Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, published by St. Martin's Press, and winner of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
The Madonna in the Monastery
Nehemia is a Hebrew novel by Yakov Z. Mayer published in Israel to rave reviews in January 2019. The novel is based on the real historical figure of Nehemia HaCohen, a Polish kabbalist who denounced the false Messiah Shabbtai Zvi as an imposter. In this richly imagined, brilliantly allusive, and raucously funny picaresque, Nehemia is also a Torah scholar, a crook, and a sworn vagabond who leaves his wife and daughters back in Poland to set off on a journey where he will encounter sages, robbers, prophets, visionaries, a bird that quotes the Bible in rhyming quatrains, and even a Shakespearean actor who once met Shakespeare himself. In the passage below, which is taken from the middle of the book, Nehemia tries to pass as a Christian pilgrim, pretending to worship the Madonna while en route to the Messiah.
The early morning chill permeated Nehemia’s bones, and the site of the fracture ached. He leaned on his walking stick and limped to the place where he’d arranged to meet the wagon driver – he’d rented an entire wagon to himself, at full price. His face stung from the tincture he’d rubbed over his flesh, which had already started to rot. For a week or two his face would hurt as the skin shriveled, Nehemia knew, and then it would return to normal.
His clothes were filthy and torn – he had slaved over them with acid and mud to make them look sufficiently worn. The coins he had amassed along the way were secured in a pocket sewn into his clothes. Nehemia traveled west along the main road, to Olkusz, where he paid the wagon driver his fare, adding an extra ten groszy as hush money. He changed wagons at Katowice and alighted at the northern junction, which was deserted. Two roads led out from that point, a side road the Jews took to Mizkow and from there to Janow, and a wide thoroughfare the non-Jews took northwards. Nehemia crossed the dusty road and stood facing north, toward Czestochowa.
It was the middle of the day and the sun stood at its zenith. The crusty layer of skin on Nehemia’s right temple and on his nose had already turned black and his entire forehead was wrinkled. A wagon arrived, this time driven by a non-Jew. Two Jews alighted and turned east toward Janow. “Reb Jew, you’ll want to head to Janow from here – Jews are forbidden to continue in that direction,” one of them called to him. Nehemia trembled and promptly examined himself to make sure no strand of tzitzit was peeking out from beneath his shirt and no sidelock had escaped his hat. He lifted his head and shouted back in Goyish, “You filthy Jew, scram!” The man, bewildered, sat down with his friend by the side of the road to wait for the wagon to Janow.
Nehemia hunched his back further. The tincture had toughened his skin, making it hard for him to move his features and forcing him to contort his face so as to be able to breathe. He cleared his throat once or twice and tried to adopt a sufficiently foreign accent so that his Jewishness would not be perceptible. The wagon driver stopped alongside him and Nehemia boarded the back of the wagon and sat among the passengers. “Ivan,” he responded to the leper he sat down beside, “from Kiev. En route to the monastery in Czestochowa, to kneel before the Black Madonna.” He lifted his right hand to his head and passed it over his shoulder, in a sort of half cross. The leper’s name was Gyorgy, a Greek, born Orthodox in Athens; then he turned Catholic and was struck with leprosy. “In order to always remember,” he smiled horridly—he had no lips, and the roots of his last remaining teeth protruded from the rotting flesh of his face—“whom the body belongs to, and whom the soul.” He removed a piece of sausage and bread from his raiment, cut a thin slice, and offered it to Nehemia. “You ought to accept,” the leper said when Nehemia politely declined. “It’s not every day that people like us can eat such delicacies. It came from the bishop of Krakow.” “I’m fasting,” Nehemia said, “in honor of Our Lady.” He once again passed his hand from the crown of his head to his shoulder.
“Ahh,” the leper said admiringly while chewing heartily. “In honor of the visitation?” “Of course,” Nehemia replied hastily, “the visitation.” A cold sweat covered his skin beneath the peeling black layer. From the conversation that unfolded among the other passengers in the wagon, Nehemia quickly gathered the pertinent details. The visitation was when the Virgin Mary visited Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, when the two were pregnant. Heaven help me, Nehemia said to himself, this is just the beginning. I’m still lacking so much information in order to see this act through to the end.
The sun set and the wagon arrived at the outskirts of the city. “Come,” the leper motioned to him. “I’ll show you an excellent place to sleep, right at the foot of the monastery. Tomorrow we can be there before sunrise to watch the morning reveal the face of the Madonna.” “Ahh,” Nehemia mumbled, and he silently prayed a short prayer. Please, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of David and Solomon, God of Abraham Elazar the Jew and Tubal Cain, please send me heavenly assistance in this sacred duty so that I do not stumble or falter in spirit. So that my ignorance will not defeat or thwart me from here on. Amen.
There is something about the grandeur of the Jasna Gora monastery that inspires awe in anyone who stands before it for the first time – an awe that is tinged with reverence for the Master of the Universe, Nehemia thought. The high turret, the fortified walls, the path that leads directly up to its gates. “Eh, Ivan,” Gyorgy bellowed raucously, tapping on Nehemia’s shoulder. “Your first time here, eh? It’s obvious. Stand and gaze for as long as you wish.” He crossed himself devotedly and went off to find a place to sleep at the edge of the wheat field. Beggars, lepers, and individuals with various deformities gathered in that corner to wait for dawn and anticipate the revelation of the Madonna’s face. For the Madonna, so they explained to Nehemia patiently, reveals her face during morning mass and then hides herself back away again.
Somewhere off in the distance a bonfire was kindled, musical instruments were strummed, and hoarse throats broke out in devotional hymns to the black Madonna. A bottle of cheap alcohol was opened and Nehemia lay on his back on the dry grass and observed the revelers from afar. He removed a hunk of dry bread from his raiment and broke it into crumbs, which he snuck furtively into his mouth. When he finished cleaning the crumbs from his beard he prayed the evening prayer stealthily, lay down on his back, looked up at the treetop and listened to the sounds of the revelers. While his mind was preoccupied with trying to devise a strategy to put on his Tefillin in the morning, sleep caught hold of him unawares.
Images leaped all around him: Berel the wagon driver, Fruma his wife, and then there she was – his daughter Shayna, joking just as he remembered her when she was eleven, no, twelve. That Shabbat it was Shimel’s turn to stand before the pulpit and chant “Anim Zemirot.” But when he got up and stood before the podium, his voice was softer than he’d remembered, and clearer, and then in a sudden frenzy Nehemia understood what the two of them had concocted – Shimel had given Shayna his clothes, since after all they were the same height, and she had covered her red hair in a prayer shawl to avoid detection. But the scoundrels, who can bear them, understood immediately what was going on and they approached her from behind and just when she came to the line “Radiant and ruddy, clad in red,” they pulled the prayer shawl off her head, exposing her fiery red braid to the startled eyes of the congregation.
Nehemia carried her by the ear out of the synagogue and all the way home, his face burning with fury and his heart teeming with pride. Now the pride returned and filled his heart, the wrinkles of anger smoothed themselves out and the laughter burst forth and mixed with the images of the night. From outside his window the dancers sang, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses,” and Nehemia found himself mumbling along with them, “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.” Flaming torches leapt up before his eyes, and a violin and drum, and more and more faces took shape and then dissolved before his eyes. There was Nehemia leaping and dancing, with Shayna behind him, and Bird the dog behind her and images from the world above and the world below leaping before them, the circle sweeping him up along with it as he leapt and danced and leapt and fell and ran. Black dogs danced around him and atop him in the air, and the child prodigy Moshe-David circled round and round with a cloth belt tied over his waist and his eyes closed in rapt devotion.
A firm hand shook him awake. “Ivan, Ivan,” he heard Gyorgy’s voice. Nehemia recognized him from the noxious odor of his leprosy. “Get up, we need to start ascending. It’s almost sunrise.” Nehemia went off to stand among a cluster of trees and do his business, and once he had made certain that no one was watching, he snuck his Tefillin from his clothing, donned them surreptitiously, and hastily recited the abridged Havinenu prayer.