Poetry Porch: Prose


by Ted Richer

        He was called Scriba. Living in his small, dark attic, he claimed he was writing out the Law, making his own Sacred Book. Someone said he kept track of every wise word, scribbling down what was said on tissue papers he kept in his inside jacket pocket, next to his heart. I remember my father saying, “See, Scriba has written it down!” or “Oh, I wish Scriba had heard me say that, he would have written it down!” I would sometimes sit with my father in the synagogue, staring at Scriba and making up wise sayings in my head. I, too, like my father and everyone else in the world, had this overwhelming wish to be in Scriba’s Sacred Book.

        Like a time without history, with all truth lost and no one ever knowing, the universe wakes up in the beginning all over again. One face says to another: “Did you know?” and the other face exclaims: “No, isn’t that amazing!” and the first face says: “I wonder if Scriba has that written down?” I once said to my father: “Is it true, like the rabbi says, that there is only one copy of Scriba’s book?”

        My father, slightly frowning, said: “Of course, he is still writing it.”

        “I wonder if he would let me read it?”

        “Why?” my father asked.

        Sometimes, it seemed then, my father was always asking me: “Why?”

        “I’d like to find out what’s in it.”

        “It is not a book for reading,” my father said, pointing his finger at me. “It is only a record, for the generations to come, so the truth will not be lost.”

        “But I’d like to know the truth, too,” I said. “Why should only the generations to come know it?”

        My father, a tall, gray man, gathered himself up: “No one can know the truth while he lives,” he said. “That is impossible!”

        Then my father smiled: “Scriba should write that down.”

        Suddenly I said: “But what if that is already written down? What if everything is already written down?”

        “How can that be?” my father said, amazed. “Could it be that Scriba has heard everything?”

        My father, oh my father, simply stared at me: “I know,” he said, “that couldn’t be.”

        So then I shouted: “But what if somebody else has written it down? What if somebody else, long before Scriba, did the same thing?”

        My father was stunned: “Who could that be?”

        “Anybody,” I shouted. “Anybody at all!”

        So now my father was shouting back: “But why would anybody want to do that?”

        So I gave it all I had: “Why would Scriba!”

        My father, suddenly exhausted, whispered: “But that is all he has — he has no other life. He has nothing else to do. Scriba is a fool.”

        Life turns us all around. We spin and whirl in the universe — and we never find the center. One old man says to another: “Is this all there is?” and the other old man sighs: “This is it!” and the first old man says: “Thus it is written.”

        I once said to the rabbi: “What does it mean — to write out the Law?”

        The rabbi, it seemed, seldom heard me, so I asked again: “What does it mean — to write out the Law?”

        “I heard you,” the rabbi said. “I am thinking out the answer.”

        I waited in the rabbi’s study. I looked at the strange books and the rabbi’s old face and out the stained glass window — where the world, like myself, waited: the world and myself waited for the rabbi to think out his answer. Ages and ages passed. Finally, he said: “There are two sides to the truth — the right side and the wrong side. Ah, yes . . . right and wrong.” Then his old face brightened: “First you write out the right side . . . and then you write out the wrong side — and that is what it means to write out the Law.”

        “Is that how it is with Scriba?” I asked.

        “Well,” the rabbi said, pressing the palm of his right hand against his forehead, “he claims he is writing out the Law, making his own Sacred Book.” The rabbi tapped his forehead with his left hand: “But I am not the one to judge him. For me . . . there is only one Sacred Book . . . so I think, why should there be two?” The rabbi smiled: “I think Scriba is wasting his time.”

        “You mean,” I said, a slight shiver in my spine, “you think there is a real Sacred Book?”

        The rabbi, like my father, simply stared at me.

        Time, then, takes us along. We pass from one day to another, losing life and finding . . . what? Scriba lives alone in his attic, wasting time and writing down on tissue papers God knows what? — and here we live, so inside ourselves, lost and listening, thinking up questions and waiting for answers. I once said to my father: “Have you read the Bible?”

        “Why?” my father asked.

        “Do you know what’s in it?”

        “The truth is in it.”

        “How do you know?”

        My father sighed: “It is a matter of faith.”

        “Is the Law in it?” I asked.


        “What Law?”

        My father smiled: “That is a good question — you should ask the rabbi.”

        “No one knows the Law,” I said.

        “The rabbi knows.”

        “He only knows right and wrong,” I said.

        “But that is the Law,” my father said. “There is nothing else to know.”

        I held my breath. Then, I said: “I would like to know the Torah.”


        “Scriba says the Torah has been forgotten.”


        “He says he is trying to bring it back to mind.”

        “You know Scriba?”

        “Sort of . . .”


        “I talked with him . . . once.”


        “In the library.”

        My father, disbelieving, said: “What is he like?”

        Scriba is like no one else. To see him: slight, thin, balding, not really old, with his patched jacket — you might think him some poor devil or petty hack, perhaps a clerk, a silly copyist, scribbling away for his demon. You might be turned away by his extraordinary strength of purpose, given his fanatical eyes. He said he knew “how to act firmly, refusing to be turned aside by pity or any other soft feeling” and it glowered in his dark eyes. You might not respond to his voice, cracked, and gasping, hard to catch, frightening. You might not like it when that voice would quote, for your benefit: “The Ignoramus, says Hillel, cannot be truly pious!” or when he would spit out: “There is only one way to live — with strict obedience to the Law!” You should find it hard to take when he would say to your face: “I am appalled at your lack of learning!” Make no mistake, Scriba would give you no excuse. Call him “fool” — say he is “wasting his time” — cry “I don’t believe!” — and Scriba would only shake his head, place his pen to new tissue papers — and keep on writing out the Law, making his own Sacred Book.

        I would see Scriba in the library. Once, I said: “Hi!” and he nodded back. Silently, I would follow him, into and around the stacks, row after row, watching him look up — and then look down. One day I found him, alone, in the reading room. I could barely say: “Scriba . . .”

        He turned, his eyes holding mine: “My name is Ezra.”

        “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought . . .”

        “I am Scriba,” he said, “but you should call me Ezra to my face.”

        I could feel myself tremble: “What do you do?” I asked.

        “I am writing out the Torah,” he said, “from my memory.”

        I could feel a choking in my throat: “Why?”

        He turned in a circle. “The Torah has been forgotten,” he said, “I am bringing it back to mind.”

        “I see you in the synagogue,” I said.

        “I am there.”

        I felt I should say it: “Everyone thinks you are writing down what they say.”

        “They say nothing!” he shouted. “Ignoramuses!”

        He turned in another circle. I said: “The rabbi says you are writing out the Law, making your own Sacred Book.”


        I hesitated: “Could I see it?”

        “I live in the synagogue’s attic,” he said. “Someday, if you learn to understand, you could come by.”

        He said “Shalom!” and walked away.

        Time passes, and we think we understand. Suddenly, we have answers to questions — and we wonder why. Scriba moves about the library, nods and curses and cajoles. A son says to his father: “Scriba must have money — he’s always in the library!” and the father sighs: “Of course, the synagogue takes care of him!” and the son wonders: “Why?” Learning, we think, makes us understand — and Scriba should write that down. In the synagogue, he listens to your song, sings his own, curses again, continues “to act firmly, refusing to be turned aside by pity or any other soft feeling” and you see it in his eyes.

        So we come to understand. Time passes — and ah life we know — and so we come to cry, struggling up through the synagogue to Scriba’s small, dark attic: “I don’t believe!”

        Still, I couldn’t say it right away. I would knock on Scriba’s door, say: “Ezra . . .”

        But the door was open. There he was, bent at his desk, a long pen in his hand, writing. No window in his place, a single light, shadows, a bed. His back remained to me — and I waited. His pen made a scratching sound. I said: “Ezra, I am here.”

        He turned, looked at me.

        “I have come to see your book,” I said.

        He continued to look at me.

        “You said I could see your book.”

        He stood up, placed his hand upon a single sheet of paper, said: “Here.”

        I walked over to the desk. The paper was parchment, one single sheet. I held it to the light.

        “I can’t read it,” I said.

        “Do you know the language?”

        “I guess not.”

        He cursed.

        “I’m sorry,” I said.

        “You are still an Ignoramus!” he shouted.

        “It’s not my fault,” I said.

        “I am appalled at your lack of learning!”

        He said it to my face. Then, he made a movement — it was goodbye.

        The paper was still in my hand. I said: “Where is your book?”

        His back was to me: “In your hand,” he said.

        I wished to die.

        “Will you read it to me?” I asked.

        He came over, ripping at his jacket, suddenly weeping before me. I handed him the paper, and with his voice, sobbing, he read: “The Sabbath is not being properly observed and the sacrifices are being neglected and the men are taking foreign wives.”

        His voice stopped. He slumped to his desk.

        Still, I had to cry: “I don’t believe!”

        Scriba only shook his head, placed his pen to new tissue papers and kept on writing out the Law, making his own Sacred Book.

Copyright © 2016 by Ted Richer.