chapter  VII
13 Pages

A Love Affair

In the summer of 1879 I left as primus the Christian Polish school, with some equipment for worldly life. The year 1880 was devoted partly to learning French and partly to getting into my stride as private tutor, in order to earn some money and assist father and mother to make both ends meet. Still, the strain began to tell, and the years in the Kheder, unhygienic conditions, underfeeding, and mental worry over our family conditions gradually impaired my health; indigestion set in, and I had no proper medical advice nor a suitable diet. Such little ailments, I thought, ought not to disturb me in my vocation. The result of not heeding the warnings of nature was chronic dyspepsia troubling me all my life, with moments of much distress, but it has not prevented my writing this chapter of recollections in the month of my seventieth birthday (July, 1934)3 enjoying the retrospect and hoping for a long prospect. I gave lessons in various houses belonging to well-to-do

and upper-class families, whose children would otherwise have never dreamt of consorting with the son of a butcher and ex-soldier. But somehow people of all classes were attracted to me, and some of the scions of the Pharisees sought my companionship. The Polish Jews of my time set learning above worldly goods; learning was for the low-born Jew the key by which to enter society. There were, however, only two of those young aristocrats, a youth and a girl, both somewhat older than I, whose association I coveted-Melchior Engelberg and Flora Millrad. Melchior was the son of David, the rosh-ha-kahal, head of

the community, an elderly man of striking personality and truly patriarchal appearance, who enjoyed a great reputation among Jew and Gentile for upright dealing. David Engelberg

owned a large store, stocked with colonial wares, delicacies, wines and liqueurs, and adjoining it an elegant refreshment room, frequented by the Polish gentry and government officials. He was a lover of old Hebrew literature, but always painstakingly on his guard against “ enlightened” books. My friend Melchior, with a finely shaped head and slim figure, and free from the damnosa hereditas Judaica, was possessed of considerable natural gifts for music; he played the violin and the flute, and was boundlessly devoted to Mozart and Beethoven. He secretly studied modern Hebrew and German literature, and was an adherent of haskala. We used to lock ourselves in his room and read progressive Hebrew papers and pamphlets, then Lessing, Schiller, Heine, and Moses Mendelssohn, a liberal philosophical writer, and a friend of Lessing and pioneer of German culture among the Jewry. Once we got hold also of a German translation of Shelley’s Queen Mab, which we thought outrageously blasphemous and not fit for a Jew; we burnt it. Later on we passed to reading the rabbinic mediaeval works on Arabic-Jewish philosophy, and, finally, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Tractate and Ethics. In Hebrew composition and prosody, and generally in the aesthetic appreciation of poetry, he surpassed me; in all other subjects I took the lead. Our friendship lasted till 1889, the year of my departure for Germany. In the last weeks preceding our separation we were constantly together; our final discussion turned upon the Kantian antinomies, the proofs for and against the existence of God. At the end he appeared embarrassed in his reasonings, and declared: “My dearest friend, I am a bad logician and I am not pious in the usual Jewish sense, but I do believe with all my heart in God, the soul, and immortality. Music tells me so; it is the message of an incorporeal world.” “ But it depends on the messenger,” I rejoined. Melchior

smiled; and, after a hearty embrace, we parted. My friendship with Flora Millrad was as delightful an

35 intellectual intimacy, though one, unfortunately, of short duration, and I paid for with agonizing distress. Her father, Shulim, a rich, proud Pharisee, was a farmer of the meat excise and exporter of timber and corn to Prussia. Sturdy, energetic, a Mr. Worldly Wiseman, sarcastic o f tongue, he was feared rather than respected. A few months after my entrance into his house, as tutor to his two boys, he somehow liked to entangle me in conversation, to give me his mind and to make me feel small. It was in the winter of 1881 that he once addressed me, saying: “Well, my young schoolmaster, always studying those Polish, German, and haskala books? Let me tell you, all that learning is muck; it is useful if spread on the fields to make the corn grow and to increase wealth; but if not used, it is just rotten stuff, an evil-smelling nuisance. The main thing is to make a profitable use of worldly learning. My experience is that schoolmasters hardly ever make good business men; they generally get stuck in their muck.” Another time he asked me “Do you know what money is?”