How the Little Rabbi Grew
By Eliot Fintushel
17 September 2007
Rabbi Shlomo Beser was born with a caul, a shiny membrane that covered his head. It came to his maiden Aunt Dora that the child must have mystical capabilities, and she was right. At the age of two, Rabbi Shlomo recited all of the holy names of God as listed in the Book of Brilliance. He also recited several names that had never been written down. Everyone knew them to be true names, because on hearing them the cabalists, old wise ones, could not conceal their amazement. As one, they bowed their heads and mumbled, "Bar'chu uvaruch sh'moh!": Blessed be the name.
These were names entrusted through nods and whispers by graybeards to graybeards in the secret room in the basement of the synagogue. No mortal man would have related such matters to a child. It was quite clear that Shlomo Beser had had commerce with angels.
At three Rabbi Shlomo delivered a new testament in Hebrew and Aramaic. Aunt Dora, ignorant of the holy tongues, transliterated everything syllable for syllable into English script, with a smattering of Cyrillic; to the end of her life she confused the two alphabets, one from her old country, one from her new. Dora was no maven. The old cabalists locked Rabbi Shlomo's testament away. Not even the most learned and holy among them could look upon it without fainting or going mad for half a day, and the more a man understood of it, the worse it went for him.
All this happened in Schuylertown, New York, a town not far from Albany, in a small immigrant Jewish community. The Jews there only knew one another. They must remain pure, so the old wise ones urged them, in the service of God Almighty. They stayed strange together while the world changed. They even imagined, in their ignorance, that the city of Albany was some sort of large orphanage, as in the Hebrew, al b'nai, which means, for the children's sake.
Rabbi Shlomo's father and mother were ordinary people. They worked when the old wise ones told them to work and they rested when they told them to rest. He was a cabinet maker of slight means and no religious inclination. She was a woman of few words and fewer thoughts. She had thick arms and liked to sleep. Shlomo was their only child; still, they treated him like a stray dog who had followed them home and stayed on. They were not unkind to him.
The little rabbi grew faster. By his fifth birthday, Rabbi Shlomo Beser completed his formal studies under the tutelage of the wise and holy ones. Perhaps, if I may be so bold, it was like Jesus receiving the baptism of John in the stories of the Christians: Shlomo was a pious and respectful little pupil, but he knew everything before the old wise ones ever said it. Grumble as they might, they had no choice, at last, but to defer to him and call him "rabbi."
That year he enunciated new mysteries by the light of which all present were given to understand that the great Rabbi Akiva himself had been mistaken: the Chanukah candles must be lit for eight nights in diminishing number, as against the practice, universal among Jews since the argument of Rabbi Akiva, of increasing them, one to eight. Even the old cabalists with their forked beards and black hats could find in Shlomo's words not a cranny in which to wedge the slightest objection. Thenceforth the Jews of Schuylertown lit their Chanukah candles eight down to one.
There was a hill he liked to climb. It wasn't a mountain. He could see mountains from it, however, the Adirondacks, capped with snow like the embroidered white cloth over the afikomen, the matzoh for hiding on Passover. He would climb this hill each Sunday afternoon if it didn't rain or snow, beardless little rabbi in his black coat and hat, to talk with God. His father and mother let him. Aunt Dora used to walk him from home to the bottom of the hill and wait. She would read romance novels sometimes, and sometimes she would nap or nibble HiHo crackers or whistle, while Rabbi Shlomo talked with God.
When he returned from talking with God, she would bow her head and say, "How did it go, Rabbi?" or else, "What news, Shloimy? Is it anything?"
And the child would tell her stories. When he was six, Rabbi Shlomo told her how the Almighty had described to him the exact circumstances of the creation. She listened cross-legged on an old blue quilt she had spread across the couchgrass, and he sat on his knees at the edge of the quilt, half on and half off. If it was cold they would wrap themselves together in the blue quilt, all comfy, like two buns in a broiler, a big one and a little.
He told her what angels and how many and of what color hair and eyes had stood at the Blessed One's right side and what and how many and of what coloration had stood at the Blessed One's left when he separated the light from the dark and called it yom echad, "one day." Her brows would arch and her mouth would open as he told her what happened to the seeds of the apple of which Adam and Eve had eaten, and the last words of Methuselah.
No fly would come near. No bird would twitter. If the sun was out, a cloud would come and shade them while the rabbi spoke and vanish as soon as he fell silent. Aunt Dora would sit and listen, and the little rabbi would sit nearby and speak until she begged him to stop.
That's how it was. She always asked, and he always told her everything. His words flowed like lemon tea steaming from the cozy, too hot, too hot, delicious to smell, but terrible at last: she covered her face, her ears. Out of mercy, he would stop. But next time she had to ask him again. Who could help it? Others asked too, of course, but Rabbi Shlomo told them only lesser things. He reserved the deepest mysteries for Dora's ears alone. If it is not disrespectful to say so, perhaps he loved her.
The little rabbi grew fast, and the older he got, the faster he grew. He grew in his mind and in his heart and in other subtle ways, but in stature, for a long time, he stayed small. Dora took care of Shlomo as one would take care of a child. After all, he was a child: count his years—just six.
The town was abuzz with all these strange doings. People lowered their heads before Rabbi Shlomo when they passed him on the street, all but the old cabalists themselves, who would raise their chins as an example to the people, for are not all men equal before the Almighty? But the townspeople started to importune the little rabbi in preference to the old wise ones with spiritual questions and with questions of Jewish law. Whoever managed to get past Dora received the most wonderful answers imaginable. Answers that could change a person's life or open his heart to a happiness the like of which he had not felt for fifteen or twenty years.
This was bad enough, but when the learned and holy men, the cabalists of Schuylertown, heard about the things that happened on Dora's quilt, they became very jealous indeed. They sent Dora a note in English: come and see us at such and such a time in the basement of the synagogue. That is where the holy ones liked to pore over their ancient texts in secret, where yellowed pages crumbled under their thumbs, reading by reading, year by year, turning to dust. For an ordinary person to be permitted to enter their little room was a remarkable thing.
They said, "Tell us everything your nephew Rabbi Shlomo says. He is learned in holy matters but simple in the ways of the world. We old wise ones want to keep watch over him in case his insights should lead him to a place his child's heart cannot yet understand, and he should fall."
She said, "Learned sirs, I watch over him."
They said, "When the prodigy Reb Menachem Ben Levi was a boy of seventeen, the Evil One opened the Book of Life before him in a dream. He ran to the book to cipher out its wonders, burying his face in the sacred script, and the Evil One shut it on him, snuffing out his life. He never woke. Had he not been talking in his sleep, we would never know this. And if his mother, a common woman, who heard it all, had had the wisdom to intercede, Reb Menachem would have lived. What further insights and glories we might have gained from Reb Menachem then!
"You are a common person like that mother of Reb Menachem's. Will you let little Rabbi Shlomo die because of you, when we old wise ones have the power to see and save? Will you not give us access?"
"Tell me what to do."
"Remember and write down every word. Leave the writings in a tube in a hole we will show you in the west wall of the synagogue. We old wise ones will examine these words, and, if need be, protect him. Tell him nothing of this. He is young."
As always, Dora and Shlomo walked. Shlomo climbed his hill and spoke with God. She read and napped and nibbled and whistled, and then he came back from God, and he spoke, and she listened, until she had to say, "No more." He kissed her on the cheek then, and she bowed her head and felt guilty, because she was hiding something.
All the way home, Dora repeated in her mind the wonders and the terrors of which the little rabbi had told her. After he kissed her goodbye and closed the door of his father's house, Dora would turn on her heel and run like the wind. She ran home to write everything down. She mixed Cyrillic and English letters, as always, and she even invented signs or drew little pictures when she was stuck. Then she spindled the paper tightly, tightly, ran to the synagogue, went round to the west wall, looking left and looking right, and she put it in the tube in the old wise ones' hole.
Rabbi Shlomo acted the same as always, always the same. He didn't seem to notice a thing. If anything, he trusted her more. He sat in Dora's lap. He played with the curls of her hair, little rabbi, while he revealed great mysteries. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against her breast, so that she could feel his words vibrate in her bosom as well as hear them with her ears.
Sometimes she thought, "I am betraying him." Sometimes she thought, "I am keeping him safe." The thoughts went round and round in Dora's heart, like a rope that tightened and wrung out tears.
Once, Rabbi Shlomo said, "Aunt Dora, why are you crying? Have I done something to hurt you?"
"No, Shloimy, it's only how wonderful the things are that you tell me. That, or dust in my eye."
"Shall I stop speaking now?"
"Maybe that would be better."
Once, as they walked home, he said, "Why do your lips move, Aunt Dora? What are you saying to yourself?"
"Oh, I have to buy some groceries, and I don't want to forget my list."
"Write it down as soon as you get home, why don't you?"
"Yes, Shloimy, that's what I'll do."
This went on for a long time. Shlomo turned seven, and Shlomo turned eight. The little rabbi grew faster in the latter year than in the former. Faster and faster he grew, in his mind and in his heart and in other subtle ways, but in stature he stayed small. He told her, and Dora wrote, of the shapes of the branches of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and of what hung on every branch, what budded, what bloomed, and what fell.
Following his words, she recorded eighty-seven righteous acts that no one had ever heard of, enlarging the traditional list of six hundred thirteen mitzvot to an even seven hundred. She wrote down the words that Moses had uttered to part the sea, and she drew a picture of the mystical gesture that accompanied them.
It all went into the old wise men's hole. At the butcher's or the fish market or the rear of the synagogue on shabbos, they would nod to her sometimes, she thought, but apart from that, they never said a word, no, not so much as a thank-you or a grunt. Even the nods might have been nothing, after all. They might have been little bows for the prayers that the wise men prayed in their minds. The old wise ones, everyone knew, were always praying in their minds.
Shlomo turned nine, and Shlomo turned ten. The little rabbi grew faster and faster. As with his erudition and his spiritual life, so with some of his other qualities, though in stature he stayed small. It was as if Rabbi Shlomo's earth turned faster than the ordinary one, and his seasons were shorter, and his sight finer and quicker in proportion. At nine and a half his voice changed, and he started to grow a beard. In other respects he seemed a child. He was respectful as a good child is. He lived in his father's house.
One Sunday morning, sunny but cold, some of the old wise ones went to Dora in the back yard of Shlomo's father's house. She was hanging up the little rabbi's tzitzit, the ritual undergarment with sacred embroidery and tiny fringes, to dry. She loved to do it, for love of the boy. She heard the crunch of the old ones' black leather shoes on the driveway gravel. She never lifted her head. She saw their black pants, spattered with mud, and the hems of their serious black coats. She dropped her clothespins. She picked them up again. She said, "Oh, I'm sorry."
One of them said, "Dora, you are a good woman, but you are making a mistake by not telling us everything."
"Oh, no, Your Reverences, I write down all he says."
They were quiet for a moment. She saw shoes shift and tap. Then the same old wise one said, "You end too soon. If there are reasonings, they trail off, and we can't see where they are leading. If there are words and spells that want to be spoken or gestures that want to be made, they are always lacking a crucial last step. We can't get them to do anything."
Another wise one broke in and said in a high-pitched voice, "We could help the people. We could do much good. Rabbi Loew of Prague, it is said, made a man out of mud with such words, and it saved the people from a terrible pogrom. That is nothing to what we might accomplish by the mysteries that Rabbi Shlomo enunciates. But they are incomplete."
Dora said, "Learned sirs, I can't help it. I'm a simple woman. I listen as long as I can listen. When Shloimy starts in to naming the deeper mysteries and untying the holy knots where no one has ever fit a finger, why, my heart goes numb, my skin bristles, I shake and shiver, day becomes night, night becomes day, and I don't know what I am.
"Have Your Reverences ever opened up and finished reading the testament our Shloimy spoke when he was three? I wrote that one down completely, despite my shattered nerves, in tongues of which I understood not one single syllable. I had to sleep three days running to get over that one. Didn't that testament make you reel, even you wise ones, so that you had to lock it up? Shloimy was only three when he gave us that one. How can you expect to fare better with something new, even if I should survive the listening to it and the writing of it after?"
The first old wise one thundered, "You let us worry about that, Dora. Your Shloimy isn't the only soul God speaks to. We old wise ones listen to Him constantly. That the Almighty has chosen the little rabbi as his confidante in certain small matters doesn't make us nobodies, you know. We have most of it with or without little Shloimy. There's just a thing or two we want to clarify, as we've told you.
"If you can't inconvenience yourself for the work of God, if you can't put up with a case of nerves or a chill up the spine or two, what good are you to anybody? Do you think you're doing Rabbi Shlomo a service by withholding things from us, his protectors?
"We've been talking about this. We are of a mind to send Shlomo to Al B'nai to be taken care of properly. His mother and father won't object. There's only you, and you haven't any rights."
Dora saw by their shadows that all the old wise ones were nodding. A breeze picked up; Shlomo's tzitzit whipped back and forth on the clothesline at her back. The fringes tickled her neck.
"I'll do everything just as you say. I'll listen to the end. I'll write down all of it. Only, please, Your Holinesses, no more talk of Al B'nai. I couldn't stand to be parted from my little Shloimy."
The old wise one with the high-pitched voice said, "Especially write down more exactly how to part the sea. That would be something to know."
That very day Dora accompanied Shlomo to his hill. He held her hand as they walked there. He liked to do that sometimes. They smiled at each other but hardly spoke.
The little rabbi seemed to grow beside her as they walked, like a carrot top in a cup on the windowsill, visibly, hour on hour, or like the moon climbing up from the horizon, higher by the second. She seemed to feel her forearm move like a clock hand as they walked and as Shlomo grew, his hand in hers rising higher, because he was taller and taller.
As always, the little rabbi climbed up to have his talk with God. As always, Dora waited. But today she could neither read nor nap nor nibble nor whistle. Sometimes she sat and sometimes she stood and sometimes she paced or kicked stones. She spread out the quilt, and she folded it up again. Then she spread it again. Then she folded it again.
She said to herself, "Who am I to doubt the holy learned ones? I am here for my Shloimy. I am here for those wise ones. It's all God's work, one and the same. What I said I'd do, I'll do."
Rabbi Shlomo came down the hill. He seemed older than before.
"What news, Shloimy? Is it anything?" The quilt, which she had gathered under her arm again, Dora spread again. She sat, and the little rabbi sat close beside her. He leaned his head upon her shoulder and spoke now into Dora's ear and now below. His lips brushed the hollow of Dora's ear, and he planted his words in her mind. His lips brushed the delicate skin under Dora's collarbone, and his words penetrated her heart.
He spoke of the Garden of Eden, how the Creator, Blessed be He, had pulled the rib from Adam as he slept. Rabbi Shlomo took Dora's hand—she didn't understand at first, because she was busy trying to engrave this phrase and that phrase into her memory—and he slipped it along his tzitzit to the spot where a man's missing rib had been, close to his heart. He held her hand there as he spoke. She felt his voice tremble through her fingers from his heart to her own.
All too soon Rabbi Shlomo came to the point where Dora would have said, stop. Of itself her brow furrowed and arched so, she thought it might turn to an angel and fly up into heaven. He was speaking of the taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, how it lingered on Eve's tongue long after the serpent had gone.
The little rabbi grew.
He spoke, and she listened. She never said, stop, and he never paused to hear if she would say so. As revelation piled on revelation, ecstasy on ecstasy, Dora's heart fluttered, then pounded; her blood turned to hummingbirds, and her skin became the sky. In her mind, it was like the time, if there was one, before yom echad, when there was neither firmament above nor firmament below.
She forgot to remember it, to write it down later. He spoke with his heart, anyway, as much as with his tongue, through her hand as much as to her ear. How could a person write such things in English, in Cyrillic, or even in the holy alphabet of Hebrew or Aramaic? She forgot who the old wise ones were. She forgot who she herself might be, or if there was somewhere a little rabbi named Shlomo or a place called Schuylertown.
It was as if God was speaking to Dora directly, just as He spoke to Shloimy. He had such a big voice, the Almighty, that there was no room in the world left for the listener. She became a part of God's voice, and she knew what He said not by listening, but because she was part of the saying of it.
She gasped once, and in between the one word and His next, God seemed to breathe. During that breath, as quick as a wing flutter, Dora was Dora, and she saw Shlomo beside her. The little rabbi was growing fast. He was growing old. Across his face a million waters streamed, so it appeared to her. Some of them streamed into Dora.
She gasped a second time, and the little rabbi was all skin and bones. What clothes stayed on him hung like cobwebs from an old rafter. The white of his bones showed at the cheeks, the forehead, the chin, and one hip, bare above loose pants. His fingers were bones. She wanted to say, stop. But she listened on.
She awoke shivering. She was sitting under a tree, all bundled up in her quilt. It was dark. She thought she saw Shlomo lying nearby on a patch of barren dirt. When she touched him, though, it was not he—what she touched crumbled at once to ashes.
"Wicked creature!" someone shouted from the dark. "You never planned to do what the old wise ones said to do. You deceived us."
Another said, "You distrusted us, your teachers and counselors. You think we meant to harm him? Woe unto you, deluded girl!"
She heard their boots crunch the frosted grass. They came nearer. "Where have you sent him? Where is he hiding? It won't help, you know. We'll find him and send him to Al B'nai. It's all over between you and your Shloimy, unless . . ."
They let her tremble for a moment, halfway between terror and hope, as they thought; then another old wise one picked up the thread: "Unless you tell us everything. Did you listen to the end this time?"
Dora began to tell them the wonders and the terrors that God Almighty had secreted in her heart through the little rabbi. She chanted and she sang. Her eyes filled with tears. She did not know what words she spoke. But the more she spoke the darker and angrier old wise ones grew.
"Are you playing with us now? Do you think us fools?"
"Why do Your Reverences say that?" she asked. "Have I done something disrespectful?"
"Don't you know what words you have been saying? Yisgadal, v'yiskadash sh'may rabah . . . Glorify and sanctify His Great Name . . ."
"The Mourner's Kaddish!" she exclaimed. "The prayer for the dead!"
"Of course! Of course! Everybody knows that. That's child's stuff. We want to know mysteries, hidden things, not this cheap prattle."
"Reverend sirs, my little rabbi, my Shloimy, was born and he lived and he died. This Kaddish, the simple praise of God, which He has put in my heart to sing, is the highest of His mysteries. That's the last thing Shloimy learned and the last thing that he taught me. But it's as if all the world had suddenly turned to gold, and so, because everybody had piles of it, no one valued gold any more. Still, gold is gold, sirs. No mystery is deeper than the simple praise of God."
Then the old wise ones were ashamed. They knew that what she said was true, just as they had known that all the little rabbi's words had been true. There was that much gold in the old wise ones' hearts that it would shame them to lie about this.
As well as they could manage it, they gathered the dust that had been the little rabbi, and they buried him and prayed over him and placed a marble stone there. Dora tended it all her days. She sang the Kaddish each year on the day of Shlomo's death. It was all the Hebrew that Dora ever knew— Yisgadal, v'yiskadash sh'may rabah . . .—and the little rabbi had taught it to her, he and God Almighty.