However unofficial, the batlan (literally, “idler”) was once as much an institution of Jewish life as the synagogue or the marriage contract. But so unredeemed is our time, that he has become in the popular imagination a mere synonym for a nuisance and a bore. Here Theodor H. Gaster—a Jewish scholar of eminence and no mean batlan himself—tries to restore him to his true stature as an unsung peddler of ideas, the vehicle of an insatiable and invaluable curiosity.
If the batlan is passing from our midst, as many allege, so much the worse for us all. Undoubtedly the Jews and Judaism will survive, but neither will be quite the same. For the batlan is the last relic of a noble tradition. You may translate batlan “idler” or “waster of time,” but, if you do, you miss the point and malign rather than describe. The batlan is an idler in a special sense, and while he may waste other people’s time, of his own he is merely oblivious. Amid the stir and bustle of modern life, your batlan is the mental saunterer, the intellectual flâneur: Jewish style. Though of humbler cast, he is yet of the same substance as Sam Johnson and Boswell themselves. He is the man who has learned to distinguish between idleness and indolence, who has made a business of leisure and is determined that it shall yield a profit. He knows that time is something to spend and not to save. His life is a continuous Sabbath afternoon; and on his spiritual escutcheon are emblazoned the words (which might also serve as his epitaph): Good Lord, is it already sunset?
In my father’s house there were many batlanim. (This is not an aspersion upon a large family, though we all of us, to be sure, had our fair share of batlanuth.) They came from the four ends of the earth. Some of them were mere intellectual eaves-droppers—men who ambled in on a Sabbath afternoon to catch a little conversation, and maybe also a little gossip, and whose only contribution to the general talk was an introductory recitation of their pedigree and provenience and an occasional grunt of recognition at the mention of someone else’s relative in Hamburg or Calcutta. But if they were inarticulate, they were nonetheless eager. When the talk turned to “words of Torah,” to the things which, as the rabbis put it, stand at the very top of the universe, they would carefully deposit their teacups on the floor beside them, and shift to the edge of their chairs, and crane forward, with all the air of pigeons pecking at peanuts, anxious, as it were, to be at least on the periphery of learning. In time they might graduate into regular talmidim. In that case, they would come in on weekdays to help catalogue the library. How many cards they managed to write or file in a single afternoon was nobody’s business, but when one got home from school one would find them darting around among the books on a constant voyage of discovery and reminiscence. Rusty bits of schoolboy Latin and cheder Hebrew would come back to them nostalgically as they copied tide and imprint, and made out among the imprints the familiar names of Frankfort and Ulm and Altona. Most of them were recent arrivals from abroad, grateful, albeit unconsciously, to find in an alien world some haven of ancestral and traditional values. Gradually, however, the winds of the world blew upon them and—in Bialik’s wonderful phrase—they were drawn up and absorbed in the morning of their days. One came across them in later years—successful businessmen comfortably ensconced in their swivel chairs in New York or Chicago, a little self-conscious and deprecatory of their years of batlanuth, but also not a little nostalgic and not entirely innocent of a sense of treason and betrayal. And when one leafs today through the cards of the catalogue file, it seems, as one detects their various hands (batlanim do not type), that the wings of the Shekhinah rustle.
Yes, in my father’s house I came to know the batlan—that happy cross between luftmensh and nudnik—between the peddler of dreams on the one hand and the importunate simpleton on the other. And it is just because he is so difficult to define, and because the lines are so thinly drawn, that he is so easily confused with either one or the other. If he is successful in the world, he is a luftmensh—an airy, expensive “man of ideas,” an eccentric, a character, an artist; if he fails, he is a nudnik—a nuisance, a bore, an encumbrance.
The full-time batlan is as unmistakable as a red cardinal in a treeful of birds. He is as ubiquitous as the Holy Presence, though far more gregarious. He is to be found wherever men foregather. He has the next chair at the barber’s, and the seat beside you in the subway. He is one row ahead at the public meeting and the theater, and he invariably shares the ride home from funerals. He is there like a specter in the lobby of the synagogue, and he sidles up to your table in the restaurant and sits down uninvited. If you slip out at night for a pack of cigarettes, you are almost sure to meet him in the street; and the chances are that he will be loitering at the Pearly Gates discussing with his fellows the manufacture of harps.
Not all of my father’s batlanim were Jews. There was the venerable, bearded priest, who had been the trusted friend of Herzl and who was now nearly ninety years old, who came regularly on Monday afternoons and pulled out of the ample pockets of his cloak—a veritable Elijah’s mantle—an ever lengthening roll on which, in a glory of varied inks, was set forth an elaborate chart of doom calculated from the prophecies of Daniel. He was far from being a gloomy man, but he knew full well that doom was nigh and ineluctable; for every limb of the heathen image which Daniel had described represented, in reality, an epoch of man’s history, and now—as he once greeted our Welsh maid at the door—“we were near the toes.” When I took him to his bus, he would stand upon the crowded platform and hold up its departure the while he solemnly pronounced upon me the threefold blessing of Aaron; and when the conductor kindly inquired his destination, he would reply that he was on his way from the Jerusalem on earth to the Jerusalem on high.
Then there was the Great Gnostic. In his youth, he had been one of the foremost authorities on the literature and religious philosophy of the Gnostics, and his works are to be found on the shelves of every scholarly library worthy of the name. But now, in his later years, he had turned to Spiritualism. He was a regular frequenter of seances, and his home was the scene of spectacular revelations from the Beyond. But he was no dotard, and he insisted on what he called objective, scientific data; and he could still discuss Plotinus and Hermes Trismegistus with a vigor of mind, a depth of sympathetic insight and intuition, and a Shavian sense of mischievous dialectic which could put more Orthodox scholars to shame. He was one of the few men who could tell my father he was hopelessly wrong, and get away with it. The Great Gnostic sticks in my mind because of a terrifying incident in which he was the main figure. One day he came to the house in the usual way, and my father happened to be out. The Great Gnostic stayed awhile to await his return, and my brother and I did our best to entertain him. The talk turned to his favorite subject, evidence of the Beyond. After we had ribbed him for his credulity, he turned suddenly and declared in half-humorous, half-serious vein: “Well, boys, I promise you here and now that if there really is possibility of communication with the dead, I will come back after my death and tell you so.” I thought nothing more about the matter. But several years later, when the old man had gone to his rest, I was dreaming one night about something entirely different and unrelated when, all of a sudden, right across my dream, came the voice of the Great Gnostic. “Well,” he said, “I have kept my promise. And soon you will yourself have proof, for soon you are going to join me.” I asked how long I had to go. Six years? “Less,” he replied. “One year?” “Less.” “Six months?” “Yes.” For six months I lived in a cold sweat, and was extra careful about crossing the street and hopping on buses while they were moving. At the end of that time, I knew that the Great Gnostic was merely batlanizing beyond the grave.
One speaks of the batlan as “he” because the whole world of batlanuth is alien and even suspect to the more practical temperament of women; there is necessarily no female of the species. The feminine equivalent of batlanuth is window-shopping and the white goods sale; and the batlan knows full well that the approach of a woman means death to his art. One can see this instinctive antagonism in action any warm Sabbath morning on Riverside Drive. There are the batlanim trekking home from their devotions, three and four abreast, walking, by time-honored tradition, a little ahead of the female contingent. But their independence is short-lived, for presently they come to a corner and the rearguard advances upon them. At once the little group stops in its tracks, there are hasty handshakes and farewells, and the exponents of the noble art disperse in their several directions like squirrels at the tread of a human foot.
The batlan is on nodding or buttonholing terms with everyone. There is no breath upon the communal waters but he observes it from the shore. He is full of inside and background stories, and though his information is rarely reliable, he insists on pouring it forth in a torrent of alternate reminiscence and fury. Yet—and this is what gives him distinction—he is not simply a gossip. The essence of batlanuth is a preoccupation with ideas, and personalities are but intriguing incidentals. The true batlan is the spiritual counterpart of the old-time peddler, and when he opens his pekel, what is revealed is a rich and varied assortment of “notions.” He is. a picker-up of unconsidered trifles, and the more expert and practiced he is, the more rarefied are his wares. (Not long ago I spent the better part of a night, with a real expert in the art, figuring out the Hebrew equivalent for “the cat’s pajamas.”)
No, the batlan is not altogether dead; his tribe is diminished in numbers, but one still runs into very lively specimens—or rather, they run into one, or let us better say, sidle.
The latter-day genus, in my experience on two sides of the ocean, has several species, and two claim special attention. The first is batlanus bibliothecanus, so called because his favorite haunts are the purlieus of a public library. There he sits, always in his overcoat, his chair turned sideways away from the desk, never reading but always turning pages. Every now and then he relieves the tedium by darting to the open shelves, scanning a few titles, and immediately resuming his seat. If the librarian is around and is not too busy, the librarian is invariably his first victim. (I have been on both sides of this fence, so I speak not only as the scribes but also as one having had authority.) He does not seek bibliographical information. As often as not, he passes in brief review all of the new books exhibited on the shelf, and proceeds thence by a process of free association to that cultured exploitation of his own leisure and his victim’s time which is the essence of his calling. Alternatively, you may find him lurking furtively beside the card catalogue ready to pounce before his victim has a chance of getting settled. “Silence” notices are to him academic; the library is not a repository of books but an intellectual stock exchange and he is short-tempered and caustic with those officious functionaries who would endeavor to restrict its province to strictly utilitarian purposes.
Then there is batlanus scholasticus. This is at once the youngest and the deadliest of all. A mere fledgling, his eye has not yet been dimmed, nor his natural vigor abated. His usual age is between seventeen and twenty-three, and his haunt is the college classroom. What makes him so deadly is the fact that he is a hybrid, for through his veins courses the blood of that noxious termite, nudnicus vulgaris. His approach is forthright, not insidious. Its warning gesture is the upraised hand (though this is often omitted), and it is followed in short order by the Ideological Discussion. Batlanus scholasticus is usually full of wide but undisciplined reading—he is a kind of intellectual Lavengro—and the principle upon which he works is that anything the lecturer may say must link up somewhere and somehow with the miscellany of his own erudition and must possess wider “implications” which demand revelation, discussion, and exposition, if the rest of the class is not to be left in that state of unenlightenment from which he himself has providentially escaped. He is usually a person of astute intelligence, even of brilliance, but to him batlanuth is the technique rather than the adjunct of learning. No complete antidote to him has yet been discovered. He often graduates into a Viennese feuilletonist; his sister follows Vedanta and collects swamis.
Thus the full-time, professional batlanim. But forget not the amateurs—men who follow the gleam without being burned by the fire, to whom batlanuth is a hobby rather than a vocation, a tingling in the blood rather than a ferment. Many of these “honorary” batlanim are humble men who find themselves unable to trek the wilderness without intermittent pauses at the oases. But others are—or have been—great scholars who have recognized in occasional or periodic batlanuth a necessary instrument in the process of intellectual creation.
Full-time or part-time, batlanuth was once held in due honor as a necessary ingredient in the process of civilization. The derivation of the word school from the Greek schole, “leisure,” is trite but eloquent testimony to this fact; while when the Roman spoke of otium cum dignitate (“leisure with dignity”) as an enviable ideal, what he meant, of course, was refined batlanuth. Nor, indeed, has the tradition entirely died out; for the Athenaeum Club on the one hand and the professorial common room on the other may be considered, to a large extent, as latter-day survivals of that wondrous Mecca of batlanim, the 18th-century coffeehouse.
Within the narrower confines of our Jewish life, batlanuth has certainly served us well, and few of those who have really enhanced our heritage have ever disdained it. Scripture itself is witness that the Law was revealed not only in a moment of thunder and lightning but also in forty days and forty nights of quiet conversation, when God spoke familiarly with Moses “even as a man speaketh with his friend.” One may suppose also that several of the rabbinic discussions recorded in the Talmud owed their origin, in large measure, to the leisurely consort of mind with mind.
Nor, indeed, need our evidence be either so ancient or so exalted. It suffices to think only of the goodly dose of batlanuth (again in the better sense of the term) which went into the making of the Hasidic masters, or—in more modern times—of the intellectual ferment that must have ensued and the stimulus that must have resulted from every session of “The Wandering Jews,” that wonderful coterie of Schechter, Zangwill, Joseph Jacobs, and Israel Abrahams (to name but a few), which met weekly in the house of Asher Myers in London for the express purpose of practicing the noble art and of thereby sharpening mind upon mind. (On a somewhat less illustrious level, Myers’ son, Maurice, kept up the tradition in his own generation, and all of us who frequented the gatherings at his home hold his memory cherished and blessed.)
Much, too, of the prime foundation of Zionism was laid by men who were not ashamed to be batlanim—to devote their time and energy (and sometimes, like Herzl, their lives) to a project which then seemed both visionary and impractical; and no one who is at all acquainted with the history of Jewish cultural movements will gainsay the contention that the cocoon of the chrysalis is almost invariably batlanuth. Most of those movements have, in fact, been launched by a couple of batlanim sipping tea with lemon.
But deny the facts, resist them as you will, today undeniably the batlan has fallen upon evil times. The accelerated pace of modern life has caused him to be regarded, more or less, as a jalopy on an arterial highway. He has to apologize for his existence; the spark from the altar fire is too apt to be dismissed as useless and “afunctional” and no adequate substitute for central heating. One perceives the evidence of this change and decay the moment one walks into the office of any of the leading communal organizations. In the old days, what one would have found, as often as not, would have been either some lean and hungry Cassius or a big, florid, dyspeptic, and untidy man sitting in a dingy room before a stained and weather-worn table, taking time out to compose a Yiddish feuilleton (maybe even a poem or a play about the Maccabees), eager to talk about anything but the matter in hand, full of local and international intelligence, bursting with untempered indignations and fantastic schemes, and ready at any moment to switch the conversation to the appraisal of some current literary controversy or to the novel (and probably incorrect) exegesis of some difficult passage of Scripture or Talmud. In short, one could be reasonably sure of a good hour of batlanuth, secure in the knowledge that where two are met together in this way, the Holy One, blessed be He, invariably makes a third.
So today the glory is departed from Israel. Today it is a trim receptionist who greets one impersonally from behind a window and efficiently flicks a button so that presently one may be ushered into the plush-and-airy holy of holies of some brisk, cleans-haven functionary, with glasses a little too brightly polished and tie a little too tightly knotted, who dismisses as purely academic the question of where he is going and what he expects to get. Here are no battered volumes of Hamaggid strewn over table and chairs and floor, no tired copy of Graetz or Dubnow leaning for support, upon a dusty shelf, between the Annual Report on the one side and the Hebrew Bible on the other. Here, on the desk, are no scattered slips filled with cryptic citations of Biblical verses or mysterious mnemonic hieroglyphs. Here, instead, there is a gleaming steel cabinet, two little trays labeled demurely “In” and “Out,” and a sectional glass bookcase in which are imprisoned, rather than ensconced, serried volumes of The Statesman’s Yearbook and Who’s Who in the East.
One can never visit these fanes of Efficiency—at least, I cannot—without a sense of melancholy and regret. (O God, the heathen are come into Thine inheritance. . . . They have set up their own signs for signs.) Unless one’s thoughts are interrupted by some importunate batlan, one begins invariably to wonder how much has been lost to both Jewish and general life by this invasion of the ancient shrines, this substitution of strategy for philosophy, of technique for concept, of routine for passion . . . and of the latter-day streamlined “conference” for the old-fashioned shmoos.
There is a prayer in the Sabbath Grace after Meals which beseeches the All-Merciful to “cause us to inherit a world which shall be always Sabbath and tranquil leisure for ever.” This is, indeed, the prayer of the batlanim. When that world is ushered in, they will surely return to their own as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Having been a little chastened, they shall have great reward.