Article

Obsolescence

Obsolescence The red-shaded electrolier burned in the dining room, casting a cold, wintry glow over the lower areas of the dark walls, and on the carpets. In the corner, the great pendulum clock beat time, as such clocks do on winter evenings when an entire household goes out and the clocks are left in charge. The doors leading into the study were open, and quite alone at the table, under the red-shaded electrolier, sat Moshe Greivis, formerly a fair-haired man all of whose grayness seemed concentrated in his bushy eyebrows - an old and deeply observant Jew whose children, currently settled in Berlin, had not long before brought him over to live with them from a small, now deserted town in the Ukraine. Old Greivis could not sleep. His children had gone out to a ball somewhere and left him alone in the spacious dwelling. They would not return before dawn.

Three hours earlier, after Moshe Greivis had recited the prayers before retiring, switched off the light in his bedroom, and with a pious sigh had lain down in his bed, the thought had occurred to him that Berlin, where he now found himself for the third successive week, was an exceedingly great but also a greatly sinful and blasphemous city: it resembled Nineveh, the city that in the days of Jonah the prophet had angered God, so that God had wanted to destroy and overthrow it as He had formerly overthrown Sodom; the city was great and sinful, as it is written: "And Nineveh was a great city before the Lord, but there was none therein that might do penance for her," and this was a cause of reproach, of great reproach ...

The story of Jonah reverberated incessantly through his mind:

"Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying: Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa, and he found a ship bound for Tarshish ..."

For a long time old Greivis lay like that with his eyes shut, and all the time he saw before him how Jonah fled from before God on board a ship bound for Tarshish. A mighty tempest arose in the sea, and nearly, very nearly, the ship was like to be broken. Then every man cried out to God, and Jonah alone hid himself - he was gone down into a distant corner of the ship; there he lay down, closely huddled up, greatly alone, and he dozed, just as at this moment he, Moshe Greivis, was dozing.

But since old Greivis did not wholly surrender himself to sleep, after lying like that for an hour, he eventually rose again. Once more he dressed and once more switched on the lights. Now he sat in the study, bowed over a thick holy book as old and yellowed as he was himself. He peered into it, frowning so deeply that his bushy gray eyebrows kept on twitching, and with the pointed cantillation of synagogue chanting he repeated over and over:

"And this is the order of reciting the confession ..."

His droning murmur was like that of a bee trapped in a narrow gap between two windows, beating itself again and again against the panes but unable to escape:

"And when thou comest to confess, then shouldest thou remember thy sins and the sins of thy parents' parents until the generation of the Flood, and until the generation of Babel, and until the generation of Sodom, for it is not only for his own sins that a man is punished, but also for the sins of all previous generations, as it is written: the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge ..."

For a moment he interrupted himself.

Some kind of strange shuffling, like the scrabbling of a mouse, reached him from a distant passageway. Then from the street he heard the chatter of people shouting gaily as they passed along - he heard the singing of young men and the laughter of young women, and this laughter was the laughter of the night, wanton and distant, like the laughter in ancient Nineveh.

Greivis bowed more deeply over his book and resumed droning with even greater piety:

"And these are the words of the Book of the Godfearing: The world is a stormy sea, life is as a heap of dust upon the shore of that sea. Man stands upon that heap and the Tree of Life overspreads him. Therefore must a man needs cling fast to its branches, for if he does not, then - Heaven forbid - the mighty wind might blow ..."

The mighty wind ... as it is written:

"And behold, a great and mighty wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks ..."

Moshe Greivis shook himself, sighed, and lost himself in thought about Russia and about the wind that had already swept through that country - a great and mighty wind ... it rent the mountains and shattered the rocks ...

He recalled the way his little town in the Ukraine had looked earlier, before the mighty wind had swept through it, how for many years comfortable people had lived there undisturbed by the local Jewish poor ... and the way the town looked now: a town bereft of Sabbath days, with newly constituted Holy Days, without weddings and without musicians ... He brooded over the desolate town, standing solitary in the depths of night, and he deplored the fact that people had fled from it singly and in pairs. People had not saved it by doing penance, by fasting and almsgiving and, above all, by studying the Torah, as it is written:

"It is a Tree of Life to them that seize hold of it ..."

He regretted the loss of his brick building there in the town - an old-fashioned, double storeyed, whitewashed building. He felt an intense longing for the shelter that building had afforded him for so many years, and for the livelihood it had provided him for so long.

Now, with bizarre clarity, he saw before him the whole town, and above all the rectangular, badly paved marketplace: there in the left-hand corner stood his building. In a narrow lane, only three or four houses further along all told, stood the old brickwork study-house. Regularly, when the time came for daily prayer, the worshipers waited a little while and then sent a boy:

-- Go; tell Reb Moshe that we are waiting for him in order to start the service ...

There were shops on the ground floor of his building - six shops with iron grilles over their doors and windows, and above, in six rooms, Moshe Greivis himself had dwelt ... And there, on the first day of every new month, on the Festival of the New Moon, the shopkeepers would bring him their rent, punctually at the beginning of every new month, before the start of a normal working day, when the Torah was read at morning prayers and a great deal was recited from the prayer-book. All the shopkeepers in his building were observant Jews whose word was their bond in both buying and selling, and because of that, the rent they would scrupulously pay him on each Festival of the New Moon, when a great deal was recited from the prayer-book and the Torah was read, was very precious to him, like a portion of the sacrifice exclusively set aside, like holy earnings, like some kind of exceptional gift sent by God directly to him, Moshe Greivis, as a reward for his piety ... And always he was filled with the desire to give charity out of these earnings - not a great deal, true, but still, a little ... And for this reason silence always prevailed in his house. He was able to sit studying in the certainty that God loved him, if not overpoweringly, then at least a little. He was worthy of a little esteem. God knew who Moshe Greivis was. But subsequently something unpleasant had taken place in his house - a sin, which only Moshe Greivis himself often reflected upon, and from that time on ... from that time on!

Moshe Greivis bowed even more deeply over his holy book and turned back to those lines over which he had paused earlier:

"Therefore must a man needs cling fast to the branches, for if he does not, then - Heaven forbid - the mighty wind might blow ..."

Moshe Greivis repeated the last words several times:

"And a great and mighty wind ... It rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks."

He drew his brows even more tightly together and buried himself even more deeply in the words, but the unpleasant event that had taken place in his house gave him no rest.

The unpleasant event sprang to mind.

* * * * * *


By that time Moshe Greivis had seen all his daughters - he had only daughters - married off and settled in great distant cities. His first wife had died. He lived alone in his six silent rooms, earned his livelihood from his tenanted shops with their iron grilles, and from the nearby study-house a message was sent to him every morning:

-- Reb Moshe, morning prayers are about to begin, Reb Moshe ...

His only visitors were his wealthy married daughters, who would come down to visit their mother's grave at the prescribed time, and when they came down they would stay with him for short periods. One particular afternoon it was borne in upon them how their father, sitting there and studying, cut a solitary figure in the town, had been left all by himself in his own home, and was, sadly, lonely ... very lonely ...

Moshe Greivis remembered how, at that time, his middle daughter had written to his oldest daughter about his loneliness, and how his oldest daughter had subsequently written to tell him that when she had read her sister's letter she had wept, wept bitterly ... Then the oldest daughter left her home and set out for some or other place - the purpose of her setting out was to "cast her eye over" someone for him ... Thereafter she suddenly descended on him, quite unexpectedly dropped in on him, even though that was not at all the prescribed time for visiting her mother's grave. She moved in with him for three weeks, and then went away again - apparently once again to "cast her eye over" someone for him. Through the medium of a telegram, she subsequently summoned him to an unknown railway station in one or another place. And the upshot was that there, on that railway station, they actually arranged a wedding, and a silent new person then augmented his home, his six silent rooms above those shops with their iron grilles - a woman in her forties, the former wife of some highly successful man of distinguished lineage who had died young, very nearly the wife of a former wonder-working rabbi - so they said ... or perhaps it only seemed so ...

Moshe Greivis remembered:

The woman was very silent, very slow. She emanated exceptional chilliness - her own unique chilly emanation; at night she besmeared herself from an assortment of individual jars, and these very jars themselves seemed to be cold: they chilled her face, benumbed her movements, glaciated the air around her. She dressed her hair in such a way that her heavy ritual wig looked natural; she was too close in counting out every penny she paid the maid; and she was herself somewhat short-sighted ... At table during mealtimes she always wore a warm shawl - she felt a little chilly ... She carried her silver spoon very close to her eyes and examined it from all sides, as though seeking some portent in it. And this silver spoon actually did belong to her - she had brought it with her from her home ... Apparently she had eaten from this same silver spoon when she still lived with her first husband ...

In Greivis's home, people behaved from the first exactly as though they noticed nothing of this - of the fact that she sat swathed in her shawl at table, and there, with her shortsighted eyes, closely scrutinized her very own silver spoon. But later it began to be remarked upon. To begin with, Moshe Greivis himself started casting sidelong glances at her - when he was sitting at the table, for instance, and suddenly, glancing up from his book, would notice the way she was scrutinizing her silver spoon. And later this also started displeasing his married daughters who often came down to visit the grave of their dead mother.

The daughters discovered that somehow she was not the person they had thought she was. They said:

-- She's somewhat cold ...

-- Somewhat alien ...

-- She's strangely slow ...

-- Yes - Moshe Greivis responded - yes, indeed ... she is very slow.

-- And apart from that - returned the daughters - there's something about that silver spoon of hers ...

-- Eh? ... Indeed ... He was well content that, with a single word, his daughters had spared him much speech - Indeed, there is something about that spoon of hers ...

And for some days thereafter the daughters whispered among themselves, and at length they asked their father:

-- Why should she be kept here when she can't adjust to living in this place? ... What for, father? Perhaps we ought to send her back home?

And then it transpired that this was indeed the best thing. He had no objection to this.

-- True - he said - why should she be kept here? When she's a somewhat strange creature - she can't adjust to living here.

And during all that time, he recalled, he'd sat studying ... sat and studied ... The daughters had then relocated the woman to some other place, entrusted her to the care of some people somewhere - and arranged for divorce papers to be sent to her by messenger. They abandoned her in one or another place, and when they returned without her, they related:

-- She didn't weep ...

-- She's somewhat cold ...

-- As though she'd been given a sedative ...

-- Apparently she can't weep - she's that sort of person ...

-- Nevertheless, she's very greatly to be pitied.

-- Poor woman ... She hasn't a soul in the whole world ...

-- It broke one's heart...

Then Moshe Greivis asked:

-- And what about obtaining her forgiveness? Did anyone beg her pardon?

As it turned out:

-- No ... Was ever the like heard? ...

-- There was no discussion about begging her pardon ...

--Somehow it never occurred to anyone ...

-- Ai ... ai ... ai - Moshe Greivis was overwhelmed with regret. - That's a shame ... a great shame ... How could such a thing be overlooked? What do you mean? Asking forgiveness is an obligation ...

He still recalled his daughters' words: "She didn't weep ... She's somewhat cold ... Nevertheless she's greatly to be pitied - it broke one's heart ..."

And thus it was ... Precisely from that time on ...

That was the very time the war had broken out ... The Revolution came - the great wind, that rent the mountains and shattered the rocks, began to blow ... Many times it occurred to Moshe Greivis that a grievous sin had been committed ...

He thought over and over again:

-- That woman ought to have been sought out. If she were still alive, she ought to be compensated financially. If she had died, pardon ought to be asked at her graveside. And perhaps ... perhaps one ought also to ask pardon at the graveside of her first husband ...

But nothing more was heard from that woman. She had disappeared, as though swallowed up by the sea.

And the truth was that he, Moshe Greivis, had only thought about compensating her or about begging her pardon ... he had done nothing to turn thought into action. And all the while the great wind blew, rending asunder ever greater mountains, shattering ever greater rocks, and no one knew that all the while his sin grew greater, and that for all of this perhaps he, Moshe Greivis, had been personally responsible ... He with his sin against that woman who was somewhat cold and was incapable of weeping ... Because on account of the bitter weeping of one young woman, God had once overthrown Sodom, as it is written: "I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of a certain maiden which is come unto Me, and if not, I will know ..."

Moshe Greivis bowed even more closely over his thick, yellowed holy book; he droned on like a trapped bee:

"And if a man will come to regret his wrongdoing, let him remember that the Lord pardoneth all wrongs except for those wrongs that one man commits against another." For thus is it written: "And if one man injure another, he will have injured My world, and I will shake asunder its foundations, and the world will collapse in upon itself like a forest whereof the roots are rotten," as it is written: "Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because He was wroth."

* * * *


By now it was very late at night.

The lights in the rooms had once again been extinguished, and only the great pendulum clock in the dining room still continued to beat time, as such clocks do when the inhabitants of a house have gone away ...

Once more, old Greivis lay in his bed, but he could not fall asleep.

He regretted the loss of his small town in the Ukraine, and above all he regretted the loss of his old-fashioned, two-storeyed building that stood in a corner of the marketplace not far from the narrow lane where the big study-house was located ... He remembered the way his town had looked in former days and how it looked now, and it seemed to him a shame ... a great shame ...

-- One ought to have sought out that woman and compensated her financially ... But perhaps she was dead by now ... One ought to have begged pardon at her grave and at the grave of her first husband ... But he had not done this ... He had procrastinated ...

Old Greivis lay in bed with his eyes shut, overpowered by the sense that only he, unequivocally only he had occasioned the mighty wind to blow over his country, and he himself had fled thence on account of his sin - had fled from before God, as once, long before, Jonah had fled from before God to Tarshish ...

He lay in bed with his eyes shut and conjured up a vision of a great storm at sea: nearly, very nearly, did the ship break asunder; all cried out to God, and only Jonah concealed himself - he was gone down into a distant corner of the ship and lay there with his eyes shut, closely huddled up and greatly alone, just as he himself now lay in his bed, he, old Moshe Greivis who had fled ...

Outside, gray dawn had broken, but Greivis was not asleep, and his children had not yet returned home. On the other side of the curtained window, along the damp streets nearby, ran the first crowded, daybreak-lustrous trams; the clamor they made in passing was filled with youthful eagerness to shake off the idleness of night; they were packed with workers and employees hurrying away the last of their drowsiness in their press toward a new day of work.

From the sidewalks could be heard the strenuous, bustling tread of striding people.

From somewhere far away, from smoke-filled places both within and without the city, the long exacting whistles of the electrically illuminated, seething factories summoned them. With every blink of an eye, the footsteps there grew ever more wakeful, ever more brisk. The overcrowded buses slipped back and forth as though in great urgency.

With renewed power gained in refreshing sleep, the reinvigorated, mighty city railway rattled high overhead.

Moshe Greivis listened to all these sounds. Every now and then he shut his eyes more tightly in order to doze off, and he mused that the city was great and sinful, akin to Nineveh, as it is written: "And Nineveh was a great city before the Lord," but there was none therein that might do penance for her ...

Greivis regretted that this great city would perish, in exactly the same way as he regretted the passing of his little town with his building there in the Ukraine, and in exactly the same way as he regretted the sin he had committed against that somewhat cold woman who was unable to weep, and that was far worse than anything else - far worse than anything else was the inexpressible sorrow of one deprived of speech ...

Incessantly through his mind the same phrases reverberated:

"Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai ... But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord ... And Jonah lay closely huddled up and hidden in the sides of the ship" - just as Moshe Greivis himself now lay ...

* * * *


Translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman
(Dr Sherman is the Woolf Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University)

Originally published in the journal Midstream (Vol. 38, No. 5 (July/August 2002), pp.37-42).
-- Mark Thwaite (10/08/2005)

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