A Scholar's Mother
: SHALOM ASCH
The market lies foursquare, surrounded on every side by low, whitewashed
little houses. From the chimney of the one-storied house opposite the
well and inhabited by the baker, issues thick smoke, which spreads low
over the market-place. Beneath the smoke is a flying to and fro of white
pigeons, and a tall boy standing outside the baker's door is whistling
Equally opposite the well are stalls, doo
s laid across two chairs and
covered with fruit and vegetables, and around them women, with
head-kerchiefs gathered round their weary, sunburnt faces in the hottest
weather, stand and quarrel over each other's wares.
"It's certainly worth my while to stand quarrelling with you! A tramp
like you keeping a stall!"
Yente, a woman about forty, whose wide lips have just uttered the above,
wears a large, dirty apron, and her broad, red face, with the composed
glance of the eyes under the kerchief, gives support to her words.
"Do you suppose you have got the Almighty by the beard? He is mine as
well as yours!" answers Taube, pulling her kerchief lower about her
ears, and angrily stroking down her hair.
A new customer approached Yente's stall, and Taube, standing by idle,
passed the time in vituperations.
"What do I want with the money of a fine lady like you? You'll die like
the rest of us, and not a dog will say Kaddish for you," she shrieked,
and came to a sudden stop, for Taube had intended to bring up the
subject of her own son Yitzchokel, when she remembered that it is
against good manners to praise one's own.
Yente, measuring out a quarter of pears to her customer, made answer:
"Well, if you were a little superior to what you are, your husband
wouldn't have died, and your child wouldn't have to be ashamed of you,
as we all know he is."
Whereon Taube flew into a rage, and shouted:
"Hussy! The idea of my son being ashamed of me! May you be a sacrifice
for his littlest finger-nail, for you're not worthy to mention his
She was about to burst out weeping at the accusation of having been the
cause of her husband's death and of causing her son to be ashamed of
her, but she kept back her tears with all her might in order not to give
pleasure to Yente.
The sun was dropping lower behind the other end of the little town, Jews
were hurrying across the market-place to Evening Prayer in the
house-of-study street, and the Cheder-boys, just let out, began to
gather round the well.
Taube collected her few little baskets into her arms (the door and the
chairs she left in the market-place; nobody would steal them), and with
two or three parting curses to the rude Yente, she quietly quitted the
Walking home with her armful of baskets, she thought of her son
Yente's stinging remarks pursued her. It was not Yente's saying that she
had caused her husband's death that she minded, for everyone knew how
hard she had worked during his illness, it was her saying that
Yitzchokel was ashamed of her, that she felt in her "ribs." It occurred
to her that when he came home for the night, he never would touch
anything in her house.
And thinking this over, she started once more abusing Yente.
"Let her not live to see such a thing, Lord of the World, the One
It seemed to her that this fancy of hers, that Yitzchokel was ashamed of
her, was all Yente's fault, it was all her doing, the witch!
"My child, my Yitzchokel, what business is he of yours?" and the cry
"Lord of the World, take up my quarrel, Thou art a Father to the
orphaned, Thou shouldst not forgive her this!"
"Who is that? Whom are you scolding so, Taube?" called out Necheh, the
rich man's wife, standing in the door of her shop, and overhearing
Taube, as she scolded to herself on the walk home.
"Who should it be, housemistress, who but the hussy, the abortion, the
witch," answered Taube, pointing with one finger towards the
market-place, and, without so much as lifting her head to look at the
person speaking to her, she went on her way.
She remembered, as she walked, how, that morning, when she went into
Necheh's kitchen with a fowl, she heard her Yitzchokel's voice in the
other room disputing with Necheh's boys over the Talmud. She knew that
on Wednesdays Yitzchokel ate his "day" at Necheh's table, and she had
taken the fowl there that day on purpose, so that her Yitzchokel should
have a good plate of soup, for her poor child was but weakly.
When she heard her son's voice, she had been about to leave the kitchen,
and yet she had stayed. Her Yitzchokel disputing with Necheh's children?
What did they know as compared with him? Did they come up to his level?
"He will be ashamed of me," she thought with a start, "when he finds me
with a chicken in my hand. So his mother is a market-woman, they will
say, there's a fine partner for you!" But she had not left the kitchen.
A child who had never cost a farthing, and she should like to know how
much Necheh's children cost their parents! If she had all the money that
Yitzchokel ought to have cost, the money that ought to have been spent
on him, she would be a rich woman too, and she stood and listened to his
"Oi, he should have lived to see Yitzchokel, it would have made him
well." Soon the door opened, Necheh's boys appeared, and her Yitzchokel
with them. His cheeks flamed.
"Good morning!" he said feebly, and was out at the door in no time. She
knew that she had caused him vexation, that he was ashamed of her before
And she asked herself: Her child, her Yitzchokel, who had sucked her
milk, what had Necheh to do with him? And she had poured out her
bitterness of heart upon Yente's head for this also, that her son had
cost her parents nothing, and was yet a better scholar than Necheh's
children, and once more she exclaimed:
"Lord of the World! Avenge my quarrel, pay her out for it, let her not
live to see another day!"
Passers-by, seeing a woman walking and scolding aloud, laughed.
Night came on, the little town was darkened.
Taube reached home with her armful of baskets, dragged herself up the
steps, and opened the door.
"Mame, it's Ma-a-me!" came voices from within.
The house was full of smoke, the children clustered round her in the
middle of the room, and never ceased calling out Mame! One child's voice
was tearful: "Where have you been all day?" another's more cheerful:
"How nice it is to have you back!" and all the voices mingled together
"Be quiet! You don't give me time to draw my breath!" cried the mother,
laying down the baskets.
She went to the fireplace, looked about for something, and presently the
house was illumined by a smoky lamp.
The feeble shimmer lighted only the part round the hearth, where Taube
was kindling two pieces of stick--an old dusty sewing-machine beside a
bed, sign of a departed tailor, and a single bed opposite the lamp,
strewn with straw, on which lay various fruits, the odor of which filled
the room. The rest of the apartment with the remaining beds lay in
It is a year and a half since her husband, Lezer the tailor, died. While
he was still alive, but when his cough had increased, and he could no
longer provide for his family, Taube had started earning something on
her own account, and the worse the cough, the harder she had to toil, so
that by the time she became a widow, she was already used to supporting
her whole family.
The eldest boy, Yitzchokel, had been the one consolation of Lezer the
tailor's cheerless existence, and Lezer was comforted on his death-bed
to think he should leave a good Kaddish behind him.
When he died, the householders had pity on the desolate widow, collected
a few rubles, so that she might buy something to traffic with, and,
seeing that Yitzchokel was a promising boy, they placed him in the
house-of-study, arranged for him to have his daily meals in the houses
of the rich, and bade him pass his time over the Talmud.
Taube, when she saw her Yitzchokel taking his meals with the rich, felt
satisfied. A weakly boy, what could she give him to eat? There, at the
rich man's table, he had the best of everything, but it grieved her that
he should eat in strange, rich houses--she herself did not know whether
she had received a kindness or the reverse, when he was taken off her
One day, sitting at her stall, she spied her Yitzchokel emerge from the
Shool-Gass with his Tefillin-bag under his arm, and go straight into the
house of Reb Zindel the rich, to breakfast, and a pang went through her
heart. She was still on terms, then, with Yente, because immediately
after the death of her husband everyone had been kind to her, and she
"Believe me, Yente, I don't know myself what it is. What right have I to
complain of the householders? They have been very good to me and to my
child, made provision for him in rich houses, treated him as if he were
no market-woman's son, but the child of gentlefolk, and yet every day
when I give the other children their dinner, I forget, and lay a plate
for my Yitzchokel too, and when I remember that he has his meals at
other people's hands, I begin to cry."
"Go along with you for a foolish woman!" answered Yente. "How would he
turn out if he were left to you? What is a poor person to give a child
to eat, when you come to think of it?"
"You are right, Yente," Taube replied, "but when I portion out the
dinner for the others, it cuts me to the heart."
And now, as she sat by the hearth cooking the children's supper, the
same feeling came over her, that they had stolen her Yitzchokel away.
When the children had eaten and gone to bed, she stood the lamp on the
table, and began mending a shirt for Yitzchokel.
Presently the door opened, and he, Yitzchokel, came in.
Yitzchokel was about fourteen, tall and thin, his pale face telling out
sharply against his black cloak beneath his black cap.
"Good evening!" he said in a low tone.
The mother gave up her place to him, feeling that she owed him respect,
without knowing exactly why, and it was borne in upon her that she and
her poverty together were a misfortune for Yitzchokel.
He took a book out of the case, sat down, and opened it.
The mother gave the lamp a screw, wiped the globe with her apron, and
pushed the lamp nearer to him.
"Will you have a glass of tea, Yitzchokel?" she asked softly, wishful to
"No, I have just had some."
"Or an apple?"
He was silent.
The mother cleaned a plate, laid two apples on it, and a knife, and
placed it on the table beside him.
He peeled one of the apples as elegantly as a grown-up man, repeated the
blessing aloud, and ate.
When Taube had seen Yitzchokel eat an apple, she felt more like his
mother, and drew a little nearer to him.
And Yitzchokel, as he slowly peeled the second apple, began to talk more
"To-day I talked with the Dayan about going somewhere else. In the
house-of-study here, there is nothing to do, nobody to study with,
nobody to ask how and where, and in which book, and he advises me to go
to the Academy at Makove; he will give me a letter to Reb Chayyim, the
headmaster, and ask him to befriend me."
When Taube heard that her son was about to leave her, she experienced a
great shock, but the words, Dayan, Rosh-Yeshiveh, mekarev-sein, and
other high-sounding bits of Hebrew, which she did not understand,
overawed her, and she felt she must control herself. Besides, the words
held some comfort for her: Yitzchokel was holding counsel with her, with
"Of course, if the Dayan says so," she answered piously.
"Yes," Yitzchokel continued, "there one can hear lectures with all the
commentaries; Reb Chayyim, the author of the book "Light of the Torah,"
is a well-known scholar, and there one has a chance of getting to be
His words entirely reassured her, she felt a certain happiness and
exaltation, because he was her child, because she was the mother of such
a child, such a son, and because, were it not for her, Yitzchokel would
not be there at all. At the same time her heart pained her, and she grew
Presently she remembered her husband, and burst out crying:
"If only he had lived, if only he could have had this consolation!"
Yitzchokel minded his book.
That night Taube could not sleep, for at the thought of Yitzchokel's
departure the heart ached within her.
And she dreamt, as she lay in bed, that some great Rabbis with tall fur
caps and long earlocks came in and took her Yitzchokel away from her;
her Yitzchokel was wearing a fur cap and locks like theirs, and he held
a large book, and he went far away with the Rabbis, and she stood and
gazed after him, not knowing, should she rejoice or weep.
Next morning she woke late. Yitzchokel had already gone to his studies.
She hastened to dress the children, and hurried to the market-place. At
her stall she fell athinking, and fancied she was sitting beside her
son, who was a Rabbi in a large town; there he sits in shoes and socks,
a great fur cap on his head, and looks into a huge book. She sits at his
right hand knitting a sock, the door opens, and there appears Yente
carrying a dish, to ask a ritual question of Taube's son.
A customer disturbed her sweet dream.
After this Taube sat up whole nights at the table, by the light of the
smoky lamp, rearranging and mending Yitzchokel's shirts for the journey;
she recalled with every stitch that she was sewing for Yitzchokel, who
was going to the Academy, to sit and study, and who, every Friday, would
put on a shirt prepared for him by his mother.
Yitzchokel sat as always on the other side of the table, gazing into a
book. The mother would have liked to speak to him, but she did not know
what to say.
Taube and Yitzchokel were up before daylight.
Yitzchokel kissed his little brothers in their sleep, and said to his
sleeping little sisters, "Remain in health"; one sister woke and began
to cry, saying she wanted to go with him. The mother embraced and
quieted her softly, then she and Yitzchokel left the room, carrying his
box between them.
The street was still fast asleep, the shops were still closed, behind
the church belfry the morning star shone coldly forth onto the cold
morning dew on the roofs, and there was silence over all, except in the
market-place, where there stood a peasant's cart laden with fruit. It
was surrounded by women, and Yente's voice was heard from afar:
"Five gulden and ten groschen,' and I'll take the lot!"
And Taube, carrying Yitzchokel's box behind him, walked thus through the
market-place, and, catching sight of Yente, she looked at her with
They came out behind the town, onto the highroad, and waited for an
"opportunity" to come by on its way to Lentschitz, whence Yitzchokel was
to proceed to Kutno.
The sky was grey and cold, and mingled in the distance with the dingy
mist rising from the fields, and the road, silent and deserted, ran away
out of sight.
They sat down beside the barrier, and waited for the "opportunity."
The mother scraped together a few twenty-kopek-pieces out of her pocket,
and put them into his bosom, twisted up in his shirt.
Presently a cart came by, crowded with passengers. She secured a seat
for Yitzchokel for forty groschen, and hoisted the box into the cart.
"Go in health! Don't forget your mother!" she cried in tears.
Yitzchokel was silent.
She wanted to kiss her child, but she knew it was not the thing for a
grown-up boy to be kissed, so she refrained.
Yitzchokel mounted the cart, the passengers made room for him among
"Remain in health, mother!" he called out as the cart set off.
"Go in health, my child! Sit and study, and don't forget your mother!"
she cried after him.
The cart moved further and further, till it was climbing the hill in the
Taube still stood and followed it with her gaze; and not till it was
lost to view in the dust did she turn and walk back to the town.
She took a road that should lead her past the cemetery.
There was a rather low plank fence round it, and the gravestones were
all to be seen, looking up to Heaven.
Taube went and hitched herself up onto the fence, and put her head over
into the "field," looking for something among the tombs, and when her
eyes had discovered a familiar little tombstone, she shook her head:
"Lezer, Lezer! Your son has driven away to the Academy to study Torah!"
Then she remembered the market, where Yente must by now have bought up
the whole cart-load of fruit. There would be nothing left for her, and
she hurried into the town.
She walked at a great pace, and felt very pleased with herself. She was
conscious of having done a great thing, and this dissipated her
annoyance at the thought of Yente acquiring all the fruit.
Two weeks later she got a letter from Yitzchokel, and, not being able to
read it herself, she took it to Reb Yochanan, the teacher, that he might
read it for her.
Reb Yochanan put on his glasses, cleared his throat thoroughly, and
began to read:
"Le-Immi ahuvossi hatzenuoh" ...
"What is the translation?" asked Taube.
"It is the way to address a mother," explained Reb Yochanan, and
Taube's face had brightened, she put her apron to her eyes and wept for
The reader observed this and read on.
"What is the translation, the translation, Reb Yochanan?" the woman kept
"Never mind, it's not for you, you wouldn't understand--it is an
exposition of a passage in the Gemoreh."
She was silent, the Hebrew words awed her, and she listened respectfully
to the end.
"I salute Immi ahuvossi and Achoissai, Sarah and Goldeh, and Ochi Yakov;
tell him to study diligently. I have all my 'days' and I sleep at Reb
Chayyim's," gave out Reb Yochanan suddenly in Yiddish.
Taube contented herself with these few words, took back the letter, put
it in her pocket, and went back to her stall with great joy.
"This evening," she thought, "I will show it to the Dayan, and let him
read it too."
And no sooner had she got home, cooked the dinner, and fed the children,
than she was off with the letter to the Dayan.
She entered the room, saw the tall bookcases filled with books covering
the walls, and a man with a white beard sitting at the end of the table
"What is it, a ritual question?" asked the Dayan from his place.
"A letter from my Yitzchokel."
The Dayan rose, came up and looked at her, took the letter, and began to
read it silently to himself.
"Well done, excellent, good! The little fellow knows what he is saying,"
said the Dayan more to himself than to her.
Tears streamed from Taube's eyes.
"If only he had lived! if only he had lived!"
"Shechitas chutz ... Rambam ... Tossafos is right ..." went on the
"Her Yitzchokel, Taube the market-woman's son," she thought proudly.
"Take the letter," said the Dayan, at last, "I've read it all through."
"Well, and what?" asked the woman.
"What? What do you want then?"
"What does it say?" she asked in a low voice.
"There is nothing in it for you, you wouldn't understand," replied the
Dayan, with a smile.
Yitzchokel continued to write home, the Yiddish words were fewer every
time, often only a greeting to his mother. And she came to Reb Yochanan,
and he read her the Yiddish phrases, with which she had to be satisfied.
"The Hebrew words are for the Dayan," she said to herself.
But one day, "There is nothing in the letter for you," said Reb
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing," he said shortly.
"Read me at least what there is."
"But it is all Hebrew, Torah, you won't understand."
"Very well, then, I won't understand...."
"Go in health, and don't drive me distracted."
Taube left him, and resolved to go that evening to the Dayan.
"Rebbe, excuse me, translate this into Yiddish," she said, handing him
The Dayan took the letter and read it.
"Nothing there for you," he said.
"Rebbe," said Taube, shyly, "excuse me, translate the Hebrew for me!"
"But it is Torah, an exposition of a passage in the Torah. You won't
"Well, if you would only read the letter in Hebrew, but aloud, so that I
may hear what he says."
"But you won't understand one word, it's Hebrew!" persisted the Dayan,
with a smile.
"Well, I won't understand, that's all," said the woman, "but it's my
child's Torah, my child's!"
The Dayan reflected a while, then he began to read aloud.
Presently, however, he glanced at Taube, and remembered he was
expounding the Torah to a woman! And he felt thankful no one had heard
"Take the letter, there is nothing in it for you," he said
compassionately, and sat down again in his place.
"But it is my child's Torah, my Yitzchokel's letter, why mayn't I hear
it? What does it matter if I don't understand? It is my own child!"
The Dayan turned coldly away.
When Taube reached home after this interview, she sat down at the table,
took down the lamp from the wall, and looked silently at the letter by
its smoky light.
She kissed the letter, but then it occurred to her that she was defiling
it with her lips, she, a sinful woman!
She rose, took her husband's prayer-book from the bookshelf, and laid
the letter between its leaves.
Then with trembling lips she kissed the covers of the book, and placed
it once more in the bookcase.