Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On The Worship of an Ass, IV


No one knew where Amichai ben Dovid was from, but when he arrived in Demblin, he was an imposing figure. He was tall, a full head and foot above any other Jew in the province, and his hair was as golden as a Gentile.

But there was no confusing him with a Christian: he was as Jewish as Elijah. His mother tongue was not Yiddish, and anytime he tried to speak it he badly mangled both its grammar and diction. Most of the time he spoke a melodious Hebrew of an accent and syntax that no Jew in Demblin had ever heard before.

He arrived with a companion, a small, stooped retainer by the name of Rubin of Hebron, who had a facility for languages, and translated Amichai ben Dovid’s words into a Yiddish heavily inflected with a Lithuanian accent. With his bushy black beard and fuzzy, skewed eyebrows, the proximity of Rubin of Hebron to Amichai ben Dovid made the latter all the more handsome, as a bright sun will dim the moon in the daylight.

Amichai ben Dovid wandered about the province and listened to countless tales of woe. Mothers, daughters, wives, husbands, sons, brothers, killed or maimed or raped; synagogues burned to the ground; Torah scrolls shredded and used as paper in latrines; aged matrons carried off to military brothels… There was no end to the horrors.

Although Amichai ben Dovid could not speak Yiddish, he appeared to understand what was spoken. He only asked Rubin of Hebron, every now and again, to clarify a word. The sorrow of the stories reflected on his mild, placid face, but not enough to mar his splendid beauty. He sat and stroked his long blond beard, sighed and looked to heaven with great frequency.

He was very knowledgeable about the Torah, and he quoted from it freely, along with the Psalms, Proverbs, the Gemara, the commentaries and the responsa. As he made his way through Demblin and its provinces, word spread of this mysterious stranger who  spoke an exotic Hebrew, and crowds gathered around him in towns, and sometimes even on the roads leading up to them, before his shadow even darkened the village gate.

At first the rabbis and sages in Demblin paid little heed to Amichai ben Dovid. Jews from exotic locales often came to Demblin, collecting alms for this or that yeshiva in the Holy Land. They came and begged in broken Yiddish for shekels for the scholars of the Land of Israel, and moved on. But Amichai ben Dovid collected no alms and remained in Demblin and its provinces. He became a regular in the grand study house off market square. When a particularly thorny question required an answer, the students would not go to their teachers, but to Amichai ben Dovid. They would ask him in Yiddish, and he would answer in his deep, melodic Hebrew. The effect elevated Amichai ben Dovid beyond the status of respect scholar.

He also spoke in elliptical riddles, parables and metaphors, seldom answering a question directly. He left broad hints that the redemption was at hand, that the recent wars, pogroms, and famines were the beginning of the birthpangs of the Messiah.

He said that God’s anointed one was chained in a savagely wild mountain range in the east, but that he would soon be set free, and accompany a triumphant army of the Lost Tribes of Israel to set their brethren of Judah, Levi and Benjamin free. The Sabbath River, which had kept them corralled behind its wild cataracts, would soon run dry at God’s command.

Then the Messiah would led the Ten Tribes on a rampage of plunder and carnage against the enemies of Israel, Edom and Ishmael; its 500,000 men strong, infantry and cavalry would march under the banner of a United Israel to avenge the crimes and calumnies of the Christians and the Muslims, and restore Israel to its land and ancient glory.

Of course, he said none of this directly, but through allusion, with pious and learned quotations from the most holy of holy books. And these words fell on the ears of the desperate and grieving.

No comments:

Post a Comment