by Chaim Grade, translated by Ezra Glinter
At one time the shul in Pesele’s courtyard boasted of its wealthy householders. When the older ones passed away they bestowed as an inheritance marble plaques on its walls, engraved with gilded inscriptions describing their good deeds. One of them donated a copper wash basin, a second a Hanukkah lamp, a third a Torah scroll; a fourth left a few thousand rubles in cash to provide for the synagogue’s upkeep. The children of the deceased benefactors came to pray only on the Sabbath and holy days; in the middle of the week the study house was empty. At dusk the rays of sunlight crept through the windows and, for a moment, the gilded words on the plaques sparkled. Then the rays faded and dark blue shadows covered the marble slabs bearing the names of the congregants.
During the war years, when the city was caught between the armies of the Russian czar and the German kaiser, the sanctuary came back to life. Among the masses of Jewish refugees expelled from the border towns near East Prussia were yeshiva students and rabbis. Some of the scholars didn’t want to flee any farther into the Russian hinterland, so they remained in Vilna and settled down to study in the synagogues of the courtyard, including in Pesele’s synagogue, which then shone from whitewash and was full of holy objects. When the Russians were defeated and the Jerusalem of Lithuania fell under the rule of the Germans, they gathered the metal objects from every house and synagogue to make cannons and bullets. From Pesele’s shul they took the big silver Hanukkah lamp, the bronze chandeliers, the copper hand basin, and even the metal knobs from the railing around the bimah and holy ark. The study house began to look torn and ragged, just like the hungry and distressed scholars themselves.
When the war ended, the scholars from Lithuania returned to their homes. Pesele’s shul also emptied out and looked even more abandoned than before, with cobwebs in every corner. Benches and prayer stands drifted around on crooked feet. The plaster peeled from the walls, the windows stared through broken panes, and the holy ark stood naked without a curtain. Only the Torah scrolls in the sanctuary remained, along with shelves filled with holy books. If not for the high, round windows, no one would have remembered that Pesele’s courtyard housed a holy place.
Of the Lithuanian scholars only the Verzhbelover recluse, Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt, remained. He had not returned home because he didn’t want to live with his wife, who was a full twenty years older than he was. After sitting for years by himself in study and prayer, the Verzhbelover had developed the habit of talking to himself with his hands, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, as if he were giving someone a retort. No! No! He would not go back to his accursed wife.
Gradually, the empty shul began to draw other idlers, men even more ragged than the old fashioned Jews of the other study houses. Since there were no established customs in the abandoned sanctuary, and respectable householders no longer came to pray there at all, each do-nothing could sit peacefully in his corner with no one to bother him. Anyone who wanted could also stay overnight in the men’s study house or in the women’s section.
The neighbors in Pesele’s courtyard rarely heard a cheerful voice or the tune of Gemara study coming from the sanctuary, as the loners inside were always drowsing on their prayer stands or sitting in gloomy silence. Only rarely would a scholar lean forward over a holy book and send his piercing voice flying through the window like a blackbird.
The regulars in shul didn’t always pray in a quorum, and whenever they did pray together, the leader mumbled to himself rather than speak so that he could be heard. But then he would cry out fiercely and unexpectedly, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and someone would repeat after him in a loud, sharp, heartrending voice. Afterward the shul would sink back into a mossy silence, with the sad, frozen fervor of a proper Lithuanian Sabbath. That was why the neighbors from Pesele’s courtyard gave the study house its nickname, which caught on throughout all of Vilna: “The Silent Minyan.”
* * *
A summer evening. Little grandmothers in wigs and wire spectacles sit on benches and crooked porch steps. They hold skeins of wool in their laps and knit warm socks for winter—they should live so long!—caps for their daughters, sweaters for the grandchildren. The needles fly between their work-worn fingers like arrows from a bow, and their yellowed faces, like dried-out parchment, warm themselves in the last rays of sun. From under large heavy wigs their small ears stick out eagerly to catch the sweet tune of Torah study coming from the shul windows. But instead of the melody of Torah, one of the old women hears the cry of an infant. The parents are at their store or in the workshop, so the grandmother must watch the child. The old woman creeps into the house and leans for a long time over the cradle. Her face, full of thin wrinkles and little blue veins, shines with pleasure. The grandchild falls asleep and the old woman shuffles back to the courtyard, where she again takes up her work. She sits on the step, the needles fly, her fingers count the “eyes,” and she thinks her thoughts.
The knitter remembers the scholars in Kovne during the war. You only had to look at their pale faces to realize how hungry and exhausted they were. But they studied with a delight that spread through their limbs. More than one overworked woman bustling around the courtyard with her basket of wares would forget about her customers and stand transfixed, listening to the voices of the scholars in shul. But the current recluses in the abandoned sanctuary have resigned themselves to silence, you could say.
The old woman rearranges her wig as if to protect herself from her thoughts, which she thinks against her will. Maybe her children aren’t entirely wrong. Maybe it is a sin that the men’s section of the Silent Minyan occupies a part of the second story and the women’s section occupies part of the third. From the two sections you could make half a dozen small apartments for the young couples who are suffocating in close quarters with their parents. In Vilna there are a hundred and ten little shuls, they say, and many of them are empty. Couldn’t the men of the Silent Minyan go sit elsewhere and turn over the shul to Jewish youngsters born in this very courtyard? Wouldn’t it be the right thing to do?
That’s the sort of thing the old women in wigs think to themselves while the needles in their fingers fly even faster than their thoughts. But their children, the younger neighbors, aren’t as pious and reserved as the old mothers. Come evening, when the young residents of the courtyard finish eating and sit out on the porches to catch some fresh air, they look out at the illuminated windows of the shul and mock: “What do those do-nothings need a fire for, to see where to scratch themselves?”
Out of the shul sneaks the Verzhbelover recluse, Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt. To the neighbors he seems the guiltiest. If he hadn’t stayed in the empty study house after the war and if he hadn’t attracted all those other do-nothings, the old ruin would have been turned into apartments long ago.
The Verzhbelover carries a little tin pot for hot water, looks at the people standing on the paving stones, and mumbles something to himself. Though he rarely says a word to the neighbors—those commoners!—he has lived here for so long that everyone in the courtyard knows about his battle with his wife and what he mumbles to himself.
“He’s figuring how old his wife is now,” one neighbor says, and mimics the way the recluse calculates. “At the wedding, he, the groom, was twenty years old and she, the bride, around forty. He wouldn’t have gone under the wedding canopy for all the money in the world if his father hadn’t given him a smack. Now he’s forty-two and his cursed wife, sixty-two. Would he, Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt from the Telz Yeshiva, live with a shrill, sixty-two-year-old market woman? Not on your life!”
A young cutie bursts into laughter and says it’s no wonder that the recluse is always going for hot water. A man who never stops talking to himself gets thirsty. The mimic joins in again. The recluse is happy that there are soldiers with rifles stationed on the border between Poland and Lithuania so that his cursed wife can’t join him. And his old father can’t hit him anymore, either.
“Nu, what did he accomplish, my father? He thought that if I married a rich commoner his old age would be nothing but comfort and easy days, but his plans have turned to straw and chaff.” The scoffer mimics the Verzhbelover, and the neighbors become even more cheerful. One of the courtyard dwellers wonders how the recluse survives on the few zlotys that he earns here and there for studying the Mishna in the merit of a deceased soul, and on the occasional pot of cold cholent brought to him by some generous woman.
“Nu, aren’t you forgetting our landlady?” someone else answers. “Chana Ettel Pesele’s helped him when her husband was alive, and she helps him now even more. That do-nothing thinks only about how to divorce his wife and how to marry our landlady. Watch out! When he owns the courtyard he could put us all out on the street.”
Now even the little grandmothers in wigs laugh. The man must be out of his mind to think that the baker and landlady of the courtyard would marry him. Nevertheless, the rich widow does have a lot of respect for the Verzhbelover and for the other relics of the Silent Minyan. They must have promised Chana Ettel a golden throne in paradise, which is why she is oblivious to the youngsters who have nowhere to live. But when the Verzhbelover comes back into the courtyard with the little pot of hot water they give him space to pass undisturbed and don’t utter a single hostile word. The neighbors respect him, because they know that he’s a good man after all. That’s why the landlady protests whenever anybody laughs at him.
* * *
Into just that abandoned sanctuary wandered Elyakum Pap—tall, thin, and dried up like a plum branch. He had never in his life seen a study house so utterly destroyed. The carpenter looked around with ravenous eyes and nearly lost his breath, so much did he yearn to build and repair.
The men sat in their corners as if on far-flung islands, covered in cobwebs of silence. One of them swayed mutely over a holy book, a second one dozed with his head on his prayer stand, a third stared at the ceiling. The Verzhbelover recluse paced aimlessly by himself, talking with his hands. It looked like he was arguing with himself and then immediately making up. Elyakum Pap walked over to him.
“We have to fix everything here; it’s broken down like the Temple in Jerusalem. I’m a carpenter; I’ll work for cheap. Who are you, the shammash?”
Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt practically toppled over from the two-fold insult. First, he had been disturbed in the midst of his thoughts, and second, he was mistaken for the shammash. Even in his youth, when he had arrived at the Telz Yeshiva, the old Rosh Yeshiva addressed him in the plural third person out of respect. “From what city are they? Where did they study before?” But now this lowly creature turned to him and said, “Who are you?” Woe that such a commoner would speak to him with such impudence! And who was to blame? Only her, that market woman, who was twenty years older than he was and wouldn’t accept a divorce.
The recluse stood to the side of the carpenter and shot back over his shoulder. “This study house has no shammash, no gabbai, and no householders. We don’t need to fix anything, and even if it were fixed, no one would pay.”
Elyakum Pap was not impressed. He saw right away that he was dealing with an arrogant person in a worn-out overcoat. He turned from the big shot and went over to another man, sitting in a corner of the study house.
The blind preacher Reb Manush Matz taught and studied in the morning and evening with the congregation at the Gravediggers’ Synagogue but spent the rest of the day at the Silent Minyan. In town they called him Reb Manush Mishnayos, because he knew the entire Mishna by heart. He sat by his prayer stand without a book and studied the teachings of the Tannaim from memory. Elyakum Pap had listened in on the preacher’s sermons at the Gravediggers’ Synagogue a few times.
“Rabbi, teacher—I am a carpenter and a carver. I see that the study house is bare-naked, like an orphan. There isn’t even one carving over the holy ark,” Elyakum Pap said, immediately regretting his speech. The preacher was a blind man—he couldn’t see the carvings even if there were any.
But Reb Manush Matz understood well what he was dealing with. His shrunken face and the wrinkles around his red, puffy eyelids smiled in unison. He pulled at his thin, gray beard and began speaking with a sweet little tune, just like when he preached to the congregation.
“In the holy Torah it is written, ‘This is my God and I will glorify him.’ On this our sages comment, that one must serve the One Above with beautiful things: with a nice ethrog, with a mezuzah in a silver case, with an engraved spice box. But the main thing is the blessing one makes on the ethrog and on the spices; the essence of the mezuzah is the holy passage written on parchment. So it is with the carvings in a study house. Certainly, they’re nothing to make light of. But the important thing is not to forget what it says in the Ethics of the Fathers: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, quick as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
So said Reb Manush Matz, and Elyakum Pap understood that it was in the nature of a preacher to preach. He let him finish, and asked: “And who will pay me for my work?”
Reb Manush had no answer. “And who will pay me for my sermons?” he wanted to ask. Everyone enjoyed his talks, but no one cared if he lived through the day. Nevertheless the blind man didn’t want to complain about the gabbaim of the Gravediggers’ Synagogue to a poor laborer.
He spoke again with his sweet preacher’s tune. The musicians of King David—peace be upon him—the harpists and flautists, aren’t painted on the walls and ceilings of synagogues for the sake of beauty and color only but to remind us that we once had a Temple in Jerusalem where the Levites played and sang. We must repent for our sins, which caused the Temple to be destroyed, and we must recite Psalms with a broken heart.
The carpenter realized that the blind preacher must not have been blind from birth, since he spoke about carvings and beautiful colors as if he could see them himself.
Elyakum Pap didn’t have the time or patience to speak to the other men sitting in the corners of the study house. He hurried home with a headful of plans, arrived out of breath, and told Matle that he would soon be in charge of the shul in Pesele’s courtyard. There was a world of work to be done there, fixing and decorating, and nobody would dare say otherwise.
Matle wrung her hands. How could he spend all of his time fixing a study house when he had a wife and children to feed? Normally Elyakum was curt and angry when he talked to her, but this time he spoke softly and patiently and wasn’t stingy with his words. He would work like a horse for her and the children and spend his free time at Pesele’s shul. One day the most esteemed householders in town would come to pray at the Silent Minyan. The carpenter waved a long, hard finger at his wife. “Don’t contradict me—do you hear, woman?”
Because he was going to support his family and work on the study house in his spare time, like everyone else who does a good deed, Matle pressed her advantage. Why should she be opposed? One day they would call the study house in Pesele’s courtyard “Elyakum Pap’s study house.” They would ask, “Have you seen how beautifully decorated Elyakum Pap’s study house is?” Or they would say, “Elyakum Pap’s study house is the most beautiful in town.”
“Matle, you must not say such things!” the carpenter shouted. He was bewildered by this womanish idea of having a study house named for him. But Matle wanted to please him even more. He already had the two lions for the Silent Minyan’s holy ark, she told him—the same ones he had made for Reb Yisroelke’s shul by the Vilenke River, whose gabbai had rejected them.
Elyakum looked at his wife despondently and muttered. She shouldn’t even mention those lions; they were really no good. But if those lions weren’t suitable, he would make new ones, Matle reassured him. The owner of the courtyard and of the Silent Minyan would certainly give him the material, she added, with a pious look on her face. The baker Chana Ettel was an important philanthropist; she didn’t even demand the rent from her impoverished neighbors. She certainly wouldn’t ask that a poor laborer supply his own wood and work for nothing besides.
For a long time Elyakum Pap looked at his wife with distrust. At last he spoke up. Only now did he see what a phony and a flatterer she was. He had thought, at least, that she would be interested in a good deed. But he was still craftier than her. If he went right now to the owner of the yard and shul, she would tell him that she had no money for repairs or that she preferred someone else to do the work. Instead he would first start the job, and when he had gotten something done he would go to the matron Chana Ettel and reach an understanding with her.
The carpenter finished making a pair of white kitchen tables that someone had ordered, gave Matle his earnings, and took a few hours to tinker in the shul. Loaded with a tool case and a few long boards, he went off to the Silent Minyan to first fix the broken steps of the bimah. When he entered the study house with his tools and materials no one looked at him, and he didn’t look at anyone either—he thirsted and fevered to get to work.
He sat down on the floor near the bimah and pondered how best to start. As soon as he began tearing out a rotten wooden step, the screech made the Verzhbelover recluse jump from his corner as though he had been bitten. Raising his voice wasn’t consistent with Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt’s dignity, so he stewed in silence. Such a thing hadn’t been heard in all of the nearly twenty years he had sat in the study house! Who had given the carpenter permission to make a racket and disturb people’s thoughts? Would he start banging nails too?
At that moment there resounded a deafening crack as the carpenter tore an old step off the bimah. A cloud of dust mixed with dirt and wood chips sprayed over the Verzhbelover recluse. Reb Dovid Aron Hokhgeshtalt shook with rage. Idiot!
“If you are so sensitive, why don’t you pick up a broom and sweep the filth that you’ve been tracking in here for twenty years?” the carpenter asked.
The Verzhbelover stood still, his eyes bugging out. He should pick up a broom and sweep trash? It was clear as day that he was dealing with a low-class person, with someone off the street. Reb Dovid Aron began walking backward, wiping his dirtied frock coat, hunching his shoulders, and scowling.
In the meantime the regulars clustered around and silently watched the carpenter work. He didn’t look at them—it would have been a waste of time. Besides, he had no respect for people who turned a holy place into a pigsty, forgive the comparison.
Elyakum Pap put a board over his knee and drew back with his saw. Suddenly he heard a voice that made him freeze.
“What is the point of building and fixing?” the man asked. “The Poles are now howling for the Jews to leave Poland.” Elyakum Pap recognized him from the courtyard and knew that they called him the “crazy Hungarian Rov.”
Reb Meshulem Greenwald came from Pressburg, in Slovakia. In town they said that even though Reb Meshulem Greenwald was raised by Hasidic zealots, he was learned in worldly matters and knew several languages. He had lived in Berlin, where he conducted debates with the scholarly anti-Semites. But when the unmentionable one with the Swastika—may God erase his name—took power, Reb Meshulem Greenwald was persecuted intolerably, until he was forced to flee Germany. Nobody—not even he—knew where he left his family. He had gotten into his head that he needed to write a compendium to refute the claims of the learned anti-Semites, and that’s how he was going to bring about the downfall of Germany.
For a long time the Hungarian Rov wandered, until he got stuck in Vilna among the Lithuanian Jews. There he talked to every passerby in the shul courtyard about what they should do to defeat the unmentionable one—may God erase his name—in Berlin. His plan was a mix of craziness and childlike innocence, and listening to him could make your hands and feet go numb. What Elyakum Pap heard depressed him also.
“Who starts to build and fix in a flood? Before you finish, the Satan of Destruction will come and ruin everything. First we must show the world that Satan lies about the Jews, so that all the nations will oppose and defeat him. Then we can start building.”
Elyakum Pap saw that the softhearted recluses of the Silent Minyan had each gone back to his corner, leaving him alone with the feverish Rov. Reb Meshulem Greenwald had a thick white beard and the long, curly sidelocks of a kindly grandfather. But his heavy, low-hanging eyebrows and big, coal-black eyes exuded the same fear as his words.
From his corner the blind Reb Manush Matz realized that the honest and upright carver was afraid of the crazy Rov. The blind preacher went over to the bimah, tapping his way with his cane.
“What is your name, Mr. Carpenter?” Reb Manush asked gently.
“Elyakum Pap’s my name, Elyakum Pap.”
Elyakum is a very lucky name, the blind preacher said. It meant that the One Above would help him carry out his plan to repair the study house. It was also a good omen that he had begun by fixing the steps to the bimah. When men went up and down the steps on their way to and from being called to read from the Torah, they were like the angels who went up and down Jacob’s ladder. A person was even loftier than an angel. An angel could never raise his spiritual standing, while a person could go higher and higher, as the prophet said: “And I shall give you paths to walk between those standing here.” When ascending, the main thing was the destination. You could go up to the attic to get straw, or you could climb the mountain of redemption, as the Prophet Isaiah said: “On a high mountain I ascend to you, oh messenger of Zion.”
So intoned the blind preacher Reb Manush Matz, but only the carpenter heard him. The Hungarian Rov was deaf to everything but the ideas afflicting his brain. His black eyes burned from anguish, and his furrowed brow perspired from strained thoughts. He still couldn’t remember where he left his wife and children—in Berlin, in Pressburg, or somewhere along the way.
 That is, the recluse from the town of Verzhbelov, also known as Virbaln or Virbalis.
 A renowned rabbinical school in Telšiai, Lithuania, founded in 1875.
 Yiddish names often use possessive matronymics. In this case, “Chana Ettel Pesele’s” means Chana Ettel, Pesele’s daughter.
 Beadle or sexton.
 Rabbis of the Mishnaic period.
 Exodus 15:2.
 A citron used for the Sukkes holiday ritual.
 A parchment with passages from the Pentateuch nailed to the doorpost of one’s home.
 A tractate of the Talmud that focuses on ethical teachings.
 The rabbi of a city or community.
 Now called Bratislava.
 Literally “Elyakum” means “God shall rise up.”
 Zechariah 3:7.
 Isaiah 40:9.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large for the Forward and edited Have I Got a Story for You: More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward. He was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2016 and is a frequent contributor to Pakn Treger.
Chaim Grade (Vilna 1910- New York 1982) was one of the most prominent Yiddish novelists and poets of the postwar period.