Mikhoel Felsenbaum (b. 1951) is among the most prominent contemporary Yiddish writers. Born in Soviet Ukraine, he spent most of his life in Moldova before immigrating to Israel in the early 1990s. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, plays, and short stories. This excerpt comes from his 2004 novel Shabesdike shvebelekh (The Sabbath Lights), considered a pioneering work of postmodernist Yiddish fiction.
The library was on the third floor of the synagogue, directly beneath the garret. It was a large, six-sided room, a place to study Torah and a place to eat on Shabbos: joyous snacks on Friday night and a mournful late-afternoon meal on Saturday. There were no Torah scrolls in the library, and the few visitors who came to Mikdorf without anywhere to sleep could stay there as guests for the night. There was a massive oak table at the center of the room. Not even twenty strong young men would be able to push it against the wall. Shelves filled with holy books lined the walls, and a six-armed chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Reb Yitzkhok ben Avraham loved to sit in the library. Thirty years ago, the gentle non-Jewish shepherd Constantine had come to this place from faraway pastures and told Rabbi Asher that he wanted to study Torah. The rabbi sent him to Chaimke the teacher. Constantine spent three years in that library, studying the Hebrew alphabet, cantillation, and Torah alongside the young children. The shepherds from the surrounding villages stopped speaking to him. They spat at his wife, made trouble for his daughter, and finally set fire to his house. His little girl was burned alive. Constantine built a new house and never once considered turning from the Torah. That was the moment that Rabbi Asher gave Constantine a nickname: Gotteslib, lover of God. And in only twelve years’ time, Constantine Gotteslib received his current name: Reb Yitzkhok ben Avraham, or, more affectionately, Reb Itzik.
Reb Yitzkhok ben Avraham, as it was already said, went up to the library and began to study Torah. But he was distracted by the surreal image he had glimpsed through the window a half hour earlier. The scene was fixed in his eyes. There had already been several moments when he wanted to approach Rabbi Asher, when he wanted to ask Rabbi Asher to interpret a difficult verse in the chapter “Angels,” just so he could interrupt the lesson and tell the rabbi that the surrounding town of Mikdorf had—may it not happen here!—disappeared, that the entry gate to the synagogue wouldn’t open, that the door repelled those who attempted to open it with shocks of electricity.
Rabbi Asher sat at the table studying Torah. He had stopped sleeping at night many years ago, just two or three hours in the afternoon and a few hours after dinner. Rabbi Asher made the change soon after he had stopped making nighttime visits to his wife’s bedroom. His routine was to wake at midnight, say his prayers, prepare a glass of tea, and go to work in his library. So too yesterday, Thursday, Rabbi Asher had, as always, gone to lie down after dinner. But this time he slept the entire night until morning.
And Rabbi Asher had a vision:
A high mountain
Jutting out from the water in the middle of Oceanos
Not a single bird in the sky . . .
Not a single fish in the sea . . .
Only waves and waves and waves.
And a great golden ark
Floating in the middle of the sea.
And Rabbi Asher cried out:
“Creator of the world,
Great and almighty,
What is this supposed to be?”
And he heard a voice:
“This is the casket
With the bones of Yosef the Righteous.”
The waves drove the ark
To the mountain
And the ark transformed into a small box
Covered with a white bedsheet.
The cry of an infant could be heard
And Rabbi Asher once again lifted his eyes to
At the summit of the mountain perched
The Great Red Synagogue.
On the roof of the synagogue
The dozens of angels danced the hora.
On their silken wings
They bore the body of a young woman.
Her eyes were closed,
And in her hands she held
A small lamb with large horns.
The lamb bleated along
To the angels’ dirgeful dance.
From the synagogue
Exited an old Jew in a prayer shawl and phylacteries
With a shovel in his hands.
Rabbi Asher recognized him:
Reb Fayvl Talesweaver.
Rabbi Asher awoke, said the prayer of thanks that begins the day, and opened his eyes wide. His wife, Feygele, was seated on a chair near his bed.
When Rabbi Asher hadn’t woken at midnight, the rabbi’s wife had gone cold with fear. For the first time in her life, she had entered the rabbi’s bedroom. The rabbi was asleep and his wife calmed herself. She set a stool at the head of Rabbi Asher’s bed, and there she passed the whole night by reciting psalms.
“Good morning, Asher.”
“Good year, my treasure.”
“How do you feel?”
“Blessed is God. And why are you, all of a sudden, sitting in my room?”
“At midnight—you didn’t rise.”
“Feygele, my darling. I have important news for you. I had a vision.”
“As it is written: b’eyn khazon yifra am. Without prophetic vision, the people become savage.”
“It is true, my dear. The Messiah, son of David, stands at the threshold of our shul.”
“And when will he, if it be God’s will, reveal himself?”
“God willing, on Sabbath, after the afternoon prayers.”
The rabbi and his rebbetzin spent the whole of Friday preparing for Sabbath. The rabbi had wanted to wear his white silk vestment, but the wise rebbetzin told him that his white clothes would—may it not happen here!—mislead his congregation. Rabbi Asher and Fanny had lived together for sixty years, and never before had the rebbetzin allowed herself to interfere.
In her youth, Fanny Estreich had been a picture-perfect beauty and one of the best pediatricians in Vienna. Fanny Estreich had already had a husband, a lawyer with rich clients, when Rabbi Asher arrived in Vienna. But one thing was missing from her life: children. Her own children. Fanny’s husband, Marcus Estreich, brought the best doctors from Berlin and Paris. He sent her to the most exquisite spas and sanatoria, but neither professors nor the springs of Switzerland could unlock her womb. Marcus Estreich began to spend time with carefree girls. Several times he came home late at night, drunk as Lot. Fanny did not want to cause any scandals, but the warm relations in her family had been destroyed. Fanny’s father, Heinrich Kreizer, a banker and the chairman of the Jewish Board of Supervisors, wanted to protect his family. Unfortunately, money—and even wise words—turned out to be poor treatments for a broken heart.
Asher Oyerbakh entered Fanny’s life like redemption: long prayed for, unexpected, and eternal. Rabbi Asher was a young rabbi recently graduated from yeshiva. He had come to Vienna to study jurisprudence. In those days, the last name Oyerbakhwas a key that opened every Jewish door. Whenever Rabbi Asher pronounced his last name, the first question was always: “Are you, perhaps, related to Rabbi Shimon Oyerbakh?” “Yes, I am his son.” And that was the pure truth. Rabbi Asher was Rabbi Shimon Oyerbakh’s only son.
Rabbi Shimon’s bill of lineage said that he was descended from Rashi’s loins. But Jews weren’t drawn to this honorable family because of provenance; they were drawn by the rumors that a miracle had occurred in the family. Rabbi Shimon first married when he was eighteen years old. Two days after the ceremony, there was a fire, and his wife departed for the infinite. Rabbi Shimon’s heart dropped; he would not listen to any talk of a new match. Torah, service to the Lord, and acts of loving kindness—those were enough to get him to forty. And that’s when he fell in love with Rabbi Aryeh-Leyb of Mikdorf’s little brat, Malke. She was delicate, quiet, and many years younger. They soon found out that Malke was barren. But Rabbi Shimon loved her, and he did not want to divorce. And after thirty years, Malke became pregnant, gave birth to a son, and parted this world. Rabbi Shimon was left alone with an infant on his hands.
The day that Asher turned three, Rabbi Shimon cut his son’s forelocks and sent him to heder. That same day, Rabbi Shimon turned seventy. Asher was the best student in his heder but also the biggest prankster; he always found a new way to get into trouble. At seven he knew the entire Torah by heart. But a kid is still a kid. Here, listen to this:
Little Asher took a look at the goats, the ones who pastured behind the shtetl, and realized that no one had “made them Jewish.” He hooted and hollered and incited some smart young kids, and they decided to take on the job themselves. They took wine from their houses, but because the first goat had absolutely no interest in drinking it, they had to forcefully get him drunk. Unfortunately, the goat did not fall asleep. On the contrary: he went wild. He ripped himself from his tormentors’ hands and rammed a few ramshackle houses to pieces. Three families were left without roofs over their heads. Rabbi Shimon covered the damages and shipped his only son off to his grandfather in Mikdorf. He thought Rabbi Aryeh-Leyb and his wife should also get to experience the joy of their grandson.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Asher Oyerbakh, a new yeshiva graduate, returned home and Rabbi Shimon passed away. Rabbi Asher observed the week of mourning in his father’s house, then traveled to Vienna to study jurisprudence. Smart and talented, he cracked his studies like nuts. He was young and handsome, and every Jewish home thought him an ideal match. Of all the lawyers in Vienna, he was also the best card player, and he raked in money. He was missing only one thing: a woman.
Herr Heinreich Kreizer, Fanny Estreich’s father, had finally accepted that his daughter intended to divorce her husband. As it happened, Rabbi Asher was a beloved guest at Herr Kreizer’s estate. All of Rabbi Asher’s and Herr Kreizer’s relations were good and fine, and Herr Kreizer had long ago noticed that Rabbi Asher liked his daughter. But Fanny feared that Rabbi Asher—may no one ever know such troubles!—would follow the same path as her ex-husband. Playing cards was only one step away from drinking too much wine.
But Rabbi Asher was far more perceptive than people realized. One fine night he came to visit Herr Kreizer. When they retired to the parlor, Rabbi Asher removed a deck of cards from his pocket and set them down on the table.
“What is this supposed to mean, Herr Oyerbakh?” Herr Kreizer asked. “You know very well that I don’t play cards.”
“May God protect us, Herr Kreizer; it was never my intention to insult your honor. I mean to express my great respect for your family and for you personally. I know how you disapprove of cards. My gesture has an entirely different meaning.”
“Bitte, Herr Oyerbakh, I am listening.”
“Cards and family, I understand, are two things that cannot be joined. And that is why I have set my cards aside. I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand. In other words, Herr Kreizer, I would like to become your son-in-law.”
“Thank you, Herr Oyerbakh. You honor us. Your proposal warms my heart. And it is very good that you called upon me first.”
“Herr Kreizer, nothing about my actions is accidental. I love your daughter.”
“Herr Oyerbakh, am I to understand that we can speak openly, without hints and intimations?”
“I hope so, Herr Kreizer.”
“If so, I have two questions for you, and don’t rush the answers.”
“Herr Kreizer, as you said before, I have patience in spades.”
“Good. The first question is: Do you know that my daughter is incapable of having children? And the second question is: What kind of dowry do you hope to receive?”
“Herr Kreizer, I come from a pious family. My father, of honored memory, always said, ‘With God’s help, a broomstick can shoot bullets.’ Take that proverb as an answer to your first question. As for your second question, if you aren’t opposed, I would like to wait to speak until after I’ve received your daughter’s answer.”
“Thank you, Herr Oyerbakh. I will relay your request to my daughter.”
“Thank you, Herr Kreizer. I have another favor to ask of you.”
“With pleasure, Herr Oyerbakh.”
“Yesterday I received a letter from my uncle. He wrote to say that my grandfather, Rabbi Aryeh-Leyb of Mikdorf, is no longer of this world; he has passed.”
“Blessed is the true judge. Devastating news for the whole Jewish world.”
“Thank you, Herr Kreizer. My request is that you relate the news to your daughter. With God’s help, I have been made the master of the place of Mikdorf, the rabbi of Mikdorf.”
“You have my congratulations, Herr Oyerbakh.”
“Thank you, Herr Kreizer. From now on, I suppose you should call me ‘Rabbi Oyerbakh.’”
“With pleasure, Herr Rabbi Oyerbakh. And when do you intend to depart Vienna?”
“God willing, Herr Kreizer, a month from now.”
“Rabbi Oyerbakh, you will receive our answer tomorrow.”
“Without fail, Herr Kreizer.”
“Without fail, Rabbi Oyerbakh.”
Herr Kreizer put the pack of cards that Rabbi Oyerbakh had set on the table in a small tin charity box and left his study. Five minutes later he returned with his daughter. Fanny Estreich said yes.
. . . Rabbi Asher felt the heavy weight of eyes watching him. His distant visions had vanished. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. Opposite him, on the other side of the table, Reb Yitzkhok ben Avraham wept without tears.
Eitan Kensky, a 2014 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow, is the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University, where he received his PhD in 2013. Kensky’s writing and reviews, as well as his original Yiddish prose and poetry, have appeared in Jewish Ideas Daily, the Jewish Daily Forward (in English and Yiddish), and Yerushalaymer almanakh.