The Bishop of Lubianewicz
Gregor Tal dozed at his table in the monastery at Lubianewicz. When he awoke the candle had burned down almost to the dish. He ran his fingers through his prematurely gray hair and squinted at the gathering shadows. Wearily rubbing his eyes, he rose from his chair and went to get a new candle from the shelf. On second thought, he would light two candles for even better light. Shouldn’t he allow himself this minor indulgence in view of his efforts to execute the Cardinal’s mission?
At first, he had balked at the Cardinal’s demand. He did not hate Jews. Why should he want to participate in a public debate with the Jews? In fact, his best boyhood friend, Krzystoff Papka, had turned out to be a Jew. All he wanted was to stay in the seclusion and privacy of his study in the monastery. Here he could sample and digest the hundreds of volumes he had accumulated over the years. There were books about mathematics, chemistry and astronomy, atlases of different styles and periods, volumes of poetry and classic works of literature. He would usually take two or three of these books into the small rose garden behind his study, sit down on one of the little marble benches and lose himself in the world of ideas.
He had little interest in the religious books of his library and even less in the ceremonies. He felt that they took away his precious time, time he could be using to explore new worlds through his books. He had attained his high office by virtue of his brilliant intellect, in spite of his lax attitude toward his church. In the opinion of many in the church, Gregor Tal could go very far if he became more devout, very far indeed. But Gregor Tal was content to stay in Lubianewicz with his book collection and his rose garden. The only attraction higher office held for him was the larger library that probably would come along with it.
The letter from the Cardinal had caught him by surprise. A religious debate with the Jews? Why had the Cardinal chosen him? He had neither the inclination nor the particular expertise for such a debate. He wrote to the Cardinal expressing how honored he was to have been chosen for this mission but respectfully declining the honor. He explained that he was essentially a scholar, religious dogma being his weak point. The church would be well served by finding a more practiced advocate.
The Cardinal’s second letter shed new light on the whole affair. The subject of the debate was not to be comparative religion but the historic attitude of the Jews towards gentiles, as revealed by the Talmud.
Ah, the Talmud! What a magnificent piece of work! He had been entranced by the Talmud ever since those nights in the bell tower with Krzystoff Papka some seventeen years before.
He had waited impatiently for two months after Krzystoff Papka’s flight before asking Brother Feliks to teach him the Talmud. He had easily mastered the Hebrew-Aramaic dialect of the Talmud and thrown himself into its study. He had kept at it day and night. The intricacy, the complexity and the sheer logic of it captivated him.
His colleagues had smiled indulgently at his single-minded pursuit of such an obscure and useless book as the Talmud, but Gregor Tal had persisted. Only the old priest Zbigniew Mzlateslavski had encouraged him to continue because he might someday find it useful. In time, Gregor Tal had become the greatest Talmudist in the Polish church. Now the Cardinal had turned to him.
Such a debate truly intrigued Gregor Tal. What a challenge it would be to debate the Jews about their own Talmud! What an accomplishment it would be to win such a debate!
But what about the consequences to the Jews if he should win the debate? They would be expelled from Krakow, the Cardinal had written. What a monstrous thought! The Cardinal had implied that the plan had been devised by Zbigniew Mzlateslavski who had never concealed his hatred for the Jews. Gregor Tal did not want to be responsible for causing so much misery. But there was really nothing he could do about it. He could not refuse the Cardinal; he had no excuse. Besides, he rationalized, the Cardinal would be the sole judge at the debate, and he had probably already decided against the Jews. With a sinking feeling Gregor Tal realized that the debate was probably going to be a charade, and he sighed.
Gregor Tal lit the two new candles and returned to the volumes of the Talmud that lay open on his table. He had been preparing for quite a long time, and he felt he had developed an effective approach.
There was not much material that was damaging as such; he would have to rely heavily on scoring debating points. He would draw on his vast store of knowledge about history and philosophy. And he would use his skills in mathematics and logic to construct a powerful position. The Cardinal would not be disappointed. Gregor Tal would be well prepared. Still, success depended to a considerable extent on the skill and tactics of his opponent. His opponent would be Reb Mendel Pulichever, the rabbi of Pulichev. Gregor Tal knew nothing about this man.
Gregor Tal sat staring at the open volumes of the Talmud before him without seeing the words. He was thinking about Reb Mendel Pulichever.
It went against his sense of order to be fluent in the subject matter of the debate but to be ignorant of the intellectual capabilities and character of his opponent. It would be sloppy preparation on his part not to learn everything he could about this Reb Mendel Pulichever.
Yes, Gregor Tal decided, that was his next priority. He would make inquiries, of course, but there was no substitute for direct observation. He would have to get a closer look at his opponent. That was the scientific approach.
He had never been to Pulichev, but he knew where it was. It lay slightly to the south of the road from Lubianewicz to Krakow. It would not be a major detour to stop over in Pulichev on the way to Krakow, no more than two or three additional days of travel. He would enjoy the stopover in Pulichev. Gregor Tal loved to travel, especially in the autumn. He would leave Lubianewicz earlier than he had originally planned and have an enjoyable and leisurely journey.
Gregor Tal arrived in Pulichev two days after Rosh Hashanah disguised as a German Jewish merchant from Frankfurt named Joachim Weiss. He spoke flawless German and had no difficulty playing the part. He had even brought along a prayer shawl and a pair of phylacteries he had found in the cellar of the monastery. He rented a room at a Jewish inn and kept to himself as much as possible. He wandered about the city of Pulichev picking up bits of information, never volunteering any of his own.
He found people very willing to talk about their rabbi, Reb Mendel. Apparently, Reb Mendel had been in Pulichev for many, many years and was very beloved by its people. It seemed that Reb Mendel Pulichever was a compassionate man and a Talmudic scholar of international stature. There was some vague mention of a personal tragedy in the rabbi’s family in the distant past, something about a small child who had died. This too was unclear. It was so very long ago.
Once or twice, he caught a glimpse of Reb Mendel in the street. Reb Mendel’s beard was completely white and he walked with a stoop, the weight of his years heavy upon his shoulders. He considered paying a visit to Reb Mendel in his guise as a German Jewish merchant. Undoubtedly, such a visit would provide him with more insight than weeks of inquiry among the populace of Pulichev, but he rejected the idea. It was too underhanded for his taste.
Gregor Tal found the experience of viewing Jewish life from the inside fascinating. Here was the beautiful Talmud come alive, the world into which Krzystoff Papka had disappeared so many years before.
In the stalls of the main market square groups of Jews stood huddled over pale yellow fruit and green palm branches. They pointed at minute blemishes and argued volubly about them. These must be the esrogim and lulavim, the citrons and palm branches mentioned in the Talmud, Gregor Tal thought. He felt a strong sense of inner pride that he understood the rules these Jews were discussing. He would have loved to join in the discussions, but he restrained himself. He dare not indulge himself and jeopardize his mission. He must not be over confident.
Yom Kippur was approaching. Gregor Tal could feel it everywhere in Pulichev. There was a joyous expectancy mixed with dread and awe, an unusual combination. What a wonderful relationship these people had with the Creator! What a rich spiritual life they had! Little wonder they persisted despite all the persecution.
He felt a sudden pang of guilt. Wasn’t he one of their persecutors?
It was a thorny question; he would have to think about it. But first he had to think about Yom Kippur.
Would he gain anything by staying in Pulichev for Yom Kippur?
Much as he would like to stay to satisfy his curiosity, he had a mission to fulfill. Maybe he could come back to this city some other year.
Further inquiries provided him with the answer. He learned that it was the custom in Pulichev that Reb Mendel would say the Kol Nidre every year. He was sure that to hear Reb Mendel say the Kol Nidre was the next best thing to meeting him. He decided to stay.
The day before Yom Kippur was unseasonably blustery and overcast. The streets were full of people shivering with the cold as they hurried to their destinations. But the cold did not dampen the sense of excitement and drama that filled the air.
The innkeeper asked Gregor Tal if he had a white linen robe for Yom Kippur. Gregor Tal did not know what he was talking about, but he answered that he had not brought one along because he had expected to be home by now. The innkeeper offered to lend him a white robe. He accepted. Carefully following the lead of his fellow guests at the inn, he put on his white robe and his prayer shawl at dusk and joined the people streaming from all over Pulichev towards the main synagogue.
As he entered the great synagogue, Gregor Tal looked about at the sea of white robes and skullcaps with childlike wonder. He sensed holiness here, and he could not help being moved. Suddenly, everyone stood up and there was absolute silence. Reb Mendel walked to the cantor’s lectern. He wrapped his prayer shawl tightly about him and began to sing the Kol Nidre.
Gregor Tal was unprepared for the emotional impact of Reb Mendel’s Kol Nidre. The warm, sweet sound was full of a wisdom and compassion born of pain and time. The heavens seemed to open to receive the soaring words. Gregor Tal felt as if some deep unknown wellspring of his heart had sprung open and engulfed him with a flood of emotions he did not understand. He felt as if his soul had been wrenched from within him and was soaring heavenward along with the haunting sounds of the Kol Nidre. And he felt a stirring. As if he had been transported to another time and another place. As if there was something he should remember but could not.
The night wore on. After the prayers, most of the people went home to catch some sleep. Tomorrow they would rise early. Reb Mendel and a few other people remained in synagogue, learning or saying Psalms.
Gregor Tal sat quietly in the back of the synagogue watching Reb Mendel intently. Beneath his outward composure, however, Gregor Tal was in a violent turmoil.
For a long time he just sat there, lonely and confused.
Finally, he rose and approached Reb Mendel. Reb Mendel was engrossed in the age-worn Book of Psalms he was holding in his hands. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and sobs racked his body. Gregor Tal coughed lightly, but Reb Mendel did not respond.
Reb Mendel’s mind was far, far away, lost in a forest of memory and prayer. The years had dulled the pain of the loss of his child. But he had not forgotten. He had not given up hope of finding him again. When Reb Zalman had promised him a child he had also set a condition that Reb Mendel be the one to say the Kol Nidre every year. When Shloimele had disappeared Reb Mendel had realized the meaning of that condition. There was hope. He could bring back his son through his prayers, especially if he prayed with all his heart on Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the year. And so each year, on Yom Kippur, he would pour out his heart to the Master of the Universe, pleading desperately for the return of his son, if not for his sake then for the sake of his heartbroken wife. When another year passed and Shloimele did not return Reb Mendel did not despair. Surely next year his prayers would be more effective and Shloimele would return.
Sitting now in the half deserted synagogue, engrossed in his Psalms, Reb Mendel was thinking about his Shloimele while the tears flowed freely down his cheeks. The little boy with the golden curls was long gone, and in his place was a grown man he wouldn’t even recognize. Where was he? What was he like? He probably didn’t even know he was a Jew. And maybe, Heaven forbid, maybe he even hated Jews. Maybe he hated his own father and mother.
Reb Mendel prayed without words, without thoughts, just with his uncontrollable sobs and his yearning for the mercy of the Master of the Universe. Reb Mendel prayed with pure emotion, with every fiber of his being.
Somewhere in a remote corner of his consciousness Reb Mendel heard someone clearing his throat. With a great effort he tore himself away from his thoughts and looked up at the man standing next to him. The man was a stranger.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the man in German. “May I have a word with you in private?”
This must be Joachim Weiss, thought Reb Mendel, the German Jewish merchant who had spent the last week wandering about Pulichev but had not done any business at all. Something was obviously on his mind.
“Of course,” Reb Mendel replied in labored German. “I was about to go home soon anyway. Why don’t you walk along with me? We can talk in my study. No one will disturb us there. But you’ll have to forgive my poor German.”
They walked the short distance to Reb Mendel’s house in silence. Reb Mendel led his guest into the study. He closed the door softly so as not to disturb the Rebbetzin who had already gone to sleep.
Still speaking in German, he said, “Well! What can I do for you? Tell me what is on your mind.”
“Reb Mendel, please forgive me for the deception I have been carrying on here in Pulichev,” said Gregor Tal, shifting to the Polish language. “I am no German Jewish merchant. In fact, I am not even Jewish at all. I am Gregor Tal, the Bishop of Lubianewicz.”
Reb Mendel’s eyes flashed with anger. “What are you doing here? Why are you spying on us? Isn’t it enough for you to expel the Jews of Krakow? Do you want to expel the Jews of Pulichev as well?”
“Please don’t hate me,” Gregor Tal whispered. “I mean the Jewish people of Pulichev no harm, and I mean the Jewish people of Krakow no harm. I only came because I wanted to observe you, to get a closer look at you, because I thought it would help me in the debate.”
“So you came to spy on me on the holiest night of the year, on Yom Kippur!” exclaimed Reb Mendel. “Have you discovered anything worthwhile? And why didn’t you just leave? What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I found something very important, but I don’t know what it is. I thought maybe you could help me.”
“How can I help you, and why should I help you?”
“I only want to talk to you about what I experienced and felt tonight. I’m only asking for a simple kindness to another human being. You will not be harming your people in any way. I assure you of this, Reb Mendel. I have already resolved not to participate in the debate.”
Reb Mendel let out a sigh of relief. This did not mean that the Jews of Krakow were out of danger, but it was a good sign. There was hope. The Master of the Universe had not abandoned them. The sound of Gregor Tal’s voice intruded on Reb Mendel’s thoughts. He looked up.
“As I was listening to the Kol Nidre I had the strangest feelings,” the young man was saying. “It was as if there was something locked away inside me crying out for release. And I felt such a powerful longing.”
“How do you explain it?” Reb Mendel asked guardedly, still unsure of the priest’s motives.
“I couldn’t,” replied Gregor Tal. “I’ve always been able to explain everything, but not this. I’ve never had such strange feelings. It was a completely alien experience. Like a revelation from heaven or a memory from a previous existence. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Maybe it reminded you of an earlier time when you had heard the Kol Nidre,” said Reb Mendel.
“I’ve never heard the Kol Nidre before.”
“Maybe you were just overwhelmed by the splendor and spirituality of our religion,” said Reb Mendel with a wry smile.
“No. No. It was not a religious experience. It was like when you are dreaming and you are so thoroughly involved in your experience in the dream and then you wake up and you know that what you were dreaming was very important and you feel that you have left many things undone and you have to get back to that dream but you can’t remember what it was all about.” The words came tumbling out, almost incoherently. “Am I making sense?”
“Oh, yes,” said Reb Mendel. “We all know the feeling.”
Gregor Tal continued. “But sometimes you are not completely blank. Sometimes you remember a fragment of the dream. And you know that the fragment holds the key to remembering the dream. You think about it. You turn that fragment over in your mind again and again. But still you can’t remember. You reach out. You strain. It is just beyond your grasp, but it might as well be on the other side of the ocean. This is what I felt tonight.”
He paused for a breath. Reb Mendel sat spellbound, his eyes fixed intently on the tormented priest.
Gregor Tal continued. “I began to have this feeling as soon as I came to Pulichev. I told myself that I was gathering information for the debate, but deep down I sensed the elusive dream. Everywhere I went I found those fragments. The streets were a fragment. The people were a fragment. You are a fragment. Even this house and this very room are a fragment. I found this all very intriguing, very puzzling. What did this place mean to me? I reached for the elusive dream, but I could not grab hold of it. I could have lived with the disappointment. It would not be the first time I couldn’t satisfy my curiosity. But tonight, tonight was something else. When I heard you saying the Kol Nidre I had such an overwhelming sensation of buried memories waiting to erupt. I am like a volcano. I must know. What is the meaning of all this? Have you cast a spell over me or some other such nonsense to prevent me from participating in the debate?” He laughed nervously. “What should I do?”
Reb Mendel lapsed in silence. Could it possibly be? Of course not. How could it be? Surely, he was just an old man indulging in some wishful thinking. He must not let himself fall into the trap of false hope. But still, what could be the meaning of this strange incident? The glimmer of hope refused to fade away. Reb Mendel yearned for the courage to open his mind to the thoughts that clamored to find expression, the courage to risk the awful pain of disappointment and dashed hopes.
“Would you mind telling me how old you are?” Reb Mendel finally asked.
“Not at all. I am thirty-one years old. Don’t be misled by my gray hair. I’ve been gray for a long time.”
“Would you tell me something about yourself?” Reb Mendel asked in a hoarse voice.
“Well, there’s really not much to tell. I was born on a small farm in Pszelitz. My parents died when I was young. I grew up on the convent at Pszelitz. When I was older I was taken into the Pauline monastery in Konstantin and trained for the priesthood. The monks taught me many things and what they didn’t know I found in their books. That is essentially the story of my life. I have not been much of an actor on the stage of life, just a very interested observer.”
“Do you remember your parents well?”
“No. I was just a baby when they died.”
Reb Mendel nodded, struggling hard to contain his excitement.
“Do you know a priest called Zbigniew Mzlateslavski?” he asked.
“Why yes, I do. But not very well. He used to visit me from time to time when I was a child. He brought me sweets. I still see him every once in a while. He is behind the debate in Krakow, you know.”
Reb Mendel looked intently at Gregor Tal. “Have you ever thought that you might be Jewish?”
“The thought did cross my mind tonight. I speculated that I might have been born Jewish, that I was experiencing were memories from my early childhood,” said Gregor Tal, fidgeting slightly. “You know, my best friend during my boyhood in Konstantin turned out to be Jewish. He ran away when I was fourteen. I missed him. I’ve looked for him, but I’ve never found him.”
“Are you circumcised?”
“Yes, I am. But you know that’s not enough proof.”
Reb Mendel lapsed into silence once again. He struggled to contain his excitement. It had to be. It just had to be. All the signs were there. He was the right age. He was brilliant and intensely curious. He did not remember his parents. He had known Zbigniew Mzlateslavski all his life. He was circumcised. He had been deeply affected not by Kol Nidre in itself but by the long dormant memories it had stirred, and Reb Zalman had insisted that Reb Mendel be the one to say Kol Nidre every year. It had to be. But how could he be sure? Suddenly, Reb Mendel knew.
“Did you know that many years ago I had a child? He would be about your age today.”
“Yes. I had heard that he died. I am sorry.”
“No, he did not die. He was taken from his mother and me when he was not quite three years old. We haven’t seen him or heard from him since.” Reb Mendel rose from his armchair and paced back and forth. Finally, he stopped in front of Gregor Tal and looked directly into his eyes. “Heaven help me if I am wrong, but I think you are my son.”
Gregor Tal turned pale. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
“My son was born with a birth defect,” Reb Mendel continued. “He was missing the middle toe of his left foot.”
One look at Gregor Tal’s thunderstruck face gave Reb Mendel all the answer he needed. Wave after wave of the purest joy swept over him. His face was transformed by the ecstasy in his heart.
“Shloimele!” he cried out. “You have come home at last.”
Shloimele! Gregor Tal heard the name. Shloimele. Shloimele. The sound of the forgotten name was like a knife peeling away the shrouds the years had deposited on his childhood memories. Now the memory of those golden times returned with a sharpness and clarity that was almost painful. Shloimele. His father. His mother. Shloimele. This house. This room. Tears welled up in his eyes as he looked at Reb Mendel, at his father whom the years of suffering had made old before his time.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
“Mendel,” the Rebbetzin said through the closed door. “It is almost dawn. You must get some sleep. How are you going to fast and pray before the cantor’s lectern today?”
“Why don’t you come in here a moment?” Reb Mendel replied.
The door opened and the Rebbetzin came in. The young man turned to face her. He had such a strange look on his face, haunted yet elated. He spoke, his words barely audible in the stillness of the night.
The Rebbetzin swooned and almost fainted.
Mother and son fell sobbing into each others’ arms. They did not speak. It was not a time for words.
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