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Isshur the Beadle by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich


When I think of Isshur the beadle, I am reminded of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and other such giants of history.

Isshur was not a nobody. He led the whole congregation, the whole town by the nose. He had the whole town in his hand. He was a man who served everybody and commanded everybody; a man who was under everybody, but feared nobody. He had a cross look, terrifying eyebrows, a beard of brass, a powerful fist, and a long stick. Isshur was a name to conjure with.

Who made Isshur what he was? Ask me an easier question. There are types of whom it can be said they are cast, fixed. They never move out of their place. As you see them the first time, so are they always. It seems they always were as they are, and will ever remain the same. When I was a child, I could not tear myself away from Isshur. I was always puzzling out the one question—What was Isshur like before he was Isshur? That is to say, before he got those terrifying eyebrows, and the big hooked nose that was always filled with snuff, and the big brass beard that started by being thick and heavy, and ended up in a few, long straggling, terrifying hairs. How did he look when he was a child, ran about barefoot, went to “Cheder,” and was beaten by his teacher? And what was Isshur like when his mother was carrying him about in her arms, when she suckled him, wiped his nose for him, and said: “Isshur, my sweet boy. My beautiful boy. May I suffer instead of your little bones?”

These were the questions that puzzled me when I was a child, and could not tear myself away from Isshur.

“Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother.” And Isshur would not even allow any one to think of him.

Surely, I was only one boy, yet Isshur called me wretches. You must know that Isshur hated to have any one staring at him. Isshur hated little children. He could not bear them. “Children,” he said, “are naturally bad. They are scamps and contradictory creatures. Children are goats that leap into strange gardens. Children are dogs that snap at one's coat-tails. Children are pigs that crawl on the table. Children should be taught manners. They ought to be made to tremble, as with the ague.” And we did tremble as if we had the ague.

Why were we afraid, you ask. Well, would you not be afraid if you were taken by the ear, dragged to the door, and beaten over the neck and shoulders?

“Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother.”

You will tell your mother on him? Well, try it. You want to know what will happen? I will tell you. You will go home and show your mother your torn ear. Your mother will pounce on your father. “You see how the tyrant has torn the ear of your child—your only son.” Your father will take you by the hand to the synagogue, and straight over to Isshur the beadle, as if to say to him: “Here, see what you have done to my only son. You have almost torn off his ear.” And Isshur will reply to my father's unspoken words: “Go in health with your wretches.” You hear? Even an only son is also wretches. And what can father do? Push his hat on one side, and go home. Mother will ask him: “Well?” And he will reply: “I gave it to him, the wicked one, the Haman! What more could I do to him?”

It is not at all nice that a father should tell such a big lie. But what is one to do when one is under the yoke of a beadle?

* * *

One might say that the whole town is under Isshur's yoke. He does what he likes. If he does not want to heat the synagogue in the middle of winter, you may burst arguing with him. He will heed you no more than last year's snow. If Isshur wants prayers to start early in the morning, you will be too late whenever you come. If Isshur does not want you to read the portion of the Law for eighteen weeks on end, you may stare at him from today till tomorrow, or cough until you burst. He will neither see nor hear you. It is the same with your praying-shawl, or your prayer-book, or with your citron, or the willow-twigs. Isshur will bring them to you when he likes, not when you like. He says that householders are plentiful as dogs, but there is only one beadle—may no evil eye harm him! The congregation is so big, one might go mad.

And Isshur was proud and haughty. He reduced every one to the level of the earth. The most respectable householder often got it hot from him. “It is better for you not to start with me,” he said. “I have no time to talk to you. There are a lot of you, and I am only one—may no evil eye harm me!” And nobody began with him. They were glad that he did not begin with them.

Naturally, no one would dream of asking Isshur what became of the money donated to the synagogue, or of the money he got for the candles, and the money thrown into the collection boxes. Nor did they ask him any other questions relating to the management of the synagogue. He was the master of the whole concern. And whom was he to give an account to? The people were glad if he left them alone, and that he did not throw the keys into their faces. “Here, keep this place going yourselves. Provide it with wood and water, candles and matches. The towels must be kept clean. A slate has to be put on the roof frequently, and the walls and ceiling have to be whitewashed. The stands have to be repaired, and the books bought. And what about the 'Chanukali' lamp? And what of the palm-branch and the citron? And where is this, and where is that?” And though every one knew that all the things he mentioned not only did not mean an outlay of money, but were, on the contrary, a source of income, yet no one dared interfere. All these belonged to the beadle. They were his means of livelihood. “The fine salary I get from you! One's head might grow hard on it. It's only enough for the water for the porridge,” said Isshur. And the people were silent.

The people were silent, though they knew very well that “Reb” Isshur was saving money. They knew very well he had plenty of money. It was possible he even lent out money on interest, in secret, on good securities, of course. He had a little house of his own, and a garden, and a cow. And he drank a good glassful of brandy every day. In the winter he wore the best fur coat. His wife always wore good boots without holes. She made herself a new cloak not long ago, out of the public money. “May she suffer through it for our blood, Father in heaven!”

That's what the villagers muttered softly through their teeth, so that the beadle might not hear them. When he approached, they broke off and spoke of something else. They blinked their eyes, breathed hard, and took from the beadle a pinch of snuff with their two fingers. “Excuse me.”

This “excuse me” was a nasty “excuse me.” It was meant to be flattering, to convey the sense of—“Excuse me, your snuff is surely good.” And, “Excuse me, give me a pinch of snuff, and go in peace.”

Isshur understood the compliment, and also the hint. He knew the people loved him like sore eyes. He knew the people wished to take away his office from him as surely as they wished to live. But he heeded them as little as Haman heeds the “Purim” rattles. He had them in his fists, and he knew what to do.

* * *

He who wants to find favour with everybody will find favour with nobody. And if one has to bow down, let it be to the head, not to the feet.

Isshur understood these two wise sayings. He sought the favour of the leaders of the community. He did everything they told him to, lay under their feet, and flew on any errand on which they sent him. And he flattered them until it made one sick. There is no need to say anything of what went on at the elections. Then Isshur never rested. Whoever has not seen Isshur at such a time has seen nothing. Covered with perspiration, his hat pushed back on his head, Isshur kneaded the thick mud with his high boots, and with his big stick. He flew from one committee-man to another, worked, plotted, planned, told lies, and carried on intrigues and intrigues without an end.

Isshur was always first-class at carrying on intrigues. He could have brought together a wall and a wall. He could make mischief in such a way that every person in the town should be enraged with everybody else, quarrel and abuse his neighbour, and almost come to blows. And he was innocent of everything. You must know that Isshur had the town very cleverly. He thought within himself: “Argue, quarrel, abuse one another, my friends, and you will forget all about the doings of Isshur the beadle.”

That they should forget his doings was an important matter to Isshur, because, of late, the people had begun to talk to him, and to demand from him an account of the money he had taken for the synagogue. And who had done this? The young people—the young wretches he had always hated and tortured.

They say that children become men, and men become children. Many generations have grown up, become men, and gone hence. The youngsters became greybeards. The little wretches became self-supporting young men. The young men got married and became householders. The householders became old men, and still Isshur was Isshur. But all at once there grew up a generation that was young, fresh, curious—a generation which was called heathens, insolent, fearless, devils, wretches. The Lord help and preserve one from them.

“How does Isshur come to be an overlord? He is only a beadle. He ought to serve us, and not we him. How long more will this old Isshur with the long legs and big stick rule over us? The account. Where is the account? We must have the account.”

This was the demand of the new generation that was made up entirely of heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches. They shouted in the yard of the synagogue at the top of their voices. Isshur pretended to be deaf, and not to hear anything. Afterwards, he began to drive them out of the yard. He extinguished the candles in the synagogue, locked the door, and threw out the boys. Then he tried to turn against them the anger of the householders of the village. He told them of all their misdeeds—that they mocked at old people, and ridiculed the committee-men. In proof of his assertions, he showed the men a piece of paper that one of the boys had lost. On it was written a little poem.

Who would have thought it? A foolish poem, and yet what excitement it caused in the village—what a revolution. Oh! oh! It would have been better if Isshur had not found it, or having found it, had not shown it to the committee-men. It would have been far better for him. It may be said that this song was the beginning of Isshur's end. The foolish committee-men, instead of swallowing down the poem, and saying no more about it, injured themselves by discussing it. They carried it about from one to the other so long, until the people learnt it off by heart. Some one sang it to an old melody. And it spread everywhere. Workmen sang it at their work; cooks in their kitchens; young girls sitting on the doorsteps; mothers sang their babies to sleep with it. The most foolish song has a lot of power in it. When the throat is singing the head is thinking. And it thinks so long until it arrives at a conclusion. Thoughts whirl and whirl and fret one so long, until something results. And when one's imagination is enkindled, a story is sure to grow out of it.

The story that grew out of this song was fine and brief. You may listen to it. It may come in useful to you some day.

* * *

The heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches burrowed so long, and worked so hard to overthrow Isshur, that they succeeded in arriving at a certain road. Early one morning they climbed into the attic of the synagogue. There they found the whole treasure—a pile of candles, several “poods” of wax, a score of new “ Tallissim,” a bundle of prayer-books of different sorts that had never been used. It may be that to you these things would not have been of great value, but to a beadle they were worth a great deal. This treasure was taken down from the attic very ceremoniously. I will let you imagine the picture for yourself. On the one hand, Isshur with the big nose, terrifying eyebrows, and the beard of brass that started thick and heavy, and finished up with a few thin terrifying hairs. On the other hand, the young heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches dragging out his treasure. But you need not imagine Isshur lost himself. He was not of the people that lose themselves for the least thing. He stood looking on, pretending to be puzzling himself with the question of how these things came to be in the attic of the synagogue.

Early next morning, the following announcement was written in chalk on the door of the synagogue:—

“Memorial candles are sold here at wholesale price.”

Next day there was a different inscription. On the third day still another one. Isshur had something to do. Every morning he rubbed out with a wet rag the inscriptions that covered the whole of the door of the synagogue. Every Sabbath morning, on their desks the congregants found bundles of letters, in which the youngsters accused the beadle and his bought-over committee-men of many things.

Isshur had a hard time of it. He got the committee-men to issue a proclamation in big letters, on parchment.

“Hear all! As there have arisen in our midst a band of hooligans, scamps, good-for-nothings who are making false accusations against the most respected householders of the village, therefore we, the leaders of the community, warn these false accusers openly that we most strongly condemn their falsehoods, and if we catch any of them, we will punish him with all the severities of the law.”

Of course, the boys at once tore down this proclamation. A second was hung in its place. The boys did not hesitate to hang up a proclamation of their own in its stead. And the men found on their desks fresh letters of accusation against the beadle and the committee-men. In a word, it was a period when the people did nothing else but write. The committee-men wrote proclamations, and the boys, the scamps, wrote letters. This went on until the Days of Mourning arrived—the time of the elections. And there began a struggle between the two factions. On the one side there was Isshur and his patrons, the committee-men; and on the other side, the youngsters, the heathens, the scamps, and their candidates. Each faction tried to attract the most followers by every means in its power. One faction tried impassioned words, enflamed speeches; the other, soft words, roast ducks, dainties, and liberal promises. And just think who won? You will never guess. It was we young scamps who won. And we selected our own committee-men from amongst ourselves—young men with short coats, poor men, beggars. It is a shame to tell it, but we chose working men—ordinary working men.

* * *

I am afraid you are anxious for my story to come to an end. You want to know how long it is going to last? Or would you rather I told you how our new committee-men made up their accounts with the old beadle? Do you want to hear how the poor old beadle was dragged through the whole village by the youngsters, with shouting and singing? The boys carried in front of the procession the whole treasure of candles, wax, “Tallissim” and prayer-books which they had found in the attic of the synagogue. No, I don't think you will expect me to tell you of these happenings.

Take revenge of our enemy—bathe in his blood, so to speak? No! We could not do that. I shall tell you the end in a few words.

Last New Year I was at home, back again in the village of my birth. A lot, a lot of water had flown by since the time I have just told you of. Still, I found the synagogue on the same spot. And it had the same Ark of the Law, the same curtains, the same reader's-desk, and the same hanging candlesticks. But the people were different; they were greatly changed. It was almost impossible to recognize them. The old people of my day were all gone. No doubt there were a good many more stones and inscriptions in the holy place. The young folks had grown grey. The committee-men were new. The cantor was new. There was a new beadle, and new melodies, and new customs. Everything was new, and new, and new.

One day—it was “Hoshana Rabba”—the cantor sang with his choir, and the people kept beating their willow-twigs against the desks in front of them. (It seems this custom has remained unchanged.) And I noticed from the distance a very old man, white-haired, doubled-up, with a big nose, and terrifying eyebrows, and a beard that started thick and heavy, but finished up with a few straggling, terrifying hairs. I was attracted to this old man. I went over to him, and put out my hand.

“Peace be unto you!” I said. “I think you are 'Reb' Isshur the beadle?”

“The beadle? What beadle? I am not the beadle this long time. I am a bare willow-twig this long time. Heh! heh!”

That is what the old man said to me in a tremulous voice. And he pointed to the bare willow-twigs at his feet. A bitter smile played around his grizzled beard that started thick and heavy, but finished off with a few straggling, terrifying hairs.


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