“The Death and Burial of Israel Koppel,” VI (1888), 177-194.




[Harvard Monthly 6.5 (July, 1888), 177]



Israel Koppel had just returned from Wilna. He had spent four years there in the study of Russian, and of the wisdom of the Gentiles. He now was twenty-two years old. Fourteen years of his life had been spent on the study of the holy Hebrew tongue. Had he followed the ways of his ancestors, he would not have delayed his marriage beyond his eighteenth year. His own father, the godly Koppel Talkever, had married at thirteen, and the Lord had rewarded him with a goodly lot in this world, not to speak of the assurance to him of the world to come. Had he followed in the path of his fathers, what I am about to relate never would have happened. But instead of wedding himself to some comely golden-haired daughter of Israel with a goodly dower, he determined to satisfy the yearning of his heart for that knowledge of the Gentile world which was beginning to sift into the Jewish communes of east-central Europe. Israel went to Wilna, not to attend the cloister of Ramailes, where the most famous professors of the Talmud are to be found, but to enter an academy.
He spent four years there; and now he returned, a delight and anxiety to his parents, and a scandal to the godly Jews of Lida. Meanwhile, although his beard was not yet full, he had grown to his manhood. Yes, he scandalized the good Lidans. Did he not walk as erect and confident as a Gentile? Was he not as tall and robust, as broad of shoulders and red of face, as a very baron? Worse still: he returned dressed as [178] the Gentiles dress. He had cut his earlocks, discarded skull-cap and long coat, and actually was wearing trousers, and a jacket reaching to the hips only. You would not have known him for a son of Israel. The poor Lidans were not only outraged, but terrified. A number of infants had died since Israel’s return. What could that indicate but the Lord’s anger with them for harboring such a godless youth in their midst!
One morning, a few days only after his return, Israel was lying on the lounge, reading something in the Gentile tongue. The lounge stood in the common room, of course—the room in which you find yourself at once after you have opened the door, the threshold of which is on a level with the highest step of the series that runs along the whole width of the front of the house, from the door down to the street. Israel’s father was a wealthy man, and his mother was a good housekeeper. The common room, therefore, looked neater and more comfortable than houses in Israel are wont to look. The floor was clean and sanded. The large oaken table glowed with scrubbing. The spaces between the double windows were ornamented with suspended apples and oranges. Overhead the ceiling was white, resting upon the heavy, varnished beams. The light was streaming in through the windows, and reflected from the tiles of the Dutch stove that stood across the room, from the lounge on which Israel was lying. His mother—may she rest in peace!—was seated, knitting, in front of this stove. She was a proud and happy woman, proud in her husband and her son. Was not her husband the chief of the commune? Was not his place on the left of the ark in the synagogue? At this very hour, were not other Jews already at their business, while he still was at the synagogue, presiding over the Talmudic club? Then, could she not be proud of her son? He was so handsome and learned. Even the Polish gentry were making friends with him.
She sat by the door of the stove, looking now into the fire, and now with fond and half-scared glances at her son. She was counting the number of loops her needle had made upon the line where the heel was to begin, when she was startled by a thud, and looked up to see Israel fallen back stiff on the lounge. She rushed up to him with such haste that the shawl fell from her cleanly shaven head.
[179] “God be with you! Israel, what is the matter with you? Israel! My dear, pet, little Israel! My precious, my darling!”
She tried to lift him. She shook him. She kissed him clingingly. All in vain! She was terrified. She tore open the door, and ran out into the street.
“Help, help, my dear little Israel—help!”
No one regarded her cries. Everybody stood with open mouth, overcome by the truly godless sight of a woman’s bare head exposed to the gaze of sky and men. She ran to the synagogue, scaring the goats from their browsing. She rushed up to the door. She dared not desecrate the sacred floor of the synagogue with a woman’s feet. She shouted to Koppel from the door. He was so absorbed in a disputation that Zirel had to shout several times before he heard her. “Help, Koppel! Our Israel is dead!” he seemed to her Zirel shouting. He looked at her stupidly for a moment, and walked towards her.
“O Koppel, Israel—oh, come!”
She turned to run home. Koppel followed her with accelerating pace. Behind him came an ever-increasing crowd of long-bearded men, of long-bearded goats, of women and of boys.
Zirel found Israel just as she had left him. There he lay, with his eyes rolled upwards. She looked at him. She did not notice the crowd that was gathering.
“Served him right,” said some; “this would-be gentile! An expiation for us all!”
“Send for the doctor,” cried others.
“For the doctor? cried the first. “He will make us keep the body for three days! What a godless thing! How the devils will torment the poor body! Send for the barber! He will know well enough whether Israel is dead or not. Send for the barber.”
The barber came, and declared that Israel was dead.


Nothing remained but to bury the corpse as soon as possible, to save it from the torments that devils inflict upon a body before its burial.
Had Israel’s father been a poor man, his son would have been buried decorously and speedily. Being wealthy, Koppel had to defend himself against the extortions of the Sacred Brotherhood. Their power, as you know, is absolute. Woe to the wretch that gains their disfavor! They had nothing against Koppel. But his son—sh, sh!—a renegade almost! Well, let him—that is, let his father for him—pay a thousand rubles before he have the right of burial. Koppel protested, bargained; urged that himself was a member of the Sacred Brotherhood. It was useless. Indeed, at the first rumor of Israel’s death, the Brethren began to have visions of illimitable rice-puddings and fire-wine for many a coming mystic feast. They knew Koppel could afford a thousand rubles. He paid it to save his son’s body from torment.
The money paid, the Sacred Brethren went to fetch the purifying table and the temporary coffin from the place where these usually stand, the space between the commune-house and the synagogue. Israel, meanwhile, had been stretched out on straw laid on the floor, with his feet toward the door. Tall candles were placed at his head. In less than a half-hour the Sacred Brethren returned. They took the body to the outhouse and undressed it and washed it. Then they clothed it in a shirt and drawers of coarse linen, placed the phylacteries upon its forehead and left arm, and over all the white smock that Israel long ago should have worn as the father of a family, enthroned in royal ease at the Paschal board. The body then was put into the temporary coffin, and the funeral procession was ready to go to the eternal home.
At the eternal home some of the Sacred Brethren, meanwhile, had dug a grave as deep as the height of the armpits of a man of ordinary stature. Beams reaching up three feet from the bottom were pushed into each corner of the grave. Cross-beams were laid on these; and over the cross-beams thin boards were to be placed after the corpse had been laid to rest; and at last the earth was to be thrown over the boards to form a low mound upon the surrounding surface.
The procession started. Koppel’s house stood on the extreme right of the elevation that occupies the base of the triangle about which the principal houses in Lida are built. The procession passed along the [181] muddy pool that occupies the whole of the depression at the base of the height. First ran a beadle, shouting: “Come to escort the dead, come to escort the dead!” A company of men singing psalms in lugubrious, swallowing tones followed him. Behind them came the rickety wagon containing the temporary coffin. Then followed the miscellaneous crowd of mumbling men and boys, among whom beadles were running, shaking their tin cups and shouting: “Charity saveth from death.”
The procession turned down at the left corner of the triangle, where the street begins that leads to the town gate. Until it came to the barber’s house, it met with no disturbing sight. Beyond, however, is the parade-ground, where soldiers were drilling. They did not disturb the procession. From the parade-ground to the town gate, both sides of the street are occupied with houses of the Polish gentry, who, at times, are wont to amused themselves by coming out to utter blasphemies against the Jewish dead. Just before the gate stood the church, that treasury of idols, surrounded with godless lindens. What can be a more disgusting sight than crosses and lindens? The procession passed safely, however. Passing the church, all stopped singing and mumbling, and muttered:
“Despising shalt thou be despised, and loathing shalt thou be loathed; for ’tis taboo, a dog are you!”
Spitting at the church, they passed out of the town gate.
On either side of the road were fields of decaying wheat-stubble. A little way down, on the left, is the eternal home. It is a beautiful spot, with its tall oaks and pines, standing out on the treeless plain. The only disagreeable thing is the sight of the numerous crosses from the Gentile burying-ground, that are visible from the road upon which the funerals have to pass, and from the eternal home itself. It was late in autumn now. The procession arrived at the eternal home towards sunset. A sprinkle of snow that left no trace on the ground, and merely gave a yellowish gray color to the sky, was falling.
The procession passed through the gate, over the rustling oak-leaves that covered the way, into the eternal home. In spite of Koppel’s high position, and the thousand rubles he had paid, the grave given to his son was not in the center, under the tallest pines, in the place of honor, but [182] at the side, by a young oak, the sere and bleached leaves of which were shivering on their twigs. The beadles took the corpse from the coffin and laid it facing the sky on the bottom of the grave. They placed a sack of earth from the Land of Israel under the head of the dead, and put shards of pottery upon its closed eyelids. One of the beadles thrust a fork into each fist of the corpse to help it rise when the Messiah,—with speed, in one day!—shall come. The boards then were placed on the beams. Koppel drew nearer to the grave, while the crowd retreated. He rent the right flap of his coat, and then threw four shovelfuls of earth on the boards. After reciting the Aramaic hymn of the exaltation of the Lord, he departed, walking to the gate between two rows formed by the crowd that had come in the procession.


The sun already had set, when Koppel walked out of the eternal home, and for the first time began to realize what had happened. From the moment that his wife had told him that Israel was dead, Koppel’s mind was taken up with the one thought that the body of an Israelite was awaiting burial. His feeling of duty as a Sacred Brother overcame all else. No wonder! At six he had been initiated into the mystic order. He knew what speedy burial meant to a soul. He had almost forgotten his son. It was not that he was heartless. Ah, the very contrary! But the sudden death had numbed him to such a degree that the only thought which could occupy him was the one that death naturally calls forth in a Sacred Brother. Now, however, he began to feel what it all meant. He walked slowly, with his tall form bent forward. He held his hands folded behind him. The vizor of his cap was pressed over his forehead. From beneath his skull-cap, which covered the back of his head, his earl-locks hung long, and wet with the cold sweat that had been bedewing him these many hours.
“My God,” thought he, “can it be my son is dead! Ah, my precious one! No, it is impossible. I must go and ask Zirel about it. She will know. Ah, my child! How I feared he never would be born to me; and now I have lost him. I am childless. My God, what will become of me [183] after my death! Who will pray for me after I am gone? How shall I meet my fathers in Paradise?” ‘Where is our child?’ they will ask. ‘Whom have you left to continue our life upon earth?’ O my son, what an aching heart you leave me! Lord of the universe, who will sing the hymn of exaltation at morning, and evening, and night, to shorten my purgatory? Who will light the sacred candles for my soul? Israel, my little Israel!”
Then, suddenly, a warm, calming feeling passed into his heart. He thought of his early marriage. He remembered how on the very day after his wedding, as he was returning from morning prayers, he forgot his dignity, and, leaving his bag with his phylacteries and praying toga, ran away to play horses; then, how he blushed when his wife, several years his senior, came up to him and asked him what he was about. He remembered the feeling of shame followed at once by a sense of pride and unlimited joy, when, eight long years after his marriage, he was told while at prayers in the synagogue, that he was a father. Yes, he was told of his son’s birth just where he afterwards was told of his death. The coincidence terrified him. A sinking feeling possessed him for a moment. The sense of peace returned when he thought of the child’s circumcision, of its growth, of its first day at school. Ah, the joy he felt when he heard his son of thirteen expounding the Law in the synagogue! But now—all was lost, lost. Childless, broken, alone!


Koppel returned to his house, and found his wife seated on blankets laid on the floor. She already had begun the seven days of continuous mourning. Candles were burning on a long bench serving as a table, on which a worn and crumpled book lay open. It contained a series of prayers and consolations written by some blessed rabbi who knew—may he, in his peace, forgive me!—little of women’s hearts, and still less of a mother’s bereavement. Zirel, during the past hour, had tried to read the book. She could not. She felt numbed. She had lived in a stupor since noon. An aching, gnawing pain—she knew no more. She looked at Koppel as he came in. He sat down beside her without speaking. [184] He sank back against a pillow, and buried his face in his hands. He dared not speak. They sat some minutes. Samuel, Koppel’s dearest friend, then came in. He had been at the burial, and hastened back after Koppel, to bring the meal that it was his duty to provide for the mourners. Without any greeting, as is the wont when calling on mourners, he handed them a ring-like biscuit upon which ashes had been sprinkled. Koppel and Zirel washed their hands, murmuring the blessing, and ate the biscuit. Samuel’s man-servant and maid-servant then entered, bringing a smoking tea-urn, and dishes of various kinds; for mourners must taste neither food nor drink from their own house, for twenty-four hours after the dead has been taken away. They ate in silence. Samuel’s eyes were red. His heart was broken. He could not console his friend. When the meal was over Samuel took the book of Job from the case and spread it open before Koppel. Their hands touched. Koppel looked up to Samuel, saw the red eyes, and, for the first time that day, he wept. He wept, and his bodily heard ached less. His head still reeled. What could it mean? He reeled. It is hard enough to understand death when we long have expected it. To see the darling of one’s life struck down, and taken away, and buried—it was beyond thought! It was a mystery; and he tried to remember it was taught that the Lord hath not granted us to deal in mysteries. He could not think; but he wept, and felt the relief of tears. Zirel sat silent, moving her head slightly. So Samuel left them.


Zirel could not sleep. Her husband did not seem at peace. She felt him tossing about. She turned round and looked at him. His lips were moving. His face was restless. At times his cheeks seemed to swell out. He plucked at his thin beard. Again and again he gasped. Once he clutched the bed-post, as if he were grasping for something. She watched him and grew anxious for him. Her fear increased. She forgot her son. She could not bear it. She must wake him.
“Koppel, good little father mine, what is the matter with you, Koppel?”
“Ha! What! Good God! Here! Ho, here! Thanks be to God!”
[185] Koppel started up. He had dreamt a dream, he said, a frightful dream. He would not tell it. It did not matter. He remembered he had forgotten to repeat the prayer for the night. He recited it now: the psalms; the description of Solomon’s throne and its guardians: the invocation to the guardian of Israel who neither slumbereth nor sleepeth; and the invocation to Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and the divine Presence, to watch by his bed. It was the failure to repeat this prayer that doubtless had caused his dream. Now he lay down again; but for a long time he lay awake. His thought dwelt upon his dream. He went through it again.
It had seemed to him that he was asleep. To the sleep he seemed to have, the deepest he hitherto had known was as the depth of the little pool left on the shelving beach by the retreating tide, to the depths of deepest Ocean. Fathomless, said the wise, is the ocean; fathomless seemed his slumber. No, it was not fathomless. He had read the other day in a book that some wise man had found a bottom to the sea which was found to be thirty thousand feet deep. Yes, such was his sleep. Thirty thousand feet of water was pressing upon him there where he lay, on the bottom of the ocean. He was not crushed. He slept,—but how heavy was his sleep, how heavy beyond weight! It gave him no definite pain, however. An infinite weight bore him down—no more. He lay under this weight a long time. He lay, and breathed not and felt not—felt nothing but that he could not feel that he was numb. No, he did not feel even that. He felt nothing for a long, long time.
Then he began to grow conscious of something. He began to feel a definite heaviness upon him. He did not realize it for sometime. At last it became so heavy that he wished to be free. What was it? What was burdening him? What was it he wished to be rid of? It was too hard to think of. He sank down, down, deeper, it seemed than where he had been. He rested there. Some time went by and he began to rise again. He rose and rose and stopped. He felt himself stopped by the thirty thousand feet of water that was weighing him down. He knew now what it was. He knew it and must shake it off. He tried to breathe a deep, long breath. He felt his breast swelling, heaving, but it would not [186] return. It remained inflated. He gasped. His breast would not sink. He began to struggle. His body grew convulsed, his face agonized. He pushed his limbs from him, and they struck against something. Horror siezed him. What was it that he struck? He struggled harder, harder—what was he to do!—harder still. He wondered what he could have done, what would have become of him, had not his wife waked him.
Now he could not sleep. His head was not clear. Thought after thought rushed through it. His dream haunted him. It mingled with all the thoughts in his mind. What could the dream mean? Did it mean anything? Had it any connection with what had happened that day? Had it anything to do with his son? His son,—now he saw his son again, first in ruddy health, then as he looked just before the boards were placed over him in the grave. Koppel saw him in his shroud, but could not see his face. Then Koppel saw Israel so distinctly that he had to sit up and open his eyes wide to make sure that Israel was not there. He lay down again. Zirel, he saw, had fallen asleep. He wanted to sleep too. He tossed about, clutched the pillow. He could not for a long time,—he did not know how long. The dream haunted him. He fell asleep at last, without knowing it. He ceased going over his dream. He continued it. He felt for a moment that the dream would take him farther and father; but he did not resist it.


He was again there—he did not know where—where the infinite weight was upon him. He lay there. The weight grew lighter and lighter. At last,—what happened to him? The weight was no longer upon him. He was free. But where was he? Had he grown blind? He could see nothing—nothing. Was he blind; what could it mean? He put his hand up to his eyes. He felt of his eye-lids. They were open. He could not be blind. Why the darkness then—this awful darkness? He listened. Something was ringing in his ears with a sharp, hissing sound. Then he became aware of a sound just like that he had heard when he last had seen the wonderful marvel that he had heard people call a steam-engine. Where could he be? How could he be near an engine? It must be something [187] else. What? He listened. The sound of pumping must be in himself. But the hissing ring—what could that mean? Was he in a nest of serpents? He reflected, and at last recalled that he had heard the sound before. He had heard it one winter. The snow was crisp under foot. He was walking from Pulanki to Lida. When he came to the highest part of the road, he stopped a moment to catch his breath. It was quiet. The sky was freezing blue—the whole earth, in the direction he looked, dazzling white. Not a sound anywhere; but in his ears rang the same hissing ring that he was now hearing. That sound must be the voice of silence itself. Where could he be where it was so silent—silent as the grave. “Grave”—dreadful word! Why did it terrify him! He tried to move. He found his limbs were stiff. He felt perfectly awake. His mind was clear. What was this dampness? On what was he lying? He stretched out his left hand, and felt it touched something damp and hard. He felt that the thing on which he lay was also damp and hard. He would get up and see what it all meant. He put his hands behind him to help him get up. They hit against something perpendicular, hard and damp. He started up, struck his head against something and fell back. He felt something dribbling upon him. He held out his hand and felt sand, and tiny pebbles falling upon it. He must make another effort. He lifted himself with an elastic bound. His head struck again—now he felt it—against a heavily loaded board. As he fell back, he felt a shower of sand falling upon him. He groped about him. A hard, damp substance enclosed him on all sides except on top. There it was a board.
He could not sit up. There was not room enough. He tried to find how to get out of that imprisoning something. He tried to think. He felt his limbs were numb. He passed his hand over his forehead and found his phylactery bound on tight. Good heavens, what could it mean! What had he on? He felt of his clothes—linen, and nothing else. Yes, and on his left arm was a phylactery, and the strap. Had he been praying?
Then an awful fear began to creep over him. He gasped, he knew not why. He felt that he must find a way out or die—die in a few minutes. What made him think of death? Was he not strong, and tall, and healthy? He gasped, he choked. He felt an awful convulsion twisting [188] him. His head seemed to be crushing through the boards above him and falling, not back, but over on his feet. His blood was burning, and in a moment it froze, in clots. He gave himself a violent wrench, and—woke.


What a nightmare! The earliest, sunless light of a gray morning assured him of his surroundings. But how late it must be! He should have been at vigils, in the synagogue, hours ago. He was about to dress in haste, when he recalled that mourners must not leave the house throughout the seven days of mournings. Still he might sing his psalms at home. He dressed and poured water over his nails to wash the devils off that hang from them during the night. He sat down on the blankets, by the bench, and began the psalms for the deaf. Wont had made them so familiar that the words had ceased to arouse thought and feeling in him, except the emotion with which he always felt himself sanctified, while at prayer. Now, he began to stop at each word. The psalms that he had sung all his life to please the Lord, began to speak to him, to console him. They were written expressly for him. To whom else did they ever speak as they now spoke to him? A dread came over him suddenly, lest he be making profane use of God’s holy word. Ah, but none but a father, none but a man that had suffered could have written as the Psalmist wrote! Then were not the psalms God’s own word? He turned pale at the blasphemous thought, but the psalms no longer could be the devout singsong that they had been. They spoke to him, and he must listen. They told him that he was a bereaved father, who no longer could sing psalms as he had done. They brought him back to the thought of his son, and away from the habit of worship.


At last he wandered quite away, and lost himself in the thought of his dream. What did it mean? Dreams always have a meaning when they remain as clear to the memory as his did. There must be a meaning; but what? He hardly dared shape a vague feeling that somehow the dream had to do with his son. At moments he tried to think of it with [189] merely curious interest. He could not go far, however, before the sense of his sorrow shut down like a fog upon his brain. His whole consciousness became crowded with images suggested now by his loss, now by his dream. He tried to order these images, but the effort made him dizzy. He had to rest his head against the wall, passive to the fancies that were coursing in clatter through his brain, as rats do under the floors and behind the wainscotting of old houses. He lay dizzily passive, until he fell asleep.


Zirel had risen, meanwhile, refreshed. She dressed and entered the common room. She found Koppel asleep, his head against the wall, his mouth open. She would not wake him, poor man. She would let him sleep until nine at least of his friends should come in for morning prayers.
No sooner had Koppel dozed off than he began to dream again. He was again where he had been before. It was a grave. He was lying on the bottom of a grave. What was he doing there? How had he come there? He came there because he had been buried. Why was he buried? He was not dead. He wondered whether, after all, it was not a dream occasioned by a picture of Mephistopheles lowering over Faust’s open grave, in a copy of Goethe’s Faust that he had just been reading. Could it be a dream? Was he really at home, in bed, oppressed by this incubus? It must be a terrible one indeed! Was he moving his limbs against confining substances in a dream? No! He was in a grave; he had been buried; he was dead. Dead—he was not dead. How could he have died? He was so strong and well. How absurd to think he could be dead! Were the dead so able to move their limbs, so able to think, so conscious of pain, as he was at that moment? What had happened? He tried to recollect. He recalled that the last thing he had done was to get up from the lounge where he had been lying. It was incomprehensible. It must be a dream. He must shake it off.
He was not dreaming! He was in the grave, dead. He must have died, been buried, and now brought to life again by the minister of [190] vengeance, the angel Dumah. Could it be so? Were the beliefs of his ancestors true? He long ago had given up belief in what he considered superstitions about the future life. Since he had begun the study of gentile lore, these Jewish superstitions had seemed something to laugh at. Were they true after all? Had the Lord slain him in the bloom of his youth for his disbelief? Was this the cause of his sudden death? It must be, it must be. If these beliefs were true, however, why had he no recollection of the three punishments prior to the restoration of the soul to the body in the grave? His death was painless. Such a death is granted to the most just only. He could recall no torments from devils between his death and his burial. He could recall no inquisition from the Angel of Death, and no punishment for forgetting his name, ancestry, and station, which all except the perfect forget. He surely was not perfect, judged by any law: and, according to Jewish beliefs, he had been guilty of unspeakable sins. No, he had forgotten nothing. His name was Israel bar Koppel. His father was Koppel bar Israel Talkever. He had not forgotten. Could it be, though, that he had lost memory of all that had happened to him since his death? Could he have forgotten all the torments that must have been inflicted upon him? He must have. Was he not alive, although in the grave? How could that be, unless he was brought to life again after burial? A terrible dread began to master him, the dread of Dumah’s burning chains. All must undergo the torture of Dumah. He so sinful, now that he knew the Jewish beliefs were true, would suffer unspeakably. He already felt the iron chains crushing the joints of his body. Now they are tearing him limb from limb. Now they are grinding him to dust and ashes. Ah, God, what torture! Yes, he was undergoing it already. Did he not feel the iron chains burning into his flesh? Ah, how horribly real it all was! He could not see Dumah; but it is vulgar belief that makes the angels visible. Oh, the horror and pain! When would it end? How full of smoke was his throat! How swollen grew his limbs and veins! What unspeakable torture he was suffering! How long would it last? He prayed to God to forgive him. Out of the depths of his innermost soul he prayed for forgiveness. Ah, the dreadful agony; it even would not let him pray. It kept his soul [191] bound down to the grave, and to his suffering in it. A recollection of a belief rushed through his thought that the greater the suffering in the grave, the less thereafter. But, oh, it was not to be borne! What agony, what pain! “Good God, end it, good God give me rest!”
And an end to his suffering, and rest came at last.


Koppel started up from his sleep with a bound, awake as for eternity. His friends, who already had come for morning prayers, were terrified. Zirel screamed in her fright. Koppel looked at them all a moment, and shouted:
“Israel has appeared to me in a vision three times this night. He was buried alive. Let us go to the grave at once. We may save him yet, Come!”
“Koppel, what can you be thinking of? Visions! You must have been excited. You need rest.”
“My God, do not talk to me! I shall burst with rage. Come, come!”
“Good heavens, Koppel, what can you be thinking of? To dig up the dead—what sacrilege!”
“But I tell you Israel was not dead. He was buried alive.”
“But we have not said our morning prayers yet.”
“Curses upon you, villains, to think of prayers while my son is dying in agony, buried alive! Buried, buried, alive! Good God! Will you not come? I will go alone. I will dig him up with my fingers.”
Samuel was in despair. He knew too well that people are buried alive in the haste of Jewish burial, altogether to laugh at Koppel. But what was to be done?
“Koppel,” he cried, “I conjure you have a little patience. You know the terrible consequences of a rash action. You will be excommunicated.”
“God, my God, can I let my son die in the earth?”
“I will hasten for the rabbi,” shouted Samuel. The other friends restrained Koppel while Samuel hastened for the rabbi, who was now at morning prayers in the synagogue. The congregation were repeating “the [192] Eighteen” verses during which no one must be disturbed. Samuel had to wait until they were done. He had not known before how long these verses were. They seemed endless. At last he forced his way through the swaying, mumbling congregation to the ark on the right of which the rabbi was standing, his face to the east, still absorbed in “the Eighteen.” Samuel never had loved the rabbi. Now that he impatiently was waiting for him to have done with his hypocritically long-drawn mutterings, and too prominent swaying and beating of the breast, he hated the rabbi. At length, weary with waiting, Samuel pulled the rabbi’s praying toga to draw his attention.
He turned around with a look of displeasure in his face. He had known that Samuel was standing by his side. He purposely had kept him waiting. He opened his rusty black eyes, the corners of which were of a ghastly red, wide open, and asked:
“Well, what is it?”
“Rabbi, Koppel must see you at once. You must come with me.”
“What, impious! Leave the synagogue before prayers are ended—impossible!”
“Rabbi, you must!”
Samuel pierced him with his glowing black eyes.
“I—I will go. Be silent.”
The rabbi took off his toga and phylacteries. His yellowish-gray ear-locks twined down to his shoulders. His beard covered his breast. His coat reached down to his feet. In a moment he was ready, and started with Samuel. The congregation looked on in wonder, and said nothing.
The rabbi hardly had set foot in the house, when Koppel shouted to him:
“Rabbi, my son was buried alive! Let us go and open the grave.”
“God be with you! What are you saying?” asked the rabbi in a voice coming from a throat for sixty years rubbed with garlic and greased with goose-oil. “Buried alive! Who ever heard such a thing!”
“But it is true, Rabbi. I dreamt it three times this night. Oh, there is no time! Let us hasten; we may save him yet!”
The rabbi was horrified at the thought of disturbing the dead at rest. [193] He did not doubt that Israel was dead. Had not the barbed said so? Had not the test been made? Had not a feather been put up to Israel’s nostrils to see if there was any breath in him? Of course he was dead. What was to be done? Koppel protested Israel had appeared to him three times. The rabbi felt constrained by the Law to give his attention to a vision so often repeated. He bethought him, however, that he might push the responsibility upon the shoulders of the two judges, and of the twelve elders of the Sacred Brotherhood.
These were sent for while Koppel darted about with impatience. Great excitement arose in the synagogue at the departure of the fourteen principal men, before prayers were ended. The judges and the elders assembled in Koppel’s house, and, after a deal of argument, decided to permit that the grave be opened.
Koppel, of course could not leave the house. He stayed at home and almost went mad with fear and hope and impatience. As the rabbi, the judges and the elders went out of the house, they found the whole congregation and many women and children assembled about the steps. The news had gone forth that something awful had happened. The elders with the rabbi and the judges at their head, turned their steps towards the eternal home. The crowd followed them. On the way they were joined by four beadles of the Sacred Brotherhood, with pickaxe and spade.
The eternal home was reached at last. The iron gates were swung open and the crowd made its way to Israel’s grave. It remained as left the day before; only a few of the sere and bleached leaves of the young oak had fallen on it. Before the beadles could begin to open the grave, the dead had to be asked forgiveness for the disturbance of its rest. The rabbi did so with a request three times repeated. The beadles then fell to work. The crowd drew back with a shudder. It did not take the beadles long. The earth was removed. The boards were taken off. The crowd pressed nearer and closer.
There was Israel, his body doubled up, his shroud spotted with red, his face blue, swollen, gashed and smirched with blood.
“God forgive us, what a judgment,” muttered the crowd.
“Served him right,” shouted a voice. “Did I not hear him laugh [194] the other day, when he was told that a woman had been dug up at Wilna, into whose mouth the angel Dumah had forced her scalp, to punish her for having exposed her own hair to sky and men? Did he not laugh? Now, Dumah has executed his judgment upon him. Served him right! Thus to all renegades! God forgive us! Give him a new shroud! An expiation for us all!”
“Amen,” muttered the crowd. “An expiation for us all!”