Alexander Isbakh is (perhaps was) a Jewish fiction writer, critic, and journalist whose language is Russian, and who lives in Soviet Russia. Born Isaac Abramovich Bachrach in 1904, he rose to prominence in the Soviet literary world during the late 1920’s as a litterateur and critic. During the 30’s and the 40’s many “light” short stories from his hand appeared in Russian magazines, and in 1940 he was officially honored for his reporting of the Finnish-Russian war. The story published here is taken from a collection of autobiographical tales, Years of Life (Gody zhizni) , that came out in Moscow in 1948. The hostile reviews of this book which appeared early in 1949 were among the first signs of the official anti-Semitic campaign that terminated only with Stalin’s death. Isbakh was denounced—with his original name, Bachrach, almost always given in parenthesis— for “literary preciosity,” for his tenderness toward the Jewish religion, and for his “bourgeois nationalism” and open sympathies with Zionism. At that time Isbakh was professor of literature in the Moscow Pedagogical Institute and, as far as is known, was connected with no Soviet Jewish organization or cultural enterprise, nor had he ever written for specifically Jewish magazines. Since the spring of 1949 his name has never been mentioned in print in Russia.
That the charges against him were to some extent justified (though only a totalitarian regime would consider them criminal charges) is shown by the palpable ambiguity of his presumed hostility to Zionism and religious Judaism in the present story. Isbakh seems to criticize both in the figure of the rich “exploiter,” Solomon Rosenblum, and to aim at God through the doubts of the narrator. But obviously Rosenblum’s crassness and little Sender’s estrangement from God compromise neither Zionism nor God. Being the good artist he is in this story, Isbakh refrains from judging anything other than human beings. The Soviet critics were particularly incensed, moreover, by his daring to quote the text of “Hatikvah,” something that no Soviet Yiddish writer had ever ventured to do.
Bernard Choseed, who translated the present story and supplied the facts for this note, is a former staff member of the American Jewish Committee who now teaches Russian literature and language at the University of Michigan, where he is also completing his doctoral dissertation on “Key Jewish Topics in Soviet Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish Literature.”—Ed.
On the 25th of February, 1917, I was thirteen years old. On that all-important day I came of age. Such was the age-old, hallowed Jewish law. I entered the ranks of devout Jews, and from that day on had to fulfill unceasingly all the numerous and—alas!—far from easy obligations involved in serving the Almighty.
Over the preceding few years my relations with God had deteriorated considerably. I would not say that a black cat had run between us, but of a faith once passionate and austere, even mystic, hardly a trace remained.
I no longer quite believed in God, and I had stopped loving him a long time ago. Nevertheless, I still feared him. And this fear made me fulfill all the prescriptions, sit through the long holiday services in my orphan’s seat in the synagogue, and honorably keep the fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Nobody drove me to this. The ghost of my father did not keep appearing at night, and mother herself—my good mother—absentmindedly kept putting tasty morsels before me on the day of the fast.
But I did not tolerate lies when it came to God. Since our relations were already so formal, cold, and I might even say hostile, I could all the less afford to descend to fraud and hypocrisy.
For Venya Rosenblum things were good. In the synagogue, he sat near his father. This dunce, though thirteen years old, was still considered a youngster—at the Passover seder he would search for the hidden piece of matzoh and put the traditional “questions” to his father. And his complacent father, surrounded by his family, would look over the well-laden table, smack his lips, and read in the Haggada the story of how our forefathers left the land of Egypt.
As for me, I had been the head of a family since I was eight. There was nobody to hide a piece of matzoh from me, and there was nobody to explain the “questions” to me. I had to answer before God for the entire family. And I did try conscientiously, if without enthusiasm, to fulfill all my obligations to him, the Omnipresent.
But did this God exist at all? Over the past year this question had been bothering me more and more. At the gymnaziya [high school] an illegal [political] group had been formed. It was headed by Vanya Filkov’s father, and went under a complicated and pompous name—”CFTSOSL,” which meant Circle for the Study of Social Life. The activities of this group did not go beyond generalizing about czarism, delivering some opinions on the history of the French Revolution, and reading Zheleznov’s political economy. Although there were only five or six of us, the mere fact of participation in this “underground” made us feel important. We had our secret.
Discussion with the group and talks with Vanya Filkov’s father threw a shadow over God, estranging me from him. But I still did not want to thrash out questions of religion. I was afraid. I had no right to endanger my family, and so I tried to postpone the final and unavoidable decision.
The Zionist organization enjoyed great influence among the Jews of our town. At its head stood Solomon Rosenblum. And the Zionist leaders among the gymnaziya students were Venya Rosenblum and Izya Aronshtam.
Since the [Russo-German] front had come close to us by that time, our town was filled with refugees, and many new pupils kept coming into our gymnaziya. The quota [for Jewish students] was exceeded and—it’s almost a joke!—in the gymnaziya, named as it was after the Blessed Alexander the First, over a goodly hundred of Jewish children were enrolled. Among them there existed a Zionist group.
In the synagogue, they were always selling some kind of tickets for a trip to Jerusalem. The money went into the gold fund of the Zionist party. Mr Rosenblum, apparently because he bought more of these tickets than anybody else, was president of that party.
I never bought a single one-ruble ticket for the trip to the Holy Land. My rubles were too hard earned, came to me with too much trouble. So when at the end of the Passover seder I would utter the traditional formula, “Next year in Jerusalem,” I never believed at all in these holy words.
I had no love for the Zionists, and the feeling was apparently mutual. My favorite friend in class was Vanya Filkov, and the little Zionists counted me as a goy.
But I was still a Jew, and on the 25th of February, 1917,1 became a son of honor and joined the respectable family of the sons of Moses. From that day on I had the right to put the cubes with the holy prayers on my head, and seven times a day bind the black-lacquered straps around my arm.
“Nu,” Mama said to me, “you are big already, Sasha. A Bar Mitzvah.” She stroked my arm with the straps around it and cried. The greatest ordeal awaited me on the coming Sabbath. On that day, as an equal among equals, I was to go to the synagogue for the reading of the Torah. On that important day the rabbi himself was to call me to the platform. Israel Cahan himself had to say, “Sender hen Reb Eli is called.” I had to go up to the platform, right after the gabbe himself, after Solomon Rosenblum, I had to read in singsong the prayer preceding the excerpt from Holy Scripture.
And all the Jews, including Venya Rosenblum, would have to listen to me, son of the late craftsman Shtein, and now a “bona fide member of the community. At the very thought of that coming Sabbath, my heart began to beat faster. The approaching day of triumph was also one of terror. For in the impending ceremony, one very ominous obstacle lay before me threatening to spoil the whole celebration. I had no ear: the chirping of a sparrow and the melody of the funeral prayer both sounded alike to me. Every time I tried to sing a note our singing teacher, Fedor Ivanovich Sepp, would make a face and belch out his favorite oaths. All the ridicule I had to suffer when the time came for singing lessons! Sepp never let me join the class choir, and all through the lesson he made me stand in a corner in full view of the whole class where I served as a target for his sharp wit. And now I had to sing prayers in front of all the Jews.
As the time came near, I put everything else aside and practiced reading the Bible in singsong recitative. Our dwelling turned into a lunatic ward. Mama, who usually stayed home, now found friends to visit somewhere, and our boarder, my great friend Rubiner, a senior at the gymnaziya, conceived a hatred for me.
Alone in my room I sat at the table and in a loud voice intoned: “How good are thy tents, Jacob; and thy fields, Israel!” If the sound of my bellowing did not lead God to reduce me then and there to ashes with his holy fire, then obviously God must still have had a certain sense of humor.
That Sabbath the synagogue was packed. The gabbe, Mr. Rosenblum, proud as King Solomon, sat in the place of greatest honor, right next to old Rabbi Israel Cahan. Rosenblum’s silken head-covering shimmered, and his thick reddish beard (it was said that he dyed it with henna) was all ablaze. Yes, here was a gabbe indeed! Even the governor-general, Altsimovich, used to shake hands with him.
And though all the Jews knew well enough that our gabbe was an arch-scoundrel, and though the whole town talked about the tens of thousands he had made in shady building contracts, still, everybody regarded Mr. Solomon Rosenblum with respect. Yes, this man was pleasing to God! This man deserved to be called first to the Torah after the old rabbi.
Only one person, Hillel Meerson, the old teamster who sat next to me on the last bench, felt otherwise. Every time they called Rosenblum to the Torah, he would spit copiously and deliberately, then rise and go out “to get some air” on the synagogue doorstep. But who bothered about the opinion of Meerson, the teamster, a known rowdy and drunkard?
The pride and joy of our synagogue was our cantor, Haim Zvi Markman. When he hit low notes the panes in the windows shook, and the festive candles on the reading stand blew out. What a Caruso he was! It was said that Haim Zvi Markman had once even sung in the great synagogue in Petersburg. To give a clinching idea of what his voice was like, I need only say that the pogromist Fedor Ivanovich Sepp once came to the synagogue just to listen to him. For a long time afterwards it was whispered about in town that Sepp had pleaded with the cantor to serve as choirmaster for the chorus of The Union of the Russian People [a reactionary, anti-Semitic organization of czarist times]!
On this Sabbath day, then, the entire synagogue was filled, including the women’s seats in the gallery. Even my mother, who usually never went to synagogue, had come with an old, shabby prayerbook, and with her nearsighted eyes she kept peering about for her son among the adult Jewish males below.
Of course, the desire to hear me read the Torah was hardly the reason for such a concourse of people. On that same day rumors had circulated through town that things were restless in Petersburg, that Rodzianko was to make some sort of important appearance. And there was whispered talk about the Czar’s going into retirement. Where else but in the synagogue was it possible to talk one’s fill about all these exciting questions? Normally, such matters would have agitated me greatly. But today the Torah alone, and nothing else, existed for me.
I arrived at the synagogue just as services were beginning. “Ah, Sender!” said Reb David Bentsman, “you’re being called up to the Torah today? N”, congratulations, Sender, congratulations! Akh, how the years go by!” He shook his beard and even shed a few tears. “Ekh! If only Reb Eli could see this!” and giving a deep sigh, the shammes went off to perform his ritual duties.
My neighbor, the teamster Meerson, said nothing. He only gave a vague grunt and fixed his eyes on his prayerbook. This actually offended me.
“You don’t happen to know what chapter of the Torah will be read today?” I asked quite calmly. “I think they’re going to call me up to the platform.”
“I congratulate you, sir, indeed I do!” and he bowed towards me ironically, but did not answer my question.
As always, up to the platform first went Reb Israel Cahan. He took the festive plush cover off the Torah. A cloud of dust rose and Reb Israel gave a cough. He opened the parchment of the scroll. Chanting in his tremulous, senile voice, he read the prayer and everybody listened.
The next one called up was the gabbe, Solomon Rosenblum. He read in loud and pealing accents. The holy words seemed to force their way out through the fiery thicket of his beard, and when they had emerged, succulent and dense, their Biblical purity was gone.
I finally found out what chapter was going to be read that day: it was “On the Bearing Out of the Ark.” But just when were they going to call on me?
A prayer had already been read by Shemshelevich, the dark little lawyer. Weinbaum, the tobacco dealer, had already been up to the platform. And today even Aronshtam, the druggist, was invited to the Torah. My heart shrank. Tears filled my eyes. Had they really forgotten all about me? “Jews!” I wanted to cry out. “Jews! A sin is being committed: you have forgotten to call on a Bar Mitzvah, a son of honor. Jews, what will God say?”
Hillel Meerson was looking at me ironically. But just about the time when I had decided that all was lost, a voice trumpeted forth from the platform: “The he-chossen Sender ben Reb Eli is being called!” I walked to the platform as if in a fog.
There I was, next to the Torah. With trembling fingers I touched the parchment. At first I could not even distinguish the letters. But I knew the text by heart, almost the way Israel Cahan did.
My voice sounded unfamiliar. For the first time I was speaking to God in the presence of all Jews. I was emitting a strange, hoarse roar, but to me that voice sounded wonderful. I did not see Reb Israel Cahan raise his gray eyebrows like a martyr, or how Solomon Rosenblum kept laughing into his beard. I shouted out the words of the prayer exactly like Moses in front of the Israelites. The low whisper of David Bentsman barely reached me, “Softer, Sender, softer! You’re not talking to deaf mutes here, but to respectable Jews.”
I do not remember how I finished. Reeling with fatigue and strain, I went back to my seat without noticing anyone. Hillel Meerson met me with peals of laughter. That morose and silent man had suddenly become cheerful and sociable. “At, Sender!” he loudly laughed, “Oi, Sender! Well done! Thank you! That was a real circus! No, it was even better than a circus! Our cantor Haim Zvi Markman”—he began to choke with his laughter—”Haim Zvi Markman can die in peace now!”
I still hear Hillel Meerson’s laughter in my ears whenever I think back to that day.
“For whose benefit did I play the clown today?” I heatedly said to Vanya Filkov that evening. “For whom?” For God? For Solomon Rosenblum? For the whole synagogue? They really were laughing at me just as if it were a circus. Can you make anything out of that, Vanya? Here I’d been preparing myself for this day, and then they all laughed at me as if they were at the circus! God? Where is he, this God? Your father’s been telling us that this God was all made up. I was afraid to think such a thing. But maybe your father’s right.”
Vanya listened to me sympathetically. He had long ceased believing in God, and he never went to church. He was a great help to me that evening—my very closest friend, Vanya Filkov.
The next day I did not take the black cubes with the holy prayers out of my little bag, nor did I wind the black strap around my arm seven times. It was rebellion. Against whom? Against Solomon Rosenblum? Against Israel Cahan? Against God himself? Yes, the youngest member of our town’s Jewish community, a Bar Mitzvah, a son of honor, from yesterday on was in rebellion against God. Alexander Ilyich Shtein. Hechossen Sender ben Reb Eli.
Monday, the second thing we had in school was singing lesson. All that morning my heart had felt sick. I was filled with foreboding about some sort of great misfortune, and now I could not even beg God to prevent it.
As soon as Fedor Ivanovich entered the room and opened the class-book and looked at me, I got up to go into the corner as usual. But that day he put on a new act. He glanced at me and smiled. It was an evil smile. His pointed beard went up and then came down. He took off his gold-rimmed pince-nez and winked—the whole class saw him do it—to his first assistant sitting in the front desk, Lev Serbilevsky, a cruel anti-Semite. Then he looked at me again.
The class set itself for a novel spectacle. Hunched over his desk, Lev Serbilevsky was already snickering softly. Vanya Filkov began to mutter something furiously between his teeth. Venya Rosenblum looked at the teacher wildly, with open, submissive eyes.
“Nu, Shtein,” Sepp finally said, “my congratulations! Apparently on Saturday you became a Bar Mitzvah.” He even said it just like that—”Bar Mitzvah” in Hebrew. “Let’s grow up, Shtein, let’s grow up!” Lev Serbilevsky could hold himself in no longer, and burst out laughing. Hypocritically, Sepp gave him a stern look, and then returned to me. “There’s a rumor abroad that you sang very brilliantly in the synagogue, Shtein.”
I stood there, pale and hostile. In my hand I squeezed my beloved crystal penholder, a present from Aunt Esfira, till it broke.
“What’s this all about, Shtein? Here among us you don’t want to sing, yet in the synagogue you sing better than the cantor? That’s not nice! You have insulted us, Mr. Shtein. You have insulted me, the teacher, and your comrades as well. Have you been insulted, Serbilevsky?”
“I’ve been insulted, Fedor Ivanovich!” Serbilevsky jumped up eagerly.
The class had not yet decided what Sepp was up to, and remained alert, waiting.
“Shtein, you still have a chance to correct your mistake! Right now, and for us, repeat the number you did in the synagogue!”
I kept my mouth shut.
“You’re keeping quiet, are you?” Sepp shrugged his shoulders. Then suddenly changing his tone, he shrieked at me, “Quickly now! This is a command! Don’t test my patience, Shtein! I order you to sing!”
A slight shiver ran through me. How passionately I hated my tormentor at that moment! The whole class was watching me. Cornered and alone, I kept my mouth shut. In exasperation, Sepp ran up to my desk. His beard was disheveled, his eyes red with rage. “You little demon!” he screeched. “I’ll make you sing!” He seized a ruler and slammed it on my desk. The ruler split in two. The class froze in terror.
And then, unexpectedly, the silence was broken by an uncertain, childish voice. At his desk stood the druggist’s son, little yellowish Izya Aronshtam, singing:
Od lo ovdo tikvosenu
Hatikvo hanoshono . . . .
It was the Zionist anthem:
Our hope has not yet vanished,
The old hope—
To return to the Land of our fathers,
To the Land on which lived David.
The son of the Zionist chairman, Aronshtam’s frightened deskmate, Venya Rosenblum, stayed silent. But Izya’s racked voice continued, passionate, inspired. This was his way of protesting at Sepp’s mockery. And in that instant I fell in love with Izya.
Dumbfounded, Fedor Ivanovich stared at Izya, usually so quiet and modest. Then, leaving me, he rushed towards him. But before he had gone half way he stopped in horror. Other words, louder and more provocative, were drowning out the Zionist anthem. Next to me Vanya Filkov had got up, solid and thickset, and he was singing a song whose every note spoke revolt and protest, whose sound within the walls of that gymnaziya named after the Blessed Alexander the First shook its very foundations.
Vanya Filkov was singing the “Marseillaise” in his rather mature but small bass. Someone else in the class joined in. Not for nothing had our CFTSOSL studied the history of the French Revolution. From ringing young throats came the song of the sansculottes, )
What an exciting moment that was! The thin little voice of Izya Aronshtam broke and wilted. Sepp made straight for our desk. He went up to Vanya Filkov and grabbed him by the arm. It was then that I joined Vanya, and right into Sepp’s face I sang:
Arise, rise up, working people!
Arise for battle, hungry people.. . .
I was faking, of course. Strained and delirious, I kept crying out the words as they came to me. But no one laughed. No one could have stopped me.
Sepp recoiled. But he realized that he had to stop us somehow, drown out our voices. With a nod to Serbilevsky, he himself began in his thick, tremendous bass:
God save our Czar!
Strong, powerful. . . .
There were many who joined in with Sepp but not all. Not everybody sang the czarist anthem. There were some who kept a sullen silence, their eyes glued to the floor. But those who followed Fedor Ivanovich Sepp were quite a few—too many, in fact. And it seemed to me—I may be mistaken, but I think Venya Rosenblum was among those singing, “God save our Czar!” We would not acknowledge defeat. Izya Aronshtam had long since stopped. But we sang on. Suddenly and loudly, the door opened, and on the threshold appeared the principal. He was in parade uniform with medals and sword. His gray beard was parted in two large, luxuriant tufts. “Insurrectionists!” The principal raised his hands. “Insurrectionists!”
All sound ceased, ours and theirs. Only Serbilevsky, for the last time, bellowed on the run, “God save our Czar!”
“Insurrectionists!” the principal repeated sharply. But then he made a motion with his hand, and in a broken, muted voice said: “His Imperial Majesty, our sovereign, the Emperor Nicholas the Second, has abdicated.” There was not a sound in the classroom.