Chapter V



I was born in (N)ustcha, [16]  a village on the river Strippa, where Austrian Poland relinquished her nationals to the lesser tender mercies of the Russian Empire.  As well as I can remember, we were one of the less than a dozen Jewish families in the environs.  Only four of them are completely within my recollection.  Lippe Goy was a breeder of pigs.  Reb Sholom the lumber merchant had a mortgage on the village church at whose iron door he collected a toll every Sunday morning from the worshippers - to reduce his mortgage.  The Tavias ran the big inn (which had once belonged to my grandfather) at the crossroads  leading from (N)ustcha to Pidlipitz;  and we operated a new, smaller inn on the hillside leading to the church.  I learned to read the Bible when I was barely two years old.  I had just passed my third year when my father deposited me in the home of an aunt of mine in Zborow, further down the river, because, he said, there was nothing left that he could teach me.

I knew even in (N)ustcha that the gentiles regarded us with a terrible loathing.  But how was it possible for them to love us?  Lippe Goy sold them sick pigs at prices which would have been too much to pay for healthy ones.  The Tavias made them drunk at the inn every Saturday night, and robbed them of their week's wages (just as they had robbed my grandfather of the Inn); and Reb Sholom every Sunday morning, including Christmas, sent his wife with the church-key to collect the toll or refuse to open the iron door to the worshippers.  I once heard my father wonder that Reb Sholom's wife who was cross-eyed and had never been taught how to count beyond ten, should invariably come home from these jaunts with the correct sum.

My family's position in the village was a trifle better than that of the rest of the Jews.  My grandfather and his four sons had made of themselves a sort of local legend.  Without ever having been known to lay violent hands on a human being, [17]  the old man had established a reputation for great physical strength and courage.  He also had a cunning in dealing with people in matters of business, though he had never been known to employ it dishonestly.[18]  All in all, we had never been known to deal evilly by any gentiles; and since the Jews had robbed us as well as themselves, the goyim had a sort of softness for us.  But that applied only to the older men and women.  To the children we were just zhidas, like the children of Lippe Goy, Tavia and Reb Sholom; and when I accompanied my sister to the village spring for water they invariably threw stones at us.

My earliest knowledge of the Jewish attitude towards their gentile neighbors came from listening at our Inn to the stories of Jewish travelers (who stopped with us for a drink or a night's lodging) about their business with the goyim.  To my innocent brain it appeared that the whole purpose of the Jew in business was to get the best of the goy.  When the goy had been cheated business was good.  When the Jew had come out even, business was very bad, indeed.  For the greater the harm he had done in a business transaction with a goy, the deeper appeared the narrative delight of the Jew to whom I was listening.  I could not help feeling towards the goyim some of the pity I had felt for Esau when he let out that bitter cry on discovering the duplicity of Jacob.[19]

The reader, and especially the incensed Jew, may here get the impression that I am currying favor with the gentile or his religion or both.  Nothing can possibly be further from what is the real state of my mind and my heart.  I don't think I ever shared the Jewish contempt for the goyim, which is part and parcel of all Jewish psychology.  But for thirty-nine years I have watched the violence of the goyim against a people I loved.  The hands they laid on the Jews were lain on me.  The bruises which Christendom inflicted on the body of Israel are living bruises on my body.  It does not matter that my heart has turned against the Jews.  I am, because of that, no more friendly to their tormentors; and I am not the kind of Jew who is ever likely to kiss the rod with which he was once smitten.  Luckily for me, it is not necessary, in my country and my age, to make a choice of religion.  If, as would have been true in the Middle Ages, I had to make a choice between Judaism and Christianity, I would simply have to cut my throat.

I am trying to tell an honest, unbiased story.  That was the state of affairs between the Jews and gentiles in (N)ustcha, the village in which I was born.  I have no reason to believe that things were any different in any other village in the world at that time.

In Zborow, where my father brought me to continue my Hebrew education, the Jewish religion prevailed, among the Jews, in its most orthodox form.  The town was one of the oldest in Poland, its marketplace one of the busiest.  To a stranger, come upon this scene of petty and virulent barter, the impression must have been that he was in a Jewish town.  Behind the stalls, fiercely vying to outdo one another, brown-bearded, peak-capped men and bewigged, red-shawled women, raged to and fro.  Yet Zborow was not a Jewish town.  More than seventy percent of its inhabitants were Slavonic Poles.  The Jews formed much less than a third of the population.

Why then, you might ask, this decided predominance in the general appearance of things, since even in the matter of property ownership the Jews were in a humble minority?  The simplest answer is that the appearance of things in this world is usually illusory, and we Jews have always been past-masters in the arts of illusion.  We have learned to dominate the landscape of any country by the very singular process of electing ourselves to do all the grouping.

More than a century before I was imposed on the scene, the old wooden synagogue that stood in the midst of the marketplace in Zborow had been reared.  It was a very old building; it had already survived four fires and three massacres.  Yet there it towered in its agedness as firm and as imposing as any structure in the town.  Morning, noon and night, Jews held festive, strangely joyous prayer meetings before the screened Ark of the Covenant in the heart of the synagogue.  A Jew prays a little more frequent than a Christian and a little less frequent than a Mussulman.  But the Jewish form of prayer differs both in heart and outline from any other species of prayer in the world.  The difference is the difference between one approach to God and another.  Mohammedans and Christians humble themselves before their deities.  The Christian in church.  The Mohammedan wherever he may happen to be when the muezzin announces the hour of prayer.  The Jew has everything very carefully arranged.  God belongs in the synagogue.  He, the Jew, belongs in the marketplace.  God has only one business.  It is to look after the prosperity of Israel.  The Jew walks briskly into his synagogue three times a day, at set hours, to remind God of this important business.

The Jews formed only a fraction of the population of Zborow.  But by virtue of their sensitiveness to their inherent worth, they regarded themselves as its natural masters.  Concerning their superiority over the rest of the population of the town, there could be no question in their minds.  It was all very simple.  They were Jews.  And the goyim were only goyim.  Superiority, come to think of it, is not exactly the word with which to explain the precedence  which the Jews of Zborow felt over their neighbors.  The numerical superiority of the goyim was an accident unworthy of being given a second thought.  Their superiority in legal possessions - ah, that was the real rub!  What the goyim had was only a temporary possession which the stupid law of the gentiles was attempting to make permanent.  Were not they, the Jews, God's chosen?  Did not God mean in the very beginning that all the good things of the world should belong to his favorites?  It was a Jew's business to remember this at all times, especially in his dealings with goyim.  It was practically a moral obligation on the part of every conscientious Jew to fool and cheat the goy wherever and whenever possible.  The impression this arrangement made on me at the time was that the world had been created by God for the habitation and prosperity of Israel.  The rest of Creation - cows, horse, nettles, oak-trees, dung and goyim - were placed there for our, the Jews', convenience or inconvenience, depending on God's good humor for the time being.  Just then, I understood, God's attitude towards his chosen ones was, and for many centuries had been, one of stern disapproval.  That was the reason why the goyim had everything and we had practically nothing.  If we went to synagogue regularly (especially on the Sabbaths and Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths) God would eventually relent and let us fool back from the uncouth laps of the goyim all the divine favors which really were intended for us.

The Jews pride themselves on their reluctance to proselytize.  They explain that this is a sign not only of religious exclusiveness, but of their good will towards the rest of the religions.  It is nothing of the sort.  The Jews do not proselytize because they are firmly convinced that they will eventually inherit the earth, and they want as few claimants as possible to this windfall. 

I have referred to the "festive, strangely joyous prayer-meetings before the screened Ark of the Covenant."   The Jews of Zborow belonged to a sect of mystics, then the most popular in Eastern Europe, known as the Chassidim.  The whole philosophy of the chussid (as a Chassidic Jew is referred to) was to be happy in adversity because the kingdom of God was terribly near at hand.  The morning, noon and evening rounds at the synagogue were cycles of breathless singing and crazy dancing before the screened Ark of the Covenant.  We had a sort of secret understanding with the Torah, our bride, and God's representative on earth.  On holy days we lingered over kissing the Torah, as though we hoped to overhear her reveal the exact day of the confusion of the benighted goyim.

We despised the goy, and we hated his religion.  The goy, according to the stories crooned into the ears of the children, wantonly worshipped an unsightly creature called the yoisel - and a dozen names too foul for repetition.  The yoisel had once been a human being and a Jew.  But one day he had gone out of his mind, and in that pitiably bewildered state announced that he was the Lord God himself.  To prove it, he offered to fly over the populace like an angel.  With the help of a page blasphemously torn out of Holy Writ, and placed under his sweating arm the yoisel did fly over the multitudes of Jews in the crowded streets of Jerusalem.  So impressive a spectacle did he create that even the most pious among the Jews were moved in his direction.  But Rabbi Shammai, angered at the foul impudence of this demented creature, and fearful of a possible religious crisis on earth, tore out two leaves from the pages of Holy Writ, and placing them one under each arm flew even higher than the yoisel with only one page of Holy Writ for motor power.  He flew over the yoisel himself and urinated over him.  Instantly the power of the yoisel's bit of Holy Writ was nullified and the yoisel fell to the ground amidst the jeers and taunts of the true believers in the streets of Jerusalem.  This extraordinary caricature of the founder of the opposing religion made possible one of the queerest adventures of my life.

Six years later I was looking through the eyes of a nine year old boy over the early spring harbor of the city of Hamburg.  The family was migrating to America, to join my father who had left four years before.  Several hundred of us, men, women and children, in ragged clothing were being borne submissively in a small boat towards the ocean liner Pretoria which was to carry us across a bleak stretch of water to America - a land of promise that promised different things to so many different people.  The splendid well-dressed people traveling first and second class had gone out before us.  We had caught occasional glimpses of them in the office of the agent and in the lobby of the hotel, during the two days in which we had to wait for the Pretoria to steam into the harbor.  One by one, as we stepped from the gangplank that had led us into the larger ship, everyone of us were handed, gratis, a small booklet with black paper covers.

Whenever my eye falls accidentally on the daily ship-list of the New York Times, I look to see if the Pretoria is still afloat.  Invariably I find that she is either going to or coming from America.  Is it another ship that has inherited the name of that damnable old tub?  I cannot believe that a ship plying today a course of trade between Europe and America can contain a den as dark, dismal and lurid with wormy horror, as the hold of the Pretoria which enveloped our poor weary bones in 1904.  The beds were raised one on top of another, six beds to a row.  There was just room enough between a bed and the bed over it for a human being to crawl and stretch out.  Two beds were our whole reservation, the fourth and the fifth in a row.  On the fourth my mother slept with my sister; on the fifth I slept with my younger brother.

The beds were dark, dirty and verminous.  Since there was no deck on which third-class passengers could promenade, we were expected to remain where we were placed, and only creep out from our terrible holes for the little food that was served to us in wooden bowls three times a day.  It could not have been much worse if we had been prisoners instead of paying passengers.  Some kerosene lamps suspended from the ceiling gave forth a white unsteady light.   And to add to the unpleasantness, the ragged mattresses gave out a queer green odour.  I have been in prisons whose fare and general atmosphere were superior to the hold of the Pretoria.

Then in that loathsome darkness something really wonderful came to pass.

On the second day of the voyage I opened one of those black booklets and began to read in it.  I became interested immediately because it was written in the only language to which I had become accustomed, the language of prophecy.  The whole thing concerned a new Jewish prophet.  His name was Yehoshea.  Long after all the old prophets of Israel had died out, this Yehoshea, a direct descendant of King David, had arisen to bring back to all Jews the promise of eternal life which Jacob had been on the point of communicating on his death bed to his sons when sudden death, alas, paralyzed his tongue.  How, when the rabbi recited the tale of that interrupted prophecy, I had grieved that the angel of death had so cruelly cut him off!  For, if Jacob had only been able to utter for us those few precious words how much of our pains and difficulties might have been spared us in the thousands of years of our terrible exile!  And now I had lived to see the day when the whole people had outlived the catastrophe!

"Listen to this," I cried out to my mother and sister in the lower berth.  And I read to them the words of the new prophet in Israel.  My mother and sister listened, as did the rest of the miserable residents of that dungeon.  How tender those words must have sounded to them in their foul dark beds! 

"In that hour came his disciples on Yehoshea, saying:  Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said: 'Verily I say unto you, unless ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in nowise enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And who so shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me; but who so shall cause one of these little ones which believe in me to stumble, it were profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk into the depths of the sea." 

You can imagine for yourself from what I have already told you of the appearance of the occupants of the hold of the Pretoria that there was very little real learning amongst us.  How was I, how were they, to recognize in the names of Yehoshea the founder of Christianity whom we knew only by the foulest of names?  Was it possible for anyone to recognize in the sweet words in that book (which I was to learn years afterwards was the New Testament) the religion we had been taught to abominate!

Every day I read allowed a new portion of the little book with the black covers.  The green sea continued to pound sonorously on the walls of the old ship.  We pressed ill fed bellies against the soft dank mattresses that were like so many elevated graves.  But every ear was strained intently for the strange music of the new speech.  On the eighth day I had finished reciting the whole book.  But I urged by everyone to begin it all over again from page one.

The strangest conversations took place during that time between myself and some of the other passengers.  I felt important for had I not discovered this new prophet for my people?

"What did you say was his name?" an old Jew asked from the other end of the line of beds.


"Strange. It sounds like Yeshia.  But it is most certainly not Yeshia.  I know every word of the prophet Yeshia, and these are not his words."

"Certainly he is not the prophet Yeshia.  It says here that Yehoshea is a prophet," I reminded him.

"Maybe so.  But we have not been led to expect a new prophet.  The only one we expect is the Messiah."

That was true. I remembered it.  "Then who can this Yehoshea be?"

The old man slowly shook his head.

The answer came to us suddenly and dramatically.  One afternoon, as I was in the midst of one of my recitations from the little book with the black covers, I heard a strange outcry as of someone in great danger.  I looked down from the elevation of my bed and saw a man in a silk mantle and a red beard pointing a finger at me and shouting with such fury that his words were incoherent to me.  He was obviously not one of us.  He was richly garbed, his locks were black and well combed, and he had a paunch.

Word concerning what had been happening amongst us had apparently reached the upper deck of the ship, and there stood the man with the red beard like some avenging angel.

"Don't you realize that he is talking to you!" cried out the old Jew from the other end of the hold.

"I can see. But what does he want!"

By this time the Jew with the red beard had regained clarity of speech.  "Give me that heathen scroll!" he thundered, pointing to the little book with the black covers.

I hesitated.  After all I didn't know who the man was.  And the book was my property.  It had been put into my hands by someone who had said to me with his eyes:  This is for you. It is yours to hold and to keep.

"It's the Rav from Pinsk," I heard the voice of the Jew crying to me.

Tremulously I surrender my precious possession to the avenging angel with outstretched hand below me.  The moment his fingers touched it he began to tear it into pieces.  He tore the book first into several parts.  Then he tore ten pages at a time.  Then he seized the large pieces of the pages and tore them into smaller bits, all the time holding on to all the fragments for fear that some pieces of it might remain large enough to make it possible for someone to read it.  When he had satisfied himself that not a decipherable line was left he flung the whole thing in one white shower over the floor of the hold. 

He decided, before leaving to take one last parting shot at me.  "You should be placed in Cherem!"  he thundered.  Then, turning to the older people in the cots about me he continued to pour out the vials of his wrath:  "Fools! Oxen! Asses! To be misled by a child!  You will all burn for this!"  And so cursing he strode out, climbing the stairs which led out of our hell to the civilized quarters he occupied on one of the upper decks.

So you see, I have been what in my estimation is even worse than a priest or a rabbi.  I have been a missionary.  But it was not really my fault.  It was the fault of the rabbis who so grossly misrepresented Christianity to me.

The Jewish answer to this is that the Jews of Poland are carrying out a policy of retaliation.  It is true that the Polish children in the neighboring cloisters were led to believe much more grotesque things about Jews.  Without first giving them any idea of historic background Poles teach their children to believe that the Jews killed their Savior.  The children go out into the world with the belief that the very Jews they are about to meet in the streets, in offices, in restaurants, are the killers of Christ.  The result is that when the little shkutzim becomes big goyim they look upon the Jews they meet with vague hatred and an eerie suspiciousness.  But there is a noteworthy difference in the working out of these two programs of misrepresentation.  All that the priests promote in the Poles is a little occasional violence which the goy permits himself to carry only occasionally to an extreme which hurts.  But what of the little Jews who are told that they are the salt of the earth, that what they see before them really belongs to them, and is only to be won away with the superior brain with which God had endowed his chosen ones!  Each of them, when he grows up, becomes an agency of cunning to defeat the civil law.  The Polish Jew does not remain in Poland.  He migrates.  Eventually he finds himself a rich nest in England, in France, in Germany, in America, or in one of the South American countries.  To each of the countries of his invasion, the Jew brings the whole bag of commercial tricks and statutory maneuvers with which he poisons the arteries of the civilized world.

I was a little more than nine years old when I left Poland.  I never returned to it.  My only other experience with a  European Jewry was some six months I spent in London during the winter of 1919-1920.  In London I knew only two Jews - as wide apart as the poles of the earth.  The first Jew, Israel Zangwill, with whom I had had considerable correspondence while in America, was one of the noblest people it has been my privilege to met.  He stands in my esteem as a human being next to Theodore Herzl who died the year I came to America.  Like Herzl, Zangwill gave his whole life to the Jewish people.  Like Herzl he died of it.  The Jews ate up Zangwill alive just as they had eaten up Herzl before him, and every decent Jew who gave them a leadership of pity.  I saw them killing Zangwill here in America with my own eyes.  He had come over at the invitation of the Jewish Congress to open up the first session of 1924.  In accepting the invitation Zangwill had made one reservation:   he must be permitted to speak without interference.  He would not brook having anyone read and approve his speech in advance of delivery.  The famous meeting took place in Carnegie Hall.  Evidently Stephen Wise and "the boys" had no idea what Zangwill meant by the liberty to say what was in his mind.  Zangwill rose that night and brought that meeting to the front of every newspaper in the world.  He told the Jewish Congress, in effect, that it was a movement of people who preyed on the lamentable condition of International Jewry for only two reasons:  the big ones for the publicity, the little ones for the miserable salaries which they dragged down in their various positions.  It was the truth and it hurt.  "If you are prepared to meet the Jewish problem with the courage and self denying labors it demands, I am here to join you, to work with you, to die with you.  But I can not permit myself to join in a movement whose whole business is the satisfaction of some smaller and larger vanities."  The answer to that was the most ferocious attack I have ever seen directed on one man.  Zangwill returned to England a broken man.  The last few months of his life he spent in a half insane effort to prove to London audiences that if he was a poor Jew he was at least a very good playwright.  He spent almost every cent he had in the world producing his plays to empty houses in His Majesty's Theatre.  He left practically no estate when he died.

The second Jew I met in London was the editor of  The Jewish Chronicle, a weekly journal, one of the richest in England, which for years had reprinted without permission from me and of course without offering anyone remuneration, my weekly contributions to the Hebrew Standard.  I went to him when my money had given out, I had no job and had no money left for food and shelter.  I did not come to ask him to pay me for work of mine he had already used.  I offered to sell him some parts of my new book which I had just finished.  But he would not as much as look at it.

"But you may want to run some of this," I urged.

"In that case," he said, "we will reprint what we want after the book has appeared in America."

"You don't understand," I insisted.  "I haven't eaten for nearly two days.  I must have some money immediately.  I wouldn't come to you, I assure you if I did not find myself stranded."

He smiled sourly on me. "I do understand that you need money," he said.  "But why should we pay for something we know we will eventually get for nothing?"

I looked at him with dejected stupefaction, and rose to go.  He rose, too, and held out to me a dark, wrinkled hand.  I wanted to spit into it, but remembered that he was a very old man.  "You're a hell of a Jew," I said, wresting my eyes away from that mean hand.

He broke out into an ugly cackle, Jewish grace in London.  "I am a good Jew.  It is you who are not much of a Jew.  Have you never heard the saying of our Fathers:  Leolom Tickach - always take?"

Yes, I had heard of it.  But the awfulness of its application in real life, real Jewish life, had never come to me before.




[16] I had always heard the word pronounced as Nustcha, and so I have spelt it in several books of mine in which I had occasion to refer to the village of my birth. But I have learned, since, that the real spelling of the word is Ustcha.

[17]  An instance of this.  A goy once tried to kiss my young aunt Sarah, behind the bar.  She cried out, and my grandfather strode in.  "If someone doesn't take out this swine, something terrible will happen," he drawled, and the rest of the goyim almost tore the offender apart in getting him out of the Inn.

[18]  Instance.  While my grandfather was in charge of the building of an important road, a woman in the village was robbed.  Certain that it was one of the workingmen, my grandfather called them together during the lunch period, told them of the robbery, and suddenly displayed to them a handful of evenly cut straws. "I am going to give every one of you a straw," he announced, "and the straw of the man who robbed that poor woman will have grown an inch, when I come to take it back."  He distributed the straws, gathered them back a minute later, and he recognized the thief because when he came to him he found that he had bitten off a whole inch of the straw.

[19]  I knew the goyim of (N)ustcha only by sight, for I never learned to talk a word of Polish.