Wednesday, October 20, 2004

My Quarrel with Hersh Raseyner: pages 1-2

In 1937 I came to Bialystok, to the city where in 1930 I studied at the yeshiva of the adherents of Navaredok muser. I met many of my yeshiva friends still there. Several even came to the evening where I appeared. Others visited me at home, so that the rosh yeshiva wouldn’t know. I saw from their overgrown beards that they were suffering from their pauper’s bearing. Their youthful enthusiasm had burned out with time. Though they had piously observed all rules and customs, the weariness of difficult spiritual labors lay on them. They had tried for years to tear out the desire for the pleasures of life, and only later realized that the war with themselves was lost. They had not overcome the evil spirit.

I also met those who became even more pious with time, more serious and closed off. I expected – in vain – that they would, according to the practice of muser students, tell me off in no uncertain terms. They did not scold me. Some were friendly with me, but avoided getting into an argument, and others grunted with regret and looked at me as at a lost soul.

There was someone I looked for the whole time and didn’t find: my former friend Hersh Raseyner. He was a young man with pitch-black hair, with glowing, lowered eyes, always sunk in thought, stern and deeply silent. Only when he shook back and forth over Khoyves-halevoves could one hear his pained, melancholic voice. It was said about him that he had broken all the podiums in the study house while learning muser with enthusiasm. I didn’t run into him. But I heard that he was sitting somewhere in an attic, in seclusion, and didn’t even come to the yeshiva.

One time he came up to me unexpectedly on the street. He was striding hurriedly, head bent down, according to the practice of the Novaredokers who do not want to stay “eye to eye” with the world. Yet he noticed me. He brought his arms behind his back and pulled them into his sleeves, so he wouldn’t have to greet me. The closer he came to me, the higher he lifted his head. When we stood face to face, he looked at me sharply. His nostrils quivered with excitement – and he was silent.

Among the Novaredokers, if you ask: How are you? it means: Where are you in your Jewish life? Have you risen in spirituality? But I didn’t think of that, and simply asked:

“Hersh Raseyner, how are you?”

In the yeshiva people used to call themselves after the town they came from.

Hersh moved back away from me, considered me from head to toe, and, seeing that I was dressed up, gave a grimace of contempt and answered sternly:

“And how are you, Khayim Vilner? Isn’t my question the bigger one?”

I felt my lips tremble and I answered him:

“Your question, Hersh Raseyner, is no question at all. I do what I need to do.”


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