Call It Sleep II

ONE edge shining in the vanishing sunlight, the little white-washed house of the cheder lay before them. It was only one story high, the windows quite close to the ground. Its bulkier neighbors, the tall tenements that surrounded it, seemed to puff out their littered fire-escapes in scorn. Smoke curled from a little, black chimney in the middle of its roof, and overhead myriads of wash-lines criss-crossed intricately, snaring the sky in a dark net. Most of the lines were bare, but here and there was one sagging with white and colored wash, from which now and again a flurry of rinsings splashed into the yard or drummed on the cheder roof.

“I hope,” said his mother, as they went down the wooden stairs that led into the yard, “that you’ll prove more gifted in the ancient tongue than I was. When I went to cheder, my rabbi was always wagging his head at me and swearing I had a calf’s brain.” And she laughed. “But I think the reason I was such a dunce was that I could never wrench my nose far enough away to escape his breath. Pray this one is not so fond of onions!”

They crossed the short space of the yard and his mother opened the cheder door. A billow of drowsy air rolled out at them. It seemed dark inside. On their entrance, the hum of voices ceased.

The rabbi, a man in a skull cap, who had been sitting near the window beside one of his pupils, looked up when he saw them and rose. Against the window, he looked short and bulbous, oddly round beneath the square outline of the skull cap.

“Good day,” he ambled toward them. “I’m Reb Yidel Pankower. You wish—?” He ran large, hairy fingers through a glossy, crinkled beard.

David’s mother introduced herself and then went on to explain her mission.

“And this is he?”

“Yes. The only one I have.”

“Only one such pretty star?” He chuckled and reaching out, caught David’s cheek in a tobacco-reeking pinch. David shied slightly.

While his mother and the rabbi were discussing the hours and the price and the manner of David’s tuition, David scanned his future teacher more closely. He was not at all like the teachers at school, but David had seen rabbis before and knew he wouldn’t be. He appeared old and was certainly untidy. He wore soft leather shoes like house-slippers, that had no place for either laces or buttons. His trousers were baggy and stained, a great area of striped and crumpled shirt intervened between his belt and his bulging vest. The knot of his tie, which was nearer one ear than the other, hung away from his soiled collar. What features were visible were large and had an oily gleam. Beneath his skull cap, his black hair was closely cropped. Though full of misgivings about his future relations with the rabbi, David felt that he must accept his fate. Was it not his father’s decree that he attend a cheder?

From the rabbi his eyes wandered about the room. Bare walls, the brown paint on it full of long wavering cracks. Against one wall, stood a round-bellied stove whose shape reminded him of his rabbi, except that it was heated a dull red and his rabbi’s apparel was black. Against the other wall a long line of benches ran to the rabbi’s table. Boys of varying ages were seated upon them, jabbering, disputing, gambling for various things, scuffling over what looked to David like a few sticks. Seated upon the bench before the rabbi’s table were several others obviously waiting their turn at the book lying open in front of the rabbi’s cushioned chair.

What had been, when he and his mother had entered, a low hum of voices, had now swollen to a roar. It looked as though half of the boys in the room had engaged the other half in some verbal or physical conflict. The rabbi, excusing himself to David’s mother, turned toward them, and with a thunderous rap of his fist against the door, uttered a ferocious, “Shah!” The noise subsided somewhat. He swept the room with angry, glittering eyes, then softening into a smile again returned to David’s mother.

At last it was arranged and the rabbi wrote down his new pupil’s name and address. David gathered that he was to receive his instruction somewhere between the hours of three and six, that he was to come to the cheder shortly after three, and that the fee for his education would be twenty-five cents a week. Moreover he was to begin that afternoon. This was something of an unpleasant surprise and at first he protested, but when his mother urged him and the rabbi assured him that his first lesson would not take long, he consented, and mournfully received his mother’s parting kiss.

“Sit down over there,” said the rabbi curtly as soon as his mother had left. “And don’t forget,” he brought a crooked knuckle to his lips. “In a cheder one must be quiet.”

David sat down, and the rabbi walked back to his seat beside the window. Instead of sitting down however, he reached under his chair, and bringing out a short-thonged cat-o’-nine tails, struck the table loudly with the butt-end and pronounced in a menacing voice: “Let there be a hush among you!” And a scared silence instantly locking all mouths, he seated himself. He then picked up a little stick lying on the table and pointed to the book, whereupon a boy sitting next to him began droning out sounds in a strange and secret tongue.

For awhile, David listened intently to the sound of the words. It was Hebrew, he knew, the same mysterious language his mother used before the candles, the same his father used when he read from a book during the holidays—and that time before drinking wine. Not Yiddish, Hebrew. God’s tongue, the rabbi had said. If you knew it, then you could talk to God. Who was He? He would learn about Him now—

The boy sitting nearest David, slid along the bench to his side. “Yuh jost stottin’ cheder?”


“Uhh!” he groaned, indicating the rabbi with his eyes. “He’s a louser! He hits!”

David regarded the rabbi with panicky eyes. He had seen boys slapped by teachers in school for disobedience, although he himself had never been struck. The thought of being flogged with that vicious scourge he had seen the rabbi produce sealed his lips. He even refused to answer when next the boy asked him whether he had any match-pictures to match, and hastily shook his head. With a shrug, the boy slid back along the bench to the place he had come from.

Presently, with the arrival of several late-comers, older boys, tongues once more began to wag and a hum of voices filled the room. When David saw that the rabbi brandished his scourge several times without wielding it, his fear abated somewhat. However, he did not venture to join in the conversation, but cautiously watched the rabbi.

The boy who had been reading when David had come in had finished, and his place was taken by a second who seemed less able to maintain the rapid drone of his predecessor. At first, when he faltered, the rabbi corrected him by uttering what was apparently the right sound, for the boy always repeated it. But gradually, as his pupil continued in his error, a harsh note of warning crept into the rabbi’s voice. After awhile he began to yank the boy by the arm whenever he corrected him, then to slap him smartly on the thigh, and finally, just before the boy had finished, the rabbi cuffed him on the ear.

As time went by, David saw this procedure repeated in part or whole in the case of almost every other boy who read. There were several exceptions, and these, as far as David could observe, gained their exemption from punishment because the drone that issued from their lips was as breathless and uninterrupted as the roll of a drum. He also noticed that whenever the rabbi administered one of these manual corrections, he first dropped from his hand the little stick with which he seemed to set the pace on the page, and an instant later reached out or struck out, as the case might demand. So that, whenever he dropped the stick, whether to scratch his beard or adjust his skull-cap or fish out a half-burned cigarette from a box, the pupil before him invariably jerked up an arm or ducked his head defensively. The dropping of that little stick, seemed to have become a warning to his pupils that a blow was on the way.

The light in the windows was waning to a blank pallor. The room was warm; the stagnant air had lulled even the most restive. Drowsily, David wondered when his turn would come.

“Aha!” he heard the rabbi sarcastically exclaim. “Is it you, Hershele, scholar from the land of scholars?”

This was addressed to the boy who had just slid into the vacant place before the book. David had observed him before, a fat boy with a dull face and an open mouth. By the cowed, sullen stoop of his shoulders, it was clear that he was not one in good standing with the rabbi.

“Herry is gonna loin,” giggled one of the boys at David’s side.

“Perhaps, today, you can glitter a little,” suggested the rabbi with a freezing smile. “Who knows, a puppet may yet be made who can fart. Come!” He picked up the stick and pointed to the page.

The boy began to read. Though a big boy, as big as any that preceded him, he read more slowly and faltered more often than any of the others. It was evident that the rabbi was restraining his impatience, for instead of actually striking his pupil, he grimaced violently when he corrected him, groaned frequently, stamped his foot under the table and gnawed his under-lip. The other students had grown quiet and were listening. From their strained silence—their faces were by now half obscured in shadow—David was sure they were expecting some catastrophe any instant. The boy fumbled on. As far as David could tell, he seemed to be making the same error over and over again, for the rabbi kept repeating the same sound. At last, the rabbi’s patience gave out. He dropped the pointer; the boy ducked, but not soon enough. The speeding plane of the rabbi’s palm rang against his ear like a clapper on a gong.

“You plaster dunce!” he roared, “when will you learn a byse is a byse and not a vyse. Head of filth, where are your eyes?” He shook a menacing hand at the cringing boy and picked up the pointer.

But a few moments later, again the same error and again the same correction.

“May a demon fly off with your father’s father! Won’t blows help you? A byse, Esau, pig! A byse! Remember, a byse, even though you die of convulsions!”

The boy whimpered and went on. He had not uttered more than a few sounds, when again he paused on the awful brink, and as if out of sheer malice, again repeated his error. The last stroke of the bastinado! The effect on the rabbi was terrific. A frightful bellow clove his beard. In a moment he had fastened the pincers of his fingers on the cheeks of his howling pupil, and wrenching the boy’s head from side to side roared out.—

“A byse! A byse! A byse! All buttocks have only one eye. A byse! May your brains boil over! A byse! Creator of earth and firmament, ten thousand cheders are in this land and me you single out for torment! A byse! Most abject of God’s fools! A byse!”

While he raved and dragged the boy’s head from side to side with one hand, with the other he hammered the pointer with such fury against the table that David expected at any moment to see the slender stick buried in the wood. It snapped instead!

“He busted it!” gleefully announced the boy sitting near.

“He busted it!” the suppressed giggle went round. Horrified himself by what he saw, David wondered what the rest could possibly be so amused about.

“I couldn’t see,” the boy at the table was blubbering. “I couldn’t see! It’s dark in here!”

“May your skull be dark!” the rabbi intoned in short frenzied yelps, “and your eyes be dark and your fate be of such dearth and darkness that you will call a poppy-seed the sun and a carroway the moon. Get up! Away! Or I’ll empty my bitter heart upon you!”

Tears streaming down his cheeks, and wailing loudly, the boy slid off the bench and slunk away.

“Stay here till I give you leave to go,” the rabbi called after him. “Wipe your muddy nose. Hurry, I say! If you could read as easily as your eyes can piss, you were a fine scholar indeed!”

The boy sat down, wiped his nose and eyes with his coat-sleeve and quieted to a suppressed snuffling.

Glancing at the window, the rabbi fished in his pockets, drew out a match and lit the low gas jet sticking out from the wall over head. While he watched the visibility of the open book on the table, he frugally shaved down the light to a haggard leaf. Then he seated himself again, unlocked a drawer in the table and drew out a fresh stick which looked exactly like the one he had just broken. David wondered whether the rabbi whittled a large supply of sticks for himself, knowing what would happen to them.

“Move back!” He waved the boy away who had reluctantly slipped into the place just vacated before the table. “David Schearl!” he called out, tempering the harshness of his voice. “Come here, my gold.”

Quailing with fright, David drew near.

“Sit down, my child,” he was still breathing hard with exertion. “Don’t be alarmed.” He drew out of his pocket a package of cigarette-papers and a tobacco pouch, carefully rolled cigarette, took a few puffs, then snuffed it out and put it into an empty cigarette box. David’s heart pounded with fear. “Now then,” he turned the leaves of a book beside him to the last page. “Show me how blessed is your understanding.” He drew David’s tense shoulder down toward the table, and picking up the new stick, pointed to a large hieroglyph at the top of the page. “This is called Komitz. You see? Komitz. And this is an Aleph. Now, whenever one sees a Komitz under an Aleph, one says, Aw.” His hot tobacco-laden breath swirled about David’s face.

His mother’s words about her rabbi flashed through his mind. He thrust them aside and riveted his gaze to the indicated letter as if he would seal it on his eyes.

“Say after me,” continued the rabbi, “Komitz-Aleph—Aw!”

David repeated the sounds.

“So!” commanded the rabbi. “Once more! Komitz-Aleph-Aw!”

And after David had repeated it several times. “And this” continued the rabbi pointing to the next character “is called Bais, and a Komitz under a Bais—Baw! Say it! Komitz-Bais-Baw!”

“Komitz-Bais—Baw!” said David.

“Well done! Again.”

And so the lesson progressed with repetition upon repetition. Whether out of fear or aptitude, David went through these first steps with hardly a single error. And when he was dismissed, the rabbi pinched his cheek in praise and said:

“Go home. You have an iron head!”