The Sacred Man
by Ted Richer
Old Siddur, in the rags of his father, came grimly to Adas Israel to stand before an open window, the glorious fall of the high holy day before him, thus to chant the prayers of his people, thus to atone for the wickedness of his soul in the spirited voice of his dead father. The face of Old Siddur was too thin, his body too burdened and broken, and his hands were too white; only his eyes were safe and not too sorry. The sound of Old Siddur singing was fearsome, and strange, and little children, myself among them, often cried, hearing the agony of Old Siddur’s life for the first time. Dead Rabbi Yahvsky had exercised his warning to the thin face of many years ago, but Old Siddur could not take heed, and so, in spite of little children, it came to pass that his awesome cry became a burdensome ritual in the Yom Kippur service of Adas Israel, a near holy ritual that some few good Jews argued and insisted must be borne until his death.
It was said of Old Siddur that he came from the old country, a thief in the home of his father, stealing from the grave of his mother, wandering the world with only his violin and his battered suitcase, a thin black box containing the one black suit of his poor rabbi father. It was again said of Old Siddur that he learned from the Talmud, that he wondrously debated the wisdom of the ages with his father and with the rabbis of old—and that it was one day discovered, both by the outraged father and by the cynical son, that Old Siddur had the mind of a prophet.
Adas Israel did not welcome Old Siddur. In the quiet, awful-struck winter of the first day of the twentieth century, when the despairing and despising cold punished ice against the heart and spirit of Adas Israel, when the world seemed empty and without life, Old Siddur found his way to the snow covered congregation. How he came, no one could say. How he found Rabbi Yahvsky, no one could divine. It was only said that Old Siddur screamed and shouted outside the unlucky house of Rabbi Yahvsky. Waving his violin, his voice screeching into the night, fitful and frenzied, he cursed out the name of Rabbi Yahvsky, cursed out the painful and obscene prayer that most certainly contributed to the death of his own father. Rabbi Yahvsky, a subdued and dignified man, cried out later, describing the experience as a nightmare; he could never quite believe, or understand, that he had awakened from sleep: standing at the door of his own house, the night and sleep still upon him, he pleaded with Old Siddur to tell him what he wanted. What Old Siddur said, Rabbi Yahvsky could not say. He was always too struck with the blood.
The blood, cried Rabbi Yahvsky, was all over his face and into his clothes. The blood, cried Rabbi Yahvsky again, touched the snow and flamed the whiteness there before his house, revealing a blazing sore in the being of Old Siddur. Why are you bleeding? gasped the rabbi.
“I am born!” screamed Old Siddur.
Rabbi Yahvsky fell back, horror stricken and dumb, a great swell of pain beginning in his body. He felt a sweft striking cry, a surging cry, come forth from his soul—and as he pushed against the ghost of Old Siddur, the door to his house swung shut.
Where Old Siddur went after that first encounter with Adas Israel no one knows. All that is known, and it was told in the voice of Rabbi Yahvsky, was that Old Siddur began his hatred of Adas Israel then; Rabbi Yahvsky could not forgive himself for not inviting Old Siddur into his house, and Old Siddur could not forgive Adas Israel for the same reason. Thus when it became known that Old Siddur was living on the outskirts of town, eyes could see him crawling through the ruins of the junkyard to reach his shack, fear and trembling entered into the lives of Adas Israel, fear and trembling that became intensified when the Christian world around Adas Israel began to call Old Siddur: The Jew!
It was said that only Rabbi Yahvsky remained strong. The richest Jew of Adas Israel, the richest Jew of all, the mighty man said to be Azazel, condemned Old Siddur to the face of Rabbi Yahvsky, called for Old Siddur’s banishment—but Rabbi Yahvsky remained strong and true. Azazel became wrathful, outraged, and one night, with two or three others at his side, he marched his powerful vengeance through the junkyard and almost to the opening of Old Siddur’s shack. There he stopped, reached himself down and picked up a heavy silver rod and pounded it to the ground, shouted out to Old Siddur with a coarse voice and with a drying tongue:
“You are hated here, Jew! Go before the morning comes!”
From deep inside the shack, from far within the center of the secret world, came the strange and solemn sound of a violin. The music searched out the black night, moved about the crystal air as if suspended in space forever, yet as if it sought to find a single resting place. Finally, dreadfully, it lasted into one, long, piercing note.
Azazel turned to the others, threw out his arms so, could only say:
“He is mad. Let him be.”
So it became a saying in Adas Israel that Old Siddur was mad. You are behaving like Old Siddur, began a famous reprimand to little children who had ventured from minding. And so it was inevitable that at one time, somewhere into the middle of the twentieth century, my father would turn to me in a moment of anger and say:
“You are the same as Old Siddur!”
A new and hallowed world became my own. I became a seeker of Old Siddur. Up until the time of my father’s accusation, I had only been truly aware of Old Siddur’s presence on the day of Yom Kippur. It was said that he only entered directly into the lives of Adas Israel on that day, and then for spite, and that all the other days of his life eyes could only see him collecting rags and old paper about the town. But when the day of that holy day arrived, so arrived Old Siddur. He came without invitation, he came without welcome. He never failed to find his way to the stained glass window, down the empty aisle of the suddenly hushed and silent synagogue he would come, all bent and stooped over in my day, as old as the world itself he seemed to me then, his face thin and ragged, his clothes torn and smelling of rats it was said, and then, just before reaching the calm and serious figure of Rabbi Yahvsky, he would turn to the rest of Adas Israel and bow, a low, sweeping, mocking bow. Striving then to the window, throwing it up and open no matter what the weather, Old Siddur would let go with the awesome wail of his voice, the agony of his life, and always, sooner or later, like the coming and going of life itself, Adas Israel would hear the shy and whispered crying of little children.
It is said that long before my birth the man said to be Azazel once offered Old Siddur a good share of his wealth to stay away from the Yom Kippur service. It is said, and I have heard it from my father, that Old Siddur smiled and then spit into the face of Azazel. Rabbi Yahvsky was then summoned to give Old Siddur a warning, but the warning was not taken, not actually given shouted the descendants of Azazel, and so Adas Israel simply had to come to accept Old Siddur as a curse upon their Yom Kippur service, a curse that would surely, someday, as the history of man struggled forward to another century, have an end.
What ended, however, as the years went by, was the life of Rabbi Yahvsky. Old he became, and so he died. Into his own house they came to pray for him, and into his own house appeared the form of Old Sddur; he came, not to pray, but to command Adas Israel to proclaim him rabbi of them all.
Old Siddur’s voice was strained when he said it was the second time he had issued forth this same command; he said, his voice rising to a fearful pitch, that if they refused him now, if they turned him away again, he would never again come forth, except at the time of the day of atonement. You will be forever doomed, he prophesied.
Now at the time of this second command the man said to be Azazel was also dead; dead, or without wealth, were also his descendants—and so the old feeling of Azazel toward old Siddur was not there. So it was that some few good Jews argued to honor Old Siddur’s command, insisting that it had actually been Rabbi Yahvsky’s dying wish, that any kind of rabbi was hard to find—and there are those, still living, who say it almost came to be. At last, however, because of what Adas Israel still believed Old Siddur represented to the Christian world, the decision was made to forgo a rabbi for Adas Israel, to forgo a rabbi for as long as Old Siddur lived—for fear, it is said, his prophecy of doom would come about.
Thus my seeking of Old Siddur was reinforced, made enduring. Constantly, now, I would follow his movements about the town, watch his careful and deliberate gathering of rags and old paper. You are the same as Old Siddur, sang in my ears, pounded in my heart. The holy, raging image that I witnessed in the person of Old Siddur became the embodiment of his prophecy of doom. I waited for the world to end.
At night I would crawl through the junkyard, my body becoming rankled, festered, my body scraping against the broken glass and ruined, rotting wood, the fear and feeling of fleeing rats all around me, the moon of Old Siddur a silver beacon that guided and urged me on to the hold sanctuary of his shack. There I would wait in the trembling silence, wait, my heart a touch of quicksilver in the night: I felt the messenger of a new faith.
Suddenly into the night would come the sound of his violin, a pale and perfect sound, the sacred music, I felt, the world must come to hear. I knew, at once, that I must learn to play Old Siddur’s music; if the world would not listen to the sound of Old Siddur, the world might listen to me. I had only to have Old Siddur become my teacher.
And so, one morning, in the prayerful time before another Yom Kippur, I attempted to secure a violin.
“Father,” I said, “I should like to earn some money.”
“I could use a helper,” my father said.
“No,” I said, “I need a lot of money.”
“I will pay you an honest wage,” he answered.
“That will not be enough,” I said.
My father placed his glasses to his eyes.
“Since when,” he asked, “is an honest wage not enough?”
“That isn’t what I mean,” I said. “I just need a lot of money fast.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I want to buy a violin,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “I want to play the violin.”
My father looked at me, quizzically, over the thin rims of his glasses.
“Since when have you been musical?” he asked.
I felt myself going desperate:
“I want to study with Old Siddur!” I shouted.
“Oh, my God,” my father screamed, “have you gone mad!”
“Please,” I implored.
“No, absolutely no!” he shouted.
Out into the world I ran; struggling through the streets of the town, striving past the wooden structure of Adas Israel, striding into and beyond the rusted and battered place of the junkyard, I struck my fist against the opening of Old Siddur’s shack.
Into the opening came Old Siddur. He was old, I felt him dying.
“I wish to play the violin,” I whispered.
He made no move.
“Will you teach me to play the violin?” I said, my voice becoming louder.
He made no move.
“I have no violin of my own,” I said, my voice becoming too loud. “I must learn from your violin.”
He made no move.
“I want to learn your music!” I shouted.
And then his hand came up. I felt a wonder as if in worship, and as his movement placed him again within the shack, I walked away.
And when the awesome eve of the high holy day found me beside my father and listening to the Kol Nidre, found me waiting for the day of Yom Kippur when Old Siddur would make his yearly entry into Adas Israel, a clear and crystal contempt entered my soul.
Then with my father at my side, we walked that night from the synagogue to our house and found upon our doorstep a violin, resting safely within a thin black box. In an ancient and worried scrawl I found the words: “May the music always be your own.”
Old Siddur did not come to that Yom Kippur service. Some few good Jews, my father among them, in panic and in prayer, wandered on that day of atonement and found Old Siddur dead in the sacred world of his shack—a sacred world for which the Mosaic code, it is said, prescribed the peculiar ceremony, and ritual, of sending the scapegoat to live in the wilderness as the bearer of the people’s sins.
Copyright © 2014 by Ted Richer.