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The Pocket Knife by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

 

Listen, children, and I will tell you a story about a little knife—not an invented story, but a true one, that happened to myself.

I never wished for anything in the world so much as for a pocket-knife. It should be my own, and should lie in my pocket, and I should be able to take it out whenever I wished, to cut whatever I liked. Let my friends know. I had just begun to go to school, under Yossel Dardaki, and I already had a knife, that is, what was almost a knife. I made it myself. I tore a goose-quill out of a feather brush, cut off one end, and flattened out the other. I pretended it was a knife and would cut.

“What sort of a feather is that? What the devil does it mean? Why do you carry a feather about with you?” asked my father—a sickly Jew, with a yellow, wrinkled face. He had a fit of coughing. “Here are feathers for you—playtoys! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!”

“What do you care if the child plays?” asked my mother of him. She was a short-built woman and wore a silk scarf on her head. “Let my enemies eat out their hearts!”

Later, when I was learning the Bible and the commentaries, I very nearly had a real knife, also of my own making. I found a bit of steel belonging to my mother's crinoline, and I set it very cleverly into a piece of wood. I sharpened the steel beautifully on a stone, and naturally cut all my fingers to pieces.

“See, just see, how he has bled himself, that son of yours,” said my father. He took hold of my hands in such a way that the very bones cracked. “He's a fine fellow! Heh-heh-heh!”

“Oh, may the thunder strike me!” cried my mother. She took the little knife from me, and threw it into the fire. She took no notice of my crying. “Now it will come to an end. Woe is me!”

I soon got another knife, but in reality, a little knife. It had a thick, round, wooden handle, like a barrel, and a curved blade which opened as well as closed. You want to know how I came by it? I saved up the money from what I got for my breakfasts, and I bought the knife for seven “groschens” from Solomon, and I owed him three more “ groschens.”

Oh, how I loved it, how I loved it. I came home from school black and blue, hungry and sleepy, and with my ears well boxed. (You see, I had just started learning the “Gemarra” with Mottel, the “Angel of Death.” “If an ox gore a cow” I learnt. And if an ox gores a cow, then I must get beaten.) And the first thing I did was to take out my pocket-knife from under the black cupboard. (It lay there the whole day, because I dared not take it to school with me; and at home no one must know that I have a knife.) I stroked it, I cut a piece of paper with it, split a straw in halves, and then cut up my bread into little cubes which I stuck on the tip of the blade, and afterwards put into my mouth.

Later, before going to bed, I cleaned the knife, and scrubbed it, and polished it. I took the sharpening stone, which I found in the hayloft, spit on it, and in silence began to work, sharpening the little knife, sharpening, sharpening.

My father, his little round cap on his head, sat over a book. He coughed and read, read and coughed. My mother was in the kitchen making bread. I did not cease from sharpening my knife, and sharpening it.

Suddenly my father woke up, as from a deep sleep.

“Who is making that hissing noise? Who is working? What are you doing, you young scamp?”

He stood beside me, and bent over my sharpening-stone. He caught hold of my ear. A fit of coughing choked him.

“Ah! Ah! Ah! Little knives! Heh-heh-heh!” said my father, and he took the knife and the sharpening-stone from me. “Such a scamp! Why the devil can't he take a book into his hand? Tkeh-heh-heh!”

I began to cry. My father improved the situation by a few slaps. My mother ran in from the kitchen, her sleeves turned up, and she began to shout:

“Shah! Shah! What's the matter here? Why do you beat him? God be with you! What have you against the child? Woe is me!”

“Little knives,” said my father, ending up with a cough. “A tiny child. Such a devil. Tkeh-heh-heh! Why the devil can't he take a book into his hand? He's already a youth of eight years.... I will give you pocket-knives—you good-for-nothing, you. In the middle of everything, pocket-knives. Thek-heh-heh!”

But what had he against my little knife? How had it sinned in his eyes? Why was he so angry?

I remember that my father was nearly always ailing—always pale and hollow-cheeked, and always angry with the whole world. For the least thing he flared up and would tear me to pieces. It was fortunate my mother defended me. She took me out of his hands.

And that pocket-knife of mine was thrown away somewhere. For eight days on end I looked and looked for it, but could not find it. I mourned deeply for that curved knife—the good knife. How dark and embittered was my soul at school when I remembered that I would come home with a swollen face, with red, torn ears from the hands of Mottel, the “Angel of Death,” because an ox gored a cow, and I would have no one to turn to for comfort. I was lonely without the curved knife—lonely as an orphan. No one saw the tears I shed in silence, in my bed, at night, after I had come back from “Cheder.” In silence, I cried my eyes out. In the morning I was again at “Cheder,” and again I repeated: “If an ox gore a cow,” and again I felt the blows of Mottel, the “Angel of Death”; again my father was angry, coughed, and swore at me. I had not a free moment. I did not see a smiling face. There was not a single little smile for me anywhere, not a single one. I had nobody. I was alone—all alone in the whole world.

* * *

A year went by, and perhaps a year and a half. I was beginning to forget the curved knife. It seems I was destined to waste all the years of my childhood because of pocket-knives. A new knife was created—to my misfortune—a brand new knife, a beauty, a splendid one. As I live, it was a fine knife. It had two blades, fine, steel ones, sharp as razors, and a white bone handle, and brass ends, and copper rivets. I tell you, it was a beauty, a real good pocket-knife.

How came to me such a fine knife, that was never meant for such as I? That is a whole story—a sad, but interesting story. Listen to me attentively.

What value in my eyes had the German Jew who lodged with us—the contractor, Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz, when he spoke Yiddish, went about without a cap, had no beard or earlocks, and had his coat-tails cut off? I ask you how I could have helped laughing into his face, when that Jewish-Gentile, or Gentilish-Jew talked to me in Yiddish, but in a curious Yiddish with a lot of A's in it.

“Well, dear boy, which portion of the Law will be read this week?”

“Ha! ha! ha!” I burst out laughing and hid my face in my hands.

“Say, say, my dear child, what portion of the Law will be read this week?”

“Ha! ha! ha! Balak,” I burst out with a laugh, and ran away.

But that was only in the beginning, before I knew him. Afterwards, when I knew Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz better (he lived at our house for over a year) I loved him so well that I did not care if he said no prayers, and ate his food without saying the blessings. Nevertheless, I did not understand how he existed, and why the Lord allowed him to remain in the world. Why was he not choked at table? And why did the hair not fall out of his uncovered head? I had heard from my teacher, Mottel, the “Angel of Death,” from his own mouth, that this German Jew was only a spirit. That is to say, a Jew was turned into a German; and later on he might turn into a wolf, a cow, a horse, or maybe a duck. A duck?

“Ha! ha! ha! A fine story,” thought I. But I was genuinely sorry for the German. Nevertheless, I did not understand why my father, who was a very orthodox Jew, should pay the German Jew so much respect, as also did the other Jews who used to come into our house.

“Peace be unto you, Reb Hertzenhertz! Blessed art thou who comest, Reb Hertz Hertzenhertz!”

I once ventured to ask my father why this was so, but he thrust me to one side and said:

“Go away. It is not your business. Why do you get under our feet? Who the devil wants you? Why the devil can't you take a book into your hands? Heh-heh-heh-heh!”

Again a book? Lord of the world, I also want to see; I also want to hear what people are saying.

I went into the parlour, hid myself in a corner, and heard everything the men talked about. Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz laughed aloud, and smoked thick black cigars that had a very strong smell. Suddenly my father came over to me, and gave me a smack.

“Are you here again, you idler and good-for-nothing? What will become of you, you dunce? What will become of you? Heh-heh-heh-heh!”

It was no use. My father drove me out. I took a book into my hands, but I did not want to read it. What was I to do? I went about the house, from one room to the other, until I came to the nicest room of all—the room in which slept Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz. Ah, how beautiful and bright it was! The lamps were lit, and the mirror shone. On the table was a big, beautiful silver inkstand, and beautiful pens, also little ornaments—men, and animals, and flowers, and bones and stones, and a little knife! Ah, what a beautiful knife! What if I had such a knife? What fine things I would make with it. How happy I should be. Well, I must try it. Is it sharp? Ah, it cuts a hair. It slices up a hair. Oh, oh, oh, what a knife!

One moment I held the knife in my hand. I looked about me on all sides, and slipped it into my pocket. My hands trembled. My heart was beating so loudly that I could hear it saying, “Tick, tick, tick!” I heard some one coming. It was he—Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz. Ah, what was I to do? The knife might remain in my pocket. I could put it back later on. Meanwhile, I must get out of the room, run away, away, far.

I could eat no supper that night. My mother felt my head. My father threw angry glances at me, and told me to go to bed. Sleep? Could I close my eyes? I was like dead. What was I to do with the little knife? How was I going to put it back again?

* * *

“Come over here, my little ornament,” said my father to me next day. “Did you see the little pocket-knife anywhere?”

Of course I was very much frightened. It seemed to me that he knew—that everybody knew. I was almost, almost crying out: “The pocket-knife? Here it is.” But something came into my throat, and would not let me utter a sound for a minute or so. In a shaking voice I replied:

“Where? What pocket-knife?”

“Where? What knife?” my father mocked at me. “What knife? The golden knife. Our guest's knife, you good-for-nothing, you! You dunce, you! Tkeh-heh-heh!”

“What do you want of the child?” put in my mother. “The child knows nothing of anything, and he worries him about the knife, the knife.”

“The knife—the knife! How can he not know about it?” cried my father angrily. “All the morning he hears me shouting—The knife! The knife! The knife! The house is turned upside down for the knife, and he asks 'Where? What knife?' Go away. Go and wash yourself, you good-for-nothing, you. You dunce, dunce! Tkeh-heh-heh!”

I thank Thee, Lord of the Universe, that they did not search me. But what was I to do next? The knife had to be hidden somewhere, in a safe place. Where was I to hide it? Ah! In the attic. I took the knife quickly from my pocket, and stuck it into my top-boot. I ate, and I did not know what I was eating. I was choking.

“Why are you in such a hurry? What the devil ...?” asked my father.

“I am hurrying off to school,” I answered, and grew red as fire.

“A scholar, all of a sudden. What do you say to such a saint?” he muttered, and glared at me. I barely managed to finish my breakfast, and say grace.

“Well, why are you not off to 'Cheder,' my saint?” asked my father.

“Why do you hunt him so?” asked my mother. “Let the child sit a minute.”

I was in the attic. Deep, deep in a hole lay the beautiful knife. It lay there in silence.

“What are you doing in the attic?” called out my father. “You good-for-nothing! You street-boy! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!”

“I am looking for something,” I answered. I nearly fell down with fright.

“Something? What is the something? What sort of a thing is that something?”

“A—a bo—ok. An—an old 'Ge—gemar—ra.'”

“What? A 'Gemarra'? In the attic? Ah, you scamp you! Come down at once. Come down. You'll get it from me. You street-boy! You dog-beater! You rascal! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!”

I was not so much afraid of my father's anger as that the pocket-knife might be found. Who could tell? Perhaps some one would go up to the attic to hang out clothes to dry, or to paint the rafters? The knife must be taken down from there, and hidden in a better place. I went about in fear and trembling. Every glance at my father told me that he knew, and that now, now he was going to talk to me of the guest's knife. I had a place for it—a grand place. I would bury it in the ground, in a hole near the wall. I would put some straw on the spot to mark it. The moment I came from “Cheder” I ran out into the yard. I took the knife carefully from my pocket, but had no time to look at it, when my father called out:

“Where are you at all? Why don't you go and say your prayers? You swine-herd you! You are a water-carrier! Tkeh-heh-heh!”

But whatever my father said to me, and as much as the teacher beat me, it was all rubbish to me when I came home, and had the pleasure of seeing my one and only dear friend—my little knife. The pleasure was, alas! mixed with pain, and embittered by fear—by great fear.

* * *

It is the summer time. The sun is setting. The air grows somewhat cooler. The grass emits a sweet odour. The frogs croak, and the thick clouds fly by, without rain, across the moon. They wish to swallow her up. The silvery white moon hides herself every minute, and shows herself again. It seemed to me that she was flying and flying, but was still on the same spot. My father sat down on the grass, in a long mantle. He had one hand in the bosom of his coat, and with the other he smoothed down the grass. He looked up at the star-spangled sky, and coughed and coughed. His face was like death, silvery white. He was sitting on the exact spot where the little knife was hidden. He knew nothing of what was in the earth under him. Ah, if he only knew! What, for instance, would he say, and what would happen to me?

“Aha!” thought I within myself, “you threw away my knife with the curved blade, and now I have a nicer and a better one. You are sitting on it, and you know nothing. Oh, father, father!”

“Why do you stare at me like a tom-cat?” asked my father. “Why do you sit with folded arms like a self-satisfied old man? Can you not find something to do? Have you said the night prayer? May the devil not take you, scamp! May an evil end not come upon you! Tkeh-heh-heh!”

When he says may the devil not take you, and may an evil end not come upon you, then he is not angry. On the contrary, it is a sign that he is in a good humour. And, surely, how could one help being in a good humour on such a wonderfully beautiful night, when every one is drawn out of doors into the street, under the soft, fresh, brilliant sky? Every one is now out of doors—my father, my mother, and the younger children who are looking for little stones and playing in the sand. Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz was going about in the yard, without a hat, smoking a cigar, and singing a German song. He looked at me, and laughed. Probably he was laughing because my father was driving me away. But I laughed at them all. Soon they would be going to bed, and I would go out into the yard (I slept in the open, before the door, because of the great heat), and I would rejoice in, and play with my knife.

The house is asleep. It is silent around and about. Cautiously I get up; I am on all fours, like a cat; and I steal out into the yard. The night is silent. The air is fresh and pure. Slowly I creep over to the spot where the little knife lies buried. I take it out carefully, and look at it by the light of the moon. It shines and glitters, like guinea-gold, like a diamond. I lift up my eyes, and I see that the moon is looking straight down on my knife. Why is she looking at it so? I turn round. She looks after me. Maybe she knows whose knife it is, and where I got it? Got it? Stole it!

For the first time since the knife came into my hands has this terrible word entered my thoughts. Stolen? Then I am, in short, a thief, a common thief? In the Holy Law, in the Ten Commandments, are written, in big letters: “THOU SHALT NOT STEAL.”

Thou shalt not steal. And I have stolen. What will they do to me in hell for that? Woe is me! They will cut off my hand—the hand that stole. They will whip me with iron rods. They will roast and burn me in a hot oven. I will glow for ever and ever. The knife must be given back. The knife must be put back in its place. One must not hold a stolen knife. Tomorrow I will put it back.

That was what I decided. And I put the knife into my bosom. I imagined it was burning, scorching me. No, it must be hidden again, buried in the earth till tomorrow. The moon still looked down on me. What was she looking at? The moon saw. She was a witness.

I crept back to the house, to my sleeping-place. I lay down again, but could not sleep. I tossed about from side to side, but could not fall asleep. It was already day when I dozed off. I dreamt of a moon, I dreamt of iron rods, and I dreamt of little knives. I got up very early, said my prayers with pleasure, with delight, ate my breakfast while standing on one foot, and marched off to “Cheder.”

“Why are you in such a hurry for 'Cheder'?” cried my father to me. “What is driving you? You will not lose your knowledge if you go a little later. You will have time enough for mischief. You scamp! You epicurean! You heathen! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!”

* * *

“Why so late? Just look at this.” The teacher stopped me, and pointed with his finger at my comrade, Berrel the red one, who was standing in the corner with his head down.

“Do you see, bandit? You must know that from this day his name is not Berrel the red one, as he was called. He is now called a fine name. His name is now Berrel the thief. Shout it out, children. Berrel the thief! Berrel the thief!”

The teacher drew out the words, and put a little tune into them. The pupils repeated them after him, like a chorus.

“Berrel the thief—Berrel the thief!”

I was petrified. A cold wave passed over my body. I did not know what it all meant.

“Why are you silent, you heathen, you?” cried the teacher, and gave me an unexpected smack in the face. “Why are you silent, you heathen? Don't you hear the others singing? Join in with them, and help them. Berrel the thief—Berrel the thief!”

My limbs trembled. My teeth rattled. But, I helped the others to shout aloud “Berrel the thief! Berrel the thief!”

“Louder, heathen,” prompted the teacher. “In a stronger voice—stronger.”

And I, along with the rest of the choir, sang out in a variety of voices, “Berrel the thief—Berrel the thief!”

“Sh—sh—sh—a—a—ah!” cried the teacher, banging the table with his open hand. “Hush! Now we will betake ourselves to pronouncing judgment.” He spoke in a sing-song voice.

“Ah, well, Berrel thief, come over here, my child. Quicker, a little quicker. Tell me, my boy, what your name is.” This also was said in a sing-song.

“Berrel.”

“What else?”

“Berrel—Berrel the thief.”

“That's right, my dear child. Now you are a good boy. May your strength increase, and may you grow stronger in every limb!” (Still in the same sing-song.) “Take off your clothes. That's right. But can't you do it quicker? I beg of you, be quick about it. That's right, little Berrel, my child.”

Berrel stood before us as naked as when he was born. Not a drop of blood showed in his body. He did not move a limb. His eyes were lowered. He was as dead as a corpse.

The teacher called out one of the older scholars, still speaking in the same sing-song voice:

“Well, now, Hirschalle, come out from behind the table, over here to me. Quicker. Just so. And now tell us the story from beginning to end—how our Berrel became a thief. Listen, boys, pay attention.”

And Hirschalle began to tell the story. Berrel had got the little collecting box of “Reb” Mayer the “Wonder-worker,” into which his mother threw a “kopek,” sometimes two, every Friday, before lighting the Sabbath candles. Berrel had fixed his eyes on that box, on which there hung a little lock. By means of a straw gummed at the end, he had managed to extract the “kopeks” from the box, one by one. His mother, Slatte, the hoarse one, suspecting something wrong, opened the box, and found in it one of the straws tipped with gum. She beat her son Berrel. And after the whipping she had prevailed on the teacher to give him, he confessed that for a whole year—a round year, he had been extracting the “kopeks,” one by one, and that, every Sunday, he had bought himself two little cakes, some locust beans, and—and so forth, and so forth.

“Now, boys, pronounce judgment on him. You know how to do it. This is not the first time. Let each give his verdict, and say what must be done to a boy who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box, by means of a straw.”

The teacher put his head to one side. He closed his eyes, and turned his right ear to Hirschalle. Hirschalle answered at the top of his voice:

“A thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box should be flogged until the blood spurts from him.”

“Moshalle, what is to be done to a thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box?”

“A thief,” replied Moshalle, in a wailing voice, “a thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box should be stretched out. Two boys should be put on his head, two on his feet, and two should flog him with pickled rods.”

“Topalle Tutteratu, what is to be done to a thief who steals ' kopeks' from a charity-box?”

Kopalle Kuckaraku, a boy who could not pronounce the letters K and G, wiped his face, and gave his verdict in a squeaking voice.

“A boy who steals 'topets' from the charity-bots should be punished lite this. Every boy should do over to him, and shout into his face, three times, thief, thief, thief.”

The whole school laughed. The master put his thumb on his wind-pipe, like a cantor, and called out to me, as if I were a bridegroom being called up, at the synagogue, to read the portion of the Law for the week:

“Tell me, now, my dear little boy, what would you say should be done to a thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box.”

I tried to reply, but my tongue would not obey me. I shivered as with ague. Something was in my throat, choking me. A cold sweat broke out all over my body. There was a whistling in my ears. I saw before me, not the teacher, nor the naked Berrel the thief, nor my comrades. I saw before me only knives—pocket-knives without an end, white, open knives that had many blades. And there, beside the door, hung the moon. She looked at me, and smiled, like a human being. My head was going round. The whole room—the table and the books, the boys and the moon that hung beside the door, and the little knives—all were whirling round. I felt as if my two feet were chopped off. Another moment, and I might have fallen down, but I controlled myself with all my strength, and I did not fall.

In the evening, I came home, and felt that my face was burning. My cheeks were on fire, and in my ears was a hissing noise. I heard some one speaking to me, but what they said I do not know. My father was saying something, and seemed to be angry. He wanted to beat me. My mother intervened. She spread out her apron, as a clucking hen spreads out her wing to defend her chickens from injury. I heard nothing, and did not want to hear. I only wanted the darkness to fall sooner, so that I might make an end of the little knife. What was I to do with it? Confess everything, and give it up? Then I would suffer the same punishment as Berrel. Throw it carelessly somewhere? But I may be caught? Throw it away, and no more, so long as I am rid of it? Where was I to throw it in order that it might not be found by anybody? On the roof? The noise would be heard. In the garden? It might be found. Ah, I know! I have a plan, I'll throw it into the water. A good plan, as I live. I'll throw it into the well that is in our own yard. This plan pleased me so much that I did not wish to dwell on it longer. I took up the knife, and ran off straight to the well. It seemed to me that I was carrying in my hand not a knife but something repulsive—a filthy little creature of which I must rid myself at once. But, still I was sorry. It was such a fine little knife. For a moment, I stood thinking, and it seemed to me that I was holding in my hand a living thing. My heart ached for it. Surely, surely, it has cost me so much heartache. It is a pity for the living. I summoned all my courage, and let it out suddenly from my fingers. Plash! The water bubbled up for a moment. Nothing more was heard, and my knife was gone. I stood a moment at the well and listened. I heard nothing. Thank God, I was rid of it. My heart was faint, and full of longing. Surely, it was a fine knife—such a knife!

* * *

I went back to bed, and saw that the moon was still looking down at me. And it seemed to me she had seen everything I had done. From the distance a voice seemed to be saying to me: “But, you are a thief all the same. Catch him, beat him. He is a thief, a thief.”

I stole back into the house, and into my own bed.

I dreamt that I ran, swept through the air. I flew with my little knife in my hand. And the moon looked at me and said:

“Catch him, beat him. He is a thief—a thief.”

* * *

A long, long sleep, and a heavy, a very heavy dream. A fire burnt within me. My head was buzzing. Everything I saw was red as blood. Burning rods of fire cut into my flesh. I was swimming in blood. Around me wriggled snakes and serpents. They had their mouths open, ready to swallow me. Right into my ears some one was blowing a trumpet. And, some one was standing over me, and shouting, keeping time with the trumpet: “Whip him, whip him, whip him. He is a thie—ef.” And I myself shouted: “Oh, oh, take the moon away from me. Give her up the little knife. What have you against poor Berrel? He is not guilty. It is I who am a thief—a thief.”

Beyond that, I remember nothing.

* * *

I opened one eye, then the other. Where was I? On a bed, I think. Ah, is that you, mother, mother? She does not hear me. Mother, mother, mo—o—other! What is this? I imagine I am shouting aloud. Shah! I listen. She is weeping silently. I also see my father, with his yellow, sickly face. He is sitting near me, an open book in his hand. He reads, and sighs, and coughs and groans. It seems that I am dead already. Dead?... All at once, I feel that it is growing brighter before my eyes. Everything is growing lighter, too. My head and my limbs are lighter. There is a ringing in my ear, and in my other ear. Tschinna! I sneezed. Akhstchu!

“Good health! May your days be lengthened! May your years be prolonged! It is a good sign. Blessed art Thou, O Lord!”

“Sneezed in reality? Blessed be the Most High!”

“Let us call at once Mintze the butcher's wife. She knows how to avert the evil eye.”

“The doctor ought to be called—the doctor.”

“The doctor? What for? That is nonsense. The Most High is the best doctor. Blessed be the Lord, and praised be His Name!”

“Go asunder, people. Separate a bit. It is terribly hot. In the name of God, go away.”

“Ah, yes. I told you that you have to cover him with wax. Well, who is right?”

“Praise be the Lord, and blessed be His Holy Name! Ah, God! God! Blessed be the Lord! and praised be His Holy Name!”

They fluttered about me. They looked at me. Each one came and felt my head. They prayed over me, and buzzed around me. They licked my forehead, and spat out, by way of a charm. They poured hot soup down my throat, and filled my mouth with spoonfuls of preserves. Every one flew around me. They cared for me as if I were the apple of their eye. They fed me with broths and tiny chickens, as if I were an infant. They did not leave me alone. My mother sat by me always, and told me over and over again the whole story of how they had lifted me up from the ground, almost dead, and how I had been lying for two weeks on end, burning like a fire, croaking like a frog, and muttering something about whippings and little knives. They already imagined I was dead, when suddenly I sneezed seven times. I had practically come to life again.

“Now we see what a great God we have, blessed be He, and praised be His Name!” That was how my mother ended up, the tears springing to her eyes. “Now we can see that when we call to Him He listens to our sinful requests and our guilty tears. We shed a lot, a lot of tears, your father and I, until the Lord had pity on us.... We nearly, nearly lost our child through our sinfulness. May we suffer in your stead! And through what? Through a boy who was a thief, a certain Berrel whom the teacher flogged at 'Cheder,' almost until he bled. When you came home from 'Cheder' you were more dead than alive. May your mother suffer instead of you! The teacher is a tyrant, a murderer. The Lord will punish him for it—the Lord of the Universe. No, my child, if the Lord lets us live, when you get well, we will send you to another teacher, not to such a tyrant as is the 'Angel of Death,'—may his name be blotted out for ever!”

These words made a terrible impression on me. I threw my arms around my mother, and kissed her.

“Dear, dear mother.”

And my father came over to me softly. He put his cold, white hand on my forehead, and said to me kindly, without a trace of anger:

“Oh, how you frightened us, you heathen you! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!”

Also the Jewish German, or the German Jew, Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz, his cigar between his teeth, bent down and touched my cheek, with his clean-shaven chin. He said to me in German:

“Good! Good! Be well—be well!”

* * *

A few weeks after I got out of bed, my father said to me:

“Well, my son, now go to 'Cheder,' and never think of little knives again, or other such nonsense. It is time you began to be a bit of a man. If it please God, you will be 'Bar-Mitzvah' in three years—may you live to a hundred and twenty. Tkeh-heh-heh!”

With such sweet words did my father send me off to “Cheder,” to my new teacher, “Reb” Chayim Kotter. It was the first time that I had heard such good kind words from my father. And I forgot, in a moment, all his harshness, and all his abuse, and all his blows. It was as if they had never existed in the world. If I were not ashamed, I would have thrown my arms about his neck, and kissed him. But how can one kiss a father? Ha! ha! ha!

My mother gave me a whole apple and three “groschens” to take to “Cheder,” and the German gave me a few “kopeks.” He pinched my cheek, and said in his language:

“Best boy, good, good!”

I took my “Gemarra” under my arm, kissed the “Mezuzah,” and went off to “Cheder” like one newly born, with a clean heart, and fresh, pious thoughts. The sun looked down, and greeted me with its warm rays. The little breeze stole in under one of my earlocks. The birds twittered—Tif—tif—tif—tif! I was lifted up. I was borne on the breeze. I wanted to run, jump, dance. Oh, how good it is—how sweet to be alive and to be honest, when one is not a thief and not a liar.

I pressed my “Gemarra” tightly to my breast, and still tighter. I ran to “Cheder” with pleasure, with joy. And I swore by my “Gemarra” that I would never, never touch what belonged to another—never, never steal, and never, never deny anything again. I would always be honest, for ever and ever honest.

 
 
 

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