Heershadovid Menkes is the first American born after the war to have published in Yiddish. His stories are often set in Lithuania, a stronghold of Yiddish before the war. The 39-year-old Menkes explained that he writes by holing himself up in a cottage in North Wales, where "I immerse myself in the Lithuania of 100 years ago." The following short story is abridged. It was translated from Yiddish by Curt Leviant
By Heershad Menkes
Gershom Ragbymeh, the rabbi of Shumsk, returned to Lithuania from Warsaw after a month and a half. As his luxurious coach glided into Shumsk, one could see etched into his face the despair of a man who realizes that he has lost everything. He looked like a fresh corpse that had rolled off the purification table at the cemetery and was managing a couple of last steps just to frighten the living.
At seventy, Gershom was tall and strong and had a stately appearance. His long imposing beard shone regally with strands of red, gold, white, silver, beautiful as the famed rainbows in the village of Salok. And here he alighted from the carriage a broken man and shuffled to his door with the gait of a cripple. He had become thin. His exquisite rabbinic garb hung from him like the clothes of a scrawny pauper dressed in the suit of a recently deceased fat banker. The colors of his beard had dulled. They seemed to blend into one turbid hue that resembled freshly trodden soil on a muddy morning.
There was no need to ask what had happened in Warsaw. Gershom Ragbymeh had already divorced three wives because they had borne him only girls. He had two from each wife. His fourth wife, Shprintza - he was over fifty and she a seventeen-year-old virgin when he joined her under the wedding canopy - had remained barren altogether. He angrily told off the barber-surgeon in Shumsk and the best Vilna doctors too, when they suggested that the coupleís childlessness was because of him, not his wife. For years, Vilna doctors had been telling him that there was a specialist in Warsaw for such matters, one Professor Maximovitch. If he couldnít help then no one could. In his clinic, to which rich men from all over the Russian empire came, the professor examined the rabbi thoroughly. He gave him potions to drink, medicines to swallow, salves to apply. And when he bade farewell to the Lithuanian rabbi, he told him forthrightly:
"If youíve heard about me in Vilna itís not because Iím a charlatan. Iím very sorry to inform you that you will not be able to have any children. You are over seventy and you must - Iím sure itís the case also according to your own religion - accept it as Godís will."
These words were a death knell to Gershom, and not only because of the blow to his male pride. He loved his six daughters ardently. But it made no sense now telling the gentile doctor why the diagnosis was the end of the world for him.
For seven hundred years the house of Rabbeynu Gershom had maintained itself in Shumsk, from the day that Tanchum of Rothenburg bought the circular palace with twenty-three of the gold nuggets that the Maharam had given him. Every Shumsk rabbi had at least one son who was worthy of continuing the rabbinic line. And now it had come to such a miserable end. He had only daughters from three wives and barrenness from the fourth. The greatest professor in the empire couldnít do a thing for him.
When Gershom returned from Warsaw, he barely greeted his wife. He made for the study up at the top of the palace and bade the maid to prepare a bed for him there. He told her to inform all the household that on no account was he to be disturbed. Everything that he needed for meals and other daily human needs he arranged to have in the upper chambers. For weeks on end he didnít come down. In Shumsk people speculated that Gershom had fallen into such a depression that he had gone mad. In the surrounding villages they began to call him the "Attic of Shumsk." His wife, daughters and sons-in-law remained silent when asked how the hidden one was doing. They didnít want to cook up gossip. In any event, they didnít know themselves how he was doing. Gershom permitted only the maid to come up to him. Pretty as Shprintza was, heartache caused her face to twitch and scow. She didnít have a husband, she wasnít single, she wasnít divorced, she wasnít a widow, and she wasnít even an agunah, a woman whose husband is presumed dead but cannot remarry for the lack of evidence of the death. -Shprintza scarcely set foot outside. It seemed to her that everyoneís greeting masked one and the same sentiment: "You thought you were so clever to marry the rich old rabbi, eh?"
Gershom didnít sleep more than a couple of hours a day, one hour here, another hour there. Day and night he suffered and tormented himself for bringing to such a bad end the house of Rabbeynu Gershom. A Shumsk rabbi, who to top it off was also named Gershom, was for the first time in seven hundred years unable to bring a male child into the world. What a disgrace for his ancestors in heaven and what a disgrace for the unborn generations. After a month had gone by he began to ponder more calmly if there was another way out after all. He paced back and forth in his study for hours, going round and round along the outer walls. Hearing the echoes of his footsteps, his family down below felt better; at least he didnít sit and cry all day and all night. The maid who provided him with his daily needs told Shprintza that God was merciful, her husband was improving. They had to have patience.
Finally, late one night, Gershom took hold of himself. His circular study was illuminated by four huge candles from which the tallow dripped over the silver candlesticks and onto the copper trays upon which they stood. At first he considered skipping a generation and preparing for ordination a specially chosen grandson. But he soon saw that that wouldnít do. The grandson was a son of a father not of the lineage of Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile.
Pacing about in his round study, in the great Shumsk palace where he had secluded himself in radiant, holy captivity, removed from physicality, surrounded by sacred old books bound in leather, wood and linen, and the Talmud manuscripts of Rabbeynu Gershom Light of the Exile, Gershom Ragbymeh gradually thought less about himself and his unborn son and more and more about his great ancestor. If the end of Rabbeynu Gershomís line had perforce come, then let it at least be an end worthy of his name.
He would have to do something that would be talked about not only in Shumsk but everywhere, even nine hundred years later, just as nowadays everyone remembered Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exileís rulings of nine hundred years earlier in the cities of Shum. After all, everyone had crowned him the first leader of Ashkenaz. People stopped sending questions of law to Pumpedita in Babylonia in the far reaches of creation. As the old Yiddish saying goes, the more profound the mystery, the simpler the solution. Rabbeynu Gershom hadnít known back then that his most important books would be lost, and that he would be remembered above all for his ruling forbidding a man to take two wives. Now the Maharik had cited a quote from the Rashbo to the effect that Rabbeynu Gershomís edict was in force only up to the end of the fifth millennium in the Hebrew calendar. That meant that the ruling had become null and void some six and a half centuries earlier. In any event, the ban on polygamy had to be made formal in Rabbeynu Gershomís day in order to pacify the gentiles who were then living in Speyer, Worms and Mainz, the cities known as "Shum."
But now it was not relevant. On the contrary, the peasants in Shumsk wouldnít care if a Jew took nine wives. Theyíd love to do the same themselves. If Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile had known that his ban on polygamy would sentence his own dynasty to extinction he never would have done it. But this didnít pertain only to his own familyís lineage. He thought about how many learned, good-hearted Jews they would have if a responsible, well-to-do Jewish scholar could take more than one wife. It just didnít make sense that for King Solomon it was permitted but for a person today it was as forbidden as bread on Passover. By obeying a ruling for many hundreds of years after it was null and void, according to the time scale set down by its own author, one was surely doing no service to that author. On the contrary. It would be timely to replace that ruling now with a new one which would restore the crown to its former splendor. in less than one hundred years the Jews in the pale of settlement would become a mighty nation. No one would dare issue edict against them or launch pogroms. How many scholars there would be, how many young prodigies, good-hearted Jews and women of valor.
Once he got hold of himself, Gershom had solved everything in under an hour. For the first time since his return from Warsaw he laughed to himself. He mischievously slapped both cheeks and tugged at his many-colored beard for being such a fool ail these years and not righting the matter long ago. It would appear that only by secluding himself in a room replete with the divine spirit, alone with the Talmuds that Rabbeynu Gershom had transcribed for posterity, could such clarity of vision have come to him, up there in the study of his circular palace in Shumsk. Had he realized all this when he was young, he would have had ten sons. What was gone was gone. On the contrary, there are no coincidences. His own coming into this world, his lack of sons, everything stemmed from the concealed hand of divine providence, a hand whose purpose had just now become clear. The next step was to do what he had to do for all of Israel and for the house of Rabbeynu Gershom.
Slowly and with gentle reverence he cut out a blank page from the back of one of the old books and indicted his ruling crisply and briefly, according to the style of rabbinic edicts: "And the prohibition that Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile, of Mainz, had proclaimed that no Israelite should marry two women at the same time was valid only until the end of the fifth millennium; now, however, it is permitted, and he who increases the number of wives is to be praised Ė thus sayeth Rabbeynu Gershom of Shumsk, Lithuania, descended of Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile." Gershom ran downstairs with his former youthful stride, skipping three and four steps at a time. It was late at night, but the entire palace was awakened in a flash by the joyous clatter from up above. It was a sign that Gershom of Shumsk had shaken off his depression and that soon everything would return to normal. When he pranced into the great salon below, noises and whispers mingled with the creaking of the mighty oak doors upon which had been carved the coat of arms of the Lithuanian count who had sold the palace to Tanchum Rothenburg for twenty-three gold nuggets. Daughters and sons-in-law and their children dressed quickly in whatever came to hand. Everyone held candles until the maid (it the majestic kerosene chandeliers. Shprintza came in last. She wasnít as happy as the others. A wife senses when things arenít the way they ought to be. Nevertheless, she perked up when she saw her husband. Except for his weight, he looked much the way he did before his undoing in Warsaw by Professor Maximovitch. He stood straight as a telegraph pole and brimmed with his usual self-confidence.
"Oh, Gershom! Gershka! I thought Iíd never see you alive again."
"What are you talking about? I was busy studying Torah." "Let it be for the best. Well, itís the middle of the night. Why donít you go to bed? Youíve slept long enough up there in the attic."
"In a minute, Shprintza, in a minute. For me youíll always be my first wife, my most beloved wife." "I donít know about most beloved, but Iíll sure never be the first. I'm the fourth, for goodness sake!" "Silly woman, Iím talking about the future. The future! Youíll remain as my wife and Iíll take another wife. Perhaps two. Who knows, maybe even three. After all, I have to be the first to obey the new ruling of Rabbeynu Gershom, that is, Rabbeynu : Gershom of Shumsk. The -public doesnít know yet that the old ban on taking many wives expired over six hundred and fifty years ago!" "Heís gone mad!
Take him to the hospital for the insane in Vilna! Marry who you like! Just give me a divorce! A divorce! Iíve had enough with your lunacy about the honor of your family tree. The honor of a dog would be better. A cat. An otter. Oh my God..."
Shprintza fainted. The maid ran over to revive her. The whole commotion angered Gershom. He ordered everyone to go to sleep. The next morning Shprintza took a coach to Vilna to her sister who lived with her family on Broad Street. The sisters rushed over together to the courtyard of the Great Synagogue, where they grabbed hold of the first rabbi they took sight of. They told him what had happened in Shumsk. The rabbi shuddered and accompanied them at once to the Rabbinical Council. Before long the rabbi of Shumsk was summoned to appear there, but he ignored the summons. Meanwhile, he officiated himself at his wedding to a new wife, a poor orphan from a village called Bolnik. He lived with her in the circular palace in Shumsk, from which all other members of the household, including the maid, had fled as though tram a fire. Everyone concluded that the rabbi had been driven mad by all his troubles.
In Vilna, the rabbinical council issued a ban against Gershom of Shumsk. They tried to organize ten rabbis to sign it, but it wasnít easy. No true scholars wanted their names on a ban against a descendant of Rabbeynu Gershom Light of the Exile. No true scholars could even be sure that Gershom was legally wrong; after all, the old ban had indeed run out more than six and a half centuries earlier, and there was no doubt about where the Bible stood in these matters. In the end they found eight people who technically speaking had rabbinical ordination but had never come to anything. Two others lied and said they had ordination from somewhere, just to get their names on a published list of rabbis. For many years, scholars debated the extent to which envy and ambition were the real motives for "the ten signers," as they came to be known in those circles.
The ban was printed. The proclamation posters giving public notice of the ban were given to a messenger. He rode around in a horse and wagon and posted them on the doors of the study houses throughout the area. But the rabbi of Shumsk didnít give a hoot about all this. A year later he married another orphan, from Sviranek. She believed-his assertion that it was permissible. If a famous rabbi said it was all right what more did one need? Shortly thereafter he took a third wife, also an orphan, from Kurkul, outside of Svir. A rumor went round that he had tricked an old acquaintance, a volunteer for the Vilna Society for the Support of Orphans, into giving him a list of poor Jewish orphans who lived in the province.
He assured all three wives again and again that along with him they were fulfilling a sacred commandment. No more children were born to him, but he no longer thought of having his own sons. What was most important was that eventually, perhaps in one hundred or two hundred years, Jews everywhere would talk about the new edict of Rabbeynu Gershom of Shumsk who had given the people of Israel a remedy against all persecutions and evil decrees, a path to eternal life.
By now Gershomís business dealings were only with gentiles. Jews in the area took to calling him "the banned rabbi." No one would violate a Vilna ban. When Gershom died in his eighties, there was no funeral. His three wives buried him behind the circular palace. The same day they vanished as if into thin air.
A learned man of wealth in Vilna, a benefactor who was active in community affairs was sent to Shumsk, to the circular palace, along with Gershomís six daughters and their husbands, and two Russian policemen. An old watchman continued to live in the palace did not resist them. He crossed himself and left peaceably. The delegation from Vilna arranged on the spot for the manuscripts and books in the rabbinic study to be brought to a special room in the courtyard of Vilnaís Great Synagogue.
Upon Gershomís table they found the page with the ruling permitting marriage to more than one wife. Traversing the words of the ruling from top to bottom were all kinds of blessings containing the sacred name of God. It was Gershomís way of preventing people from destroying the page after his death. The wealthy scholar from Vilna quickly reminded the others that they had seen, en route to the palace, a little brick house being erected less than a mile away. They rushed over, handed the builders a handsome gift of rubles, and immured the page between the bricks of a wall. There it lies to this very day.
The Vilna community sent workers to dismantle the circular palace of Shumsk stone by stone, down to the very foundations. The stones were ground into sand. Of the great circular palace that Tanchum of Rothenburg had purchased for twenty-three gold nuggets not a trace remained.
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