The Fifth Servant - By Kenneth Wishnia



I sat up and looked out the attic window over the sloping rooftops on the north side of Broad Street, which the German-speaking Jews called the Breitgasse. It was too early to see the horizon. The city and sky were an inseparable mass of darkness, and the scream’s dying echoes evaporated into the air, like the breath I could see coming out of my mouth.

I was in bed with two strange men—the mikveh attendant and the street cleaner—and the room was damn near freezing. It was spring by the calendar, but it was still winter at heart, and I could feel in my bones that it was going to rain, like it did every year on the Christian holiday of Good Friday. I’d have bet five gold pieces on it, but there weren’t any takers, and I didn’t have five gold pieces. If you turned out my pockets, all you’d get for your troubles would be a few lonely coppers and some mighty fine lint imported all the way from the Kingdom of Poland.

But something had jarred me awake. Like it says in the Megillas Esther, the king found no rest, so I listened intently, the fog of sleep still swirling around in my head.

Muffled and ghostly, a distant cry floated over the narrow streets of the Jewish Town:


Goose bumps rose on my arms, as if the spirit of God had blown right past me and withdrawn from the room. If a Christian child was missing from its bed we were sure to be accused, and all of a sudden I was reduced to being just another Jew in a city that tolerated us, surrounded by an empire full of people who hated us.

Did I come all the way from the quiet town of Slonim just to get butchered by a bunch of latter-day Crusaders? And if the Jews got scattered, or worse, I might never see my wife Reyzl again.

Acosta’s shadow filled the doorway. “Hey, newcomer, shlof gikher, me darf di betgevant.” Sleep faster, I need the sheets, said the night watchman, his rough-edged Yiddish softened by the rolling R’s and open vowels of his Sephardic accent.

“Did you hear that shouting?” I asked, planting my feet on the cold floor. “Any trouble out there?”

“You just stick to your morning rounds and let the watchmen handle it, all right?”

My knees cracked as I stood up and groped around in the darkness for the pitcher and basin.

Seven people crammed into two beds. Three men in one, a family of peasants in the other, part of the yearly crush of country folk visiting the imperial city for the week from Shabbes Hagodl to Pesach. The country folk had washed their bodies for the Great Sabbath the week before, but their clothes still had the overripe tang of a barnful of animals.

The night watchman took it all in and said, “What, there wasn’t room for the goat?”

I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing. It wasn’t good to joke around until I chased away the evil spirits that had settled on my hands during the night, and said the first prayers of the new day. Fortunately, the rabbi in Slonim had taught me how to get rid of the invisible demons by washing them off my hands in a basin of standing water.

Every year on Shabbes Hagodl, we listen to the Lord’s words to His servant Malakhi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Then we watch and wait for a mysterious stranger who appears around this time of year and asks to be seated at the Seder. And woe to the family that turns the stranger away from their door! Because he just might be the herald of the Messiah himself.

Such is the faith that has guided us through so many narrow scrapes. When the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, we rebuilt the temple out of words and called it the Talmud—a temple of ideas that we can carry around with us wherever we go.

And so we outlasted the Roman Empire, and we’ll outlast this empire, too.

The watchman pulled off his boots, grabbed his share of the blanket, and was snoring by the time I faced the eastern wall and said my morning Sh’ma. I paid special attention to the part about teaching your children the word of God in order to prolong your days and the days of your children.

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