Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #114, Giovanni

Boccaccio; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Boccaccio-Kunstmuseum Basel, in the public domain.
Boccaccio; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Boccaccio-Kunstmuseum Basel, in the public domain.
In this episode, venomous children and the long road out of Eden.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Sixteenth Era, Part 8, ~1340 C.E., Chelm

Now come the days of Casimir, peaceful and prosperous days for us. Danyo’s children were schooled and grown, while their father was often far away from home in the king’s court, or on gamblin’ trips. I was more the father to them. By 1340 Danyo’s health was the likely result of the way he lived: goose and fatback and cassoulet; brandy from wake-up till collapse in bed; women a-plenty, and many I seen that made me cringe to think what beds they lain in, and what the cesspool between their legs. Madness swallowed up his mind, and, oh the sorrows and oh, the fights that swallowed up his children’s days — how to manage a maddened bull, and who will inherit and who will serve. I tried to advise his brood towards peace, but the general response were what you’d expect:
“Old Jew, your Halacha* ain’t for us. Keep your Jewish ways to yourself.”
Them little squirmers I held on my knees spit venom on both their fathers now.
* Jewish law
Danyo died, or maybe was killed, like a pillow over his face one night, that same year as he gone mad. Found in the morn, there were some brief wails; come noon that day Batkol and me were told our meddlin’ days were done. They would have stripped us clean, as well, if Danyo’s wife hadn’t intervened.

Seventeenth Era, Part 1, ~1345, Tuscany

So here we be on the road again, the wind whistlin’ thru our hair, a melody us Jews know right well (but we ain’t alone in knowin’ this tune). Both of us longin’ for warmer climes. We hear there’s some Jews still livin’ in Rome. Maybe they’re hidin’ the Ark of the Law that the caesars claimed to plunder from us. Or maybe we can find Marco if he’s still alive, and see what wonders he brought from the East. So the swamps and taverns and thick fallen snow and the Jewish pioneers walkin’ these Polish roads, this land of opportunity, we’re leavin’ it all behind without so much as a fare-thee-well.
We made our way to Tuscany, Florence mostly, but Sienna too, workin’ the studios and binderies — toolin’ leather and doin’ color work — in the manuscript trade which be thrivin’ here. That’s when Giovanni befriended us; we was doin’ the gildin’ on one of his books.
Giovanni. You probably heared of him — Boccaccio. Well fed he were, with a sharp mind and well-tuned eyes and inclined to compile evidence before he judged fact from tale.
When he seen me workin’ an embossing wheel, and Batkol skivin’ leather, me with my skull cap and *fringed shirt*, he blurts out,
“Jews who can work with tools?”
Like us Jews only be prayin’ all day, or loanin’ ducats to the profligate dukes. All he knew about Jews were the tales and tangled facts twisted thru lies — what he learnt in church and what everyone were taught.
*-* Tzitzit; see B’midbar/Numbers 15:37-41
But from that day on his eyes be open and he sees Batkol and me as we live. Like *Jacob and that man wrestlin’,* we begin to wrestle each other’s thoughts: body and spirit; faith and law; God as infinite, God as one; truth and text and belief and doubt; what is Messiah? Has Messiah come? Sittin’ in the house and walkin’ the way; in the heat of the day or all night long; with a crust of bread and a sip of wine, or feastin’ and music **where all wines flow**.
*-* Berraysheet/Genesis 32:24-28; **-** Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”
And so the gulf between our faith, once so vast, uncrossable, become like a fountain where two friends meet and stand at evening regarding the day.
And so, the source of Novel 2 of Day 1 in Decameron — the story of Aberham the Jew — began as a sketch of him and me arguin’ over doctrine and truth and if there’s only one way to God, and if our God demands of us but a single faith and all else be wrong; or if, in fact, for every soul there’s many ways to know the Lor. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jew have alternate maps to an unknown port.
His original claim, and certain he were, that even such a righteous man as me (which brought to my face an ironic smile) is barred from heaven because I’m a Jew. I responded to him with this parable:
Once there were a righteous king with three sons, each noble and good. The king’s ministers were greatly concerned that he must choose one of his sons to succeed his throne when he should die. But the king deferred making a choice. His ministers bit their lips and threw up their hands and slapped their hips, and to this day no choice has been made, nor will he let his ministers choose.
This storyline were the crux of Giovanni’s tale originally. As you can see he turned it into two separate tales, the Melchizedek and the Aberham.
And it caused me much upset and surprise to see him tell that I left my faith to become Christian, when we both agreed that the church’s obsession to convert Jews be mere polemics and politics derived from insecurities of a child usurpin’ his father’s throne. I held my tongue for many a year, but when my friend grown old and weak I asked him why he changed the tale, revertin’ to the church’s intolerance.
“Two things swayed me back to the church. First, I feared the inquisitors, them slaverin’ dogs circlin’ me, looking to gnaw on my fatty bones for exposin’ priest and pope alike as greedy, gluttonous, venal swine. But perhaps I succumbed to a greater fear: that stalkin’ plague, that Black Death that devoured the best of Florence’s sons, and scarred us survivors; that the ways of God be cruel and baseless and arbitrary, and human response be futile, at best. And I feared the Lor would punish my doubt, and so I stooped to bribe the Judge, shameful and crude as it now appears. And so my meanness stands as a judgement on me that will tarnish my future legacy.”
But death were lurkin’ at his door; no strength or time to revise his words. Still, Giovanni, you’re a good friend.
In the next episode: some lost Zohar.
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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