The son of a poor Rebbe from an obscure and backward Chasdic sect, Yasha was born in a remote corner of Poland hemmed in one side by mountains and the other by a vast sea of marshes known as the Farstuken Swamp.
The little hamlet of Kabstiel was plagued by mosquitoes and a miasma of mist in the summer and the frosty devastation of a lingering cold in the winter. Cattails froze in cracked ice; water clung to docks like fringes of crystal.
The major trends of modernity had by passed the Jews of Farstuken like an express train speeding toward the capital without stopping at any provincial towns. But Yasha was different.
In the high methane stink of the Farstuken Swamp, he was a rare flower of bold beauty. He could read Hebrew and Aramaic by the age of four. He had memorized large portions of the Pentateuch by the age of six. Before he was ten he was a prodigy in the Gemara. By his Bar Mitzva he had read Rashi, the Rambam, the poems of Judah HaLevi, his The Kuzari, and the works of Isaac Abravanel.
It was even rumored that he studied The Zohar, a work of mysticism whose study was banned to youngsters, even with his rare gifts. He could quote scripture at will or command. It was only after his Bar Mitzva that the crack in his piety began to show. Like a fragile vessel filled too fast and too soon with a sweet and intoxication elixir, Yasha began to read secular Yiddish works, both novels and shorts stories, and works on mathematics, biology, even evolution.
From grammar books he taught himself German and French. By the age of fifteen he had cut his side locks, shaved the burgeoning beard from his handsome, angular face, traded his gabardine and silk socks for a short modern coat and long trousers. He walked about without a covering over his head. One day he bid his father, mother and brood of brothers and sisters a fond but cold farewell and departed for the glitter and grime of Warsaw.