Friday Afternoon; Sabbath eve. Father was out of town on business and had left me alone, like a kind of watchman, to take care of the store. Dusk. Time to lock up, I said to myself, time to go home and change my clothes. Time to go to synagogue.
I took down the keys from where we keep them hidden, but as I went outside to lock the door, three monks appeared. They were bareheaded and wore heavy dark robes and sandals on their feet. “We want to talk with you,” they said.
I thought to myself, if they've come to do business, Friday afternoon close to sunset is no time to do business; and if they've come to have a talk I'm not the man for them. But they saw that I was hesitant to reply and they smiled.
“Don't be afraid,” one of them said, “we're not about to delay you from your prayers.”
“Look to the heavens and see,” added the second. “The sun has yet to go down, we still have time.”
The third one nodded his head, and in the same words, or in different words, repeated what the first two had already said. I locked the door and walked along with them. It so happened that we came out opposite my house. One of the monks raised his left hand.
“Isn't this your house?”
“This is his house,” answered the second.
“Of course it's his house,” added the third. “This is his house.” And he pointed three fingers at Father's house.
“If you'd like, we can go in,” I said.
They nodded their heads: “By your leave.”
We made a circuit of the entire street and walked down a short incline that took us below street level. I forgot to say that there are two entrances to Father's house, one onto the street, where his shop is, and another onto an alleyway, opposite his study-house. Both entrances are kept open on weekdays, but at dusk on Friday afternoon we close the door that gives onto the street and unlock the one to the study-house.
I pushed open the door and we went in. I brought them into the parlor. They sat on chairs that in preparation for the Sabbath meal had been arranged around a table set for the Sabbath. Their robes dragged beneath their sandals over the special rug which Mother lays out in honor of the Sabbath. The eldest of the three, who sat at the head of the table, was fat and fleshy. The others sat on either side of him: one was long and thin, with pale hair and a small wound that glowed red on the back of his head where the monks leave a round spot without hair. The other had no distinguishing marks except for a large Adam's apple. Myself—I didn't sit down, but remained standing, as is only reasonable for a man who is in a hurry but has had to receive guests.
They began to talk; I kept quiet. When they saw the two candlesticks on the table they said, “There are three of you, aren't there? There's you, your father, and your mother. Why doesn't your mother light a third candle for her son?”
“Mother is simply continuing a custom she began on the first Sabbath after her marriage,” I told them, “which is to light two candles only.”
They started discussing the various regulations that pertain to the ritual of candle-lighting, and what each one of them means.
“No,” I broke in, “it's not for any of the reasons you've mentioned, it's just that one candle is for the Written Law and one is for the Oral Law. And the two are actually one, which is why we refer to the Sabbath candles in the singular. But anyway I see you're all quite expert in Jewish custom.”
They smiled, but the smile disappeared into the wrinkles in their faces.
“Well, and why shouldn't we be experts in Jewish custom,” said the one that I've been calling the third. “After all, we belong to the order of . . . .”
I thought he said they were Dominicans; but outside the monastery Dominicans don't usually wear their habits, and these three had their habits on. So he must have named a different order, but his Adam's apple got in the way and I didn't catch what he said.
The conversation was preventing me from keeping track of time, and I forgot that a man has to make himself ready to greet the Sabbath. I asked the maid to serve refreshments. She brought in the special delicacies that we prepare in honor of the Sabbath. I put a flask of whiskey in front of them. They ate and drank and talked. Since I was agitated about the time, I didn't hear anything they said.
Two or three times it occurred to me that the hour had come to receive the Sabbath. But when I looked out the window, the sun was in the same place it had been when the monks first accosted me. Now you can't say there was some kind of black magic here, because I had mentioned the name of God any number of times during the conversation; and you can't say that I'd made a simple mistake in time, because the beadle had not yet called for prayers. The whole thing was quite astonishing: when the monks first came, the sun was close to setting, and all this time they'd been eating and drinking and talking, yet the sun was precisely where I'd last seen it before they ever appeared. And it's even harder, for that matter, to explain away the problem of our clock, because even if you claim that I was so preoccupied with my guests I didn't think to set it for the Sabbath, all the same I assure you it's a fine instrument, and would keep proper time even without a daily winding.
Mother came in to light the candles. The monks stood up, and in the selfsame movement walked out.
I got up to accompany them. In the street, one of them shoved me aside.
I was stunned. After all the honor I'd shown him, to be treated like that—while the other two, who saw him push me, didn't even bother to rebuke him.
I didn't want Mother to notice that something had happened to me, so I decided not to return home. And I didn't go to synagogue, because by the time I could have washed myself from the touch of the monk's hand, they would have already finished the prayers. I stood there like a man with nothing to do, neither here nor there.
Two young novices came along.
“Where did the Fathers go,” they said.
I was dumbfounded by what I heard. Men like that they call Father. Before I could rouse myself to answer, one of the novices disappeared. Vanished, right before my eyes. He left the other one behind.
I just stood there, shocked and speechless. For a while it was as if no one else existed. Then I glanced at him and saw that he was very young, about the height of a small youth, with black eyes. If it hadn't been for the commandment which tells us not to show them grace, which also means not to impute grace to them, I would even have said that his eyes were graceful, and sweet. His face was quite smooth, without the slightest trace of a beard. He had the kind of beauty you used to be able to see in every Jewish town, the beauty of young Jewish boys who have never tasted the taste of sin. And beyond that there was something else about him, that imparted all the more grace to his graceful features.
I began talking with him so that I could examine him more closely. As I talked, I laid my hand on his shoulder and I said to him, “Listen my brother, aren't you a Jew?”
I felt his shoulders tremble beneath my hand; I felt his eyes tremble; he lowered his head on his chest and I felt his heart tremble.
“Tell me,” I repeated my question, “aren't you a Jew?”
He raised his head from his heart: “I am a Jew.”
I said to him, “If you're a Jew, what are you doing with them?”
He bowed his head.
“Who are you,” I said, “and where are you from?”
He stood in silence before me.
I brought my face close to his, as if to transfer my sense of hearing to my mouth.
He lifted his head and I could see how his heart was shuddering, and my heart too began to shudder. I felt his black, sweet eyes upon me. He looked at me with such loving grace, with such tender faith, such glorious kindness, and above all with such grief—like a man trying to control himself before he finally reveals a long-kept secret.
I said to myself, what is all this?
As much time went by as went by, and still he said nothing.
“Is it so hard for you to tell me where you're from?”
He whispered the name of a city.
I said, “If I heard you correctly you're from the town of Likovitz.”
He nodded his head.
“If you're from Likovitz,” I said, “then you must certainly know the Tzaddik of Likovitz. I was in his prayer-house once on New Year's day, and the Tzaddik himself led the prayers. Let me tell you, when he came to the verse, ‘And all shall come to serve Thee,’ I imagined that I heard the approaching footsteps of all the nations of the world who fail to recognize the people of Israel or their Father in heaven. I say I heard them running to the prayer-house of the Tzaddik of Likovitz. And when he sang, ‘And the wayward shall learn understanding,’ I imagined they were all bowing down as one to worship the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel. . . . My brother, are you in pain?”
He shook with sobs.
“What are you crying about?”
Tears flooded his eyes. He wiped them away. Still weeping, he said, “I am his daughter. His youngest daughter. The daughter of his old age.”
My heart thundered and my mouth fastened to hers, and her mouth to mine. And the purest sweetness flowed from her mouth to mine and—it is possible—from my mouth to hers. We call this in Hebrew “the kiss of the mouth,” and it must be the same in other languages too. I should say here that this was the first time I ever kissed a young girl, and it seems almost certain to me that it was her first kiss as well: a kiss of innocence that carries with it no pain, but goodness and blessing, life, grace, and kindness, whereby a man and a woman live together till calm old age.
—Translated by Neal Kozodoy