Save My Uncle Nathan
by Ted Richer
Time was, I heard it said, when Davkin was the truly upright man of the temple. One old and nameless rabbi, sighing with pride, had announced him as a severe soul with prayer, a staunch and singular guardian of the faith, and although, with unusual feeling, our suffering elders had often admitted that he had a sinister appearing countenance and an unkindly, sort of hissing voice, strangely spitting venom like a serpent at anyone who might take his God’s name in vain, no elder had ever ventured to dispute his righteousness. When I. M. Davkin, the seventh son of the seventh son, cast his human shadow, narrow and elongated like the fearful body of a scorpion, before the temple of his people, all quiet Jews turned to enter — and all other Jews turned elsewhere. Davkin, then, was reckoned as a powerful force in all religious matters, a force so powerful that all the world might very well begin to quake at his displeasure. At one time he had assumed leadership of the temple — and his word, as all quiet Jews once whispered it about, became like the very word of God itself, harsh and wrathful, avenging in its sound. There were other Jews, however, Jews who had turned elsewhere, who shouted out, usually to temper saddened and shamed spirits in times of aloneness and misery, that he had zealously confiscated and claimed the temple as his very own, that he had faced all men, including any rabbi, wise or foolish, with pious contempt and acid scorn. No one, it was once admitted, could measure up to or equal the Godly devotion of one I. M. Davkin.
Time was, when Davkin’s face, gaunt, and stretching like a straight line, containing gnarled eyebrows and deeply inset pock marks, spider thin lips and hair in his nostrils, intimidated even the purest of souls. The skin of his face was ashen, a washed out form of cleanliness that strikingly contrasted with his wiry black hair and his fiery black eyes. It was once remarked that Davkin, in keeping with his ascendancy to power and glory, came forth ugly and clean, and certainly immaculately tailored.
He was renowned for the quality of cloth that he placed upon his back. There are those who say he had only suits of silk, finely wrought garments that were ever soft to the fingers of anyone brazen enough to touch them, elegantly shaped fabrics that fitted him exactly, and I have heard it from one man, my Uncle Nathan to name him, that Davkin was never seen in the same suit twice in all the middle years of his life. I have heard tell of our suffering elders exclaiming with wonder over the styled dignity of a certain coat, a single shirt, and I have heard, most of all, and with wonder in myself, the tale of his ivory cane.
When Davkin was a boy, and his father was a worried merchant of assorted goods, not so rich and not so poor, and his mother was in violent health, dying of cancer, and all of the six brothers were spiteful of the favor that was shown by the father to Davkin, all envious of the seventh son of the seventh son, and when the family was ripped and torn asunder by hating and by loving, like the result of an insidious and unkown ancient curse, when a dark and deadening gloom became the light of the future, two sons crawled away together in the night and were never heard from again, two other sons then deserted to a distant war in another country, one son went to grief and buried himself in tears forever in a mental institution, and one son, to damn them all, mortally mutilated himself in the basement of the family house.
When Davkin was a boy, then, and all such madness happened, madness that finally included the death of his mother, not from cancer after all, but from heartbreak, a swift and solemn feeling took hold of Davkin’s consciousness: he began to feel a marking had been placed upon him, a marking that blessed him for God’s mighty, miraculous purpose. His father, seeming to sense the feeling, attended to him more than ever now, attended to him in such a style that one day the father proclaimed an overt willingness to grant any favor, any wish, to his favored and beloved son; it was such, moreover, that the father actually challenged Davkin to name a favor, a wish, that would be beyond the province of possibility to grant. Davkin, spoiled and silly, responded, instantly, by wishing for nearly everything, for nearly all, save the moon, but including, alas, the legendary rod of Aaron.
The father, burdened immediately then with an overwrought and imposing wish, swung wildly about, flailing both his arms against his whitened and ragged face, wracking his incredulous imagination, until, finally, in desperation, he whirled and rifled into an infamous mail order catalogue. There, gleaming before his disbelieving eyes, with striking splendor, appeared the glossy picture of a rare and imported cane, modestly claiming excavation from the Middle East, perhaps, from Egypt, a sly cane so hooked and so shaped like a snake that, perhaps, in another time and in another place, it might very well have served as Aaron’s rod.
Now the cane was ivory and expensive and not at all, when it first arrived, what Davkin wanted. Although he accepted it from his father — for his father was now ill and dying painfully in his bed — Davkin knew, secretly, in his heart, that the cane was not Aaron’s rod; thus a strange disappointment attached itself to Davkin’s being, one of dread, one dreadful disappointment that revoked his feeling of being marked for God’s mighty, miraculous purpose. So with the morning of his father’s death, a morning bleak and blustering with wind, Davkin, standing all alone and still very much a boy, whispered a silent and searching earthly prayer to his God — a prayer that included the promise of a good and upright life, a life devoted to all Godly devotions, but a prayer that also included, as one might suspect in a prayer conceived by someone still very much a boy, but in all good faith, a prayer that included the request of a blessing, a blessing for his cane, a blessing that might come to resemble, in time, the very blessing given to Aaron’s rod. Then, in the lonely and forlorn days that followed his father’s time of death, days that seemed without beginning, without end, Davkin, awake and not sleeping, somehow came to feel that his God might answer his prayer if only the proper occasion should, at once, arrive. So it was that one morning, wandering within his dead father’s place of business and wondering what he might do with all that stood before him, he suddenly and uncontrollably felt commanded to cast down his ivory cane before the assorted goods — as Aaron might well have cast down his rod to confound the false and awful magicians of Pharaoh’s court — when a weird and devastating event took place in the life of I. M. Davkin.
My Uncle Nathan’s father, as rich as any man in the world might be, plunged his fat belly and his beaming face, as well as his bulging pocketbook and his booming voice, all so early in the morning, right through the front entrance of the dead father’s place of business and, miraculously, right into Davkin’s life. Suddenly my Uncle Nathan’s father was asking if he might not buy Davkin out, all the way out. He would offer such a huge sum of money, his booming voice was echoing, that it would be fair to say that Davkin could live, for the rest of his life, without worry or need. Davkin, staring down at the ivory cane, said:
“Yes,” at once, and his whisper was quietly urgent.
My Uncle Nathan later related that his father was quite taken aback at the quickness of Davkin’s decision.
“Why do you wish to sell?” cunningly inquired my Uncle Nathan’s father.
“Because you wish to buy,” quietly replied Davkin.
Satisfied with such reasoning, my Uncle Nathan’s father completed the sale.
So after that, the tale of the ivory cane was soon heard, everywhere, in the temple as well, for Davkin began to tell a little of it wherever and whenever he could. He declared, in the time that followed, that in his cane he had rightfully secured one of the marvels of the ages. When Davkin was only a boy, and a timid sort of boy at that, not many people came to accept the power in his cane. But as Davkin grew older, with all his ugliess emphasized — although no one ever admitted to witnessing any unusual performance from the object, not even our suffering elders could pretend to that — more and more people, strangely, came to speak of his cane with awe. And with the years going by, and with Davkin growing to manhood, stern and serpent-like in his appearance and manner, no one, no one at all, save my Uncle Nathan, ever dared to denounce the cane as a fraud.
My Uncle Nathan always referred to Davkin as a superstitious old nut. He forever spoke of our suffering elders with the same respect. It is true, moreover, that my Uncle Nathan would not believe in God, he called himself the last of the old-time atheists, and so he was always taking God’s name in vain, especially in the temple, where he would be certain to enrage Davkin. He once said, leaning his good-natured smile into my face as we shared the duty of a minyan, that God Himself was a nut.
I answered my Uncle Nathan: “When you say God is a nut you make it sound as though you believe in Him, in some sort of way.”
My Uncle Nathan replied: “My mistake.”
“No,” I persisted, “I think you believe in God.”
My Uncle Nathan stared into my smiling and winning face.
“Who are you, anyway?” he questioned.
My Uncle Nathan often expressed puzzlement in me.
“When,” he one day asked, “do you intend to discover a truth within yourself?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Take Davkin, for instance,” he said. “I think you actually accept that nonsense about his cane.”
“You told it to me,” I answered, angered.
“Told you what?” he shouted. “You have not listened at all!” and he walked away.
In my day Davkin had fallen from his high place. He was only spoken of in the past tense, no longer was he known with fear and respect, no longer was he a powerful force in all religious matters. His cane was a topic of hearsay, but little else. Sackcloth, ashes, were his. There was no one, save my Uncle Nathan, who considered him at all. There was no one in the temple, save my Uncle Nathan, who trembled with him in my day. Only my Uncle Nathan, the cause of I. M. Davkin’s inglorious downfall, persisted in telling tales.
Time was, when Davkin, his silken suits like royal vestments around him, his ivory cane tapping with austere dignity, lived nearly the whole of his life within the temple. His ugliness, it was said, kept him from marriage. My Uncle Nathan, grinning his good-natured face, elaborated by saying that any woman deformed enough to love Davkin, would still be frightened away by his clean skin. Anyway, my Uncle Nathan continued, Davkin was already married to the temple. My Uncle Nathan was amused by his image, and one day, as he found Davkin about to enter the temple, princely and priestly, and his arms laden with prayer books, his cane hooked about his neck, my Uncle Nathan remarked:
“And how is the little woman, Mr. Davkin?”
Davkin, puzzled, but always alarmed when in the presence of my Uncle Nathan, ever reckoning irreverence, threw down the prayer books, flipped the cane from his neck, and then proceeded to strike it against the shoulder of my Uncle Nathan. Davkin’s fervor broke the collar bone of my Uncle Nathan, and as my Uncle Nathan, an oath upon his lips, lay there writhing in pain, Davkin, bending down as if to help, carefully swung the cane up about his neck, solemnly collected the prayer books into his arms, and walked into the temple.
My Uncle Nathan, refusing to see the police, appealed instead to our suffering elders. One by one he found them, and although there were shy utterances of shock, unusual feelings of horror, nothing was suggested in terms of punishment. The rabbi, representing all quiet Jews, summed up the majority belief when he said:
“We feel it to be a personal affair.”
So it was that my Uncle Nathan resolved to end the reign of I. M. Davkin, personally, and he resolved to do it without the service of our suffering elders. He would use all his intelligence, all his skill, all his wherewithal, including all that remained of his father’s money, to do it. He would actually, as he came to do, stand outside the temple, actually on the Day of Atonement, the scars of his broken bone within him, and swear:
“Damn you, Davkin, I shall destroy you with the truth!”
My Uncle Nathan, outside the temple, would have to wait — for his time.
Time was, then, when Davkin, hissing his harassment, unabated, at my Uncle Nathan, attempting to exhaust all the ridicule and all the scorn in him of all that Davkin held dear and devout and divine, that Davkin, spitting venom at anyone who might take his God’s name in vain, wielding his cane and his contempt and his conviction with more authority than ever before, invented the creation that allowed his own annihilation.
Davkin, serene and subdued before our suffering elders, holding himself holy in his high office, made a pubic avowal of his intention to build one new and glorious temple to God; it would represent, he intoned, a wondrous offering to God’s mighty, miraculous purpose. In conclusion, he asserted, his black eyes penetrating into the lowered and humbled forms of our suffering elders, that erecting a Godly temple would be a sacrifice worthy of all.
Our suffering elders found themselves shattered, uncomprehending. A temple to God, no elder would ever object to, could never object to. But as one elder whispered to another, a visit from one house to another house at all hours in the night suddenly a common occurrence, we have always had a temple to God. A sacrifice worthy of all, our suffering elders insisted to one another, had already been made.
Enter my Uncle Nathan.
One by one he went to seek our suffering elders; one by one and sometimes two by two and, eventually, a little later, in small groups, he expressed our suffering elders’ rightful concern over the building of a new temple. His assured tone was guarded, confidential, and slightly reverential. He was circumspect, revealing a wisdom of restraint, and although a word to the wise, spoken secretly, would say that our suffering elders would always remember that my Uncle Nathan was an atheist, a word to the wise, spoken directly, would say that they would never forget that he was also a Jew. Needless to say, my Uncle Nathan’s father — as well as his money — forever remained in esteem. My Uncle Nathan, in encouraging our suffering elders to express their concern, disclosed himself as a sympathetic spokesman.
So it was that my Uncle Nathan induced our suffering elders to admit him to the general monthly meeting of the overseers of the temple, one I. M. Davkin presiding. Now it was my Uncle Nathan’s stated design to ask for permission to say his piece, to stand up, in the singular democratic tradition, and make known to Davkin the general disapproval of his idea to erect a temple. Now it was my Uncle Nathan’s unspoken objective to do little of the sort. He had little interest in any temple, old or new. My Uncle Nathan was out only to destroy Davkin.
Time was, then, when the day of the temple meeting came, gray and cloudy, grave, and when the night came, struck with thunder, and with rain, and with shooting stars of lightning, our suffering elders spoke with hushed, worshipful voices of despair. A day of foreboding would foreshadow a night alive with doom, and thus our suffering elders sought to pray, for Davkin — and for my Uncle Nathan — and for judgment.
Into the temple they came, rainsoaked and weak, our suffering elders, with eyes averted from the face of Davkin, my Uncle Nathan among them. Davkin moved forward as if to stop him, perhaps to hold him from further entry; then, strangely, his movement stopped, my Uncle Nathan passed by, moving into the great hall of the temple. He found his place beside our suffering elders and waited for his time.
Davkin, his opening prayer unheard, announced the meeting begun.
My Uncle Nathan waited for his time.
Our suffering elders, eyes averted from the face of Davkin, made known their simple wants.
My Uncle Nathan waited for his time.
Suddenly, our suffering elders could hear Davkin making, again, a public avowal of his intention to build one new and glorious temple to God.
My Uncle Nathan, his time arrived, stood.
Davkin, with a motion of his cane, indicated that my Uncle Nathan could speak.
“I am here,” my Uncle Nathan said, “to make known the general disapproval of your idea to build a new temple.”
A sigh came forth from our suffering elders. Davkin, a little perturbed, stared ahead.
My Uncle Nathan waited, then walked about. Finally, he said: “Two men,” and he conducted his voice from Davkin to our suffering elders and then back again to Davkin, “shared the same temple, one rich and one poor. The rich man,” and now my Uncle Nathan faced directly the upright figure of Davkin, “had everything in life, as befitted his wealth, while the poor man,” and now my Uncle Nathan turned and faced directly the humbled forms of our suffering elders, “had nothing — but his love for God, and the temple wherein he praised Him. One day,” and now my Uncle Nathan suddenly turned and faced the world, “the rich man wandered into the temple alone and found the poor man, in awful and ragged clothing and his voice too loud in prayer. The rich man was disgusted by the sight of what he saw, and so he quickly removed the poor man from the temple.”
Davkin interrupted, simply furious, shouted out: “What man would do such a foul thing?”
My Uncle Nathan said to Davkin: “You are the man!”
“No!” refuted Davkin, and our suffering elders swooned in horror. “I am blessed, the temple is mine, I only remove the sinful, I am blessed!”
“It was only my father who blessed you,” replied my Uncle Nathan.
“No, I am blessed, my cane is blessed! I could cast it down before you and you would be swallowed up!”
“You are the false magician, not I,” smiled my Uncle Nathan, his voice at ease.
“No,” hissed Davkin, “it is known, it is known,” and his eyes searched out to find our suffering elders, “you do not believe in God.”
“True,” my Uncle Nathan said, “I do not.”
“Then die!” screamed Davkin, and he cast down the cane — and our suffering elders felt deadened unto themselves.
My Uncle Nathan remained as he was.
Davkin, sobbing, fell to the floor, his tears praying to the ivory cane.
My Uncle Nathan remained as he was.
Davkin cried, and our suffering elders, one by one, walked through the great hall of the temple, crying to themselves, and out into the rain.
My Uncle Nathan, like myself years later, followed, with wonder.
Coyright © Ted Richer 2019.