Jews in Shushan
[Footnote: Copyright, 1981, by Macmillan Co.]
My newly purchased house furniture was, at the least, insecure; the
legs parted from the chairs, and the tops from the tables, on the
slightest provocation. But such as it was, it was to be paid for, and
Ephraim, agent and collector for the local auctioneer, waited in the
verandah with the receipt. He was announced by the Mahomedan servant
as 'Ephraim, Yahudi'—Ephraim the Jew. He who believes in the
Brotherhood of Man should hear my Elahi Bukhsh grinding the second
word through his white teeth with all the scorn he dare show before
his master. Ephraim was, personally, meek in manner—so meek indeed
that one could not understand how he had fallen into the profession of
bill-collecting. He resembled an over-fed sheep, and his voice suited
his figure. There was a fixed, unvarying mask of childish wonder upon
his face. If you paid him, he was as one marvelling at your wealth; if
you sent him away, he seemed puzzled at your hard-heartedness. Never
was Jew more unlike his dread breed. Ephraim wore list slippers and
coats of duster-cloth, so preposterously patterned that the most
brazen of British subalterns would have shied from them in fear. Very
slow and deliberate was his speech, and carefully guarded to give
offence to no one. After many weeks, Ephraim was induced to speak to
me of his friends.
'There be eight of us in Shushan, and we are waiting till there are
ten. Then we shall apply for a synagogue, and get leave from Calcutta.
To-day we have no synagogue; and I, only I, am Priest and Butcher to
our people. I am of the tribe of Judah—I think, but I am not sure. My
father was of the tribe of Judah, and we wish much to get our
synagogue. I shall be a priest of that synagogue.'
Shushan is a big city in the North of India, counting its dwellers
by the ten thousand; and these eight of the Chosen People were shut up
in its midst, waiting till time or chance sent them their full
Miriam the wife of Ephraim, two little children, an orphan boy of
their people, Epraim's uncle Jackrael Israel, a white-haired old man,
his wife Hester, a Jew from Cutch, one Hyem Benjamin, and Ephraim,
Priest and Butcher, made up the list of the Jews in Shushan. They
lived in one house, on the outskirts of the great city, amid heaps of
saltpetre, rotten bricks, herds of kine, and a fixed pillar of dust
caused by the incessant passing of the beasts to the river to drink.
In the evening the children of the City came to the waste place to fly
their kites, and Ephraim's sons held aloof, watching the sport from
the roof, but never descending to take part in them. At the back of
the house stood a small brick enclosure, in which Ephraim prepared the
daily meat for his people after the custom of the Jews. Once the rude
door of the square was suddenly smashed open by a struggle from
inside, and showed the meek bill-collector at his work, nostrils
dilated, lips drawn back over his teeth, and his hands upon a
half-maddened sheep. He was attired in strange raiment, having no
relation whatever to duster coats or list slippers, and a knife was in
his mouth. As he struggled with the animal between the walls, the
breath came from him in thick sobs, and the nature of the man seemed
changed. When the ordained slaughter was ended, he saw that the door
was open and shut it hastily, his hand leaving a red mark on the
timber, while his children from the neighbouring house- top looked
down awe-stricken and open-eyed. A glimpse of Ephraim busied in one of
his religious capacities was no thing to be desired twice.
Summer came upon Shushan, turning the trodden waste-ground to iron,
and bringing sickness to the city.
'It will not touch us,' said Ephraim confidently. 'Before the
winter we shall have our synagogue. My brother and his wife and
children are coming up from Calcutta, and THEN I shall be the priest
of the synagogue.'
Jackrael Israel, the old man, would crawl out in the stifling
evenings to sit on the rubbish-heap and watch the corpses being borne
down to the river.
'It will not come near us,' said Jackrael Israel feebly, 'for we
are the People of God, and my nephew will be priest of our synagogue.
Let them die.' He crept back to his house again and barred the door to
shut himself off from the world of the Gentile.
But Miriam, the wife of Ephraim, looked out of the window at the
dead as the biers passed and said that she was afraid. Ephraim
comforted her with hopes of the synagogue to be, and collected bills
as was his custom.
In one night, the two children died and were buried early in the
morning by Ephraim. The deaths never appeared in the City returns.
'The sorrow is my sorrow,' said Ephraim; and this to him seemed a
sufficient reason for setting at naught the sanitary regulations of a
large, flourishing, and remarkably well-governed Empire.
The orphan boy, dependent on the charity of Ephraim and his wife,
could have felt no gratitude, and must have been a ruffian. He begged
for whatever money his protectors would give him, and with that fled
down- country for his life. A week after the death of her children
Miriam left her bed at night and wandered over the country to find
them. She heard them crying behind every bush, or drowning in every
pool of water in the fields, and she begged the cartmen on the Grand
Trunk Road not to steal her little ones from her. In the morning the
sun rose and beat upon her bare head, and she turned into the cool wet
crops to lie down and never came back; though Hyem Benjamin and
Ephraim sought her for two nights.
The look of patient wonder on Ephraim's face deepened, but he
presently found an explanation. 'There are so few of us here, and
these people are so many,' said he, 'that, it may be, our God has
In the house on the outskirts of the city old Jackrael Israel and
Hester grumbled that there was no one to wait on them, and that Miriam
had been untrue to her race. Ephraim went out and collected bills, and
in the evenings smoked with Hyem Benjamin till, one dawning, Hyem
Benjamin died, having first paid all his debts to Ephraim. Jackrael
Israel and Hester sat alone in the empty house all day, and, when
Ephraim returned, wept the easy tears of age till they cried
A week later Ephraim, staggering under a huge bundle of clothes and
cooking-pots, led the old man and woman to the railway station, where
the bustle and confusion made them whimper.
'We are going back to Calcutta,' said Ephraim, to whose sleeve
Hester was clinging. 'There are more of us there, and here my house is
He helped Hester into the carriage and, turning back, said to me,
'I should have been priest of the synagogue if there had been ten of
us. Surely we must have been forgotten by our God.'
The remnant of the broken colony passed out of the station on their
journey south; while a subaltern, turning over the books on the
bookstall, was whistling to himself 'The Ten Little Nigger Boys.'
But the tune sounded as solemn as the Dead March.
It was the dirge of the Jews in Shushan.