The Study Partner by David Hartley Mark

The Study Partner

By David Hartley Mark

The night wind howled outside Reb Layzer’s tavern, banging against the heavy shutters. His usual customers–drunken peasants, all of them– had gone home, stinking of the cheap brandy and cheaper vodka that Layzer sold them, along with the garlic and pickled herring that they had gulped down. It was getting close to midnight. The dark trees blew like a witch tossed about in a gale. There was no trace of a moon in the distant sky: only blackened clouds, lowering over the dense forest.

Near the fireplace, some yeshiva students were clustered round the flames, trying to get warm. They were too poor to afford a drink, even vodka, though they would have preferred the twelve-year-old brandy which Layzer kept in the special locked cask that he only took out for the Festival of the Rejoicing of the Torah. None of the rich Jewish householders had thought to invite them home for the evening, so they depended on Reb Layzer to fulfill the Biblical commandment of “welcoming guests” by letting them sleep on the hard wooden benches near the fire. It was strictly survival of the fittest; the youngest boys would have to curl up in their coats farthest from the warmth, and depend on one another’s bodies to keep them from freezing.

They kept awake as long as they could, discussing Torah, splitting hairs from the Talmud, arguing the finer points of the Law. As the night shadows grew longer from the dying embers and thrifty, weary Layzer neglected to put on another piece of wood for customers who could not afford to pay—he was a charitable man, he would tell his friends, but he, too, had to make a living; he had a wife and six children to feed, and how could he afford to sustain the entire yeshiva? Besides, he and his wife had long ago gone to bed.

The room grew colder as the fire died down. Fingers of frost crept beneath the windowpanes and chilled the thin toes and hands of the yeshiva students, who blew into their cupped fists, to no avail. The stubborn wind howled against the stones of the inn’s walls, and the stout door, hobnail-covered and a full four inches thick, built a century ago to resist Chmielnitzki’s Cossack hordes, those who butchered Jews, cut up pregnant women and sewed live cats in their bellies, who threw Jewish babies alive into wells—even that door shook before its wrath. The yeshiva students muttered Psalms, praying to God to keep back the night-demons and those wicked spirits who crawled through the woods at night. They thought of Lilith, the night-hag, stealer of boy babies prior to their circumcisions, and Asmodeus, king of the demons, with his bat-wings, sharp teeth, and cloven hooves, who convinced Cain to murder Abel and stain the earth with his blood. They forgot their words of Torah, and their tongues clove to their palates. In desperation, they turned to the oldest student among them, a tall, thin wanderer from Hungary, named Moishele. He had come the farthest to study at the yeshiva, and was known among them as a scholar of great promise.

“Tell us a story, Moishele,” they begged, “Something to keep us from thinking about what’s outside. ‘Words of Torah will save from death,’ as the Tradition teaches.”

Moishele fingered his beard, a reddish wisp which clung to his chin. Though he was barely twenty-five, his years of wandering from town to town, from rebbe to rebbe, seeking more and more Torah knowledge, had made him look older.

“I know a good story for a night like this,” he smiled, “And all the better for its being a true one.”

The students clapped their frozen hands, as much to make the blood flow to their blue fingers, as to express their joy.

“A story! Tell us, Hungarischer!” they called in unison, and leaned forward, their eyes glinting in the near-darkness.

“In my hometown, Kurdanov, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, we had a great yeshiva, and a wonderful rabbi, by the name of Rabbi Ya’akov Menasheh. He was learned—ah, learned! It was said that the archangel Gabriel himself would come visit him at midnight, to dispute with him in the finest jot and tittle of the Holy Law, and Reb Ya’akov would beat him for Talmudic logic, so sharp was his brain, so talented his wit. You have heard of those scholars who are so knowledgeable in Talmud, that you can stick a needle through pages of the text, and they can tell you what word it pierces on each page? Reb Ya’akov could do that, and more: he could tell you three words above, or below; three words to the left or right, or whatever section you desired, and speak for an hour on any single word, any letter, drawing parallels to other sections of Torah, not to mention the commentaries.”

The students sighed deeply and settled back. This was truly to be a story of note; how could they not take pride in hearing of such a scholar, one whose Torah knowledge benefited the world and made even the Creator smile?

Moishele frowned, and continued.

“And yet, for all his knowledge, Reb Ya’akov was not happy. He and his wife, the Rebbetzin Miriam, were not blessed with children. He read from Psalms, paying special attention to the prayers which assure fertility. She bought amulets from wonder-workers, asked both Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and Hannah, mother of Samuel, who had suffered from barrenness, to intercede for her with the Holy One, and went to the ritual bath as often as possible. She sewed red ribbons on her clothing to keep away the Evil Eye. Sadly, the years went on, but no baby arrived.

“Reb Ya’akov was a man of great faith, but even such a man must have limits. He wondered who was to succeed him as head of the village yeshiva, if he had no son. As another means of reaching out to God, he laid aside Torah and Talmud—it didn’t matter, we reasoned; he had them both by heart—and began to study Kabbalah—it was not forbidden; he was well past the age of forty, and had certainly mastered the belly-full of Torah that one is required to learn prior to beginning the study of Jewish mysticism and the journey into the higher realms. We lesser scholars of the village were proud of his erudition, for we were certain that, just as he had mastered the Talmud and commentaries, so would he memorize the Zohar and all the other Kabbalistic works. But then, the rumors began.”

“What rumors?” asked one of the students, leaning closer.

“Kabbalah is only permitted to those who are pure of heart, who wish to achieve a higher level of feeling and love for God. After a few months, some of us, those of us who were closest to Reb Ya’akov, noticed a change in his demeanor. He had always rejoiced in his studies, but now, he appeared more thoughtful—sadder, even. His hair turned grey, and wrinkles of pain furrowed his face. Why was this happening? We—those of his students who loved him—decided that we ought to go see him, to ask that he put aside his kabbalistic studies, and resume the Talmud that had given him so much joy in the past. As his foremost pupil, I was chosen to head the delegation.

“On the day we met, I was surprised to find Reb Ya’akov totally changed. He had been sad; now he was smiling. Indeed, as we stood before his desk in his study, surrounded by his rabbinical tomes and half-melted yellow-tallow candles, he was humming a Chasidic tune, though he had never had any great love for the Chasidim. We were, in short, flabbergasted.

“’Rebbe,’” I began, “’We are glad to see you well. Please forgive my forwardness in asking this question, for I do it out of love, as that of a student for a teacher. What is the reason for the change in your mood?’”

“’Ah, Moishele!’” responded the rebbe, “’I have the best news in the world. Just two weeks ago, my beloved Rebbetzin, Miriam, let her be well, told me that she is pregnant—and the portents show that we will be blessed with a son!’”

“This was wonderful news, and we lost no time in spreading it to our entire village. Of course, we did not celebrate until the actual birth of the child. Indeed, the signs had been correct; our rebbetzin gave birth to a son, and named him Eliezer—‘God is my help.’ All of us yeshiva students well understood the reason for choosing such a name, and rejoiced with our teacher and his wife—until the lying-in days were completed. Then, we heard dreadful news, from Chaya Bayla, one of the village midwives. Apparently, Rebbetzin Miriam had had a difficult birth, and—although the village leech had done her best in cupping her—in giving life to the son for whom she had waited such a long time, she passed away.”

“Woe! Gevalt!” cried out one of the students. Moishele paused, and took a long drink of water. Outside, the wind howled, beating, as if saying, “Let me in—I will chill your bones; I will freeze your blood….” The students shivered, and huddled together.

“What did Reb Ya’akov do?” asked another student.

“He carried on the best he could—but it was difficult. Of course, the entire village, especially the women, took turns raising Eliezer, who, from the start, turned out to be an exceptional boy, well-behaved, quiet, studious, and why not? And yet, it was so, so tragic for the rabbi—after all, to have your wife’s funeral come before your son’s circumcision ceremony—to have grief and joy combined in the space of almost two weeks—it was so hard for him to bear. As we watched, he quickly slid back into the depression from which he had suffered before. He shut himself up in his house, which became his cloister, and the rumors of his kabbalistic studies began, again. And worse: after the baby was weaned, he took Eliezer in with him, telling the wet nurse that he would manage alone. ‘God gave me a son, God took away my wife—blessed be the Name of God!’ is what he said to the wet nurse, just after paying her and thrusting her out of his house, gently but directly. How could a scholar raise a baby? And how could a child live without ever seeing the light of day?

“Still, the years passed, and some village children who dared look into the windows of the rabbi’s house swore that they saw him teaching his son the alef-bet, and afterwards sitting with him on his lap, reading to him from a massive book. What book could it be? We wondered.

“The entire village remembered Eliezer’s birthday, and knew that the time would eventually come for his bar mitzvah. We were certain that our rabbi could not let this all-important date slip by without letting the community share in the joyous event. After all, Eliezer was innocent; it was not his fault that his mother had died.”

“’Man plans, and God laughs,’” as the saying goes,” intoned one of the students, wagging his finger. The others nodded. The wind howled; the windows shuddered from its wrath.

“Sure enough, on the Eve of Eliezer’s bar mitzvah Sabbath, the rabbi opened the door of his house, joining all of us as we walked to synagogue for the evening service. We were pleased and surprised to see him, but all the more to see Eliezer, who had grown into a younger miniature of his father. He had large, dark eyes, and curling black hair, which fell over his forehead. Reb Ya’akov had sent Eliezer’s measurements to the big city for a tailor to sew a special miniature caftan, made all of white silk and embroidered in gold thread, with matching skullcap. The boy looked like a little prince; yes, that he was, indeed: a prince of the Torah.

“The next day, when the time came for Eliezer to chant his portion from the Torah and Prophets, we sat in awe as his sweet young voice rang out over the congregation. He knew his portion perfectly, and his voice was that of an angel. When the service was over, we all lined up to wish the rabbi and Eliezer ‘Mazel Tov!’ Of course, no one had the nerve to ask whether Reb Ya’akov was going to stay with us, to return to his—dare I say normal?—life, or return to hide in his house with his son.”

“So what happened?” asked one of the students.

Moishele’s eyes flickered from one student’s face to the other. He sighed, deeply.

“After the Sabbath ended, we had all feasted on the enormous party that the congregation provided to honor the rabbi—they needed only a few hours to prepare, and everyone contributed, of course—everyone ate and drank to their hearts’ content, with plenty of food and liquor for all, from the wealthiest members of the community and the most learned—they are not always the same people—to the poorest, who were each given a gulden, not some measly kopecks. We were all returning to our homes in a happy mood, joyful that our rabbi had finally had such happiness in his son, after all the sadness of his life. Then, the tragedy happened.”

“In the midst of such joy?” queried a student.

“Who can foresee the mysteries of God?” asked Moishele. “The rabbi and Eliezer were walking through the village on their way home, and the rabbi had drunk a little too much—he was never a great drinker; Torah was his great love, and his food and drink. In the darkness, Reb Ya’akov tripped over a tree root and fell, hitting his head. He never woke up. The village healer could not save him, and there was no time to go to the big city to fetch a doctor.”

“A calamity! That poor orphan Eliezer!” said the chorus of students.

“He survived,” said Moishele, grimly. “A group of students and their wives took him in. Strangely, he did not cry very much during the funeral. Instead, he told Chaya Bayla, ‘I will learn Torah in my father and mother’s memory.’ He was as good as his word.

“The village tutor, the elder who worked with the youngest boys, learned Talmud with him, and he absorbed it quickly—oh, so quickly!—like a hot knife cutting through butter. It was clear that Eliezer ben HaRav Ya’akov Menashe was his father’s son. But that was not enough for Eliezer. In a few years’ time, he had worked his way through all of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, as well as the Jerusalem version. We who learned in the study-hall with him as his study-partners were amazed at how he could conjure up different arguments about a text, as though he were reading it from memory. We had no one in our village yeshiva who could compete with him, and, sadly, his father, his intellectual equal, was gone. We suggested that he travel to another village, to a bigger yeshiva, but he simply smiled, and replied, ‘This is my home; this is where my parents lie buried; here I will stay and flourish.’ It was strange, but we accepted it.

“After spending five years in the village study hall sharpening his Talmudic skills and gradually besting all of us in hairsplitting disputations of Torah law, Eliezer left us local scholars and began to spend all of his time in his father’s house. Once again, he locked his doors, as his father had done before him. He began to study Kabbalah—‘in his father’s memory,’ as he put it. It bothered us, somewhat; what was a mere eighteen-year-old doing with such advanced studies? But there was nothing we could do; he was an orphan; his father had left him well-off through his mother’s father’s inheritance, and he was a Talmudic genius. We just left him alone; we had no choice. He didn’t even come out for the Sabbath, but had his meals brought to him by a woman of the village. As we walked by his house on the way to synagogue, we could hear him singing the prayers to songs of his own invention. They were tunes like no one of us had ever heard, and we remembered the sweet singer of his bar mitzvah.

“After a few weeks, Eliezer let it be known throughout the village that he was seeking a chavrusa, a study partner. This was an honor to any village scholar, and several of our better boys eagerly volunteered. They would go to Eliezer’s house, and spend a week there. When they emerged, they were smiling, and full of new Torah insights. It was as though their faces shone, as did Moses after he descended from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law.

“His fame spread far and wide—even moreso, when he let slip that Talmud was not all that he was teaching, but Kabbalah as well. We knew that this was forbidden for scholars below the age of forty, but, again, we were helpless to stop him—and we weren’t certain that we wanted to. The poor boy, who had undergone such suffering in his young life—if he had enjoyment from his studies, and from meeting with other scholars, who were we to deny him that? It all seemed innocent enough.

“And then, the rumors began. Scholars, young and old, began to enter Eliezer’s house to be his study partners, but not to emerge. The Kabbalists among us had an explanation: the visiting students were falling into a trance; they were being snatched up by the archangels Uriel and Uzziel and carried off to the higher realms of heaven; they were flung into a scholarly ecstasy, and did not wish to return to earth; they were ascending to the Paradise of the Talmudic Rabbi Akiva, and were to sit with him forever, expounding on the Torah.

“As the best scholar in the village, once again, I was chosen to visit the late rabbi’s house, and to find out what was happening. One beautiful spring day, with robins calling and a breeze ruffling the early apple blossoms, I knocked on Eliezer’s door.

“He opened—a fine-looking young man, tousle-haired, with the same sparkling dark eyes that had so charmed the village on his bar mitzvah day. I glanced within; the house was neat and clean; books piled everywhere, tallow candles; nothing amiss.

‘Shalom Aleichem—Peace be Upon You, Reb Eliezer,’ I said.

‘Aleichem Shalom—And Upon You, Peace, Reb Moishele,’ he responded, smiling, showing me a row of perfect white teeth. He blinked in the warm afternoon sunlight, and lifted a pale white hand to shade his eyes from the glare.

‘How hot it is, out here!’ he said, ‘It makes me thirsty.’

He looked me up and down and casually, slowly, licked his lips.

‘Isn’t it hot for you, too, Reb Moishele?’ he asked. Despite myself, I felt a shudder go up my spine.

“We chatted—about Torah, Kabbalah, what else was there? I did not speak about the village, about the disappearances; as he looked at me with those deep, dark eyes, it all seemed to be so much foolishness. I stood in the sunlit grove of the holy rabbi his father’s house and only wished to leave. We shook hands, he bade me ‘Go in peace,’ and I departed.

“But I was not satisfied. I saw that, as a scholar of Torah, and as one of the Torah guardians of the village, I had to discover what was happening in Eliezer’s house.”

“What did you do?” asked one of the younger boys. He had begun to tremble—whether from cold or fear, it was not certain. The students could all see their breath in the dark, and there was nothing left of the fire, save ashes, and a few stray red sparks agleam. The wind had died down, for the moment, but the chill had invaded the room, surrounding the errant scholars like a wraith. When they exhaled, they could see their breath, in dull white puffs, scatter slowly into the wood-smoked air.

“That night was a full moon. I knew that a scholar from a distant townlet, Kelz, was to spend the night with Eliezer. He was hardly known to us at all, but we had met him in the study-hall the day before. He was just twenty, a tow-headed boy from the farm country, with a peachfuzz beard and a ready smile. I believe his name was Mordechai. He, too, had been lauded in his youth as one who had memorized volumes of Talmud. We casually tested him, and in truth, he had a formidable brain. Would be a match for our Eliezer? I decided to creep around and hide, and, when the night was blackest but the moon was full, to peek into the window of the house and see what was happening in their scholarly disputation. If my suspicions were wrong, well, then, at least I would learn some Torah ‘from the feet of the wise,’ as the Rabbis teach us. And if I was right, well….”

The boys moved closer, hardly breathing.

“I heard an owl call, and could see bats circling in the night sky as I crept through the woods. I had put on cloth slippers, so as to make the slightest noise possible. Instead of my customary caftan and belt, I had dressed like a peasant, in tight pantaloons and shirt. Of course, I could not take a lantern, but the moon was full. There, looming before me in the clearing, was Eliezer’s house. I dropped to all fours and crawled the last few yards, until I was directly below the window. A bat dipped nearly onto my head, and I almost cried out in fear as I waved it away.

“From within the house, I could hear the sound of the two voices—Eliezer’s, and the study partner’s. I listened carefully, and realized that they were studying the mystical words of the Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko from the 14th Century. I hauled myself up to the window and saw a room blazing with many candles, and two men sitting in the middle on rough wooden chairs. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I beheld Eliezer chanting in mystical Aramaic from a great leathern book with brass clasps:
“‘When Moses asked God, “Show me Your Presence,” Moses sought to die so that his soul would conquer the barrier of God’s palace, which separated his soul from God’s light. But since the people of Israel still needed Moses, God did not want Moses to die. And you, O’ scholar of Kabbalah, must be careful to guard yourself from getting too close to God’s light, lest you die.’

“’Ah, how I long to see God’s light!’ cried out blonde Mordechai.

‘Do you, indeed?’ asked Eliezer, looking up from the book at his study partner. He was wearing a black caftan and tall skullcap, and his dark eyes sparkled in the candlelight. I wondered at the strangely harsh tone in his voice, so different from the sweet singer of Israel that I recalled. I hauled myself up, grasping the edge of the windowsill, and stared into the room, all aglow from the candles perched on every shelf and cranny.

‘Yes, with all of my heart and soul—to see God, to experience God, to fall into the light!’ cried out the study partner. Fair-haired Mordechai stood up from his Kabbalah book and flung his arms open wide, reaching up to the ceiling, as if hoping there to embrace God and the archangels. He hugged himself with joy, and smiled at Eliezer, the innocent smile of the youth who loves to delve into forbidden mysteries.

‘And so you shall,’ grated Eliezer. He opened his mouth: I saw his teeth—those white teeth, in row upon row upon row, like polished marble tombstones, gleaming in the candlelight. I heard the sound of chair-legs grating against the floor, as Eliezer rose slowly from it, hunched over like a beast, not a man. He then straightened up, and howled—like a beast; an agonized, screaming sound that I hope to never hear again in my life. Before my eyes, Eliezer grew taller and taller and wider and wider, his eyes bulging as large as the pale-faced moon while his curling hair sprouted lank and long, his enormous bulk filling the house to the roof; his slender, white, scholar’s fingers grew boney, grew longer, and became jagged, blackened claws. As I watched in horror, the caftan and skullcap billowed into a ghastly dark, sinister tent, blotting out the candles. The study partner gaped, too amazed to cry out or run out the door of the house.

‘Aha, little manikin!’ roared out the demonic creature who had been Eliezer, ‘Shall I fill my belly with your Torah? Will you be my holy sacrifice tonight?’

“And there, before my eyes, he snatched up the study partner in his monstrous claws, snapped off his head, drank his blood as you would suck the juice from an orange while the boy’s legs kicked, helplessly, like a doll’s. Then, the Eliezer-beast swallowed him down, in one gulp, licked his lips, wiped the blood off on his sleeve, and then, dropping to all fours on his reading-desk, darted his fiery eyes around.

“I remember thinking, Did he see me? Did he not? But I did not stay to watch whatever happened next; I was too busy running away from that accursed house, back to the village, as fast as I could. I seized a bag, grabbed a few books, and fled Kurdanov that very night.

“What was I to do? Who would believe me? Ah, God! Such disappointment, such grief, such tragedy, to turn the love of Torah to hatred, to an all-consuming lust and hunger! Ah, God save me—and I am the only witness to Eliezer changing from holy scholar to hellish beast. And now, I have shared the cursed tale with all of you—what is to become of me?”

The students were silent. The wind was howling, again. And then began a hammering at the door.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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