Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #108, A Tale on 4 Levels, 2

A nun; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Ermitage, by de Passy, MET item DP160061, in the public domain.
A nun; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Ermitage, by de Passy, MET item DP160061, in the public domain.
In this episode Saadia and Batkol enter forbidden territory.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Sixteenth Era, Part 7, 1320 C.E., Chelm

A Tale on Four Levels
II. The Remez
2. The Secret Jew’s Tale

But that were hardly our first step. Perhaps there be contracts, complaints, disputes, or purchases or sales of timber and tracts. Or baptismal records; that for sure. And who knows what stories the locals can tell, of weddings and deaths and extravagant feasts, of secret trysts and pregnant girls, of murder and thievery, and bacchanals, of kindness and cruelty, debauchery, war. And not twenty days to uncover the lot.
That afternoon we go to the church where Danyo’s family always prayed. Such a cathedral as makes a Jew quake, their round towers and low domes clapped in copper, now malachite green. Thick walls of rubble and stone, and arched windows, long and thin full of stained glass and troubly tales, where prayer and sermon, polemic and mob dissemble hatred against us Jews.
Batkol and me, like up to our necks in an icy river, turbulent, deep. Forbidden it be to enter a church. And many a warning the rabbis decreed, that our soul would become pasul* to God if we be enticed to go inside. So there we stand, like planted trees.
* Hebrew: unkosher, unfit, disqualified as a witness
“Remember the word to Joshua, ‘*Khazak v’amatz and don’t be broke.*’ We can enter here and keep our faith. Can pillars prophesy? Can statues convince?”
*-* Hebrew: be strong and brave, found in Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:7-8,
and numerous places in the Book of Joshua
Still, that icy river resists as we struggle to approach the heavy doors. From the inner dark a cool air flows, and then we hear a crescendo of song like a choir of angels enveloping us. Fear and loathing, wonder and awe. Right there Batkol stops and says,
“Who knows. *Can women enter with men?* I best stay out, but you, be polite!”
as I step inside. For a moment I’m blind.
*-* in traditional synagogues men and women sit apart,
often in separate rooms with separate entrances
Slowly the cavernous space descends out of the music and black, into shadowy forms. A long, vast space; row upon row of elegant benches, oiled and smooth. And out of the shadows, colorful scenes, murals of people almost alive in their perfect details, human and beast, mountain and sea, forest and farm, compiled on each other, ceiling to floor. And there, them angels singin’ hymns in dreary sackcloth hooded robes. Just human they be, but heavenly voices. And there like a giant idol is hung that man I once knew, that Pharisee Jew in mournful grimace, drippin’ blood, agonies all-too-human it seems. I cringe at the sight. To this they pray?
One of their priests in his kingly robes sees me shufflin’ by a back pew, not knowin’ where to go or what to do, and quick he come down a side aisle and up to me all gracious and warm.
“You look to be not one of our flock, nor one who has yet seen light and is saved. But be not a-feared. Mercy lives here; truth be gracious and grace be near to those who enter the church’s embrace.”
Like a pot of water already hot, now placed directly over a flame, my discomforts begins to boil and froth, and words spill out and make a mess. My intentions were simple, to tell the man that I hoped to learn if they keep their records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths for our master Danyo who attends this church. But gagin’ by how he’s reactin’ to me, I suspect it didn’t come out that straight. He starts shouting and flailing his arms with the usual bluster and disparagements. And he’s grabbin’ my arm, drag and push, out the door where mercy lives.
When Batkol sees it, she takes up his stick, pummelin’ me with ‘what did you do?’ and ‘don’t you have no manners or sense?’ And I’m thinkin’, ‘where’s the grace in truth?’ and ‘if grace be near, it ain’t near enough.’
Walkin’ down an alley beside the church I hears a whisper,
“Hey you, come here.”
In a tiny window there’s a nun peekin’ out, just her oval head tight wrapped in black. Fearful her eyes, and trembly words,
“Come here, mister Jew, but don’t say a word. Just act like you’re stoppin’ to relieve yourself. I heard you ask about births and deaths. Well, maybe I can offer you help, and maybe you can help me too. I can’t talk now, but after Compline* when the bell rings ten, come to the door at the end of this alley, cough twice and then be still, and I’ll slip out if ever I can. And to make sure you won’t have your way with me, you must bring your madam.”
And then she were gone.
* bedtime prayers; final church service of the day
In the next episode… what’s this nun’s game?
About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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