Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Synagogue
By Sir Walter Besant (1836–1901)
From ‘The Rebel Queen’

  “D’un jour intérieur je me sens éclairé,
Et j’entends une voix qui me dit d’espérer.”—LAMARTINE.

“ARE you ready, Francesca?”  1
  Nelly ran lightly down the narrow stairs, dressed for Sabbath and Synagogue. She was dainty and pretty at all times in the matter of dress, but especially on a summer day, which affords opportunity for bright color and bright drapery and an ethereal appearance. This morning she was full of color and light. When, however, she found herself confronted with Francesca’s simple gray dress, so closely fitting, so faultless, and her black-lace hat with its single rose for color, Nelly’s artistic sense caused her heart to sink like lead. It is not for nothing that one learns and teaches the banjo; one Art leads to another; she who knows music can feel for dress. “Oh!” she cried, clasping her hands. “That’s what we can never do!”  2
  “What?”  3
  “That fit! Look at me! Yet they call me clever. Clara gives me the new fashions and I copy them, and the girls in our street copy me—poor things!—and the dressmaker comes to talk things over and to learn from me. I make everything for myself. And they call me clever! But I can’t get near it; and if I can’t nobody can.”…  4
  A large detached structure of red brick stood east and west, with a flat façade and round windows that bore out the truth of the date—1700—carved upon the front. A word or two in that square character—that tongue which presents so few attractions to most of us compared with other tongues—probably corroborated the internal evidence of the façade and the windows.  5
  “This is the synagogue,” said Nelly. She entered, and turning to the right, led the way up-stairs to a gallery running along the whole side of the building. On the other side was another gallery. In front of both was a tolerably wide grill, through which the congregation below could be seen perfectly.  6
  “This is the women’s gallery,” whispered Nell—there were not many women present. “We’ll sit in the front. Presently they will sing. They sing beautifully. Now they’re reading prayers and the Law. They’ve got to read the whole Law through once a week, you know.” Francesca looked curiously through the grill. When one is in a perfectly strange place, the first observations made are of small and unimportant things. She observed that there was a circular inclosure at the east end, as if for an altar; but there was no altar: two doors indicated a cupboard in the wall. There were six tall wax-lights burning round the inclosure, although the morning was fine and bright. At the west end a high screen kept the congregation from the disturbance of those who entered or went out. Within the screen was a company of men and boys, all with their hats and caps on their heads; they looked like the choir. In front of the choir was a platform railed round. Three chairs were placed at the back of the platform. There was a table covered with red velvet, on which lay the book of the Law, a ponderous roll of parchment provided with silver staves or handles. Before this desk or table stood the Reader. He was a tall and handsome man, with black hair and full black beard, about forty years of age. He wore a gown and large Geneva bands, like a Presbyterian minister; on his head he had a kind of biretta. Four tall wax candles were placed round the front of the platform. The chairs were occupied by two or three elders. A younger man stood at the desk beside the Reader. The service was already begun—it was, in fact, half over.  7
  Francesca observed next that all the men wore a kind of broad scarf, made of some white stuff about eight feet long and four feet broad. Bands of black or blue were worked in the ends, which were also provided with fringes. “It is the Talleth,” Nelly whispered. Even the boys wore this white robe, the effect of which would have been very good but for the modern hat, tall or pot, which spoiled all. Such a robe wants a turban above it, not an English hat. The seats were ranged along the synagogue east and west. The place was not full, but there were a good many worshipers. The service was chanted by the Reader. It was a kind of chant quite new and strange to Francesca. Like many young persons brought up with no other religion than they can pick up for themselves, she was curious and somewhat learned in the matter of ecclesiastical music and ritual, which she approached, owing to her education, with unbiased mind. She knew masses and anthems and hymns and chants of all kinds; never had she heard anything of this kind before. It was not congregational, or Gregorian; nor was it repeated by the choir from side to side; nor was it a monotone with a drop at the end; nor was it a florid, tuneful chant such as one may hear in some Anglican services. This Reader, with a rich, strong voice, a baritone of great power, took nearly the whole of the service—it must have been extremely fatiguing—upon himself, chanting it from beginning to end. No doubt, as he rendered the reading and the prayers, so they had been given by his ancestors in Spain and Portugal generation after generation, back into the times when they came over in Phœnician ships to the Carthaginian colonies, even before the dispersion of the Ten Tribes. It was a traditional chant of antiquity beyond record—not a monotonous chant. Francesca knew nothing of the words; she grew tired of trying to make out whereabouts on the page the Reader might be in the book lent her, which had Hebrew on one side and English on the other. Besides, the man attracted her—by his voice, by his energy, by his appearance. She closed her book and surrendered herself to the influence of the voice and the emotions which it expressed.  8
  There was no music to help him. From time to time the men in the congregation lifted up their voices—not seemingly in response, but as if moved to sudden passion and crying out with one accord. This helped him a little, otherwise he was without any assistance.  9
  A great Voice. The man sometimes leaned over the Roll of the Law, sometimes he stood upright, always his great Voice went up and down and rolled along the roof and echoed along the benches of the women’s gallery. Now the Voice sounded a note of rejoicing; now, but less often, a note of sadness; now it was a sharp and sudden cry of triumph. Then the people shouted with him—it was as if they clashed sword on shield and yelled for victory; now it was a note of defiance, as when men go forth to fight an enemy; now it sank to a murmur, as of one who consoles and soothes and promises things to come; now it was a note of rapture, as if the Promised Land was already recovered.  10
  Was all that in the Voice? Did the congregation, all sitting wrapped in their white robes, feel these emotions as the Voice thundered and rolled? I know not. Such was the effect produced upon one who heard this Voice for the first time. At first it seemed loud, even barbaric; there was lacking something which the listener and stranger had learned to associate with worship. What was it? Reverence? But she presently found reverence in plenty, only of a kind that differed from that of Christian worship. Then the listener made another discovery. In this ancient service she missed the note of humiliation. There was no Litany at a Faldstool. There was no kneeling in abasement; there was no appearance of penitence, sorrow, or the confession of sins. The Voice was as the Voice of a Captain exhorting his soldiers to fight. The service was warlike, the service of a people whose trust in their God is so great that they do not need to call perpetually upon Him for the help and forgiveness of which they are assured. Yes, yes—she thought—this is the service of a race of warriors; they are fighting men: the Lord is their God; He is leading them to battle: as for little sins, and backslidings, and penitences, they belong to the Day of Atonement—which comes once a year. For all the other days in the year, battle and victory occupy all the mind. The service of a great fighting people; a service full of joy, full of faith, full of assurance, full of hope and confidence—such assurance as few Christians can understand, and of faith to which few Christians can attain. Perhaps Francesca was wrong; but these were her first impressions, and these are mostly true.  11
  In the body of the synagogue men came late. Under one gallery was a school of boys, in the charge of a graybeard, who, book in hand, followed the service with one eye, while he admonished perpetually the boys to keep still and to listen. The boys grew restless; it was tedious to them—the Voice which expressed so much to the stranger who knew no Hebrew at all was tedious to the children; they were allowed to get up and run into the court outside and then to come back again; nobody heeded their going in and out. One little boy of three, wrapped, like the rest, in a white Talleth, ran up and down the side aisle without being heeded—even by the splendid Beadle with the gold-laced hat, which looked so truly wonderful above the Oriental Talleth. The boys in the choir got up and went in and out just as they pleased. Nobody minded. The congregation, mostly well-to-do men with silk hats, sat in their places, book in hand, and paid no attention.  12
  Under the opposite gallery sat two or three rows of worshipers, who reminded Francesca of Browning’s poem of St. John’s Day at Rome. For they nudged and jostled each other; they whispered things; they even laughed over the things they whispered. But they were clad like those in the open part in the Talleth, and they sat book in hand, and from time to time they raised their voices with the congregation. They showed no reverence except that they did not talk or laugh loudly. They were like the children, their neighbors,—just as restless, just as uninterested, just as perfunctory. Well, they were clearly the poorer and the more ignorant part of the community. They came here and sat through the service because they were ordered so to do; because, like Passover, and the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Fast of Atonement, it was the Law of their People.  13
  The women in the gallery sat or stood. They neither knelt nor sang aloud; they only sat when it was proper to sit, or stood when it was proper to stand. They were like the women, the village women, in a Spanish or Italian church, for whom everything is done. Francesca, for the moment, felt humiliated that she should be compelled to sit apart from the congregation, railed off in the women’s gallery, to have her religion done for her, without a voice of her own in it at all. So, I have heard, indignation sometimes fills the bosom of certain ladies when they reflect upon the fact that they are excluded from the choir, and forbidden even to play the organ in their own parish church.  14
  The chanting ceased; the Reader sat down. Then the Choir began. They sang a hymn—a Hebrew hymn—the rhythm and metre were not English; the music was like nothing that can be heard in a Christian Church. “It is the music,” said Nelly, “to which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea:” a bold statement, but—why not? If the music is not of Western origin and character, who can disprove such an assertion? After the hymn the prayers and reading went on again.  15
  There came at last—it is a long service, such as we poor weak-kneed Anglicans could not endure—the end. There was a great bustle and ceremony on the platform; they rolled up the Roll of the Law; they wrapped it in a purple velvet cloth; they hung over it a silver breastplate set with twelve jewels for the Twelve Tribes—in memory of the Urim and Thummim. Francesca saw that the upper ends of the staves were adorned with silver pomegranates and with silver bells, and they placed it in the arms of one of those who had been reading the law; then a procession was formed, and they walked, while the Choir sang one of the Psalms of David—but not in the least like the same Psalm sung in an English Cathedral—bearing the Roll of the Law to the Ark, that is to say, to the cupboard, behind the railing and inclosure at the east end.  16
  The Reader came back. Then with another chanted Prayer—it sounded like a prolonged shout of continued Triumph—he ended his part of the service.  17
  And then the choir sang the last hymn—a lovely hymn, not in the least like a Christian, or at least an English hymn—a psalm that breathed a tranquil hope and a perfect faith. One needed no words to understand the full meaning and beauty and depth of that hymn.  18
  The service was finished. The men took off their white scarfs and folded them up. They stood and talked in groups for a few minutes, gradually melting away. As for the men under the gallery, who had been whispering and laughing, they trooped out of the synagogue all together. Evidently, to them the service was only a form. What is it, in any religion, but a form, to the baser sort?  19
  The Beadle put out the lights. Nelly led the way down the stairs. Thinking of what the service had suggested to herself—all those wonderful things above enumerated—Francesca wondered what it meant to a girl who heard it every Sabbath morning. But she refrained from asking. Custom too often takes the symbolism out of the symbols and the poetry out of the verse. Then the people begin to worship the symbols and make a fetich of the words. We have seen this elsewhere—in other forms of faith. Outside they found Emanuel. They had not seen him in the congregation, probably because it is difficult to recognize a man merely by the top of his hat.  20
  “Come,” he said, “let us look around the place. Afterwards, perhaps, we will talk of our Service. This synagogue is built on the site of the one erected by Manasseh and his friends when Oliver Cromwell permitted them to return to London after four hundred years of exile. They were forced to wear yellow hats at first, but that ordinance soon fell into disuse, like many other abominable laws. When you read about mediæval laws, Francesca, remember that when they were cruel or stupid they were seldom carried into effect, because the arm of the executive was weak. Who was there to oblige the Jews to wear the yellow hat? The police? There were no police. The people? What did the people care about the yellow hat? When the Fire burned down London, sparing not even the great Cathedral, to say nothing of the Synagogue, this second Temple arose, equal in splendor to the first. At that time all the Jews in London were Sephardim of Spain and Portugal and Italy. Even now there are many of the people here who speak nothing among themselves but Spanish, just as there are Askenazim who speak nothing among themselves but Yiddish. Come with me; I will show you something that will please you.”  21
  He led the way into another flagged court, larger than the first. There were stone staircases, mysterious doorways, paved passages, a suggestion of a cloister, an open space or square, and buildings on all sides with windows opening upon the court.  22
  “It doesn’t look English at all,” said Francesca. “I have seen something like it in a Spanish convent. With balconies and a few bright hangings and a black-haired woman at the open windows, and perhaps a coat of arms carved upon the wall, it would do for part of a Spanish street. It is a strange place to find in the heart of London.”  23
  “You see the memory of the Peninsula. What were we saying yesterday? Spain places her own seal upon everything that belongs to her—people, buildings, all. What you see here is the central Institute of our People, the Sephardim—the Spanish part of our People. Here is our synagogue, here are schools, alms-houses, residence of the Rabbi, and all sorts of things. You can come here sometimes and think of Spain, where your ancestors lived. Many generations in Spain have made you—as they have made me—a Spaniard.”  24
  They went back to the first court. On their way out, as they passed the synagogue, there came running across the court a girl of fifteen or so. She was bareheaded; a mass of thick black hair was curled round her shapely head; her figure was that of an English girl of twenty; her eyes showed black and large and bright as she glanced at the group standing in the court; her skin was dark; she was oddly and picturesquely dressed in a grayish-blue skirt, with a bright crimson open jacket. The color seemed literally to strike the eye. The girl disappeared under a doorway, leaving a picture of herself in Francesca’s mind—a picture to be remembered.  25
  “A Spanish Jewess,” said Emanuel. “An Oriental. She chooses by instinct the colors that her great-grandmother might have worn to grace the triumph of David the King.”  26

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