Menkes is the first American born after the war to have published in
Yiddish. His stories are often set in Lithuania, a stronghold of Yiddish
before the war. The 39-year-old Menkes explained that he writes by holing
himself up in a cottage in North Wales, where "I immerse myself in the Lithuania of 100 years ago." The
following short story is abridged. It was translated from Yiddish
by Curt Leviant
By Heershad Menkes
Ragbymeh, the rabbi of Shumsk, returned to Lithuania from Warsaw after
a month and a half. As his luxurious coach glided into Shumsk, one could
see etched into his face the despair of a man who realizes that he has
lost everything. He looked like a fresh corpse that had rolled off the
purification table at the cemetery and was managing a couple of last steps
just to frighten the living.
Gershom was tall and strong and had a stately appearance. His long imposing
beard shone regally with strands of red, gold, white, silver, beautiful
as the famed rainbows in the village of Salok. And here he alighted from
the carriage a broken man and shuffled to his door with the gait of a
cripple. He had become thin. His exquisite rabbinic garb hung from him
like the clothes of a scrawny pauper dressed in the suit of a recently
deceased fat banker. The colors of his beard had dulled. They seemed
to blend into one turbid hue that resembled freshly trodden soil on a
no need to ask what had happened in Warsaw. Gershom Ragbymeh had already
divorced three wives because they had borne him only girls. He had two
from each wife. His fourth wife, Shprintza - he was over fifty and she
a seventeen-year-old virgin when he joined her under the wedding canopy
- had remained barren altogether. He angrily told off the barber-surgeon
in Shumsk and the best Vilna doctors too, when they suggested that the
couples childlessness was because of him, not his wife. For years, Vilna
doctors had been telling him that there was a specialist in Warsaw for
such matters, one Professor Maximovitch. If he couldnt help then no one
could. In his clinic, to which rich men from all over the Russian empire
came, the professor examined the rabbi thoroughly. He gave him potions
to drink, medicines to swallow, salves to apply. And when he bade farewell
to the Lithuanian rabbi, he told him forthrightly:
heard about me in Vilna its not because Im a charlatan. Im very sorry
to inform you that you will not be able to have any children. You are over
seventy and you must - Im sure its the case also according to your own
religion - accept it as Gods will."
words were a death knell to Gershom, and not only because of the blow
to his male pride. He loved his six daughters ardently. But it made no
sense now telling the gentile doctor why the diagnosis was the end of
the world for him.
hundred years the house of Rabbeynu Gershom had maintained itself in Shumsk,
from the day that Tanchum of Rothenburg bought the circular palace with
twenty-three of the gold nuggets that the Maharam had given him. Every
Shumsk rabbi had at least one son who was worthy of continuing the rabbinic
line. And now it had come to such a miserable end. He had only daughters
from three wives and barrenness from the fourth. The greatest professor
in the empire couldnt do a thing for him.
returned from Warsaw, he barely greeted his wife. He made for the study
up at the top of the palace and bade the maid to prepare a bed for him
there. He told her to inform all the household that on no account was he
to be disturbed. Everything that he needed for meals and other daily human
needs he arranged to have in the upper chambers. For weeks on end he didnt
come down. In Shumsk people speculated that Gershom had fallen into such
a depression that he had gone mad. In the surrounding villages they began
to call him the "Attic of Shumsk." His wife, daughters and sons-in-law
remained silent when asked how the hidden one was doing. They didnt want
to cook up gossip. In any event, they didnt know themselves how he was
doing. Gershom permitted only the maid to come up to him. Pretty as Shprintza
was, heartache caused her face to twitch and scow. She didnt have a husband,
she wasnt single, she wasnt divorced, she wasnt a widow, and she wasnt
even an agunah, a woman whose husband is presumed dead but cannot remarry
for the lack of evidence of the death. -Shprintza scarcely set foot outside.
It seemed to her that everyones greeting masked one and the same sentiment:
"You thought you were so clever to marry the rich old rabbi, eh?"
sleep more than a couple of hours a day, one hour here, another hour there.
Day and night he suffered and tormented himself for bringing to such a
bad end the house of Rabbeynu Gershom. A Shumsk rabbi, who to top it off
was also named Gershom, was for the first time in seven hundred years unable
to bring a male child into the world. What a disgrace for his ancestors
in heaven and what a disgrace for the unborn generations. After a month
had gone by he began to ponder more calmly if there was another way out
after all. He paced back and forth in his study for hours, going round
and round along the outer walls. Hearing the echoes of his footsteps, his
family down below felt better; at least he didnt sit and cry all day and
all night. The maid who provided him with his daily needs told Shprintza
that God was merciful, her husband was improving. They had to have patience.
one night, Gershom took hold of himself. His circular study was illuminated
by four huge candles from which the tallow dripped over the silver candlesticks
and onto the copper trays upon which they stood. At first he considered
skipping a generation and preparing for ordination a specially chosen grandson.
But he soon saw that that wouldnt do. The grandson was a son of a father
not of the lineage of Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile.
in his round study, in the great Shumsk palace where he had secluded himself
in radiant, holy captivity, removed from physicality, surrounded by sacred
old books bound in leather, wood and linen, and the Talmud manuscripts
of Rabbeynu Gershom Light of the Exile, Gershom Ragbymeh gradually thought
less about himself and his unborn son and more and more about his great
ancestor. If the end of Rabbeynu Gershoms line had perforce come, then
let it at least be an end worthy of his name.
He would have
to do something that would be talked about not only in Shumsk but everywhere,
even nine hundred years later, just as nowadays everyone remembered Rabbeynu
Gershom the Light of the Exiles rulings of nine hundred years earlier
in the cities of Shum. After all, everyone had crowned him the first leader
of Ashkenaz. People stopped sending questions of law to Pumpedita in Babylonia
in the far reaches of creation. As the old Yiddish saying goes, the more
profound the mystery, the simpler the solution. Rabbeynu Gershom hadnt
known back then that his most important books would be lost, and that he
would be remembered above all for his ruling forbidding a man to take two
wives. Now the Maharik had cited a quote from the Rashbo to the effect
that Rabbeynu Gershoms edict was in force only up to the end of the fifth
millennium in the Hebrew calendar. That meant that the ruling had become
null and void some six and a half centuries earlier. In any event, the
ban on polygamy had to be made formal in Rabbeynu Gershoms day in order
to pacify the gentiles who were then living in Speyer, Worms and Mainz,
the cities known as "Shum."
But now it
was not relevant. On the contrary, the peasants in Shumsk wouldnt care
if a Jew took nine wives. Theyd love to do the same themselves. If Rabbeynu
Gershom the Light of the Exile had known that his ban on polygamy would
sentence his own dynasty to extinction he never would have done it. But
this didnt pertain only to his own familys lineage. He thought about
how many learned, good-hearted Jews they would have if a responsible, well-to-do
Jewish scholar could take more than one wife. It just didnt make sense
that for King Solomon it was permitted but for a person today it was as
forbidden as bread on Passover. By obeying a ruling for many hundreds of
years after it was null and void, according to the time scale set down
by its own author, one was surely doing no service to that author. On the
contrary. It would be timely to replace that ruling now with a new one
which would restore the crown to its former splendor. in less than one
hundred years the Jews in the pale of settlement would become a mighty
nation. No one would dare issue edict against them or launch pogroms. How
many scholars there would be, how many young prodigies, good-hearted Jews
and women of valor.
he got hold of himself, Gershom had solved everything in under an hour.
For the first time since his return from Warsaw he laughed to himself.
He mischievously slapped both cheeks and tugged at his many-colored beard
for being such a fool ail these years and not righting the matter long
ago. It would appear that only by secluding himself in a room replete
with the divine spirit, alone with the Talmuds that Rabbeynu Gershom
had transcribed for posterity, could such clarity of vision have come
to him, up there in the study of his circular palace in Shumsk. Had he
realized all this when he was young, he would have had ten sons. What
was gone was gone. On the contrary, there are no coincidences. His own
coming into this world, his lack of sons, everything stemmed from the
concealed hand of divine providence, a hand whose purpose had just now
become clear. The next step was to do what he had to do for all of Israel
and for the house of Rabbeynu Gershom.
with gentle reverence he cut out a blank page from the back of one of the
old books and indicted his ruling crisply and briefly, according to the
style of rabbinic edicts: "And the prohibition that Rabbeynu Gershom the
Light of the Exile, of Mainz, had proclaimed that no Israelite should marry
two women at the same time was valid only until the end of the fifth millennium;
now, however, it is permitted, and he who increases the number of wives
is to be praised thus sayeth Rabbeynu Gershom of Shumsk, Lithuania, descended
of Rabbeynu Gershom the Light of the Exile." Gershom ran
downstairs with his former youthful stride, skipping three and four steps
at a time. It was late at night, but the entire palace was awakened in
a flash by the joyous clatter from up above. It was a sign that Gershom
of Shumsk had shaken off his depression and that soon everything would
return to normal. When he pranced into the great salon below, noises and
whispers mingled with the creaking of the mighty oak doors upon which had
been carved the coat of arms of the Lithuanian count who had sold the palace
to Tanchum Rothenburg for twenty-three gold nuggets. Daughters and sons-in-law
and their children dressed quickly in whatever came to hand. Everyone held
candles until the maid (it the majestic kerosene chandeliers. Shprintza
came in last. She wasnt as happy as the others. A wife senses when things
arent the way they ought to be. Nevertheless, she perked up when she saw
her husband. Except for his weight, he looked much the way he did before
his undoing in Warsaw by Professor Maximovitch. He stood straight as a
telegraph pole and brimmed with his usual self-confidence.
Gershka! I thought Id never see you alive again."
you talking about? I was busy studying Torah." "Let it be for the best.
Well, its the middle of the night. Why dont you go to bed? Youve slept
long enough up there in the attic."
"In a minute,
Shprintza, in a minute. For me youll always be my first wife, my most
beloved wife." "I dont know about most beloved, but Ill sure never be
the first. I'm the fourth, for goodness sake!" "Silly woman, Im talking
about the future. The future! Youll remain as my wife and Ill take another
wife. Perhaps two. Who knows, maybe even three. After all, I have to be
the first to obey the new ruling of Rabbeynu Gershom, that is, Rabbeynu
: Gershom of Shumsk. The -public doesnt know yet that the old ban on taking
many wives expired over six hundred and fifty years ago!" "Hes
Take him to
the hospital for the insane in Vilna! Marry who you like! Just give me
a divorce! A divorce! Ive had enough with your lunacy about the honor
of your family tree. The honor of a dog would be better. A cat. An otter.
Oh my God..."
fainted. The maid ran over to revive her. The whole commotion angered Gershom.
He ordered everyone to go to sleep. The next morning Shprintza took a coach
to Vilna to her sister who lived with her family on Broad Street. The sisters
rushed over together to the courtyard of the Great Synagogue, where they
grabbed hold of the first rabbi they took sight of. They told him what
had happened in Shumsk. The rabbi shuddered and accompanied them at once
to the Rabbinical Council. Before long the rabbi of Shumsk was summoned
to appear there, but he ignored the summons. Meanwhile, he officiated himself
at his wedding to a new wife, a poor orphan from a village called Bolnik.
He lived with her in the circular palace in Shumsk, from which all other
members of the household, including the maid, had fled as though tram a
fire. Everyone concluded that the rabbi had been driven mad by all his
the rabbinical council issued a ban against Gershom of Shumsk. They tried
to organize ten rabbis to sign it, but it wasnt easy. No true scholars
wanted their names on a ban against a descendant of Rabbeynu Gershom Light
of the Exile. No true scholars could even be sure that Gershom was legally
wrong; after all, the old ban had indeed run out more than six and a half
centuries earlier, and there was no doubt about where the Bible stood in
these matters. In the end they found eight people who technically speaking
had rabbinical ordination but had never come to anything. Two others lied
and said they had ordination from somewhere, just to get their names on
a published list of rabbis. For many years, scholars debated the extent
to which envy and ambition were the real motives for "the ten signers,"
as they came to be known in those circles.
The ban was
printed. The proclamation posters giving public notice of the ban were
given to a messenger. He rode around in a horse and wagon and posted them
on the doors of the study houses throughout the area. But the rabbi of
Shumsk didnt give a hoot about all this. A year later he married another
orphan, from Sviranek. She believed-his assertion that it was permissible.
If a famous rabbi said it was all right what more did one need? Shortly
thereafter he took a third wife, also an orphan, from Kurkul, outside of
Svir. A rumor went round that he had tricked an old acquaintance, a volunteer
for the Vilna Society for the Support of Orphans, into giving him a list
of poor Jewish orphans who lived in the province.
assured all three wives again and again that along with him they were
fulfilling a sacred commandment. No more children were born to him, but
he no longer thought of having his own sons. What was most important
was that eventually, perhaps in one hundred or two hundred years, Jews
everywhere would talk about the new edict of Rabbeynu Gershom of Shumsk
who had given the people of Israel a remedy against all persecutions
and evil decrees, a path to eternal life.
Gershoms business dealings were only with gentiles. Jews in the area took
to calling him "the banned rabbi." No one would violate a Vilna ban. When
Gershom died in his eighties, there was no funeral. His three wives buried
him behind the circular palace. The same day they vanished as if into thin
man of wealth in Vilna, a benefactor who was active in community affairs
was sent to Shumsk, to the circular palace, along with Gershoms six daughters
and their husbands, and two Russian policemen. An old watchman continued
to live in the palace did not resist them. He crossed himself and left
peaceably. The delegation from Vilna arranged on the spot for the manuscripts
and books in the rabbinic study to be brought to a special room in the
courtyard of Vilnas Great Synagogue.
table they found the page with the ruling permitting marriage to more than
one wife. Traversing the words of the ruling from top to bottom were all
kinds of blessings containing the sacred name of God. It was Gershoms
way of preventing people from destroying the page after his death. The
wealthy scholar from Vilna quickly reminded the others that they had seen,
en route to the palace, a little brick house being erected less than a
mile away. They rushed over, handed the builders a handsome gift of rubles,
and immured the page between the bricks of a wall. There it lies to this
Vilna community sent workers to dismantle the circular palace of Shumsk
stone by stone, down to the very foundations. The stones were ground
into sand. Of the great circular palace that Tanchum of Rothenburg had
purchased for twenty-three gold nuggets not a trace remained.