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The Tabernacle by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich


There are people who have never been taught anything, and know everything, have never been anywhere, and understand everything, have never given a moment's thought to anything, and comprehend everything.

“Blessed hands” is the name bestowed on these fortunate beings. The world envies, honours and respects them.

There was such a man in our town, Kassrillevka. They called him Moshe-for-once, because, whatever he heard or saw or made, he exclaimed:

“It is such-and-such a thing for once.”

A new cantor in the synagogue—he is a cantor for once.

Some one is carrying a turkey for the Passover—it is a turkey for once.

“There will be a fine frost tomorrow.”

“A fine frost for once.”

“There were blows exchanged at the meeting.”

“Good blows for once.”

“Oh, Jews, I am a poor man.”

“A poor man for once.”

And so of everything.

Moshe was a——I cannot tell you what Moshe was. He was a Jew, but what he lived by it would be hard to say. He lived as many thousands of Jews live in Kassrillevka—tens of thousands. He hovered around the overlord. That is, not the overlord himself, but the gentlefolks that were with the overlord. And not around the gentlefolks themselves, but around the Jews that hovered around the gentlefolks who were with the overlord. And if he made a living—that was another story. Moshe-for-once was a man who hated to boast of his good fortune, or to bemoan his ill-fortune. He was always jolly. His cheeks were always red. One end of his moustache was longer than the other. His hat was always on one side of his head; and his eyes were always smiling and kindly. He never had any time, but was always ready to walk ten miles to do any one a favour.

That's the sort of a man Moshe-for-once was.

* * *

There wasn't a thing in the world Moshe-for-once could not make—a house, or a clock, or a machine, a lamp, a spinning-top, a tap, a mirror, a cage, and what not.

True, no one could point to the houses, the clocks, or the machines that came from his hands; but every one was satisfied Moshe could make them. Every one said that if need be, Moshe could turn the world upside down. The misfortune was that he had no tools. I mean the contrary. That was his good fortune. Through this, the world was not turned upside down. That is, the world remained a world.

That Moshe was not torn to pieces was a miracle. When a lock went wrong they came to Moshe. When the clock stopped, or the tap of the “ Samovar” went out of order, or there appeared in a house blackbeetles, or bugs, or other filthy creatures, it was always Moshe who was consulted. Or when a fox came and choked the fowls, whose advice was asked? It was always and ever Moshe-for-once.

True, the broken lock was thrown away, the clock had to be sent to a watchmaker, and the “Samovar” to the copper-smith. The blackbeetles, and bugs and other filthy things were not at all frightened of Moshe. And the fox went on doing what a fox ought to do. But Moshe-for-once still remained the same Moshe-for-once he had been. After all, he had blessed hands; and no doubt he had something in him. A world cannot be mad. In proof of this—why do the people not come to you or me with their broken locks, or broken clocks, or for advice how to get rid of foxes, or blackbeetles and bugs and other filthy things? All the people in the world are not the same. And it appears that talent is rare.

* * *

We became very near neighbours with this Moshe-for-once. We lived in the same house with him, under the one roof. I say became, because, before that, we lived in our own house. The wheels of fortune suddenly turned round for us. Times grew bad. We did not wish to be a burden to any one. We sold our house, paid our debts, and moved into Hershke Mamtzes' house. It was an old ruin, without a garden, without a yard, without a paling, without a body, and without life.

“Well, it's a hut,” said my mother, pretending to be merry. But I saw tears in her eyes.

“Do not sin,” said my father, who was black as the earth. “Thank God for this.”

Why for “this,” I do not know. Perhaps because we were not living on the street? I would rather have lived on the street than in this house, with strange boys and girls whom I did not know, nor wish to know, with their yellow hair, and their running noses, with their thin legs and fat bellies. When they walked they waddled like ducks. They did nothing but eat, and when any one else was eating, they stared right into his mouth.

I was very angry with the Lord for having taken our house from us. I was not sorry for the house as for the Tabernacle we had there. It stood from year to year. It had a roof that could be raised and lowered, and a beautiful carved ceiling of green and yellow boards, made into squares with a “Shield of David” in the middle. True, kind friends told us to hope on, for we should one day buy the house back, or the Lord would help us to build another, and a better, and a bigger and a handsomer house than the one we had had to sell. But all this was cold comfort to us. I heard the same sort of words when I broke my tin watch, accidentally, of course, into fragments. My mother smacked me, and my father wiped my eyes, and promised to buy me a better, and bigger and handsomer watch than the one I broke. But the more my father praised the watch he was going to buy for me, the more I cried for the other, the old watch. When my father was not looking, my mother wept silently for the old house. And my father sighed and groaned. A black cloud settled on his face, and his big white forehead was covered with wrinkles.

I thought it was very wrong of the Father of the Universe to have taken our house from us.

* * *

“I ask you—may your health increase!—what are we going to do with the Tabernacle?” asked my mother of my father some time before the Feast of Tabernacles.

“You probably mean to ask what are we going to do without a Tabernacle?” replied my father, attempting to jest. I saw that he was distressed. He turned away to one side, so that we might not see his face, which was covered with a thick black cloud. My mother blew her nose to swallow her tears. And I, looking at them.... Suddenly my father turned to us with a lively expression on his face.

“Hush! We have here a neighbour called Moshe.”

“Moshe-for-once?” asked my mother. And I do not know whether she was making fun or was in earnest. It seemed she was in earnest, for, half an hour later, the three were going about the house, father, Moshe, and Hershke Mamtzes, our landlord, looking for a spot on which to erect a Tabernacle.

* * *

Hershke Mamtzes' house was all right. It had only one fault. It stood on the street, and had not a scrap of yard. It looked as if it had been lost in the middle of the road. Somebody was walking along and lost a house, without a yard, without a roof, the door on the other side of the street, like a coat with the waist in front and the buttons underneath. If you talk to Hershke, he will bore you to death about his house. He will tell you how he came by it, how they wanted to take it from him, and how he fought for it, until it remained with him.

“Where do you intend to erect the Tabernacle, 'Reb' Moshe?” asked father of Moshe-for-once. And Moshe-for-once, his hat on the back of his head, was lost in thought, as if he were a great architect formulating a big plan. He pointed with his hand from here to there, and from there to here. He tried to make us understand that if the house were not standing in the middle of the street, and if it had had a yard, we would have had two walls ready made, and he could have built us a Tabernacle in a day. Why do I say in a day? In an hour. But since the house had no yard, and we needed four walls, the Tabernacle would take a little longer to build. But for that again, we would have a Tabernacle for once. The main thing was to get the material.

“There will be materials. Have you the tools?” asked Hershke.

“The tools will be found. Have you the timber?” asked Moshe.

“There is timber. Have you the nails?” asked Hershke.

“Nails can be got. Have you the fir-boughs?” asked Moshe.

“Somehow, you are a little too so-so today,” said Hershke.

“A little too what?” asked Moshe. They looked each other straight in the eyes, and both burst out laughing.

* * *

When Hershke Mamtzes brought the first few boards and beams, Moshe said that, please God, it would be a Tabernacle for once. I wondered how he was going to make a Tabernacle out of the few boards and beams. I begged of my mother to let me stand by whilst Moshe was working. And Moshe not only let me stand by him, but even let me be his assistant. I was to hand him what he wanted, and hold things for him.

Of course this put me into the seventh heaven of delight. Was it a trifle to help build the Tabernacle? I was of great assistance to Moshe. I moved my lips when he hammered; went for meals when he went; shouted at the other children not to hinder us; handed Moshe the hammer when he wanted the chisel, and the pincers when he wanted a nail. Any other man would have thrown the hammer or pincers at my head for such help, but Moshe-for-once had no temper. No one had ever had the privilege of seeing him angry.

“Anger is a sinful thing. It does as little good as any sin.”

And because I was greatly absorbed in the work, I did not notice how and by what miracle the Tabernacle came into being.

“Come and see the Tabernacle we have built,” I said to father, and dragged him out of the house by the tails of his coat. My father was delighted with our work. He looked at Moshe with a smile, and said, pointing to me:

“Had you at any rate a little help from him?”

“It was a help, for once,” replied Moshe, looking up at the roof of the Tabernacle with anxious eyes.

“If only our Hershke brings us the fir-boughs, it will be a Tabernacle for once.”

Hershke Mamtzes worried us about the fir-boughs. He put off going for them from day to day. The day before the Festival he went off and brought back a cart-load of thin sticks, a sort of weeds, such as grow on the banks of the river. And we began to cover the Tabernacle. That is to say, Moshe did the work, and I helped him by driving off the goats which had gathered around the fir-boughs, as if they were something worth while. I do not know what taste they found in the bitter green stalks.

Because the house stood alone, in the middle of the street, there was no getting rid of the goats. If you drove one off another came up. The second was only just got rid of, when the first sprang up again. I drove them off with sticks.

“Get out of this. Are you here again, foolish goats? Get off.”

The devil knows how they found out we had green fir-boughs. It seems they told one another, because there gathered around us all the goats of the town. And I, all alone, had to do battle with them.

The Lord helped us, and we had all the fir-boughs on the roof. The goats remained standing around us like fools. They looked up with foolish eyes, and stupidly chewed the cud. I had my revenge of them, and I said to them:

“Why don't you take the fir-boughs now, foolish goats?”

They must have understood me, for they began to go off, one by one, in search of something to eat. And we began to decorate the Tabernacle from the inside. First of all, we strewed the floor with sand; then we hung on the walls all the wadded quilts belonging to the neighbours. Where there was no wadded quilt, there hung a shawl, and where there was no shawl, there was a sheet or a table-cloth. Then we brought out all the chairs and tables, the candle-sticks and candles, the plates and knives and forks and spoons. And each of the three women of the house made the blessing over her own candles for the Feast of Tabernacles.

* * *

My mother—peace be unto her!—was a woman who loved to weep. The Days of Mourning were her Days of Rejoicing. And since we had lost our own house, her eyes were not dry for a single minute. My father, though he was also fretted, did not like this. He told her to fear the Lord, and not sin. There were worse circumstances than ours, thank God. But now, in the Tabernacle, when she was blessing the Festival candles, she could cover her face with her hands and weep in silence without any one knowing it. But I was not to be fooled. I could see her shoulders heaving, and the tears trickling through her thin white fingers. And I even knew what she was weeping for.... It was well for her that father was getting ready to go to synagogue, putting on his Sabbath coat that was tattered, but was still made of silk, and his plaited silk girdle. He thrust his hands into his girdle, and said to me, sighing deeply:

“Come, let us go. It is time we went to synagogue to pray.”

I took the prayer-books, and we went off. Mother remained at home to pray. I knew what she would do—weep. She might weep as much as she liked, for she would be alone. And it was so. When we came back, and entered the Tabernacle, and father started to make the blessing over the wine, I looked into her eyes, and they were red, and had swollen lids. Her nose was shining. Nevertheless, she was to me beautiful as Rachel or Abigail, or the Queen of Sheba, or Queen Esther. Looking at her, I was reminded of all our beautiful Jewish women with whom I had just become acquainted at “Cheder.” And looking at my mother, with her lovely face that looked lovelier above the lovely silk shawl she wore, with her large, beautiful, careworn eyes, my heart was filled with pain that such lovely eyes should be tear-stained always—that such lovely white hands should have to bake and cook. And I was angry with the Lord because He did not give us a lot of money. And I prayed to the Lord to destine me to find a treasure of gold and diamonds and brilliants. Or let the Messiah come, and we would go back to the Land of Israel, where we should all be happy.

This was what I thought. And my imagination carried me far, far away, to my golden dreams that I would not exchange for all the money in the world. And the beautiful Festival prayers, sung by my father in his softest and most melodious voice, rang in my ears.

“Thou hast chosen us above all peoples, Us hast Thou chosen Of all the nations.”

Is it a trifle to be God's chosen people? To be God's only child? My heart was glad for the happy chosen people. And I imagined I was a prince. Yes, a prince. And the Tabernacle was a palace. The Divine Holiness rested on it. My mother was the beautiful daughter of Jerusalem, the Queen of Sheba. And on the morrow we would make the blessing over the most beautiful fruit in the world—the citron. Ah, who could compare with me? Who could compare with me?

* * *

After father, Moshe-for-once pronounced the blessing over the wine. It was not the same blessing as my father's—but, really not. After him, the landlord, Hershke Mamtzes pronounced the blessing over the wine. He was a commonplace man, and it was a commonplace blessing. We went to wash our hands, and we pronounced the blessing over the bread. And each of the three women brought out the food for her family—fine, fresh, seasoned, pleasant, fragrant fish. And each family sat around its own table. There were many dishes; a lot of people had soup; a lot of mouths were eating. A little wind blew into the Tabernacle, through the frail thin walls, and the thin roof of fir-boughs. The candles spluttered. Every one was eating heartily the delicious Festival supper. And I imagined it was not a Tabernacle but a palace—a great, big, brilliantly lit-up palace. And we Jews, the chosen people, the princes, were sitting in the palace and enjoying the pleasures of life. “It is well for you, little Jews,” thought I. “No one is so well-off as you. No one else is privileged to sit in such a beautiful palace, covered with green fir-boughs, strewn with yellow sand, decorated with the most beautiful tapestries in the world, on the tables the finest suppers, and real Festival fish which is the daintiest of all dainties. And who speaks of——” Suddenly, crash! The whole roof and the fir-boughs are on our heads. One wall after the other is falling in. A goat fell from on high, right on top of us. It suddenly grew pitch dark. All the candles were extinguished. All the tables were over-turned. And we all, with the suppers and the crockery and the goat, were stretched out on the sand. The moon shone, and the stars peeped out, and the goat jumped up, frightened, and stood on its thin legs, stock-still, while it stared at us with foolish eyes. It soon marched off, like an insolent creature, over the tables and chairs, and over our heads, bleating “Meh-eh-eh-eh!” The candles were extinguished; the crockery smashed; the supper in the sand; and we were all frightened to death. The women were shrieking, the children crying. It was a destruction of everything—a real destruction.

* * *

“You built a fine Tabernacle,” said Hershke Mamtzes to us in such a voice, as if we had had from him for building the Tabernacle goodness knows how much money. “It was a fine Tabernacle, when one goat could overthrow it.”

“It was a Tabernacle for once,” replied Moshe-for-once. He stood like one beaten, looking upwards, to see whence the destruction had come. “It was a Tabernacle for once.”

“Yes, a Tabernacle for once,” repeated Hershke Mamtzes, in a voice full of deadly venom. And every one echoed his words, all in one voice:

“A Tabernacle for once.”


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