Prague, Kingdom of Bohemia, Austria-Hungary
5 Shevat 5662 of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to 13 January 1902 of the common era
I, Nisn Rosenthal, Chief Rabbi of the City of Prague, do hereby set down the events of this evening at Number 14 Maisalova Street, two blocks south of the Altneu Synagogue, while they remain fresh in my mind. Rabbi Dovid Frank and Rabbi Shlomo Bloch, my assistants and holy men, can confirm this account, although I have asked them not to do so nor to share this document until after my death and the death of Leah Oberlander, may she live to a hundred and twenty.
The beadle of the Jewish Quarter, Sgt. Ephraim Aptower, appeared at the synagogue at five pm, shortly after the conclusion of evening prayers. Sgt. Aptower, in a state of agitation, managed to convey that my presence was required at the address I have just mentioned, to deal with a disturbance of a spiritual nature. I asked Rabbis Frank and Bloch to accompany us.
As we climbed the stairs of the house to a third-floor room, the disturbance became increasingly audible. A man was crying out in agony and torment, shrieks interspersed with low moans, and we ran to be of assistance, an exertion better suited to my young assistants than to myself. The man cried out repeatedly, and I felt each scream like a blow to my own body.
Mrs. Golda Brody, the landlady, met us at the door to the room, sobbing and trembling.
“Oh, thank God you’re here!” she exclaimed. “I don’t think she can take another moment of… of…” She trailed off, the tears flowing again.
“She? Who?” I asked the poor lady. “There’s a woman in there with that man?”
Mrs. Brody looked at us with confusion. “Man? That’s the trouble. There is no man.”
The rabbis, Sgt. Aptower, and I looked at each other, Mrs. Brody’s reply seeming to make no sense. The deep, gravelly, unmistakably male voice called out again for mercy, for pity. We charged into the room. What little furniture it held was in poor shape—but not as poor as that of the young woman writhing in obvious pain on the floor, her limbs jerking like those of a marionette. We looked about for the source of the cries—and then we heard the man’s groans again, emanating from the lips of the desperate woman before us.
I instructed my rabbis to help the woman to a chair—the life-or-death nature of the situation overriding the prohibition against physical contact between the sexes—and they did so immediately. Mrs. Brody poured a glass of water from a pitcher on a stand. Sgt. Aptower was still and pale as one who’d seen a ghost.
The thin, almost skeletal woman, who could not have been more than twenty, thrashed about, and the rabbis spoke words of solace to her. While they did so, I asked Mrs. Brody to explain.
“That’s my boarder, Miss Oberlander,” she began, shaking her head at the pitiable sight before us. “A nice, quiet girl—though always she appeared to walk under a cloud, she did, even when the skies were blue. I think she lost her job as a clerk a few months ago—she’s been… late with the rent. I made allowances, a girl alone in the city. But she was no trouble—until tonight. Making such a racket, she did. And when I realized she was crying out in a man’s voice, I found the beadle and told him to bring you here. I know what that means. I’m a righteous woman—or try to be.”
While Mrs. Brody spoke, I noticed a letter and fountain pen lying on the small, drab table in a corner of the room. I picked up the letter. The young woman had indeed walked under a cloud, and not just on account of losing her job. She described being an orphan, taking jobs far worse than a clerk to make ends meet, dreading the prospect of returning to that world and forever losing her hope for life in the world to come. By the time the letter was found, she would have leapt from the window. With that, she had signed the letter… but here she was, moaning in agony, very much alive.
“What are you doing here?” growled the man’s voice. I spun around to face the young woman. “Why do you intrude here, Rabbi Rosenthal?”
I was shocked to hear the woman—the man—address me by name. “And how do you know I am Rabbi Rosenthal?” I asked, the words a whisper.
“Ha!” the thing within her laughed. “Such a holy man—you are known in the world to come even more than you are known in this world of illusion.”
“If I am known as a holy man,” I said, lowering myself into a thin, wooden chair across from the woman, “then tell me who speaks to us now.”
The voice was silent.
“Who are you?” I repeated, working to make the question a request, not a demand.
A long sigh came from the young woman’s body. She leaned forward and looked at me, shaking her head with regret. “I have no name, not anymore,” the man’s voice said. “In life I thought money was the only thing worth calling by name, and I called it often. I collected it, I kept it, I made an idol of it. I told myself all the time that I was only being prudent, that I was securing my future. Instead I was throwing it away.”
The dybbuk—for that is what he was—started to cry, bringing the woman’s hands up to cover his shame.
“We will try to help you,” I assured him.
“Help me?” the dybbuk laughed again. “And who will help my dear wife, who grew sick and died from my neglect? Who will help our little girl? It’s too late for them, too late for me.”
“It’s never too late,” I insisted. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, finds a way.”
The dybbuk stared at me and I could sense him trying to touch my soul; I shivered. “It is too late for me,” he insisted. “When I died, three avenging angels came with fiery whips and beat me for my sins. They chained me at the bottom of an ocean where I drowned and drowned again, day after day for years, although I was already dead. When they returned to impose new tortures, I managed to escape. I hid in the body of a fish until it was devoured and the avenging angels found me again. I hid in the body of a horse but I drove it mad and its owner shot it. Still the angels pursued me, though I hid in animals, trees, people—even a rabbi, who I could enter because he’d become a heretic.”
The dybbuk stopped. “And then?” I encouraged him. After a moment, he nodded and continued.
“The angels pursued me here, to Prague, their whips creating firebolts across the skies,” he told us. “They almost had me, oh God they almost had me, when I passed the window of this woman. Because she was about to kill herself, I was able to enter her. But the pain of this poor soul… Nothing in the terrors I’d experienced compared to the anguish of this woman, who had lost faith in… everything. I had endured fiery whips. I had endured drowning. I had endured the horse and the heretic. But I could not endure the pain of this innocent woman, yet I was trapped within her. I fell to the floor fighting, screaming to get out. The landlady came and then so did you.”
The dybbuk was silent. The room was silent. Even the street, which had been filled with the boisterous sounds of carriages and pedestrians and the nightlife of this great city, was silent.
“I didn’t save my dear Sarah, though she was more precious than rubies,” the dybbuk moaned. “I didn’t save my little Leah. And now you will exorcise me and the avenging angels will take me to the depths of Gehenna.”
I jerked my head toward to the suicide note, still on the table, then back to the dybbuk.
“I asked you before and I ask you again,” I said. “Who are you?”
The dybbuk looked at me through the dull eyes of Miss Oberlander. “I have no name but, in life, I was called Mordechai Oberlander.”
Mrs. Brody was the first to give a cry of recognition. My rabbis bowed their heads, their lips murmuring silent prayers. Sgt. Aptower, who hadn’t moved an inch during this encounter, sank into a chair.
“You were wrong about one thing,” I told the dybbuk, my soul overwhelmed with wonder and awe at the ways of the Almighty. “You were not too late to save your daughter. You have come to save her just in time.”
The dybbuk opened his daughter’s mouth, but no sound came out.
“You were punished,” I said, standing up before the dybbuk. “You repented. You saved your daughter in death as you neglected to save your wife in life. Leave your daughter in peace and know that you too will know peace. The avenging angels will trouble you no more.”
I think they both, father and daughter, smiled, each for their own reasons, although which of them shed the tear that rolled down the face before me, I cannot be sure. The dybbuk departed and Miss Oberlander, who recovered and told us she had heard all that had happened, expressed her gratitude to us, to her father, and to the Holy One, Blessed be He. Outside, the sounds of life resumed and another soul, I am sure, was welcomed into the world to come.