Friday, October 1, 2010
The Blood Libel
The Jews of Kreshev fed and sheltered the beggars because they were Jews and the beggars were Jews. They supported them communally just as they would ransom a Jew held captive by robbers, or bribe an official to release a Jew unjustly imprisoned, or provide a dowry for a poor Jewish orphan. But beggars were a special case. It was widely known that the Prophet Elijah poses as a beggar and wanders from town to town, checking to see if the Jews he encounters are Torah true and pious, or wicked and corrupt. When he finishes his peregrinations he will rise up again to the Heavenly Mansions to report to God, Blessed Be His Name, and if the Jews are worthy, recommend that the Messiah be allowed to come. If they are corrupt, he will recommend further punishments, additional deprivations, and more exile, gloom and destruction for the poor Jews. And if the generation is impious enough, who knows what Elijah will say?
It was also widely known that because of the righteousness of thirty-six men, the world continues to exist. They may or may not know they are one of the thirty-six, and these holy men may be anywhere, doing anything: they are rabbis, cobblers, bakers, smiths. But they often wander the earth as beggars, moving from city to city and town to town. If one among their number are killed, and none replaces him, the world will end.
So the Jews of Kreshev brokered no chances with beggars. They fed them simple but adequate fare: potatoes, groats, and the occasional chicken. They collected and mended old clothes for them to replace their rags, and gathered the bits of fallen coal that trailed the delivery wagon and fed them into the almshouses stove. Any request of a beggar, if it was within reason, was granted. Who knew if it was not the Prophet Elijah at one’s front door asking for a bowl of groats? Who knew if it was not one of the thirty-six asking to sleep in the wood shed? Who would take the chance?
But there were other motivations. It was also known that Asmodeus, the King of the Demons, and his minions would often masquerade as beggars, enter a town, and cause all sorts of mischief, especially if they were slighted. One winter night a beggar came to Grossbart the baker’s shop and asked for a loaf of bread. Something about the man offended Grossbart. The beggar wore a flaming red beard, an old worn out gabardine, and shoes with so many holes he had stuffed them with straw. He looked out from under bushy, unkempt eyebrows with two large, wild gray eyes the color of soot. Grossbart told him he had sold his last loaf a few minutes before, and had no more. “Come back tomorrow morning!” he told him gruffly and slammed the door shut. The man never returned. A few days later Grossbart’s two young children caught the fever, then his wife, and then Grossbart himself. There was no epidemic of fever in Kreshev. The workers in his bakery were all fit and healthy. The town doctor was called in but could do nothing to cure them. Grossbart has more than one kopeck in his purse, so he had a specialist brought in from Lublin at great cost – but the man left baffled. Reb Yochanan ben Yona, the Chief Rabbi of Kreshev, came and blessed the house. He recited prayers from an ancient book on exorcism. But nothing worked.
One day, just as the Grossbart family hovered near death, the Rabbi opened the door: there was a beggar there, a small man with dark skin and a long white beard. The beggar watched the goings on in the house -- the doctors coming and going, the Rabbi’s assistants chanting prayers -- and asked what was occurring. Reb Yochanan looked at the man as if he knew him, and then told him what had happened. The beggar asked Reb Yochanan if anyone had checked the mezuzah. When Reb Yochanan examined the scroll in the box, he noticed that every letter except mem and tet – which together spell death in Hebrew -- had been erased. The mezuzah was replaced and in a day the Grossbarts recovered. It was as if a fever never gripped them. Word of the event quickly spread, and the Jews of Kreshev came to a unanimous conclusion: the first beggar was Asmodeus – or one of his minions -- and the last was the Prophet Elijah himself. After this, Grossbart the baker always saved four or five loaves at the end of the day. He wouldn’t sell them to the Czar for all the gold in his treasury.
When Moyshe the Beggar arrived in Kreshev, the people quickly realized that he was different. Most beggars wandered along the road from Warsaw to Lublin like lost souls: they were broken, sick old men, missing teeth and hair, often deformed, with no more than rags on their bones and cloth for shoes. Moyshe was robust, even stout. He had all his teeth, and he seemed to revel in this fact, smiling often. He had a thick, lustrous beard that was well kempt, although he never combed or cut it. His large brown eyes bore a mischievous and youthful glint, as if he held a great secret and relished that only he had the key to unlock it. His hair had gone gray, but he had lost none of it: it sat on his large head like a tall nest, ragged but noble, and even when it displayed bits of straw or grass (after he slept on the ground or in a hay loft), it still looked like a noble crown. He wore a silk kippa that was ragged about the edges, and he had a bag of phylacteries that were artfully made and kept in good repair. Most beggars were sickly, but Moyshe had a light step, a firm hand, and a hearty appetite. He could tell long stories about kings, queens and knights. He claimed to have met a Jew who traveled to the land of the Khazars and there tried to cross the river Sambatyan, where the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel dwell -- but the river is wide and fierce and is only still on the Sabbath, so of course no pious Jew can cross it.
Moyshe the Beggar was also a man of no small amount of learning. He could quote passages by heart from the Pentateuch, the Mishnah and Talmud. On one occasion he was walking back from the almshouse kitchen when he overheard two students from the yeshiva arguing about the ritual purity of an oven. They were at an impasse. Moyshe the Beggar quoted a passage from the Palestinian Talmud and silenced both young men.
All these things alerted the people of Kreshev to Moyshe the Beggar. Who was this man? Where was he from? He was not like the other beggars. The good Jews of Kreshev did not know if they should love him or fear him.
But listen: that winter came particularly early and was ferocious from the start. There were snowflakes on the High Holidays, and it snowed so hard and deep on Sukkoth that Rabbi Yochanan declared it was permitted to build a booth in the house, if there was room. It was so cold that the thick stained glass window in the town church cracked. Deep artisan wells froze solid. The Synagogue door sealed shut, and the sextant had to open its doors everyday with boiling water poured from a teapot. He had to work quickly. If he dawdled, the water froze, making matters worse. There was not even time to knock to warn the dead souls who prayed in the synagogue at night that they must leave! Even the gentile lord’s shaggy hunting dogs which often got lose in the town and harassed the Jews in the streets, were nowhere to be seen. If their kennel door had blown open in the fierce wind, they had stayed where they were, huddling in the straw like cowering kittens.
Everyone suffered, Jew and Gentile alike. Only Moyshe the Beggar was not disturbed. He did not need to sit near the stove in the almshouse. He gave his chair to the old and feeble and sat by the window, exposed to every breeze and gale that penetrated the cracks between the thin panes of glass. He continued to regale all with his tall tales: “This freeze is bad, I’ll grant you that. But it is nothing like the freeze I lived through in Siberia. Cows died standing up. It was so cold their eyeballs shattered like glass. Birds fell from the sky frozen solid, like hail. The study house was heated, but even so the pages of the Gemara stuck together as if a demon had glued them. People got frostbite standing next to their roaring hearths. Another freeze like that I have never seen!”
But when Chanukah came an unexpected thing occurred: the weather suddenly cleared, and there was a thaw. Every river, stream, rivulet and gulley was swollen with rushing, brown water. The sun was bright and warm and some daffodils, confused by the warmth and water, sprouted and began to flower. By the Gentile New Year the fields swayed with tender spring flowers. Bears emerged from their dens and roamed the fields and woods, already ravenous for food. Then it grew cold again and snow flurries fell, and soon the ground was covered. All the daffodils died. The waxy buds that had sprouted from the trees turned brown and fell to the snow. It was then that Yossele the Ploughman found the dead Gentile boy.
Yossele had been collecting firewood near the border of his field. At first, he thought the boy was a pile of discarded clothes. But when he came near, he saw a small pale hand jutting from the snow. The boy was facing down, and when Yossele turned him over, he gasped. His blue eyes were open; they stared blankly at the slate gray sky. He was wearing the uniform of the Christian school. The boy was no more than ten. Yossele was terrified! He wanted nothing to do with dead Gentile children. He rushed to the town to tell Reb Yochanan.
Yossele entered Reb Yochanan’s study. The rabbi was seated at his desk, swaying over a holy tome. At forty-five, he was young to be the chief rabbi. His father, who occupied the position before him, had died just last year. But Reb Yochanan was known for his piety. When not involved in his rabbinical duties, he spent all his time immersed in his studies. His wife had to pester him to eat and remind him that he needed to sleep each night. People already said that he was a saint; he had the saint’s lack of occupation with matters of this world. He had a long yellow beard the color of winter straw, pale blue eyes, and a lean, symmetrical face both expressionless and serene. It was known that he suffered from many physical ailments, illnesses that would have put other men in bed. But Reb Yochanan quietly bore them.
When Yossele entered, Reb Yochanan looked up from his book. He did not wish to close it, so he placed a clean handkerchief over its pages. From the expression on the ploughman’s face, Reb Yochanan knew something was wrong.
“What is it, Yossele?”
“Reb Yochanan,” the man said quietly, “I’ve found a body, a Gentile boy.”
“God help us,” the Rabbi said. His face drained of color.
Reb Yochanan called in the elders. The men sat huddled around his desk and in mute but urgent tones discussed what should be done.
“We should leave the boy there,” said Reb Greenblatt. “Let a Gentile find him. It will stay a Gentile matter.”
“That is impossible!” Reb Landau spat. “What if Yossele was seen coming here, and so urgently? We know these walls have eyes! If we leave the boy there, on the border of a Jew’s field, and say nothing, we might as well ask for a pogrom.”
“What do you suggest, then, Reb Landau?” Reb Yochanan asked quietly.
“We move him. Move him to a Gentile’s land!” There was a murmur at Reb Landau’s words. Reb Yochanan shook his head.
“Impossible. Impossible. Who should move this body? It would be a terrible sin to move this poor boy… to hide the circumstances of his death.”
“Then what? Then what?” Reb Sharpiro said, tugging nervously at his beard. “We should bury the boy, and save us all from destruction.” A few of the old men wailed on hearing this.
“Gentlemen… gentlemen…” Reb Yochanan interrupted. “We must not tamper with this boy. God forbid we move or bury him! We have only one option. We tell Pan Wyzozkek, and if he wants Yossele the Ploughman, we must hand him over. When Pan Wyzozkek sees that Yossele is innocent, that there is no real evidence to point him to this crime, we can pay a gift and free the poor man.”
The elders continued to murmur. Reb Yochanan sat back in his chair. He looked out his study window. A heavy layer of snow lay in the courtyard. Large flakes fell from the sky, only to get caught in the drafts in the courtyard, making it appear that the snow was floating toward the sky.
Pan Wyzozkek stood at the border of the field. He wore a long black cape and a broad brimmed, black hat. On his lapel was the magistrate’s insignia. He held a knotted walking stick in his hand. From force of habit and a certain congenital nervousness, he continually struck it against the ground. A heavy snow fell. It was an hour before dusk. A smoky ring of light burned where the bare black trees pressed against the horizon, seeming to be consumed by a smoldering fire. Men stood behind Pan Wyzozkek, peasants shifting through the snow with small shovels. He turned around to them.
“Be careful there,” he admonished, “move the snow slowly.” And gradually the body emerged. Pan Wyzozkek bent over it and dusted the snow from the boy’s face with his gloves. He noted an indentation next to the body where it had originally lain face down, but had been turned over. Pan Wyzozkek gently stretched the boy’s neck. There were bruises.
“You,” he said to one of the peasants, “take that broom and carefully, on your knees, removed the snow from that trail.”
Pan Wyzozkek watched the man. As he removed the snow, footprints emerged in the now frozen ground. They came from Yossele the Ploughman’s barn to the ridge and ended at the body. Pan Wyzozkek made the peasant remove the snow from around the body in ever-widening circles. A single pair of footprints moved from the spot, across the field and into the town. Pan Wyzozkek measured the footprints that came from the barn and those that went toward the town. They were the same size. He gestured to the peasants. A litter and blanket were brought. The peasants carefully placed the boy’s body on the litter and covered it. Pan Wyzozkek followed the men across Yossele’s field and back to Kreshev, walking stick rhythmically pounding the frozen earth as he proceeded.
The doctor emerged from the morgue. He was a small man with a round baby face and small, deep set eyes. A scruffy beard ringed his cheeks like an afterthought. He approached Pan Wyzozkek.
“Well?” Pan Wyzozkek asked, putting down the paper he had been writing upon.
“It’s odd. The boy was strangled,” the doctor began.
“I know that, Lec. I saw the bruises.”
“That’s not what’s odd. The strange part is all the blood was drained from his body.” On hearing this, Pan Wyzozkek’s eyes opened a fraction wider. “Every last drop. I’ve never seen such a thing. Even if a man is stabbed, and lies on the ground for two days, some blood will always remain. But this boy, may God have mercy on his soul, hasn’t a drop of blood in his little body.”
“How was it removed?” Pan Wyzozkek asked.
“There is a puncture wound below his collar bone. It seems he was hung up and bled dry.”
Word of the killing and its details quickly spread. Every Jewish and Gentile tongue in Kreshev was wagging about it. And they all asked: what will happen now? Yossele the Ploughman was in the gaol. The parish priest delivered an inflammatory sermon: the Jews had killed the boy, and drained his blood for ritual use. They drank the blood in goblets as a cruel mockery of the Eucharist wine, and used the blood to mix with flour to make bread, in imitation of the bread of Christ’s body. He said the Jews held a Black Mass in the forests at night, while good Christians slept, and performed all manner of ceremonies meant to mock and parody Christian worship. They even murdered Gentiles for these purposes!
Two days after the body was discovered, an inquest was held. More details emerged. Reb Yochanan testified. Enraged relatives of the little boy hissed and jeered him. After the inquest there was a riot. Jews were beaten in the street. A Jewish house was set on fire. Reb Yochanan rushed to Pan Wyzozkek.
“You must put a stop to this! Innocent lives will be lost!”
“I haven’t enough men. I’ve requested troops from the Czar’s garrison, but they are an hour away. Bring what people you can to the old citadel.”
The Jews who could followed Reb Yochanan and Pan Wyzozkek to the town’s old citadel. Pan Wyzozkek locked the Jews inside, took the key to his office, and hid it behind a beam. When he returned, he stood in front of the citadel’s massive oak doors. When the first of the rioters appeared, he stood his ground.
Spring arrived and the streams and gullies were bursting with snow melt. The flowers sprouted and then bloomed, the farmers plowed their fields and sowed the seed. The beggars in the almshouse left Kreshev and took to the road, including Moyshe the Beggar. He left singing songs and quoting verses from the Talmud, telling tales of Asmodeus and his wife Lilith, their demon brood, and their family problems and turmoil, which were not unlike the struggles of human families. Both Gentle and Jewish children flocked to him to hear him sing his songs and tell his tales. But by the time it was Purim, he was gone, as were all the other beggars in Kreshev. He passed the gallows where poor Yossele the Ploughman was hung three months ago. Reb Yochanan tried to buy his freedom with contributions from the community, but he was unable to convince the local lord, who was not willing to take a gift for a capital offense of such magnitude. As Moyshe the Beggar strolled past the platform, there was a spring in his step. The birds in the linden trees above him were singing, but suddenly fell silent. They flapped their wings nervously, and flew away.
As much as possible, the Jews and Gentiles of Kreshev forgot about Yossele the Ploughman and the dead Gentile boy. Spring and summer are a busy time in
Kreshev. The growing season is short. There is an abundance of water from the prodigious snowmelt and rain in the spring, but by the mid-summer the sky is a cruel and stark blue. Search as you may, it is difficult to find even a wisp of clouds. The sun beats relentlessly on the ground, forming jagged cracks. Water must be stored in the spring and used in the summer, and by the fall, it is harvest time. There is little time to remember who has lived or who has died, who is righteous and who damned, during this hectic, short season. Then wood must be stacked for the winter, potatoes bagged and laid in the root cellar, and wheat ground and made into flour. Winter is coming, and it waits for no man or woman, adult or child, Jew or Gentile. Only on the Sabbath and the Holidays do the Jews of Kreshev rest from their toil.
When Sukkoth came and the booths were erected, there was a dusting of snow on the ground. The trees still had most of their leaves, which drooped from the added weight. The beggars who plied the road from Warsaw to Lublin soon arrived, and the almshouse had a full compliment of winter guests. A few days after Sukkoth everyone was surprised to see Moyshe the Beggar. He was so widely traveled everyone imagined he would never be seen in Kreshev again. But here he was, strutting down the main street, more like a prince than a beggar, singly a bawdy tune in Yiddish, in a flat Galacian accent, twirling his bag over his shoulder, as if cares and pain did not exist in this world. Women peered from behind their curtains, cheder boys gazed up from their books, and men in the Synagogue stopped the chanting of the prayers, all to stare at this robust beggar swaggering down the street. As usual, a wake of children followed him. They asked him questions and he answered humorously, and they let out peels of laughter. He passed out candy and told jokes. By the time the heavy snows commenced, Moyshe the Beggar was installed in the almshouse. He was like a king holding court. The other beggars were in awe of him. He quoted the Pentateuch, and told stories from the haggadoth. He knew gossip about royal families all over Europe and even Asia; he even knew their eating and bedroom habits, as if he was a flea on their walls. Even the students from the Yeshiva visited him if they had a particularly difficult problem that vexed them. Moyshe the Beggar never let them down. People began to think he was one of the thirty-six, on the shoulders of whom the world continues to exist. Soon, news of his erudition reached Reb Yochanan.
“Nu, who is this man?” Reb Yochanan asked when his assistant brought him up in a conversation.
“No one knows, Rabbi. But his knowledge is vast. And not only that, he spins fabulous yarns, and he’s as humorous as a wedding jester as he is sagacious as a scholar. And you should hear him intone the prayers, his voice as deep and melodious as a cantor’s…”
“So what are you saying?” Reb Yochanan asked the young man quietly, scratching his high forehead.
“Maybe he is one of the righteous?” the young man suggested tentatively, knowing one should not make such suggestions. But Reb Yochanan said nothing. He was not a man to multiply words needlessly, and he would never engage in idle chatter. He looked out the window. A crow was perched on the roof of the almshouse; the bird looked about nervously, and flew away. A plume of pure snow fell from the clouds, but it seemed to dissipate as it reached the ground, as if the earth was too cursed for it to touch.
Right after Chanukah, Reb Yitzak Teluskin’s daughter D’vorah was to be married to a young scholar from Warsaw, an orphan named Shlomele. Reb Teluskin was the richest man in Kreshev. He owned forests in the mountains, and supplied timber for the Czar’s army. He owned a sulfur mine in Galacia, and when firearms began to be used in battle, he also sold the Czar a vital component in gunpowder. His wealth was enormous. He had no son, and only one daughter, so the preparations for the wedding were elaborate. His daughter’s trousseau was prepared with great care, and no expense was spared. Only the finest linens and sheets were included and only the most costly lingerie and bed clothing were purchased. Reb Teluskin brought in three tailors from Lublin, four seamstresses from Warsaw, and a confectioner from Crackow. He had the ritual slaughterer working overtime. He purchased every cow, goose and chicken in the province for the wedding feast. When it was announced that Reb Teluskin would feed all the poor from the wedding table, beggars and hangers-on from all over the district poured in; the almshouse was quickly filled, and shelters were hastily constructed in the courtyard. A wild, drunken rabble formed around the almshouse and synagogue. The beggars were aggressive: if there were given a groschen, they asked for two and if you gave them two, they demanded four.
Despite this, the wedding went smoothly. Wagons from all over the countryside brought wine, beer and mead for the feast. People’s mouths watered when they imagined the nuptial celebrations. A table like this had not been set since the days of King Solomon, they boasted. A heavy snow blocked the road. Fantastic sleds decked out with bells plied the roads. The men were dressed in their finest clothes, finer than the ones they wore on the Sabbath: shining black gabardines, fur-trimmed hats, jackets of skunk fur. But the women were the sight to behold: they wore long and elaborate dresses, festooned with ribbons, bows and all manner of frills, with strings of pearls around their thick necks. Attached to their bodices were broaches, gold and silver studded with gems. The snow was so deep the sexton had to clear a path to the synagogue. But by the time of the afternoon ceremony, he had to do it again. Many notable women slipped and fell in the ice and snow. The riotous crowd jeered. Their antics were less restrained than at Purim.
The morning of the wedding, Reb Yochanan awoke to find he had had another nocturnal emission. They had been occurring for months, since the execution of Yossele the Ploughman. The dream was always the same: he was sleeping in his bed and although it was cold, the window was open. Reb Yochanan was naked and sleeping above the blankets. A woman floated through the open window. She had multiple breasts like a cow, wide hips and a narrow waist. The skin on her legs was like that of a snake. Her black hair was long and knotted. It fell over her face, which was not the face of a woman, but that of a small boy. She floated to Reb Yochanan. Although he was disgusted by her, he was fully aroused. The woman mounted him. He wanted to pull her off, but his body was paralyzed. He wanted to scream for help, but he had no voice. He felt like a man at the bottom of a great sea, and its smothering weight was killing him. When he awoke he always found that he had a nocturnal emission. It disturbed him greatly, but Reb Yochanan did not tell a soul.
Reb Yochanan stood beneath the wedding canopy. The bride wore a silk dress with a fantastically long train. Several maidens had to guide it when she rounded a corner. The bridegroom wore a white robe to remind him of the day of his death. All through the service Reb Yochanan kept having peculiar intuitions. He looked down at his prayerbook to recite the eighteen benedictions. When he glanced up at the crowd, he thought the saw Yossele the Ploughman near the back, wrapped in his funeral shroud. Reb Yochanan stumbled on the words, found the eyes of the crowd on him, and continued the service. Later, when he was sanctifying the wine, he though he saw Moyshe the Beggar, but of course, he had not been invited to the service. He was out with the rabble filling their bellies with Reb Teluskin’s victuals and mead. When the rabbi looked away and quickly looked back Moyshe the Beggar was gone. But the most disturbing vision of all was just before the ceremony concluded. The bridegroom had just placed his foot over the bride’s to symbolize her submission, and was just about to break the glass goblet, when Reb Yochanan saw the woman from his dreams. The vision was extremely brief, but vivid. She was standing near the table with the refreshments, helping herself to a blintz.
Reb Yochanan almost fainted, but the sound of the breaking glass, and the chorus of mazel toff revived him. Before he knew it he was sitting at the table with the town worthies, toasting the new couple. A fat goose stuffed with kasha and turnips graced the center of the table. But as was his custom, Reb Yochanan only took a little water and some bread.
The festivities went through the night. The men danced in the main hall, while the women were in the spacious side hall. The band played raucous wedding tunes. The food was sumptuous and richly prepared and brought in on planks, peasant-style. The father of the bride grew so drunk he had to be carried out of the room and laid down on a couch. The bride’s mother drank so much wine she got her dress caught on a nail and ripped it up to her thigh. Outside, drunk revelers caroused in the snow, numbed to the cold. The refuse from the food in the almshouse was piled in huge heaps in the street and courtyard: chicken bones, cracked casks of wine and beer, empty bottles, broken crockery, and even the occasional drunk.
The Jews of Kreshev were having a high time. Reb Yochanan saw nothing wrong with this as such, but he was not a taciturn person, and found the frivolity a distraction from study. As soon as he could, he left. Reb Yochanan stood out in the clear, cold night. A blanket of stars stretched above him. It was bitterly cold, and there was not a hint of breeze. He could hear sound from a great distance. Out beyond the town, he heard a cow knock over a bucket. In the distant hills, he heard a peasant sneezing. Then he thought he heard the sound of thumping in a nearby clump of woods -- a hollow where the town cast its refuse and kept its latrines and he felt an irresistible urge to move toward the sound. The snow was extremely deep and he had difficulty walking. He pushed through a thick stand of briars. Reb Yochanan caught his coat on the thorns. When he freed himself and emerged into the clearing, he could not believe his eyes: a troop of demons were cavorting around a ghostly campfire. The woman from Reb Yochanan’s dream was there, with her multiple breasts, the reptile skin on her legs, and her child’s face. She was kissing some man, and he, in turn, was fondling her breasts. They broke the kiss and Reb Yochanan saw that the man was Moyshe the Beggar. When he saw the Rabbi, he laughed shrilly, while the woman smiled suggestively at Reb Yochanan.
“You’ve come to see your children!” she explained gleefully. Her voice was melodic and calm.
“What children?” Reb Yochanan stammered.
“Why, the children you’ve born through me!” she let out a little laugh. “They are just like you, esteemed Reb Yochanan. On the day of their birth each stood up on two hooves and started speaking in the Holy Tongue!”
“God of Israel!” Reb Yochanan cried, and ripped his collar.
“That god has nothing to do with me, with us! When I would not submit to Adam, I fled, and your God of Israel sent the angels Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof, and since then I have…”
“I know what you are! You are Lilith, Queen of the Satans!”
“Yes,” she smiled, and her face changed from that of a child’s to that of a woman with skin as black as pitch and eyes that burned like live coals. Her hair was long and tangled. An overpowering stench emanated from her, like that of a foul and pestilent swamp. “And this is my husband,” she gestured to Moyshe the Beggar, but he was no longer standing there. Instead, a creature over ten feet tall was beside her; his awful, elongated head reached the boughs of the trees. On his back were twelve wings, six on each side and each the color of blue flame. His haunches were long and slim, and his feet and legs were shaped like those of a calf, but muscular and thick. His eyes were like the portals of Sheol, and when he spoke the sound was like the bellows of Gehenna. His voice blew Reb Yochanan onto his back. He heard a chorus of squealing, tittering laughter. Reb Yochanan tried to get up, but he couldn’t. Like in his dream, he was paralyzed. He started to recite the shema, but could not finish it. Everything went black.
Reb Yochanan felt something poking him. When he opened his eyes, he saw a boy with long side locks looking down at him. Reb Yochanan screamed. The boy screamed. It was the baker’s young son. He had found the rabbi in the snow early in the morning, just at dawn, as he was making his way to the latrine. A few hours later, tongues wagged from the study house to the mikveh: the Rabbi had drank so much he collapsed in the snow, like a town drunk! The Rabbi retired to his study. He would admit no one. His wife thought he was ashamed at taking too much drink at the wedding and tried to console him through the closed door. Reb Yochanan did not answer. He took off his shoes, put ash on his head, sat on a low stool and read the Book of Job, as if he was in mourning.
When Reb Yochanan returned to the Synagogue and study house, the older men turned from him, and the younger men -- the students in the yeshiva -- snickered. Reb Yochanan did not react. He turned from them and started the afternoon service. All participated, but the life seemed drained from it; when it was finished no one spoke to Reb Yochanan. Even the elders, who usually exchanged a sholem alecheim with him, turned their backs and walked down the lane.
Reb Yochanan went home. All through the market faces jeered at him. The fishmongers hawked their fish in their sing-song voices, announcing the virtues of their catch, but somehow also seeming to aim taunts at Reb Yochanan. This went for the grocers, the bakers, the rag collectors: they all sang their songs, and each little ditty appeared to contain a sly innuendo aimed at Reb Yochanan’s character, or lack of it. When he entered his house, Reb Yochanan heard his wife crying. When she noticed him, she pretended that she was not weeping, but it did not fool Reb Yochanan.
“What is it, Esther? Has everyone in this town lost their sense?”
“It’s slander! An evil tongue can destroy the whole world!”
Reb Yochanan pressed his wife. She told him the entire town had been wagging their tongues about him since he was found in the snow. They said he was a drunkard, that he kept a Gentile woman in the forest and had children with her, a whole brood!
“But it is all untrue,” Reb Yochanan said softly.
“I know that! But I can’t even show my face in the marketplace without being jeered at and shamed. It is all the fault of that beggar, that Moyshe. He has been the ring leader in speaking ill of you and spreading terrible lies.”
That night Reb Yochanan crept into the almshouse. Outside, a blizzard raged. All the familiar objects in the town were smothered in snow. Reb Yochanan had great difficulty finding his way. It was as if he was in a different town, and not Kreshev. In the distance, church bells rang dully. Reb Yochanan knew of a closet that bordered the main room of the almshouse. He went inside, and as there was a sizeable chink in the wood, he peered through. Moyshe the Beggar was standing beside the open stove. The coals within it burned red hot, casting him in a fiery glow. He was telling a tale: it was about a half-demon, half-human boy who tried to take over the chambers of Gehenna. (Half-demons were always fomenting trouble!) But his revolt was brutally crushed by Asmodeus, the King of the Demons. Moyshe the Beggar went into great detail, in pungent and slangy Yiddish, about how the half-demon and his henchmen were punished for their rebellion. The other beggars in the almshouse, on hearing how they were tortured, dismembered and eaten, hissed and chuckled manically. When it was over they cajoled him into telling another tale. And he did: he told a scandalous tale about Reb Yochanan and the Gentile whore that he kept in the woods. Moyshe the Beggar cursed Reb Yochanan as if he was Haman, and the other beggars cheered and booed heartily.
Around midnight, Moyshe the Beggar left the almshouse. Reb Yochanan followed him, keeping back and trying to conceal himself in the swirling snow. The Beggar walked to a small gentile settlement on the border of the Great Forest. He went into a hut and in a short time emerged with a young boy. They walked a short distance to a wood shed. Reb Yochanan hung back, and when they entered, he quietly approached the shed. It had no windows. He would have to open the door quickly. He did, and in the dim, flickering lamplight Reb Yochanan saw something that made him wail: Moyshe the Beggar was performing a bestial act with the boy. Moyshe the Beggar laughed and then snarled. He leapt at Reb Yochanan not like a man, but like a beast.
The next morning, Reb Yochanan emerged from the shed. The sky had cleared and it was unnaturally warm. Snow was melting everywhere. A nearby stream was swollen with brown, frothy water. Reb Yochanan touched his face: small scratches lined his cheeks. A smattering of blood stained his vest. He stumbled forward a few feet, then he heard screaming from the direction of the Great Forest. Gentiles were rushing about. Reb Yochanan blindly followed them. In a small clearing in the forest, a boy was hanging from a pine tree. He had been drained of his blood. The Gentiles turned and faced Reb Yochanan. They were still for a moment, spellbound at once by the horror of the dead boy, and by the leader of the Jews, smattered with blood. Then several men caught Reb Yochanan by his arms, and beat him until Pan Wyzozkek arrived and took Reb Yochanan to the gaol.
Reb Yochanan was tried and convicted. He was to be executed without the right of appeal. He put up no real defense. It was only after he was convicted, and some of the elders were allowed to visit him in the gaol, that he explained that he had been fooled by Moyshe the Beggar, who was Asmodeus, the King of Demons. He told the elders that Asmodeus had come to sow evil into the soil of God’s good world. He had come to form divisions amongst the good Jews of Kreshev. He stole Gentile boys and killed them, so the authorities would blame the Jews and the priests could spread their lies about the Torah. The elders simply shook their heads. They thought Reb Yochanan had lost his senses. Some of the Jews in Kreshev thought of collecting money to buy Reb Yochanan’s release, but no one wanted to actually hand over a kroschen for Reb Yochanan ben Yona: he was a man marked by evil, they said.
On the morning of the execution there was not a single Jew to be found in Kreshev. They feared a pogrom, and hid in the forest. Pan Wyzozkek had ordered troops to keep the peace, but that had not been enough to convince the Jews to stay. The Jewish quarter was abandoned. Reb Yochanan was led to the gallows by Pan Wyzozkek. He was allowed to pray, and when he was finished, a hood was placed over his head. The large crowd jeered him; had the troops not kept them back, they would have seized Reb Yochanan and torn him apart. The executioner pulled the lever, and Reb Yochanan’s neck snapped. Reb Yochanan found himself looking at his dangling corpse. The executioner was removing it from the rope. The crowd that was watching was breaking up, and Reb Yochanan’s body was carried to the morgue. It lay there for a long time, and Reb Yochanan sat beside it, reciting the Psalms over it. Now that Reb Yochanan was seeing his body from outside his body, he realized that he was correct about it: he had given it enough to survive, but not enough to prosper, and had allowed his soul to flourish. He felt a great sense of relief and joy.
Eventually the members of the Burial Society came for the body. They carried it, and Reb Yochanan followed. They washed it in the shed next to the graveyard. They placed a clod of earth from the Holy Land under his head. They put a stick in his hand so when the Messiah comes Reb Yochanan can dig his way to the Land of Israel. They wrapped his body in a shroud.
Reb Yochanan followed his remains to the graveyard like the other mourners, who were not many. His son and daughter supported his wife, who wailed without consolation. Reb Yochanan looked behind him: his demon children through Lilith were there, deformed, grotesque, and hanging too far back. They did not dare to come close. Reb Yochanan knew they had a right to participate in the procession, and beckoned them to come forward.
“Hurry my children, hurry,” he called, but on hearing him speak, they fully stopped and muttered to themselves, then held each other wailing. Reb Yochanan shrugged his shoulders and continued. When he arrived at the hole where his body was to be buried, Moyshe the Beggar was there. One moment he appeared to Reb Yochanan as Moyshe the Beggar, and in the next moment he was Asmodeus, Prince of the Demons, ten feet tall and ugly to behold. Finally, after flickering between the two for a minute, he was Asmodeus. He was weeping and wailing and beating his chest as if it was Yom Kippur.
“You are wailing at my grave?” Reb Yochanan asked with a slight smile.
“You lied to us! You have doomed everything!” Asmodeus cried.
“Lie? How did I lie to you? As far as I know, I have never lied in my life!”
“We should not have touched you, but we did… we killed your body and now all is lost!” Reb Yochanan could barely understand Asmodeus, he was carrying on so.
“What are you saying?”
There came the sound of a great horn blowing. Reb Yochanan and Asmodeus looked up. The moon moved over the sun, as if an eclipse were about to occur, but it remained there, plunging the world into darkness. The horn was heard again, and the earth rattled, as if from an earthquake. On the other side of the world, in the Holy Land, Jews emerged from the ground with sticks in their hands and shrugged off their funeral shrouds. In Kreshev, Reb Yochanan saw a figure moving toward him. When he came close, he recognized the man: it was the beggar who had come and told Reb Yochanan to check the mezuzah when Grossbart the baker had the fever. The man walked right up to Reb Yochanan and kissed him on the lips. Then his countenance dropped away, and Elijah was standing in front of Reb Yochanan, who recited a joyful blessing. Elijah took Reb Yochanan ben Yona by the hand and led him away. The world heaved and groaned. As they departed, an army of avenging light swarmed behind Elijah, ready to take his place, and a terrible moan cracked the earth.