Meeting a Transylvanian Rabbi, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 210-213:

My interlocutors looked bewildered when I tried to explain my reasons for not staying at home. Why was I travelling? To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly—I couldn’t think of the word at first—and when I found it—“for fun”—it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered. “Also, Sie treiben so herum aus Vergnügen?” The foreman shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others; they all laughed and I asked what it was. “Es ist a goyim naches!” they said. ‘A goyim naches,’ they explained, is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved; any irrational or outlandish craze, a goy’s delight or gentile’s relish. It seemed to hit the nail on the head.

The initial reserve of the other dwellers in these mountains had not lasted long; nor did it here: but the Jews had other grounds for wariness. Their centuries of persecution were not ended; there had been trials for ritual murder late in the last century in Hungary and more recently in the Ukraine, and fierce deeds in Rumania and pogroms in Bessarabia and throughout the Russian Pale. Slanderous myths abounded and the dark rumours of the Elders of Zion had only been set in motion fifteen years earlier. In Germany, meanwhile, terrible omens were gathering, though how terrible none of us knew. They came into the conversation and—it seems utterly incredible now—we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream. The Jews in England—a happier theme—came next: they knew much more than I, which was not hard; and Palestine. Sighs and fatalistic humour spaced out the conversation.

Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Würste und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvellous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn.

By this time the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished—touched, too—that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews—“not like us”—employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good-night with laughter.

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Filed under Britain, Germany, Hungary, labor, language, migration, nationalism, religion, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine

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