor; a pair of fingers snapped
in an outburst of ecstasy, a sob broke from some corner, or a
lugubrious murmur from the women s room. The prodigy, his eyes shut,
and his countenance stern with unfeigned rapture, was violently
working his lips as if to make up for the sounds of the words which
they dared not utter. Asriel was shaking and tossing about. His
face was distorted with the piteous, reproachful mien of a neglected
child about to burst into tears, his twin imperials dancing
plaintively to his whispered intonations. He knew not what his lips
said, but he did know that his soul was pouring itself forth before
Heaven, and that his heart might break unless he gave way to his
At last the silent devotions were at an end. One after another the
worshipers retreated, each three paces from his post. Only three men
were still absorbed in the sanctity of the great prayer: the rabbi,
for whom the cantor was respectfully waiting with the next chant, Reb
Lippe, who would not "retreat" sooner than the rabbi, and Asriel,
who, in his frenzy of zeal, was repeating the same benediction for the
When Asriel issued forth from the synagogue he found Pravly
completely changed. It was as if, while he was praying and battling,
the little town had undergone a trivializing process. All the poetry
of thirty-five years' separation had fled from it, leaving a heap of
beggarly squalor. He felt as though he had never been away from the
place, and were tired to death of it, and at the same time his heart
was contracted with homesickness for America. The only interest the
town now had for him was that of a medium to be filled with the rays
of his financial triumph. "I'll show them who they are and who Asriel
is," he comforted himself.
The afternoon service was preceded by a sermon. The "town preacher"
took his text, as usual, from the passage in the "Five Books" which
had been read in the morning. But he contrived to make it the basis of
an allusion to the all-absorbing topic of gossip. Citing the Talmud
and the commentaries with ostentatious profuseness, he laid particular
stress on the good deed of procuring a scholar of sacred lore for
"It is a well-known saying in tractate
Psohim," he said,
"that one should be ready to sell his all in order to marry his
daughter to a scholar.' On the other hand, 'to give your daughter in
marriage to a boor is like giving her to a lion.' Again, in tractate Berochath we learn that 'to give shelter to a scholar bent upon
sacred studies, and to sustain him from your estates, is like offering
sacrifices to God'; and 'to give wine to such a student is, according
to a passage in tractate Sota, 'tantamount to pouring it out
on an altar.'"
Glances converged on Reb Lippe and the prodigy by his side.
Proceeding with his argument, the learned preacher, by an ingenious
chain of quotations and arithmetical operations upon the numerical
value of letters, arrived at the inference that compliance with the
above teachings was one of the necessary conditions of securing a
place in the Garden of Eden.
All of which filled Asriel's heart with a new dread of the world to
come and with a rankling grudge against Reb Lippe. He came away from
the synagogue utterly crushed, and when he reached his inn the
prodigy was the prevailing subject of his chat with the landlord.
In the evening of the same day, at the conclusion of the Sabbath,
the auction of another good deed took place, and once more the purses
of Reb Lippe and Asriel clashed in desperate combat.
This time the good deed assumed the form of a prodigy of Talmudic
learning in the character of a prospective son-in-law.
The room (at the residence of one of the young man's uncles) was
full of bearded Jews, tobacco smoke, and noise. There were Shaya, the
prodigy himself, his two uncles, Reb Lippe, his eldest son, and two
of his lieutenants, Asriel, his landlord, and a matchmaker. A live
broad-shouldered samovar, its air-holes like so many glowing eyes,
stood in the center of the table. Near it lay Flora's photograph,
representing her in all the splendor of Grand Street millinery.
The youthful hero of the day eyed the portrait with undisguised,
open-mouthed curiosity, till, looked out of countenance by the young
lady's doleful, penetrating eyes, he turned from it, but went on
viewing it with furtive interest.
His own formula of a bride was a hatless image. The notion,
therefore, of this princess becoming his wife both awed him and
staggered his sense of decorum. Then the smiling melancholy of the
Semitic face upset his image of himself in his mind and set it afloat
in a haze of phantasy. "I say you need not look at me like that," he
seemed to say to the picture. "Pshaw! you are a Jewish girl after
all, and I am not afraid of you a bit. But what makes you so sad?
Can I do anything for you? Why don't you answer? Do take off that
hat, will you?"
Reb Lippe's daughter did not wear a hat, but she was not to his
liking, and he now became aware of it. On the other hand, the word
"America" had a fascinating ring, and the picture it conjured was a
blend of Talmudic and modern glory.
Reb Lippe's venerable beard was rippled with a nervous smile.
"Yes, I am only a boor!" roared Asriel, with a touch of Bounderby
ostentation. "But you know it is not myself I want the boy to marry.
Twenty thousand rubles, spot cash, then, and when the old boor takes
himself off, Shaya will inherit ten times as much. She is my only
child, and when I die—may I be choked if I take any of my houses into
the grave. Worms don't eat houses, you know."
The quality of his unhackneyed phrase vexed the sedate old
talmudists, and one of them remarked, as he pointed a sarcastic finger
at the photograph: "Your girl looks like the daughter of some titled
Gentile. Shaya is a Jewish boy."
"You don't like my girl, don't you?" Asriel darted back. "And why,
pray? Is it because she is not a lump of ugliness and wears a hat?
The grand rabbi of Wilna is as pious as any of you, isn't he? Well,
when I was there, on my way here, I saw his daughter, and she also
wore a hat and was also pretty. Twenty thousand rubles!"
By this time the prodigy was so absorbed in the proceedings that he
forgot the American photograph, as well as the bearing which the
auction in progress had upon himself. Leaning over the table as far
as the samovar would allow, and propping up his face with both arms,
he watched the scene with thrilling but absolutely disinterested
After a great deal of whispering and suppressed excitement in the
camp of Asriel's foe, Reb Lippe's son announced: "Ten thousand rubles
and five years' board." This, added to Reb Lippe's advantages over
his opponent by virtue of his birth, social station, and learning, as
well as of his residing in Russia, was supposed to exceed the figure
named by Asriel. In point of fact, everybody in the room knew that
the old talmudist's bid was much beyond his depth; but the assemblage
had no time to be surprised by his sum, for no sooner had it been
uttered than Asriel yelled out, with impatient sarcasm: "Thirty
thousand rubles, and life-long board, and lodging, and bath money,
and stocking darning, and cigarettes, and matches, and mustard, and
soap—and what else?"
The prodigy burst into a chuckle, and was forthwith pulled down to
his chair. He took a liking to the rough-and-ready
straightforwardness of the American.
There was a pause. Shaya and his uncles were obviously leaning
toward the "boor." Asriel was clearly the master of the situation.
At last Reb Lippe and his suite rose from their seats.
"You can keep the bargain!" he said to Asriel, with a sardonic
"And be choked with it!" added his son.
"What is your hurry, Reb Lippe?" said one of the uncles, rushing to
the old man's side with obsequious solicitude. "Why, the thing is
not settled yet. We don't know whether—"
"You don't, but I do. I won't take that boy if
twenty thousand rubles to his marriage portion. Good-night!"
"Good-night and good-year!" Asriel returned. "Why does the cat
hate the cream? Because it is locked up."
An hour afterward the remainder of the gathering were touching
glasses and interchanging mazol-tovs (congratulations) upon the
engagement of Flora Stroon to Shaya Golub.
"And now receive my
mazol-tov!" said Asriel, pouncing
upon the prodigy and nearly crushing him in his mighty embrace. "
Mazol-tov to you, Flora's bridegroom! Mazol-tov to you,
Flora's predestinated one! My child's dear little bridegroom!" he
went on, hiding his face on the young man's shoulder. "I am only a
boor, but you shall be my son-in-law. I'll dine you and wine you, as
the preacher commanded, pearls will I strew on your righteous path, a
crown will I place on your head—I am only a boor!"
Sobs rang in the old man s voice. The bystanders looked on in
smiling, pathetic silence.
"A boor, but an honest man," some one whispered to the uncles.
"A heart of gold!" put in the innkeeper.
"And what will Flora say?" something whispered to Asriel, from a
corner of his overflowing heart. "Do you mean to tell me that the
American young lady will marry this old-fashioned, pious fellow?"
"Hold your tongue, fool you!" Asriel snarled inwardly. "She will have
to marry him, and that settles it, and don't you disturb my joy. It's
for her good as well as for mine."
With a sudden movement he disengaged his arms, and, taking off his
enormous gold watch and chain, he put it on Shaya, saying: "Wear it in
good health, my child. This is your first present from your
sweetheart. But wait till we come to America!"
The next morning Asriel visited the cemetery, and was overawed by
its size. While living Pravly had increased by scarcely a dozen
houses, the number of dwellings in silent Pravly had nearly doubled.
The headstones, mostly of humble size and weatherworn, were a
solemn minority in a forest of plain wooden monuments, from which
hung, for identification, all sorts of unceremonious tokens, such as
old tin cans, bottomless pots, cast-off hats, shoes, and what not.
But all this, far from marring the impressiveness of the place,
accentuated and heightened the inarticulate tragedy of its aspect.
The discarded utensils or wearing apparel seemed to be brooding upon
the days of their own prime, when they had participated in the
activities of the living town yonder. They had an effect of
mysterious muteness, as of erstwhile animated beings—comrades of the
inmates of the overgrown little mounds underneath, come to join them
in the eternal rest of the city of death.
"Father! Father!" Asriel began, in a loud synagogue intonation, as
he prostrated himself upon an old grave, immediately after the cantor
had concluded his prayer and withdrawn from his side. "It is I,
Asriel, your son—do you remember? I have come all the way from
America to ask you to pray for me and my child. She is a good girl,
father, and I am trying to lead her on the path of righteousness. She
is about to marry the greatest scholar of God's Law hereabouts. Do
pray that the boy may find favor in her eyes, father! You know,
father dear, that I am only a boor, and woe is me! I am stuffed full
of sins. But now I am trying to make up and to be a good Jew. Will
you pray the Uppermost to accept my penance?" he besought, with
growing pathos in his voice. "You are near Him, father, so do take
pity upon your son and see to it that his sins are forgiven. Will you
pray for me? Will you? But, anyhow, I care more for Flora—Bloome,
her Yiddish name is. What am I? A rusty lump of nothing. But
Flora—she is a flower. Do stand forth before the High Tribunal and
pray that no ill wind blow her away from me, that no evil eye injure
my treasure. She lost her mother when she was a baby, poor child, and
she is the only consolation I have in the world. But you are her
grandfather—do pray for her!"
Asriel's face shone, his heavy voice rang in a dismal, rapturous,
devotional singsong. His eyes were dry, but his soul was full of
tears and poetry, and he poured it forth in passionate,
"What is the difference between this grass blade and myself?" he
asked, a little after. "Why should you give yourself airs, Asriel?
Don't kick, be good, be pious, carry God in your heart, and make no
fuss! Be as quiet as this grass, for hark! the hearse is coming
after you, the contribution boxes are jingling, the Angel of Death
stands ready with his knife—Oh, do pray for your son, father!" he
shrieked, in terror.
He paused. A bee, droning near by, seemed to be praying like
himself, and its company stirred Asriel's heart.
"Oh, father! I have not seen you for thirty-five years.
Thirty-five years!" he repeated in deliberate tones and listening to
his own voice.
"We are the thirty-five?" some distant tombstones responded, and
Asriel could not help pausing to look about, and then he again
repeated, "Thirty-five years! Can I never see you again, father?
Can't I see your dear face and talk to you, as of old, and throw
myself into fire or water for you? Can't I? Can't I? Do you
remember how you used to keep me on your knees or say prayers with me
at the synagogue, and box my ears so that the black year took me when
you caught me skipping in the prayer book? Has it all flown away?
Has it really?"
He paused as though for an answer, and then resumed, with a bitter,
malicious laugh at his own expense: "Your father is silent, Asriel!
Not a word, even if you tear yourself to pieces. All is gone,
Asrielke! All, all, all is lost forever!"
His harsh voice collapsed. His speech died away in a convulsion of
subdued sobbing. His soul went on beseeching his father to admit him
to the restful sanctity of his company.
When Asriel rose to his feet and his eye fell upon a tombstone
precisely like his father's, he frowned upon it, with a sense of
jealousy. On his way to his mother's grave, in the older part of the
cemetery, he ever and anon turned to look back. His father's
tombstone was rapidly becoming merged in a forest of other monuments.
His dead father, his poor father, was losing his individuality, till
he was a mere speck in this piebald medley of mounds, stones, boards,
and all sorts of waste. Asriel felt deeply hurt. He retraced his
steps till his father's resting place once more became the center of
Then he went to pay his respects and tears to the graves of his
mother, sisters, brothers, uncles. At last, completely exhausted, he
took to walking among the other headstones. As he stopped to make
out their Hebrew inscriptions, he would now hang his head, in
heart-wringing reminiscence, now heave a sigh, or clap his hands, in
The tombstones and tomb-boards were bathed in the reddish gold of
the late afternoon sun. Asriel had not yet broken his fast, but
although shattered in body and spirit he felt no hunger and was
reluctant to leave the graveyard. He found here more of his
contemporaries that he well remembered, more of the Pravly of his
time, than in the town a verst or two away. The place asserted a
stronger claim upon him and held him by the force of its unearthly
When he reached town at last, he felt newborn. Pravly was again
dear to his heart, although Flora and America drew him to them with
more magnetism than ever. He strove to speak in soft accents, and
went about the houses of his relatives and the poor of the town,
distributing various sums and begging the recipients of his gifts "to
have pity and not to thank him," lest it should detract from the
value of his good deed.
Then he went to make peace with Reb Lippe.
"You are going to stay here, so you can get another prodigy," he
pleaded humbly. "But one cannot get such goods in America. Besides,
you can read Talmud yourself, while I am only a boor, and what have I
done to make sure of my share in the world to come? Here are three
hundred rubles for charity. Do forgive me, Reb Lippe, will you?
What will you lose by it?"
There were others in the room, and the unique pathos of the plea
touched and amused them at once. Reb Lippe was moved to the point of
tears. Moreover, the present situation took the venom out of his
"I forgive you with all my heart," he said impulsively, patting
"the boor" as he would a child. "Be seated. May the Uppermost bring
you home in peace and bless the union. There is another young man who
is worthy of my daughter; and Shaya—may the Holy One—blessed be
He—grant him the will and the power to spread His Law in America.
The Jews there want a young man like him, and I am glad he is going
with you. You are taking a precious stone with you, Reb Asriel. Hold
"You bet I will," Asriel replied gleefully.
The nearer Asriel, with the prodigy in tow, came to New York, the
deeper did Pravly sink into the golden mist of romance, and the more
real did the great American city grow in his mind. Every mile added
detail to the picture, and every new bit of detail made it dearer to
He was going home. He felt it more keenly, more thrillingly every
day, every hour, every minute.
Sandy Hook hove in sight.
Can there be anything more beautiful, more sublime, and more
uplifting than the view, on a clear summer morning, of New York harbor
from an approaching ship? Shaya saw in the enchanting effect of sea,
verdure, and sky a new version of his visions of paradise, where,
ensconced behind luxuriant foliage, the righteous—venerable old men
with silvery beards—were nodding and swaying over gold-bound tomes of
the Talmud. Yet, overborne with its looming grandeur, his heart grew
heavy with suspense, and he clung close to Asriel.
All was bustle and expectation on board. The little deck engines
never ceased rumbling, and the passengers, spruced up as if for
church, were busy about their baggage, or promenading with a festive,
Asriel twitched and bit his lip in rapture.
"Oh, how blue the water is!" said Shaya wistfully.
"America is a fine country, is it not?" the old man rejoined. "But
it can't hold a candle to Flora. Wait till you see her. You just
try to be a good boy," he kept murmuring; "stick to your Talmud, and
don't give a peper for anything else, and all God has given me shall
be yours. I have no son to say Kaddish for my soul when I am dead.
Will you be my Kaddish, Shaya? Will you observe the anniversary of
my death?" he queried, in a beseeching tone which the young man had
never heard from him.
"Of course I will," Shaya returned, like a dutiful child.
"Will you? May you live long for it. In palaces will I house you,
like the eye in my head will I cherish you. I am only a boor, but she
is my daughter, my only child, and my whole life in this world."
Asriel kept Flora unadvised as to the name of the steamer or the
date of his arrival. Upon landing he did not go directly to his
residence, but first took his importation into a large "clothing and
gents' furnishing store" on Broadway, from which the illoui
emerged completely transformed. Instead of his uncouth cap and the
draggling coat which had hidden his top boots from view, he was now
arrayed in the costliest "Prince Albert," the finest summer derby,
and the most elegant button shoes the store contained. This and a
starched shirt-front, a turned-down collar, and a gaudy puff-tie set
into higher relief the Byronic effect of his intellectual, winsome
Asriel snapped his fingers for delight. He thought him easily the
handsomest and best-dressed man on Broadway. "It is the Divine
Presence shining upon him!" he murmured to himself, dragging the
young man by the hand, as if he were a truant schoolboy. Barring the
prodigy's sidelocks (badges of divine learning and piety), which were
tightly curled into two little cushions in front of his ears, he now
thought him thoroughly Americanized.
The prodigy, however, felt tied and fettered in the garb of Gentile
civilization, and as he trudged along by his convoy's side, he viewed
his transformed self in the store windows, or stared, rabbit-like, at
the lumbering stagecoaches and the hurrying noblemen.
Asriel let himself and his charge in noiselessly with the
latch-key, which had accompanied him, together with a bunch of other
keys, on his tour. They entered the hallway on tiptoe.
The little house rang with the voluminous tones of Flora's piano,
through which trickled the doleful tremolo of her subdued contralto.
Since her father had left her pining for his return, "Home, Sweet
Home" had become her favorite tune.
Flora was alone in the house, and her unconscious welcome was all
the sweeter to Asriel's soul for the grieving note which ran through
it. His heart throbbed with violence. Shaya's sank in awe. He had
never heard a piano except through the window of some nobleman's
"Hush! Do you hear?" the old man whispered. "That's your
predestined bride." With that he led the way downstairs. There they
paused to kiss the divine name on the Mezuzah of the
"Tamara!" Asriel called, under his breath, looking for the pious
housekeeper in the dining room and in the kitchen. "She is not in.
Must be out marketing or about her good deeds. A dear soul she! Oh,
it's her fast day; she fasts Mondays and Thursdays."
Then he stepped up in front of a tin box that was nailed to one of
the kitchen doors and took out his pocketbook. It was one of the
contribution-boxes of the "Meyer-the-Wonder-worker Fund," which is
devoted to the support of pious old European Jews who go to end their
days in the Land of Israel. Every orthodox Jew in the world keeps a
similar box in his house and drops a coin into it whenever he escapes
some danger. Asriel had safely crossed the wide ocean, and his
offering was a handful of silver.
"Well, you stay here, Shaya, and don't budge till you are called,"
he said; and leaving the young man to his perplexity he betook
himself upstairs, to surprise his daughter.
Flora burst into tears of joy, and hugged him again and again,
while he stroked her black hair or stood scowling and grinning for
"Ah, you dear, cranky papa!" she burst out, for the fourth time
realizing that he was actually come back to her, and for the fourth
time attacking him.
At last he thought they had had enough. He was dying to protract
the scene, but there was that troublesome job to get rid of, and
Asriel was not the man to put such things off. Whenever he felt
somewhat timid he would grow facetious. This was the case at the
"Well, Flora, guess what sort of present your papa has brought
you," he said, reddening to his ears. "I'll bet you you won't hit if
you keep on guessing till tomorrow. No girl has ever got such a
present as long as America is America."
Flora's eyes danced with joyous anticipation. Her mind was ablaze
with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls.
"I have got a bridegroom for you—a fifteen-thousand-dollar one.
Handsomest and smartest fellow on earth. He is an illoui."
"A what?" she asked, in amazement.
"Oh, a wonderful chap, you know, deep in the Talmud and the other
holy books. He could knock all the rabbis of Europe to smithereens.
The biggest bug in Pravly was after him, but I beat him clean out of
his boots. Shaya! Come right up!"
The girl gazed at her father in bewilderment. Was he joking or was
he in dead, terrific earnest?
Shaya made his appearance, with his eyes on the floor, and wringing
the index finger of his right hand, as he was wont to do whenever he
felt ill at ease, which was seldom, however.
Flora's brain was in a whirl.
"This is your predestined bridegroom, my daughter. A fine present,
is it not? Did you ever expect such a raisin of a sweetheart, hey?
Well, children, I must go around to see about the baggage. Have a
chat and be acquainted." With that he advanced to the door.
"Papa! Papa!" Flora frantically called to him. But he never
turned his head and went his way.
In her despair she rushed at the young stranger, who was still
wringing his finger, as he stood in the middle of the parlor, eyeing
the carpet, and snapped out:— "Mister, you had better go. If you
think you are going to be my bridegroom, you are sadly mistaken."
She spoke in Yiddish, but her pronunciation, particularly of the
letter "r," was so decidedly American that to Shaya it sounded at
once like his native tongue and the language of Gentiles. However,
it was Yiddish enough, and the fact of this imposing young lady
speaking it gave him the feeling of being in the presence of a Jewish
princess of biblical times.
"Where shall I go? I don't know anybody here." He said it with an
air of naïve desperation which touched the girl's heart. "Where is my
fault?" he added pleadingly.
She gave him a close look, and, taking him by his clean-cut
beardless chin, opened her eyes wide at him, and broke into a hearty
"My father has really brought you over to marry me?" she
questioned, for the first time awakening to the humorous side of the
situation, and again she burst out laughing.
Shaya blushed and took hold of his finger, but he forthwith
released it and also broke into a giggle. Her merriment set him at
his ease, and her labored Yiddish struck him as the prattle of a
Flora was amused and charmed as with a baby. Shaya felt as if he
were playing with another boy.
Of all the immigrants who had married or were engaged to marry some
of her girlfriends, none had, just after landing, been so presentable,
so sweet-faced, and so droll as this scholarly looking fellow. There
would have been nothing odd in her marrying him a year or two later,
after he had picked up some broken English and some of the customs of
the country. But then her mind was firmly made up, and she had
boasted to her friends that she was bound to marry a doctor, and here
this boy was not even going to be a business man, but an orthodox
rabbi or something of the sort. The word "rabbi" was associated in her
mind with the image of an unkempt, long-skirted man who knew nothing
of the world, took snuff, and made life a nuisance to himself and to
others. Is she going to be a rabbitzen (a rabbi's wife)?
No! No! No! Come what may, none but a refined American gentleman
shall lead her under the nuptial canopy! And in her rage she fled
from the parlor and went to nurse her misery on the dining room
Presently, as she lay with her hands clasped under her head,
abandoned to her despair and fury, and yet unable to realize that it
was all in real earnest, a fretting sensation settled somewhere in
her heart. At first it was only like a grain of sand, but it kept
growing till it lay a heavy, unbearable lump. She could not stand the
idea of that poor, funny dear being left alone and scared out of his
wits. Still, she would not stir. Let papa take him away or she will
leave the house and go to work in a factory.
"Tamara!" she suddenly raised herself to say, the moment the
housekeeper came into the room. "There is a man upstairs. He must be
"Then why don't you give him something to eat?" Tamara responded
tartly. "You know it is Monday and I am faint. But who is he and
what is he doing upstairs? Let him come down."
"Go and see him for yourself," snapped Flora. "You will find him
one of your set—a Talmudical scholar, a pious soul," she added, with
a venomous laugh.
Tamara bent upon her a look full of resentment as well as of devout
reproach, and betook herself upstairs.
When Asriel came he explained that Shaya was not going to be a
rabbi, nor dress otherwise than as an American gentleman, but that he
would lead a life of piety and spend his time studying the Talmud,
partly at home and partly at some synagogue. "What, then, have I
worked all my life for?" he pleaded. "I am only a boor, my daughter,
and how long does a fellow live? Don't darken my days, Flora."
Tamara kept nodding pious assent. "In the old country a girl like
you would be glad to marry such a child of the Law," she expostulated
with the girl. "It is only here that we are sinners and girls marry
none but worldly men. May every daughter of Israel be blessed with
such a match."
"Mind your own business!" Flora exploded. She understood her
father's explanation but vaguely, and it had the opposite of the
desired effect upon her.
"Leave her alone. The storm will blow over," Asriel whispered.
When Asriel's baggage arrived it proved to include a huge box full
of Hebrew books. They were of various sizes, but twenty-five of them
were large, uniform, leather-bound folio volumes, portly and
resplendent in a superabundance of gilding and varnish. Of these,
twenty contained the whole of the Babylonian Talmud together with the
various commentaries, the remaining five comprising the Alphos. After
a little a walnut bookcase made its appearance. It was accorded a
place of honor in the front parlor, and Asriel, Tamara, and Shaya
busied themselves with arranging the sacred books on its shelves.
Flora sat eyeing them sarcastically, till, sobs rising to her
throat, she retired to the seclusion of her bedroom, on the top floor,
and burst out crying as if her heart would break. The contents of
all those books, which her father had imported as accessories of her
would-be bridegroom, were Chinese to her. She had never seen so many
of them nor given a moment's attention to the occasional talks which
she had chanced to overhear concerning such books and the men who
spent their lives reading them. They now frightened her, as if they
were filled with weird incantations and Shaya were the master of some
The prodigy was busy arranging his library, now and then opening a
book to examine its print. Presently, as he was squatting down before
a chair upon which he was turning over the leaves of a bulky volume,
his attention was arrested by a celebrated passage. Without changing
his posture, he proceeded to glance it over, until, completely
absorbed, he fell to humming the words, in that peculiar singsong,
accompanied by indescribable controversial gesticulations, which seem
to be as indispensable in reading Talmud as a pair of eyes.
"Look, look!" Tamara nudged Asriel, whom she was helping to
transfer the remaining books to the marble table. Asriel turned his
head toward the prodigy, and for a few moments the two stood staring
at the odd, inspiring spectacle with gaping admiration. Then the
housekeeper and her employer exchanged a glance of intelligence, she
nodding her bewigged head piously, as much as to say: "What a find
Heaven has placed in your way!"
"The Uppermost has blessed you," she added in whispers.
"May he enjoy long life with us!" Asriel returned, with a sigh.
"Flora does not know what a treasure the Lord of the Universe has
"She will," he rejoined curtly.
It was at the head of a dozen venerable Talmudists, including the
rabbi of the congregation, that Asriel returned from the synagogue
next Saturday morning. The learned company was entertained with wine,
cold fish, and some of the lemon pie and genuine Yiddish pastry for
which Tamara was famous.
"Here is life, Mr. Stroon! Here is life, Shaya!" each of the
guests said, raising his glass.
"Life and peace! Life and peace!" was the uniform response. "God
bless the union and let them live a hundred and twenty years,"
pursued Reb Mendele, a little man with luxuriant red sidelocks, as he
reached for a piece of Sabbath cake.
"And grant that they give birth to children and bring them up to
the Law, the Bridal Canopy, and deeds of righteousness," chimed in
another, whose ear-locks were two sorry corkscrew-like appendages, as
he held up a slice of fish on the points of his fork.
"And Shaya continue a child of the Law and study it with
never-failing zeal," came from between a dangling pair of tubes.
"That's the point!" emphasized a chorus of munching mouths.
"But where is the bride?" somebody demanded. "She must show
herself! she must show herself!"
"That's right," Reb Mendele seconded heartily. "Out with the
bride! 'And the daughters of Jerusalem come out dancing,'" he
quoted; "'and what do they say? "Lift thine eyes, young man, and
behold the maiden thou choosest. Do not set thine eye on
beauty——."'" He broke off abruptly, reddening. The remainder of
the quoted passage runs as follows: "Set thine eye (the maidens say
to the young man) on good family connections, as is written in
Proverbs: 'False is grace and vain is beauty: a woman that feareth the
Lord shall indeed be praised.'" It would have been anything but
appropriate to the occasion, and while the Chaldaic and the Hebrew of
the citation were Greek to Asriel, there was the prodigy to resent
Another hoary-headed child of the Law interposed: "'Go forth and
look, O ye daughters of Zion, on King Solomon, with the crown
wherewith his mother hath crowned him on the day of the joy of his
espousals, and on the day of the joy of his heart.' Saith the Talmud:
'By "the day of his espousals" is meant the day of the Giving of the
Law.' Accordingly, when Shaya's wedding takes place, if God be
pleased, it will be an espousal in the literal as well as in the
Talmudic sense, for is he not full of Law? It will therefore be the
Giving of the Law in marriage to Reb Asriel's daughter, will it not?"
"Never mind blushing, Shaya," said the rabbi, although the prodigy,
engrossed with the "paradise taste" of the lemon pie—a viand he had
never dreamed of—and keeping a sharp eye on the dwindling contents of
the tart-dish, was too busy to blush.
Flora was in her bedroom, the place of her voluntary exile most of
the time that her compulsory sweetheart was in the house. Her father
was kind and attentive to her, as usual, and never mentioned Shaya's
name to her. But she knew that he was irrevocably bent upon the
marriage, and her mood often verged on suicide. Could it really be
that after all her cherished dreams of afternoon drives in Central
Park, in a doctor's buggy and with the doctor himself by her side,
she was doomed to be the wife of that clumsy rustic, who did not even
know how to shake hands or to bow to a lady, and who could not say a
word without performing some grotesque gesture or curling his horrid
sidelocks? Oh, what would the girls say! She had twitted them on the
broken English of their otherwise wordly and comparatively
well-mannered sweethearts, and now she herself was matched with that
wretch of a holy soul!
And yet Shaya was never in her mind invested in the image of a
"clumsy rustic" nor of a "holy soul." Whenever she saw him she would
screw up a frown, but on one occasion, when their eyes met across the
supper table, they could not help smiling to each other, like children
"Flora dear, I want to speak to you," Asriel said, knocking at the
locked door of her hiding-place.
"Leave me alone, papa, will you? I've got a headache," she
"That's all right, but unlock the door. I won't eat you up."
She was burning to have her father broach the painful subject, so
that she might have it out with him. With that end in view, she set
her teeth and turned the key. But Asriel came in so unaggressive, so
meek, in a pleading attitude so utterly unlike him, that he took her
by surprise, as it were, and she stood completely disarmed.
"I beg you, my daughter, do not shorten my days, and come
downstairs," he entreated with heartfelt ardor. "I have so little to
live, and the Uppermost has sent me a piece of comfort so that I may
die a righteous Jew—will you take it away from me? Will you put me
to shame before God and man?"
The words and the pathos with which they were delivered so oddly
contrasted with all she knew of her father that she felt as if he were
really praying for his life. She was deeply touched and dazed, and
before she knew what she was about, found herself in the crowded
little dining room below.
"Good Sabbath, Flora, good Sabbath!" the venerable assemblage
"Good Sabbath!" she returned, bowing gracefully, and blushing.
"May your guest be pleasing to you," one of the company went on in
time-honored phrase; "and, if God be pleased, we shall live to make
merry at your wedding."
Flora's face turned a deeper red.
Several of the Talmudists were itching for some banter at the
expense of the young pair, but the American girl's dignified bearing
and her commanding figure and dress bore down every tendency in that
direction, so that the scholarly old gentlemen turned their
overflowing spirits in other channels.
"Give us some Law, Shaya!" said Reb Mendele, with a Talmudic wave
of both hands.
"That's right," the others concurred. "Your prospective
father-in-law is feasting us upon fare of the earth, and it is meet
that you should regale us with Words of Law."
Shaya, his face as red as Flora's, was eyeing the tablecloth as he
murmured, "'No conversing during repast."'
"Words of Law are no converse," Reb Mendele retorted. "The
Commentary adds: 'Not so much as to quote the precept about silence
during repast,'" Shaya rejoined reluctantly, without raising his
eyes. "Now the precept is Words of the Law, is it not? Which means
that the prohibition does extend to Words of Law."
Apart from his embarrassment, the prodigy was somehow loath to
engage in a spiritual discussion in the presence of the stylish young
"Why did you quote it then?" Reb Mendele pursued aggressively. He
referred to two other passages, in support of his position; and
Shaya, with his eyes still on the tablecloth, and refraining from all
gesticulation, could not help showing the irrelevance of both. It was
a "knock-out blow," but his red-bearded opponent cleverly extricated
himself from the ignominy of his defeat by assuming an amused air, as
if it had all been mere bait to decoy the prodigy to a display of his
erudition and mental powers; and retaining his smile against further
emergency, Reb Mendele hazarded another assault. Some of the other
Talmudists took a hand. The battle waxed hot, though Shaya, fighting
single-handed against half a dozen elders, remained calm, and parried
their blows with a shamefaced but contemptuous look, never raising a
finger nor his eyes from the tablecloth. Once in the fray, he would
not have Flora see him get the worst of it.
She, on her part, could not help a growing interest in the debate,
and finally accepted the chair which Tamara had tenderly placed by her
side five minutes before. To be sure, she understood not a word of
the controversy. To her it was something like a boxing-match, with
every exciting element of the sport, but without any of its violence
(which alone kept Flora from attending pugilistic performances),
though the arms and fingers of our venerable combatants were even more
active than are the arms and fists of two athletes in a modern ring.
As she watched the progress of the discussion she became conscious of
a decided partisan feeling in favor of the younger man. "It ain't
fair a bit!" she said to herself. "Six old-timers against one boy—I
Asriel and Tamara, to both of whom the contest was as
unintelligible as it was to Flora, were so abandoned to their
admiration of the youthful disputant that they omitted to notice the
girl's undisguised interest in the scene and to congratulate
themselves upon it. The host followed the controversy with a sheepish
look of reverence, as if the company were an assemblage of kings.
The housekeeper looked on with a beaming face, and every time one of
the patriarchs made a bold attack, she would nod her head as if she
understood it all, and conceded the strength of his contention.
Egged on by Flora's presence as well as by the onslaughts of his
adversaries, Shaya gradually warmed up to the debate, until, having
listened, with sardonic patience, to a lengthy and heated argument by
a fleshy child of the Law, he suddenly leaped upon his man.
"Is this the way you understand the passage?" he shouted, with a
vicious chuckle. Then, thrusting his curly head in his opponent's
face, and savagely gesticulating, he poured forth a veritable
cataract of the most intricate syllogisms and quotations.
It was quite a new Shaya. His blue eyes flashed fire, his whole
countenance gleamed, his singsong rang with tuneful ferocity.
"But it seems to me that Rabbi Yohanon does not say that," the
portly Talmudist objected. "I am afraid you have misquoted him."
It was the drowning man's straw. Even Flora, who understood the
Yiddish of the retort, could see that; and her heart bounded with
"Have I? You are sure, are you?" Shaya demanded, with boyish
virulence. "All right. We shall see!" With which he darted out of
the room and upstairs.
"The boy is a
gaon," [genius] the corpulent old man
remarked humbly. "What ahead! What a memory, what a chariff!
" [acute intellect]
"Yes, and what a
bokki! [man of erudition] " chimed in the
rabbi. "One cannot help wondering when he had time to study up so
"He'll just take a peep at a book and then he knows it all by
heart," put in Asriel. "He licked all the rabbis around Pravly."
The boorish remark disposed some of the listeners to laugh, but
they did not.
"You have got a treasure, Mr. Stroon," said Reb Mendele.
"You bet!" the host answered with a blissful simper, as he took to
stroking his daughter's hair.
"You know what the Talmud says, Mr. Stroon?" resumed the rabbi.
"That he who supports a scholar of the Law is like unto him who
"I know," Asriel returned exultingly. At the Pravly synagogue the
preacher had applied the same quotation to Reb Lippe.
Presently Shaya returned with a pile of huge volumes in his arms.
His citation proved correct, and meeting with no further opposition,
but too far carried away by the subject to quit it so soon, he
volunteered an extemporaneous discourse. His face was now wrapped in
genial, infantile ecstasy and his intonation was a soft, impassioned
melody. The old man followed him with paternal admiration.
When he concluded and leaned back in his chair, he gave Flora a
triumphant smile. The color mounted to her cheeks and she dropped her
gaze. At the same moment Asriel flung himself upon the young hero.
"Oh, you dear little sparrow!" he exclaimed, lifting Shaya in his
arms like a baby, and passionately kissing him.
Tamara wiped her eyes with her apron. Flora had a mind to flee for
safety, but she forthwith saw herself out of danger, for her father
seemed unmindful of her presence, and the first thing he did as he
let the prodigy down was to invite his guests upstairs to show them
the newly imported library.
As the patriarchal company was filing out of the dining room,
Shaya, passing by Flora, said to her gleefully: "I gave it to them,
"Tell me now," said Tamara, when the two women found themselves
alone in the room; "ought you not to thank God for such a treasure of
"He is nothing of the kind to me," Flora burst out, "and he never
will be, either. I don't care how long papa is going to keep him in
"Oh, papa!" sobbed Flora; "will you ever put an end to it? You
know I'll never marry him."
"Do I compel you to?" he replied. "What do you care if he is in the
house? He does not take away your dinner, does he? Imagine that he
is your brother and don't bother your head about him. The boy has
become so dear to me that I feel as if he were my own son. Will you recite Kaddish for my soul? Will you play for me at the
anniversary of my death? God thought I was not good enough to have a
son, but he sent me this holy child to take the place of one. As I
hear him read his holy books," he went on, with mounting pathos, "it
melts like ice cream in my heart. It pleased the Uppermost to make a
boor of your papa. Well, I suppose He knows his business, and I am
not going to poke my nose in, and ask questions; but He seems to have
taken pity on me after all, and in my old age he has sent me an
angel, so that I may get the credit of supporting him. Did you hear
what the wise men said? That to support a man who does nothing but
study sacred books is as good as offering sacrifices. Yes, my
daughter, God has put this boy in my hands; He sent me all the way to
Pravly for him—all to give me a chance to make up for my sins. Do
you want me to kick him out? Not if New York turned upside down."
"Hold on! Let me talk the heart out of myself. It's no use asking
me to send him away. He is God's gift. He is as holy as a Purity (the
scrolls of the Law) . You are my daughter, and he is my son. I
don't chase you under the bridal canopy with a strap, do I? If God
does not wish the match, it won't come off, that's all."
The conversation took place about a fortnight after the great
debate. Asriel lived in the hope that when Shaya had learned some
English and the ways of Flora's circle, she would get to like him. He
could not see how it was possible to withstand the charms of the young
man whom he sincerely thought the handsomest fellow in the Jewish
colony. He provided him with a teacher, and trusted the rest to time
"Just fix him up in English and a little figuring, and that's all,"
he instructed the teacher. "But mind you, don't take him too far
into those Gentile books of yours. He does not want any of the monkey
tricks they teach the children at college. Do you understand?"
Flora was getting used to Shaya's presence in the house, as if he
actually were a newly discovered brother of hers, brought up in a
queer way which she could not understand, and it was only
occasionally and at growing intervals that the situation would burst
upon her, and she would plead with her father as she had done.
The two young people frequently found themselves alone. The door
between the front parlor, which was now Shaya's study, and Flora's
boudoir was most of the time open. They often talked together, and
she quizzed him about his manners, and once or twice even went over
his English lessons with him, laughing at his mispronunciations, and
correcting them in the imposing manner of her former schoolteachers.
"Why do you work your fingers like that?" she once said, with a
pained look. "Can't you try and read without them?"
"I am used to it from the Talmud—he—he—he!" he tittered, as if
acknowledging a compliment.
Her piano did not disturb him in his studies, for in the
synagogues, where he had grown up, he had been used to read in a
turmoil of other voices; but he loved the instrument, and he would
often pause to listen to Flora's energetic strokes through the door.
When the tune was a melancholy one its first accords would make him
start, with a thrill; and as he proceeded to listen his heart would
contract with a sharp feeling of homesickness, and at the same time he
would be longing for still more familiarity in the performer's manner
toward him. Sometimes he would cross over to her room and quietly
stand behind her while she was playing.
"Ah, it is so nice!" he once said, feeling himself in a paradise on
"What are you doing here?" she exclaimed, facing about toward him,
in affected surprise. "Music ain't for a 'holy child' like
yourself." She mocked a favorite expression of her father's.
"Don't say that," he reproached her. "You always like to tease me.
Why don't I tease you?"
Upon the whole, Shaya took the situation quite recklessly. He
studied his Talmud and his English, let Tamara cloy him with all sorts
of tidbits, and roamed about the streets and public buildings. In
less than six months he knew the city and its suburbs much better than
Flora, and could tell the meaning of thousands of printed English
words, although he neither knew how to use them himself nor recognized
them in the speech of others. Flora was amazed by his rapid progress,
and the facility with which he mastered his Arithmetic and English
Grammar in neither of which she had been strong at school—even piqued
her ambition. It was as if she had been beaten by the "holy soul" on
her own ground.
The novelty of studying things so utterly out of his rut was like a
newly discovered delicacy to his mental palate. He knew by heart a
considerable part of the English translation in his Hebrew prayer
book and Old Testament, and his greatest pleasure, when Asriel was not
about, was to do arithmetical problems. But the problems were all
child's play to him, and he craved some higher grade of intellectual
food in the same Gentile line. This he knew from his Talmud to be
contained in the "Wisdom of Measuring," which he had learned of his
teacher to call Geometry.
"Bring me a Geometry, please," he whispered to his instructor.
"I will, but don't say a word to Mr. Stroon about it."
The forbidden fruit was furnished, and the prodigy of sacred lore
applied himself to it with voracity.
"How cunning!" he said to the teacher, in a transport of
enthusiasm. "Of course, it is not as deep as Talmud, but I never
dreamed there were such subtle things in the Gentile books at
all—may I be ill if I did."
"This is only the beginning of it," the other returned, in
whispered exultation. "Wait till you get deeper into it. And then
there are other books, far more interesting."
"Say, young fellow!" Asriel said to Shaya's teacher a week or so
later; "you need not trouble your righteous legs to bring you here
any more. You are getting too thick with the boy."
Shaya now found no difficulty in plodding through the theorems and
problems unaided. But he yearned after his teacher and friend, and
for several days could relish neither his Talmud nor his contraband
Geometry. He grew restless. His soul was languishing with thirst.
"Guess where I have been," he confidentially said to Flora, coming
from the street one afternoon. He spoke in Yiddish, and she answered
in English, interspersed with the same dialect.
"Not in the synagogue, studying?" she queried.
"No—at the Astor Library," he whispered. "They have such a lot of
books there, Flora! Upstairs and downstairs—large rooms like rich
synagogues, with shelves all over the walls, and all full of books.
Have you ever been there, Flora?"
"N—no!" she owned, with reluctance. The "holy soul" was clearly
forging ahead of her in a world which she considered all her own; and
she hated the idea of it, and liked it at the same time. "What did
"I just looked at the books—oh, what a lot!—and then I found out
how to get a Geometry—they have everything in the world, I tell
you—and I did some problems. Don't tell your father I was there."
"Of course I won't," she said intimately. "Can ladies come in?"
"Certainly; they have a separate place for them, though; will you
go there with me?"
"Some day," she rejoined evasively.
"Will you? Oh, it's so nice to be sitting and reading there! Only
you must sit still. I forgot myself, and as I was figuring out some
nice point, I began to reason aloud, so a fine old gentleman stepped
up to my side and touched me on the shoulder. Oh, I got so scared,
Flora! But he did not do me anything—may I be ill if he did. He
only told me to be quiet."
Flora burst out laughing.
"I'll bet you, you was singing in that funny way you have when you
are studying the Talmud."
"Yes," he admitted joyfully.
"And working your hands and shaking the life out of yourself," she
pursued, mimicking his gestures.
"No, I was not—may I not live till tomorrow if I was," he
protested vehemently, with a touch of resentment. "Oh, it is so nice
to be there! I never knew there were so many Gentile books in the
world at all. I wonder what they are all about. Only I am so
troubled about my English." He interrupted himself, with a distressed
air. "When I asked them for the book, and how to get it, they could
not understand me."
"I can understand everything you say when you speak English.
You're all right," she comforted him. His troubled, childlike smile
and his shining clear blue eyes, as he spoke, went to her heart.
"You can, but other people can't. I so wish I could speak it like
you, Flora. Do read a page or two with me, will you? I'll get my
"What's your hurry? Can't you wait?
He could not wait. He was in a fever of impatience to inhale the
whole of the Gentile language—definitions, spelling, pronunciation,
and all—with one desperate effort. It was the one great impediment
that seemed to stand between him and the enchanted new world that had
revealed itself to him.
"Oh, do hear me read—may you live long, Flora! It somehow draws
me as with a kind of impure force. Will you?"
"All right," she yielded, with kindly curiosity at the fervor of
his request, and feeling flattered.
He had been reading perhaps a quarter of an hour when he grew
"You must have skipped a line again," she said, in an awkward
They were seated at a respectful distance, with the corner of the
marble table between them, her full, well-modeled bust erect and
stately against the pier-glass. She wore a waist of dark-blue silk,
trimmed with red, and there was a red ribbon in her shock of inky
hair. Presently she leaned forward to see a mispronounced word for
herself. Their heads found themselves close together. Her ivory
cheek almost touched his.
"Where is it?" she questioned, under her breath.
He made no reply. His glance was riveted to her raven eyelashes.
A dash of scarlet lurking under her chin dazed his brain. After a
slight pause he said, as he timidly stroked her burning cheek: "It is
She had an impulse to withdraw her face, but felt benumbed. He
went on patting her, until, meeting with no resistance, his lips
touched her cheek, in a gingerly kiss. Both lowered their eyes.
They were silent, but their hearts, each conscious of the other's
beatings, throbbed wildly.
"Bad boy!" she then whispered, without raising her head.
After another silence, as their eyes met, they burst into a subdued
"You must not do that again," she said. "Is this the kind of pious
man you are?"
"Don't say that, Flora—pray don't. You know it hurts my feelings
when you speak like that," he implored her. And impelled by the
embarrassed, affectionate sadness of her mien, he seized her hand and
fell to kissing first her fingers and then her eyes, as though
beseeching them to reveal the meaning of their somber look. Their
lips met and clung together in a trance of passion. When they parted
Shaya felt ten years older, and as his eye fell upon the bookcase, he
wondered what those glittering, massive tomes were doing there.
"Will you tell your father that you want to be my sweetheart?" he
asked after a while.
His voice and his features appeared to her in a novel aspect.
"How do you know I do?" she said, with playful defiance, hiding a
burst of admiration which was lost upon the unworldly young man.
"Why—don't you?" he demanded solicitously.
Then, a sudden light of inspiration coming in her eyes, Flora said,
"Hol' on! How would you like to be a doctor, Shayie?"
"But your father would turn me out if I began to study for it."
She grew thoughtful. "But suppose he had no objection?" she
queried, her bashfulness suddenly returning to her face.
"Oh, then I should be dying to study doctor books—any kind of
Gentile books you wanted me to, Flora. But Reb Asriel won't let me."
"Listen! Can you keep a secret?" she asked like a conspiring
"You mean about your being my sweetheart?"
"No!" she rejoined impatiently. "I mean the other thing—your
studyin'. Papa needn't get wind of it till it's too late—you
understand? If you are smart, we can fix that."
"That's all right. I am awful clever at keeping a secret," he
"Well, I want you to be a doctor, Shayie," she resumed, with
matronly tenderness. "If you are, I'll care for you, and you'll be
my birdie boy, an' all; if not, you won't. Oh, won't it be lovely
when everybody knows that you go to college and study together with
nice, educated uptown fellows! We would go to theaters together and
read different books. You'll make a daisy of a college boy, too—you
bet. Would you like to wear a high hat, and spec's, and ride in a
buggy with a driver? Would you, would you, bad boy, you? Hello,
Doctor Golub! How are you?"
She presented her lips, and they kissed again and again.
"You know what, Shayie? When papa comes I'll go out somewheres, so
you can tell him—you know what I mean. It'll make it so much easier
to fool him. Will you tell him?"
"I am ashamed."
"I won't tell him."
"Don't be angry—I will. I shall always do everything you tell me,
Flora," he said, looking into her black gleaming eyes—"always,
always!" And in the exuberance of his delight he once again felt
himself a little boy, and broke out into a masterly imitation of the
crow of a cock, jumping up and flapping his arms for a pair of wings.
When Asriel and Shaya were alone in the parlor, the young man said,
as he fell to wringing his index finger, "Flora wants me to tell you
that she is satisfied."
"Satisfied with what?" the old man demanded, leaping to his feet.
"To be my sweetheart."
"Is she? Did she say so? When? Tamara!" he yelled, rushing
downstairs and dragging the prodigy along, "Tamara! May you live
long! The Uppermost has taken pity upon me after all. Floraly has
come around—blessed be the Uppermost." [Floraly is an affectionate
"Blessed be the Uppermost!" Tamara echoed, her pleasant, swarthy
face beaming with heartfelt delight. "When He wills, walls of iron
must give way. It is a divine match—any one can see it is. May they
live a hundred and twenty years together. Mazol-tov!" [Good luck]
"Mazol-tov to you and to all of us," Asriel responded. "But where
is Flora? Fetch some drink, Tamara."
He stepped up to the "Wonder-worker box," and deposited a silver
coin for the support of the pilgrims at Palestine, saying as he did
so: "I thank and praise thee, O Lord of the Universe, for thy mercy
toward me. Mayest Thou grant the children long years, and keep up in
Shaya his love for thy sacred Law. You know the match is all of your
own making, and you must take care of it. I am only your slave,
"Is Shayaly in?" inquired old Asriel on entering Flora's room one
morning in midsummer. It was four months after his daughter's
betrothment to the Talmudist had been celebrated by a solemn ceremony
and a sumptuous feast, the wedding having been set for a later date.
The crowning glory of his achievement Stroon postponed, like a rare
bottle of wine, for some future day. He dreaded to indulge himself in
such a rapid succession of This World joys lest he might draw upon
his Share in the World-to-come. Will the Uppermost let him live to see
his daughter and the "holy child," standing side by side under the
Canopy? Asriel was now confident that He would. "Is Shayaly in?"
"Of course he is—papa," Flora answered, raising her face from her
book. Her "papa" was added aloud, and as if upon afterthought.
The parlor door stood ajar. Asriel stationed himself near by and
listened to the young man's habitual singsong. The old man's face
gradually became radiant with bliss.
"My crown, my Messiah, my Kaddish! My Share in the World-to-come!"
"Did you have breakfast, papa?" Flora demanded, speaking still
louder than before.
At this moment Shaya's singsong broke out with fresh enthusiasm and
his Hebrew words became distinct. Asriel waved her away fiercely.
After a little he remarked in a subdued voice, as he pointed to the
front parlor, "This is my breakfast. This is for the soul, my
child; the worms of the grave cannot touch it, and you take it along
to the other world. Everything else is a lot of rubbish."
He made to leave, but could not help pausing, in fresh admiration,
and then, softly opening the parlor door he entered the sanctum, on
tiptoe, in order to feast his eye as well as his ear on the thrilling
scene. He found Shaya rapturously swaying and singing over a Talmud
volume. Flora watched her father with roguish delight.
"I am afraid I must not be gloating over him like this," Asriel
rebuked himself in his heart. "I may give him the evil eye." When he
regained the back parlor he said, under his breath: "Floraly, I am
afraid your company may disturb him sometimes. A pretty sweetheart
is apt to stir a fellow's brains, you know, and take him away from the
Law. He had better study more at the synagogues."
The girl blushed to her charcoal hair and dropped her glance. But
her father had scarcely gained his room, on the floor above, when she
flew into the front parlor with a ringing giggle.
"Now you can go right on, dearie," she said, encircling Shaya's
neck with one arm, and producing with the other an English textbook
on Natural Philosophy, which had lain open under the huge Hebrew
"You heard me holler, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," Shaya answered beamingly. "He interrupted me in
the middle of such a cunning explanation!"
"Did he? What was it about? All about sounds—the same as
"Yes, but it is even more brainy than what I told you."
He proceeded to expound, in Yiddish, what he had been reading on
Acoustics, she listening to his enthusiastic popularization with
docile, loving inattention.
The young man made a pretense of spending his afternoons, and
sometimes also mornings, at the various synagogues of the Jewish
quarter. His proud guardian encouraged this habit, in order that his
"daughter's bridegroom" might disseminate his sacred knowledge among
other congregations than his own. "Your learning is the gift of God,
Shayaly," he would say, "and you needn't be ashamed to peddle it
around. Reb Lippe said America wanted a man like you to spread the
holy Law here. Go and do it, my son, and the Uppermost will help us
all for your sake."
The prodigy and his importer were the talk of the orthodox colony,
and nothing was more pleasing to Asriel than to hear the praises of
his daughter's fiancé sounded by the Talmudists. There came a time,
however, when, in his own synagogue, at least, these encomiums ceased.
Asriel missed them keenly and pestered the learned men of the
congregation with incessant talks about Shaya, for the purpose of
worrying out some acknowledgment of his phenomenal talents. But the
concession was mostly made in a half-hearted way, and poor Asriel
would be left hungrier than ever. Particularly was his heart longing
for the warm eulogies of Reb Tzalel, a poor, sickly old peddler, who
was considered one of the most pious and learned men in the
neighborhood. Asriel liked the man for his nervous sincerity and
uncompromising self-respect. He often asked him to his house, but
the tattered, underfed peddler invariably declined the invitation.
"What will I do there, Reb Asriel?" he would say, with the pained
sort of smile which would light up his ghastly old face whenever he
spoke. "Look at your costly carpet and furniture, and bear in mind
that you are a landlord and I a poor peddler! At the synagogue I
like you better, for here we are equals. Saith the verse in the Book
of Job: 'Whereas He is one that shows no favor to chieftains, and
distinguishes not the rich before the indigent, for all of them are
the work of his hands."' Reb Tzalel translated the verse into Yiddish
for the benefit of his listener, whereupon Asriel felt a much
wealthier man than he was, and at the same time he had a sense of
humiliation, as though his money were something to be ashamed of.
This man's unusual reticence on the point of Shaya's merits
chagrined Asriel sorely, and his mind even began to be troubled by
some vague misgivings on that score.
One evening Asriel sat by Reb Tzalel's side in the study rooms of
his synagogue. It was in the latter part of November, and Shaya's
wedding was to take place during the Feast of Hanuccah, some few
weeks later. The evening services, which on week days were held in
these rooms, were over, and the "learners" could now give themselves
to their divine studies undisturbed, save for the possible and
unwelcome advent of some belated Ten Worshipers. The two spacious,
dingy rooms, their connecting doors wide open, were dimly lighted
with candles placed upon the plain long deal tables ranged against
their discolored walls. The open bookcases were filled with
dilapidated old volumes, many more being in use or strewn about, in
chaotic heaps, on the tables, benches, or window sills.
In one room, around one of the long tables, were gathered the
members of the daily Mishnah class. There were about a dozen of them,
mostly poor peddlers or artisans—a humble, seedy, pitiable lot, come
after a hard day's work or freezing, to "take a holy word into their
mouths." Hardly one of these was up to the Gemarah part of the
Talmud, and even the Mishnah only few could brave single-handed. They
sat at their open books following their voluntary teacher, a large,
heavy, middle-aged man—a mass of unkempt beard, flesh, and rags,
ablaze with the intellectual fury of his enormous black eyes. He was
reading aloud, with ferocious appetite, swaying and jerking his
disheveled bulk, as he ever and anon tossed up his head to interpret
the Mishna to his pupils, and every little while breaking off in the
middle of a sentence, or even a word, to let his class shout the other
half as a guaranty of proficiency. Some of his listeners plodded
along the lines of their books, in humble silence, with their index
fingers for fescues; the brighter ones boldly interrupted the
ponderous man, joyously anticipating his explanations or pointing out
some discrepancy; one old dissembler repeated unintelligible
half-sentences with well-acted gusto; another little old fellow
betrayed the fog in his mind by timid nods of assent, while still
another was bravely kept from dozing off on his holy book by frequent
neighborly nudges from the man next him. Standing behind the members
of the class were some envying "boors," like our poor Asriel, to whom
even the Mishnah was a luxury beyond their intellectual means.
One of the long tables in the adjoining room was covered with the
open folios of the daily Gemarah class—some fifteen men of all ages
and economical conditions from the doddering apple-vender, to whom
the holy books are the only source of pleasure in this life as well as
in the other, to the well-fed, over-dressed young furniture-dealer,
with whom the Talmud is a second nature, contracted in the darker days
of his existence in Russia. There were several "keen brains" in the
group, and a former "prodigy" or two, like Shaya. The class needed
no guide, but one old man with a boyish face framed in snow-white
hair, and wearing a sea of unstarched linen collar about his emaciated
neck, was their chosen reader. He also left many sentences
unuttered, but he did it merely because he thought them too well-known
to need repetition. Whenever he had something to add to the text, he
would address himself to the man by his side, snapping his fingers at
him genially, and at times all but pinching him for ecstasy. The
others participated now by a twirl of a finger, now by the swift
repetition of a whole syllogism, now by an indescribable system of
gestures, enacting, in dumb show, the whole logical process involved
in a nice point. All at once the whole class would burst into a
bedlam of voices and gesticulations. When the whirlwind of enthusiasm
subsided, it might be followed by a bit of pleasantry from the
exuberance of good spirits at having got the better of a difficult
point—and upon the whole the motley company looked like a happy
family at the Sabbath table.
The other long tables in both rooms were occupied by lomdim
(learned men), each intent upon the good deed of studying "for study's
sake" by himself: some humming to their musty folios melodiously;
others smiling and murmuring to them, like a fond mother to her babe;
still others wailing or grumbling or expostulating with their books,
or slapping them and yelling for delight, or roaring like a lion in a
cage. A patriarch teaching his ten-year-old grandson and both
shouting at the top of their voices, in an entanglement of pantomime;
a swarthy little grammar-school boy going it on his own hook over a
volume bigger than himself; a "fine householder" in reduced
circumstances dignifiedly swinging his form and twirling his sidelock
as if he were confiding a secret to his immense golden beard; one or
two of the hollow-voiced prooshim, who had come to America
in search of fortune, but who were now supported by the congregation
for giving all their time to "the law and the service"; a knot of men
engaged in a mixed discussion of "words of laws and "words of
every-day life"—all these voices and murmurs mingled in one
effervescence of the sublime and the ridiculous, with tragedy for a
keynote—twenty centuries thrown pellmell in a chaos of sound and
Asriel could have lived on the spectacle, and although unable to
participate in it himself, he now, since the advent of the prodigy,
looked upon it as a world in which he was not without a voice. He was
seated in a remote corner of the Gemarah room, now watching the noisy
scenes with open-mouthed reverence, now turning to admire Reb Tzalel
by his side. The cadaverous face and burning eyes of the peddler were
sneering at the drab-colored page before him, while his voice sounded
melancholy, like a subdued bugle call.
Presently Reb Tzalel paused, and the two engaged in converse. As
Asriel was boasting of Shaya's genius and kindliness of disposition,
vainly courting his friend for a word of assent, the peddler,
suddenly reddening in the face, interrupted him:
"What's the use of playing cat and rat, Mr. Stroon?" he burst out
with his ghastly smile. "I may as well tell you what lies like a
heavy stone on my heart. Your Shaya is going to the bad. He is an appikoros." [epicurean, atheist]
"An appikoros!" Asriel demanded, as if the word had suddenly
acquired a new meaning.
"Yes, an appikoros, and a Jeroboam the son of Nebat—he sins, and
leads others to sin," the Talmudist declared tartly. "I hated to
cause you the pain, Mr. Stroon, but he has gone too far in Gentile
books, and when he is here and you are not about he talks to everybody
he can get hold of concerning the way the world swings around the
sun, how rain and thunder, day and night—everything—can be explained
as a matter of common sense, and that there is no God in heaven, and
all that sort of vile stuff that you hear from every appikoros—may
they all be hurled from one end of the world to the other! Everything
can be explained—may the Angel of Death explain it to them, may
"Hold on, Reb Tzalel!" Asriel shouted: "You need not curse him: you
don't feed him, do you? And what you say is a lie!—as big a lie as
Og the King of Bashan!" he concluded with calm ferocity, raising his
burly figure from the bench.
"A lie, is it? Very well, then—you shall know all. Little
Mendele saw your imported decoration smoking a cigarette last
"Shaya smoke on the Sabbath!" Asriel echoed. The practical,
concrete nature of this sin came home to him with a more forceful blow
than all the peddler had said about Shaya's ungodly theories.
"Begone!" the surrounding chaos seemed to say to the "boor." "From
now on you have nothing to do here!"
"Shaya smoke a cigarette on the Sabbath!" he repeated. "Well, and
I have this to say, that Mendele, and yourself, and the whole lot of
you are nothing but a set of first-class liars and begrudging
gossip-mongers. It must give him a belly-ache to think that he could
not afford such a bridegroom for his girl and that I could. Well, I
have got a prodigy for my daughter and he has licked the whole lot of
you learned fellows to ground coffee. I have got him—see?—and let
all my enemies and the boy's enemies burst for envy." He clicked his
tongue and snapped his fingers, and for a moment stood glaring
witheringly at his interlocutor.
"Well, I am not going to argue with a boor," said Reb Tzalel, in
His words were drowned in the noise, but the "boor" reached
Asriel's ear and touched him on the raw. "Shut up, Reb Tzalel!"" he
"Why should I? This is not your house. It is God's dwelling. Here
I am richer than you. I only wanted to say that it is not you I pity.
You have been a boor, and that's what you are and will be. But the
boy was about to become a great man in Israel, and you have brought
him over here for bedeviled America to turn him into an appikoros.
Woe! woe! woe!"
"Keep still, Reb Tzalel; take pity," Asriel implored, in a
squeaking voice. "Don't spill any salt over my wounds. Forgive
me—you know I am a boor. Do take pity and say no more; but all you
have said—they have said—is a lie—the cholera choke me if it is
not." And gasping for breath, he ran out of the synagogue.
When he found himself in the street he was conscious of some
terrific blow having just been dealt him, but did not clearly realize
its full meaning; and what had transpired a minute before, between
him and Reb Tzalel, seemed to have occurred in the remote past. The
clamor of the street peddlers, and the whole maze of squalor and
noise through which he was now scurrying, he appeared to hear and to
view at a great distance, as if it all were on the other side of a
broad river, he hurrying on his lonely way along the deserted bank
"An appikoros! an appikoros!" he said to himself, vainly trying to
grasp the meaning of the word which he knew but too well. "An
appikoros, smoking on the Sabbath!" The spectacle smote him in cold
blood. "Shaya smoke on the holy Sabbath! It's a lie!"
He started in the direction of Mendele's residence, bent upon
thrashing the red-haired talebearer to death. Soon, however, he
halted and turned homeward. The courage failed Asriel Stroon to face
the man who had seen his daughter's fiancé smoke a cigarette on a
Saturday. Then Shaya appeared to his mind as something polluted,
sacrilegious, and although this something had nothing in common with
his beloved prodigy, save the name, and the young man whitened in the
distance, pure and lovely as ever, Asriel's rage surged in the
direction of his home, and he mended pace to storm the house as soon
as he could get there.
When he collected his wits he decided to wait till he found out
everything for himself. For the first time, perhaps, he felt himself
a coward. He quailed before the thought that what he had heard from
the learned peddler might prove true, and he cringingly begged his own
mind to put off the culminating agony of believing it.
Nevertheless, when he saw Shaya, at the supper table, his heart
whispered to him, in dismay: "An appikoros!" and the unuttered word
enveloped the prodigy in a forbidding, sinister atmosphere.
He now hated Shaya; he felt as though he feared him.
"Where have you been so late, papa?" Flora inquired.
"Deep in the earth. You care much where your papa is, do you?" he
"Papa!" she said deprecatingly; "are you mad?"
He made no response.
"Have you been to the Mariv service?" Shaya intervened. "I studied
at the Souvalk Synagogue today."
Asriel remained grimly uncommunicative.
The young people, reinforced by Tamara, made several other attempts
at conversation, but the dogged taciturnity of the head of the family
cast a spell of misery over them all, and the meal passed in
"See if papa ain't getting on to what you are doing, Shayie," Flora
said, when the two were alone.
"Pshaw! is it the first time you see him out of humor? He must
have had some trouble with a tenant or janitor."
"He must have," she assented gloomily. "But what if he gets wind?
I'm worrying the life out of myself about it."
"So am I. I love your father just the same as if he were my own
papa. I wish the wedding were over, don't you?" he asked in his
On the following morning Asriel repaired to the Souvalk Synagogue
to attend the service (his usual place of worship he had not the heart
to visit), and, incidentally, to ascertain how Shaya had spent his
time there the day before.
To his consternation he learned that his "daughter's bridegroom"
had not been seen there for weeks.
Asriel held his counsel, and took to shadowing the young man.
He now had no doubt as to the accuracy of Reb Tzalel's story. But
it gave him no pain. It was Shaya no longer; it was not his
daughter's bridegroom; it was not the prodigy he had imported—it was
an appikoros. But then Asriel's heart withered at the notion of being
the victim of systematic deception. Shaya was an appikoros and a
secret, sneaking enemy.
"That youngster trick Asriel Stroon!" He panted with hatred and
thrilled with a detective-like passion to catch Shaya in the act of
some grave violation of the Mosaic Law.
He went about the various synagogues where the young man was
supposed to study the Talmud, with a keen foretaste of his vicious joy
at finding that he had been playing truant. Yet each time his
fervent expectations were realized he would, instead of triumph,
experience an overpowering sense of defeat.
"You have been cheated out of your boots by a stripling,
Asrielke—woe to your foolish head!" he tortured himself, reveling in
an agony of fury. "Ah, a cholera into him! I'll show him how to fool
He discovered that Shaya's frequent companion was his former
teacher of English, whom he often visited in his attic room on Clinton
Street, and he impatiently awaited the next Saturday to raid the
atheistic resort and to overtake Shaya smoking or writing on the holy
day. But the climax came a day or two sooner.
After tracing Shaya to the Clinton Street house Asriel stood
waiting around a corner, at a vantage point from which he could see
the windows of the two garret rooms one of which was the supposed
scene of the young man s ungodly pursuits. He had no definite
purpose in view, for it was not Sabbath, and he would not spoil his
game by apprehending his man in the mere act of reading Gentile
books. Yet he was rooted to the place, and remained aimlessly
waiting, with his eyes riveted to the windows which they could not
penetrate. Tired at last, and overcome with a sense of having been
engaged in a fool's errand, he returned home, and, reaching his
bedroom, sank on the bed in a prostration of hurt pride and impotent
On the following morning he returned to his post. The attic
windows drew him like the evil one, as he put it to himself.
He had been keeping watch for some minutes when, to his fierce joy,
Shaya and his accomplice sallied forth into the street. He dogged
their steps to Grand Street, and thence, through the Bowery, to
Lafayette Place, where they disappeared behind the massive doors of an
imposing structure, apparently neither a dwelling place nor an office
"Dis a choych?" Asriel asked a passerby.
"A church? No, it's a library—the Astor Library," the stranger
"Ah, a lot of Gentile books!" he exclaimed to himself, disappointed
in one way and triumphant in another. The accustomed neighborhood
and the novelty of his impressions increased the power of the "evil
one" over him. He took up a position whence he could observe without
being observed, and waited for the two young men to come out. What he
would gain by tracing them back to the Jewish quarter he never asked
himself He waited because the "evil one" would not let him stir from
An hour passed. He was growing faint with hunger; yet he never
moved. "He has not had his lunch, either," he thought. "Still, he
can stand it. It's the witchcraft of the Gentile books—may he be
burned to death!—keeping up his strength. They'll come out in a
minute or two."
Many more minutes elapsed, and still Asriel waited. At last "Here,
they are, the convert Jews! Look at them—how jolly! It's the Black
Year shining out of their faces—may they shine on their death-beds!
That beggar of a teacher I shall have arrested."
He followed them through Fourth Street back to the Bowery and down
the rumbling thoroughfare, till—" a lamentation!" they entered a
A terrific pang smote Asriel's heart. It was as if he saw his
temple, the embodiment of many years of labor, the object of his
fondest cares, just completed and ready to be dedicated, suddenly
enveloped in flames. The prodigy, his prodigy, his Kaddish,
his glory in this and the other world, plunged into the very thick of
He made to rush after them, but checked himself to wait till the
treife [unclean] food was served them. A few minutes later he made
his entry, cool and collected as a regular customer.
Each of the two young men was bent on a veal cutlet. The collegian
was dispatching his with the nonchalant appetite and ease of manner of
an habituâ, whereas poor Shaya looked like one affecting to relish
his first plate of raw oysters. The smells proceeding from the
kitchen made him dizzy, and the cutlet itself, partly because he was
accustomed to meat of a better quality, but mainly through the
consciousness of eating treife, inclined him to nausea.
Asriel took a vacant chair at the same table.
"Bless the sitter, Shaya!" he said. [form of address when the host
is at table]
The two young men were petrified.
"How is the pork—does it taste well?" Asriel pursued.
"It is not pork. It is veal cutlet," the teacher found tongue to
"I am not speaking to you, am I?" Asriel hissed out. Murder was
swelling in his heart. But at this point the waiter came up to his
"Vot'll ye have?"
"Notink!" Asriel replied, suddenly rising from his seat and rushing
out, as if this were the most terrible sort of violence he could
Asriel found his daughter playing.
"Stop that or I'll smash your Gentile piano to pieces!" he
commanded her, feeling as though the instrument had all along been in
the conspiracy and were now bidding him defiance.
"Why, what's the matter?" she questioned, getting up from her stool
"Matter? Bluff a dead rooster, not me—my head is still on my
shoulders. Here it is, you see?" he added, taking himself by the
head. "It's all up, Flora."
"What do you mean?" she made out to inquire.
"I mean that if Shayke [contempuous diminutive] ever enters this
house I'll murder both of you. You thought your papa was a fool,
didn't you? Well, you are a poor hand at figuring, Flora. I knew
everything, but I wanted some particulars. I have got them all now
here, in my pocket, and a minute ago I took the pleasure of bidding
him 'bless the sitter' in a Gentile restaurant—may he be choked with
his treife gorge!"
"You've got no business to curse him like that!" she flamed out,
"I have no business? And who is to stop me, pray?"
"I am. It ain't my fault. You know I did not care at
The implication that he had only himself to blame threw him into a
new frenzy. But he restrained himself, and said with ghastly
deliberation: "Flora, you are not going to marry him."
"I am. I can't live without him," she declared with quiet
Asriel left her room.
"It's all gone, Tamara! My candle is blown out," he said, making
his way from the dining room to the kitchen. "There is no Shaya any
"A weeping, a darkness to me! Has an accident—mercy and
peace!—befallen the child?"
"Yes, he is 'dead and buried, and gone from the market place.'
Worse than that: a convert Jew is worse than a dead one. It's all
gone, Tamara!" he repeated gravely. "I have just seen him eating
treife in a Gentile restaurant. America has robbed me of my glory."
"Woe is me!" the housekeeper gasped, clutching at her wig.
"Treife! Does he not get enough to eat here?" She then burst out,
"Don't I serve him the best food there is in the world? Any king
would be glad to get such dinners."
"Well, it seems treife tastes better," Asriel rejoined bitterly.
"A calamity upon my sinful head! We must have evil-eyed the child;
we have devoured him with our admiring looks."
While Asriel was answering her volley of questions, Flora
stealthily left the house.
When Stroon missed her he hurried off to Clinton Street. There he
learned of the landlady that her lodger had left a short while before,
in the company of his friend and a young lady whom the two young men
had found waiting in her parlor. In his despair Asriel betook himself
to the Astor Library, to some of Flora's friends, and even to the
When he reached home, exhausted with fatigue and rage, he found his
daughter in her room.
"Where have you been?" he demanded, sternly.
"I'll tell you where, but don't aggravate yourself, papaly," she
replied in beseeching, tearful accents.
"Where have you been?"
"I am going to tell you, but don't blame Shaya. He is awful fond
of you. It's all my fault. He didn't want to go, but I couldn't help
it, papaly. We've been to the city court and got married by a judge.
Shaya didn't want to.
"Yes, but don't be angry, papaly darlin'. We'll do everything to
please you. If you don't want him to be a doctor, he won't."
"A doctor!" he resumed, still speaking like one in a daze. "Is
that what you have been up to? I see—you have got the best of me,
after all. You married, Flora?" he repeated, unable to apply the
meaning of the word to his daughter. "In court— without Canopy and
Dedication—like Gentiles? What have you done, Flora?" He sank into a
chair, gnashing his teeth and tearing at his sidelocks.
"Papaly, papaly, don't!" she sobbed, hugging and kissing him. "You
know I ain't to blame for it all."
It dawned upon him that no serious wrong had been committed, after
all, and that it could all be mended by a Jewish marriage ceremony;
and so great was his relief at the thought that it took away all his
anger, and he even felt as if he were grateful to his daughter for not
being guilty of a graver transgression than she was.
"I know you are not to blame," he said, tragic in his calmness.
"America has done it all. But what is the use talking! It's gone,
and I am not going to take another sin upon my soul. I won t let you
be his wife without Canopy and Dedication. Let the Jewish wedding
come off at once—this week—tomorrow. You have got the best of me
and I don't kick, do I? It seems God does not want Asrielke the boor
to have some joy in his old age, nor a Kaddish for his soul, when the
worms will be feasting upon his silly bones—"
"Oh, don't say that, papa. It'll break my heart if you do. You
know Shaya is as good as a son to you.
"An appikoros my son? An appikoros my Kaddish? No," he rejoined,
shaking his head pensively.
As he said it he felt as if Flora, too, were a stranger to him. He
descended to the basement in a state of mortal indifference. "I have
lost everything, Tamara," he said. "I have no daughter, either. I
am all alone in the world—alone as a stone."
He had no sooner closed the kitchen door behind him, than Flora was
out and away to Clinton Street to surprise her bridegroom with the
glad news of her father's surrender.
The housekeeper was in the kitchen, sewing upon some silk vestments
for the scrolls of her synagogue. Asriel stood by her side, leaning
against the cupboard door, in front of the Palestine box. Speaking
in a bleak, resigned undertone, he told her of Flora's escapade and of
his determination to make the best of it by precipitating the Jewish
ceremony. A gorgeous celebration was now, of course, out of the
question. The proposed föte which was to have been the talk of the
synagogues and which had been the center of his sweetest dreams had
suddenly turned in his imagination to something like a funeral feast.
Tamara bade him be of good cheer, and cited Rabbi Nochum
And-This-Too, who would hail the severest blows of fate with the
words: "And this, too, is for the best." But Asriel would not be
"Yes, Tamara, it is gone, all gone," he murmured forlornly. "It
was all a dream—a last year's lemon pie. It has flown away and you
can't catch it. Gone, and that's all. You know how I feel? As if
some fellow had played a joke on me."
The pious woman was moved.
"But it is a sin to take things so close to heart," she said
impetuously. "You must take care of your health. Bear up under your
affliction like a righteous Jew, Reb Asriel. Trust to the Uppermost,
and you will live to rejoice in your child and in her children, if God
Asriel heaved a sigh and fell silent. He stood with his eyes upon
the pilgrim box, listening to the whisper of her needle.
"You know what; let us go to the Land of Israel," he presently
said, as though continuing an interrupted sentence. "They have got
the best of me. I cannot change the world. Let them live as they
please and be responsible to the Uppermost for themselves. I don't
care the kernel of a hollow nut. I shall give Flora half my property
and the rest I'll sell. You are a righteous woman, Tamara. Why not
marry and end our days serving God in the Holy Land together?"
Tamara plied her needle with redoubled zeal. He could see only her
glossy black wig and the flaming dusk of her cheek.
"We'll have a comfortable living and plenty of money for deeds of
charity," he pursued. "I know I am only a boor. Do I say I am not?
But is a boor no human being at all? Can't I die a righteous Jew?" he
The glossy wig bent lower and the silk rustled busily.
"You know that I have on my tongue what I have on my lung, Tamara.
I mean what I say, and we want no matchmakers. America is now treife
to me. I can't show my head. The world is dark and empty to me.
All is gone, gone, gone. I am a little baby, Tamara. Come, take
pity. I shall see Flora married according to the laws of Moses and
Israel, and then let us put up a canopy and set out on our journey. I
want to be born again. Well?"
There was no response.
"Since it is the will of God," she returned resignedly, without
raising her head from the vestments.
Flora was all of a flutter with impatience to share her joy with
Shaya, and yearning for his presence. She had not seen him since he
had become her legal husband, and the two or three hours seemed a
When the German landlady of the little Clinton Street house told
her that neither her lodger nor his friend were in the attic room the
young woman's heart sank within her. Her message seemed to be
bubbling over and her over-wrought mind too weak to bear it another
minute. She mentally berated her absent bridegroom, and not knowing
whither to bend her steps in quest of him she repaired to some girl
friends to while away the time and to deliver herself of part of her
burden to them.
"When he comes tell him he da's not leave for one second till I
come back. Tell him I've got some grand news for him," she instructed
the landlady, struggling hard against a wild temptation to unbosom
herself to the stranger.
It was about eight o'clock when she returned. Shaya met her in the
"Well?" he inquired anxiously.
"Well?" she mocked him. "You are a daisy! Why didn't you wait?
Couldn't you guess I'd come?"
"How should I? But tell me what your father says. Why should you
"He says he don't want you," she replied. But her look told even a
more encouraging tale than the one she had to deliver, and they flew
into mutual embrace in an outburst of happiness which seemed to both
of them unlike any they had ever experienced before.
"A life into your little eyes! A health into your little hands and
feet!" he muttered, stroking her arm sheepishly. "You shall see how
fine it will all come out. You don't know me yet. I tell you you
don't begin to know me," he kept repeating with some braggadocio and
without distinctly knowing what he meant.
They were to return home at once and to try to pacify Asriel as
best they could. When Flora pressed him to take his hat and overcoat,
however, he looked reluctant and then said:
"Floraly, you know what; come upstairs for just one minute. We are
reading the nicest book you ever saw, and there is a lot of such nice
gentlemen there!—several genuine Americans Christians. Do come,
Floraly." He drew her up the two flights of stairs almost by force.
"Don't be afraid: the landlady knows all about it," he whispered.
"You'll see what nice people. I tell you they are so educated, and
they love Jews so much! A Jew is the same as a Gentile to them—even
Flora felt a lump growing in her heart. The notion of Shaya being
at this minute interested in anything outside of herself and their
mutual happiness literally dazed her, and before she had time to
recover from her shock she was in the over-crowded attic.
There were some ten or twelve men in the room, some seated—two on
chairs, two on the host's trunk, and three on his bed—the others
standing by the window or propping the sloping wall with their heads.
They were clustered about a round table, littered with books, papers,
and cigarette stumps. A tin can was hissing on the flat top of a
little parlor stove, and some of the company were sipping Russian tea
from tumblers, each with a slice of lemon floating in it. The group
was made up of a middle-aged man with a handsome and intensely
intellectual Scotch face, who was a laborer by day and a philosopher
by night; a Swedish tailor with the face of a Catholic priest; a
Zurich Ph.D. in blue eyeglasses; a young Hindoo who eked out a
wretched existence by selling first-rate articles to second- rate
weeklies, and several Russian Jews, all of them insatiable debaters
and most of them with university or gymnasium diplomas. The group met
every Thursday to read and discuss Harriet Martineau's Auguste
Comte, under the guidance of the Scotchman, who was a leading
spirit in positivist circles.
The philosopher surrendered his chair to the lady, in a flurry of
chivalry, but a seat was made for him on the trunk, and he forthwith
resumed his reading with well-bred impetuosity, the kerosene lamp in
the center of the table casting a halo upon his frank, pleasant face.
His auditors were now listening with conscious attention, some of
the younger men affecting an absorbed mien or interrupting the reader
with unnecessary questions. Shaya's eyes were traveling between
Flora and the Scotchman's audience. "Did you ever see such a
beautiful and stylish young lady?" he seemed to be saying. "She is
my bride—mine and nobody else's in the world," and, "Look at these
great men, Flora—I am their chum." Presently, however, he became
engrossed in the reading; and only half-conscious of Flora's
presence, he sat leaning forward, his mouth wide open, his face rapt,
and his fingers quietly reproducing the mental gymnastics of Comte's
system in the air.
The young woman gazed about her in perplexity. The Scotchman and
his reading inspired her with respect, but the rest of the company and
the tout ensemble of the scene impressed her as the haunt of
queer individuals, meeting for some sinister purpose. It was anything
but the world of intellectual and physical elegance into which she
had dreamed to be introduced by marriage to a doctor. Any society of
"custom peddlers" was better dressed than these men, who appeared to
her more like some of the grotesque and uncouth characters in
Dickens's novels than an assemblage of educated people. For a moment
even Shaya seemed a stranger and an enemy. Overcome by the stuffy,
overheated atmosphere of the misshapen apartment, she had a sense of
having been kidnaped into the den of some terrible creatures, and felt
like crying for help. Next she was wondering what her Shaya could have
in common with these shabby beings and what it all had to do with
becoming a doctor and riding in a buggy.
"Shaya!" she whispered, tugging him by the coat-sleeve.
"Just one moment, Floraly," he begged her. "Ah, it's so deep!"
A discussion engaged itself. The Russians fell to greedily. One
of them, in particular, a young man with a dignified bass, was hateful
to Flora. She could not have told you why, but his voice, coupled
with the red embroidery of his Little-Russian shirt front, cut her to
The room was full of smoke and broken English.
Shaya was brimful of arguments and questions which he had not the
courage to advance; and so he sat, now making a vehement gesture of
despair at somebody else's absurdities, now nodding violent approval,
and altogether fidgeting about in a St. Vitus's dance of impotent
"Shaya, it is getting late, and papa—"
"One second, do please, Floraly, may you live long," he implored
her, with some irritation; and taking the book from the Scotchman's
hand, he fell to turning over its leaves in a feverish search of what
struck him as a misinterpreted passage.
Flora was going to protest and to threaten to leave without him,
but she could neither speak nor stir from her seat. A nightmare of
desolation and jealousy choked her—jealousy of the Scotchman's book,
of the Little-Russian shirt, of the empty tea—glasses with the slices
of lemon on their bottoms, of the whole excited crowd, and of Shaya's
entire future, from which she seemed excluded.