Beadle by Sholem
When I think of Isshur the beadle, I am reminded of Alexander the
Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and other such giants of history.
Isshur was not a nobody. He led the whole congregation, the whole
town by the nose. He had the whole town in his hand. He was a man who
served everybody and commanded everybody; a man who was under
everybody, but feared nobody. He had a cross look, terrifying eyebrows,
a beard of brass, a powerful fist, and a long stick. Isshur was a name
to conjure with.
Who made Isshur what he was? Ask me an easier question. There are
types of whom it can be said they are cast, fixed. They never move out
of their place. As you see them the first time, so are they always. It
seems they always were as they are, and will ever remain the same. When
I was a child, I could not tear myself away from Isshur. I was always
puzzling out the one questionWhat was Isshur like before he was
Isshur? That is to say, before he got those terrifying eyebrows, and
the big hooked nose that was always filled with snuff, and the big
brass beard that started by being thick and heavy, and ended up in a
few, long straggling, terrifying hairs. How did he look when he was a
child, ran about barefoot, went to Cheder, and was beaten by
his teacher? And what was Isshur like when his mother was carrying him
about in her arms, when she suckled him, wiped his nose for him, and
said: Isshur, my sweet boy. My beautiful boy. May I suffer instead of
your little bones?
These were the questions that puzzled me when I was a child, and
could not tear myself away from Isshur.
Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother. And
Isshur would not even allow any one to think of him.
Surely, I was only one boy, yet Isshur called me wretches. You must
know that Isshur hated to have any one staring at him. Isshur hated
little children. He could not bear them. Children, he said, are
naturally bad. They are scamps and contradictory creatures. Children
are goats that leap into strange gardens. Children are dogs that snap
at one's coat-tails. Children are pigs that crawl on the table.
Children should be taught manners. They ought to be made to tremble, as
with the ague. And we did tremble as if we had the ague.
Why were we afraid, you ask. Well, would you not be afraid if you
were taken by the ear, dragged to the door, and beaten over the neck
Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother.
You will tell your mother on him? Well, try it. You want to know
what will happen? I will tell you. You will go home and show your
mother your torn ear. Your mother will pounce on your father. You see
how the tyrant has torn the ear of your childyour only son. Your
father will take you by the hand to the synagogue, and straight over to
Isshur the beadle, as if to say to him: Here, see what you have done
to my only son. You have almost torn off his ear. And Isshur will
reply to my father's unspoken words: Go in health with your wretches.
You hear? Even an only son is also wretches. And what can father do?
Push his hat on one side, and go home. Mother will ask him: Well? And
he will reply: I gave it to him, the wicked one, the Haman! What more
could I do to him?
It is not at all nice that a father should tell such a big lie. But
what is one to do when one is under the yoke of a beadle?
* * *
One might say that the whole town is under Isshur's yoke. He does
what he likes. If he does not want to heat the synagogue in the middle
of winter, you may burst arguing with him. He will heed you no more
than last year's snow. If Isshur wants prayers to start early in the
morning, you will be too late whenever you come. If Isshur does not
want you to read the portion of the Law for eighteen weeks on end, you
may stare at him from today till tomorrow, or cough until you burst. He
will neither see nor hear you. It is the same with your praying-shawl,
or your prayer-book, or with your citron, or the willow-twigs. Isshur
will bring them to you when he likes, not when you like. He says that
householders are plentiful as dogs, but there is only one beadlemay
no evil eye harm him! The congregation is so big, one might go mad.
And Isshur was proud and haughty. He reduced every one to the level
of the earth. The most respectable householder often got it hot from
him. It is better for you not to start with me, he said. I have no
time to talk to you. There are a lot of you, and I am only onemay no
evil eye harm me! And nobody began with him. They were glad that he
did not begin with them.
Naturally, no one would dream of asking Isshur what became of the
money donated to the synagogue, or of the money he got for the candles,
and the money thrown into the collection boxes. Nor did they ask him
any other questions relating to the management of the synagogue. He was
the master of the whole concern. And whom was he to give an account to?
The people were glad if he left them alone, and that he did not throw
the keys into their faces. Here, keep this place going yourselves.
Provide it with wood and water, candles and matches. The towels must be
kept clean. A slate has to be put on the roof frequently, and the walls
and ceiling have to be whitewashed. The stands have to be repaired, and
the books bought. And what about the 'Chanukali' lamp? And what
of the palm-branch and the citron? And where is this, and where is
that? And though every one knew that all the things he mentioned not
only did not mean an outlay of money, but were, on the contrary, a
source of income, yet no one dared interfere. All these belonged to the
beadle. They were his means of livelihood. The fine salary I get from
you! One's head might grow hard on it. It's only enough for the water
for the porridge, said Isshur. And the people were silent.
The people were silent, though they knew very well that Reb
Isshur was saving money. They knew very well he had plenty of money. It
was possible he even lent out money on interest, in secret, on good
securities, of course. He had a little house of his own, and a garden,
and a cow. And he drank a good glassful of brandy every day. In the
winter he wore the best fur coat. His wife always wore good boots
without holes. She made herself a new cloak not long ago, out of the
public money. May she suffer through it for our blood, Father in
That's what the villagers muttered softly through their teeth, so
that the beadle might not hear them. When he approached, they broke off
and spoke of something else. They blinked their eyes, breathed hard,
and took from the beadle a pinch of snuff with their two fingers.
This excuse me was a nasty excuse me. It was meant to be
flattering, to convey the sense ofExcuse me, your snuff is surely
good. And, Excuse me, give me a pinch of snuff, and go in peace.
Isshur understood the compliment, and also the hint. He knew the
people loved him like sore eyes. He knew the people wished to take away
his office from him as surely as they wished to live. But he heeded
them as little as Haman heeds the Purim rattles. He had them
in his fists, and he knew what to do.
* * *
He who wants to find favour with everybody will find favour with
nobody. And if one has to bow down, let it be to the head, not to the
Isshur understood these two wise sayings. He sought the favour of
the leaders of the community. He did everything they told him to, lay
under their feet, and flew on any errand on which they sent him. And he
flattered them until it made one sick. There is no need to say anything
of what went on at the elections. Then Isshur never rested. Whoever has
not seen Isshur at such a time has seen nothing. Covered with
perspiration, his hat pushed back on his head, Isshur kneaded the thick
mud with his high boots, and with his big stick. He flew from one
committee-man to another, worked, plotted, planned, told lies, and
carried on intrigues and intrigues without an end.
Isshur was always first-class at carrying on intrigues. He could
have brought together a wall and a wall. He could make mischief in such
a way that every person in the town should be enraged with everybody
else, quarrel and abuse his neighbour, and almost come to blows. And he
was innocent of everything. You must know that Isshur had the town very
cleverly. He thought within himself: Argue, quarrel, abuse one
another, my friends, and you will forget all about the doings of Isshur
That they should forget his doings was an important matter to
Isshur, because, of late, the people had begun to talk to him, and to
demand from him an account of the money he had taken for the synagogue.
And who had done this? The young peoplethe young wretches he had
always hated and tortured.
They say that children become men, and men become children. Many
generations have grown up, become men, and gone hence. The youngsters
became greybeards. The little wretches became self-supporting young
men. The young men got married and became householders. The
householders became old men, and still Isshur was Isshur. But all at
once there grew up a generation that was young, fresh, curiousa
generation which was called heathens, insolent, fearless, devils,
wretches. The Lord help and preserve one from them.
How does Isshur come to be an overlord? He is only a beadle. He
ought to serve us, and not we him. How long more will this old Isshur
with the long legs and big stick rule over us? The account. Where is
the account? We must have the account.
This was the demand of the new generation that was made up entirely
of heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches. They
shouted in the yard of the synagogue at the top of their voices. Isshur
pretended to be deaf, and not to hear anything. Afterwards, he began to
drive them out of the yard. He extinguished the candles in the
synagogue, locked the door, and threw out the boys. Then he tried to
turn against them the anger of the householders of the village. He told
them of all their misdeedsthat they mocked at old people, and
ridiculed the committee-men. In proof of his assertions, he showed the
men a piece of paper that one of the boys had lost. On it was written a
Who would have thought it? A foolish poem, and yet what excitement
it caused in the villagewhat a revolution. Oh! oh! It would have been
better if Isshur had not found it, or having found it, had not shown it
to the committee-men. It would have been far better for him. It may be
said that this song was the beginning of Isshur's end. The foolish
committee-men, instead of swallowing down the poem, and saying no more
about it, injured themselves by discussing it. They carried it about
from one to the other so long, until the people learnt it off by heart.
Some one sang it to an old melody. And it spread everywhere. Workmen
sang it at their work; cooks in their kitchens; young girls sitting on
the doorsteps; mothers sang their babies to sleep with it. The most
foolish song has a lot of power in it. When the throat is singing the
head is thinking. And it thinks so long until it arrives at a
conclusion. Thoughts whirl and whirl and fret one so long, until
something results. And when one's imagination is enkindled, a story is
sure to grow out of it.
The story that grew out of this song was fine and brief. You may
listen to it. It may come in useful to you some day.
* * *
The heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches
burrowed so long, and worked so hard to overthrow Isshur, that they
succeeded in arriving at a certain road. Early one morning they climbed
into the attic of the synagogue. There they found the whole treasurea
pile of candles, several poods of wax, a score of new
Tallissim, a bundle of prayer-books of different sorts that had
never been used. It may be that to you these things would not have been
of great value, but to a beadle they were worth a great deal. This
treasure was taken down from the attic very ceremoniously. I will let
you imagine the picture for yourself. On the one hand, Isshur with the
big nose, terrifying eyebrows, and the beard of brass that started
thick and heavy, and finished up with a few thin terrifying hairs. On
the other hand, the young heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones,
devils and wretches dragging out his treasure. But you need not imagine
Isshur lost himself. He was not of the people that lose themselves for
the least thing. He stood looking on, pretending to be puzzling himself
with the question of how these things came to be in the attic of the
Early next morning, the following announcement was written in chalk
on the door of the synagogue:
Memorial candles are sold here at wholesale price.
Next day there was a different inscription. On the third day still
another one. Isshur had something to do. Every morning he rubbed out
with a wet rag the inscriptions that covered the whole of the door of
the synagogue. Every Sabbath morning, on their desks the congregants
found bundles of letters, in which the youngsters accused the beadle
and his bought-over committee-men of many things.
Isshur had a hard time of it. He got the committee-men to issue a
proclamation in big letters, on parchment.
Hear all! As there have arisen in our midst a band of hooligans,
scamps, good-for-nothings who are making false accusations against the
most respected householders of the village, therefore we, the leaders
of the community, warn these false accusers openly that we most
strongly condemn their falsehoods, and if we catch any of them, we will
punish him with all the severities of the law.
Of course, the boys at once tore down this proclamation. A second
was hung in its place. The boys did not hesitate to hang up a
proclamation of their own in its stead. And the men found on their
desks fresh letters of accusation against the beadle and the
committee-men. In a word, it was a period when the people did nothing
else but write. The committee-men wrote proclamations, and the boys,
the scamps, wrote letters. This went on until the Days of Mourning
arrivedthe time of the elections. And there began a struggle between
the two factions. On the one side there was Isshur and his patrons, the
committee-men; and on the other side, the youngsters, the heathens, the
scamps, and their candidates. Each faction tried to attract the most
followers by every means in its power. One faction tried impassioned
words, enflamed speeches; the other, soft words, roast ducks, dainties,
and liberal promises. And just think who won? You will never guess. It
was we young scamps who won. And we selected our own committee-men from
amongst ourselvesyoung men with short coats, poor men, beggars. It is
a shame to tell it, but we chose working menordinary working men.
* * *
I am afraid you are anxious for my story to come to an end. You want
to know how long it is going to last? Or would you rather I told you
how our new committee-men made up their accounts with the old beadle?
Do you want to hear how the poor old beadle was dragged through the
whole village by the youngsters, with shouting and singing? The boys
carried in front of the procession the whole treasure of candles, wax,
Tallissim and prayer-books which they had found in the attic
of the synagogue. No, I don't think you will expect me to tell you of
Take revenge of our enemybathe in his blood, so to speak? No! We
could not do that. I shall tell you the end in a few words.
Last New Year I was at home, back again in the village of my birth.
A lot, a lot of water had flown by since the time I have just told you
of. Still, I found the synagogue on the same spot. And it had the same
Ark of the Law, the same curtains, the same reader's-desk, and the same
hanging candlesticks. But the people were different; they were greatly
changed. It was almost impossible to recognize them. The old people of
my day were all gone. No doubt there were a good many more stones and
inscriptions in the holy place. The young folks had grown grey. The
committee-men were new. The cantor was new. There was a new beadle, and
new melodies, and new customs. Everything was new, and new, and new.
One dayit was Hoshana Rabbathe cantor sang with his
choir, and the people kept beating their willow-twigs against the desks
in front of them. (It seems this custom has remained unchanged.) And I
noticed from the distance a very old man, white-haired, doubled-up,
with a big nose, and terrifying eyebrows, and a beard that started
thick and heavy, but finished up with a few straggling, terrifying
hairs. I was attracted to this old man. I went over to him, and put out
Peace be unto you! I said. I think you are 'Reb' Isshur
The beadle? What beadle? I am not the beadle this long time. I am a
bare willow-twig this long time. Heh! heh!
That is what the old man said to me in a tremulous voice. And he
pointed to the bare willow-twigs at his feet. A bitter smile played
around his grizzled beard that started thick and heavy, but finished
off with a few straggling, terrifying hairs.