From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 4, pages 145-150


there is no end and there are no limits. So it was here. While trying to incorporate regional Yiddish and write it as well as I could read it I soon learned that I needed a knowledge of Hebrew, from which this corrupted dialect was derived. Only then could I accomplish my task with confidence. I told my father of the need to learn Hebrew and quickly received his enthusiastic approval. I also had a higher goal. I had heard it said that to understand the Old Testament as well as the New one needed a strong basis in the original language. I was able to read the later quite well because even on Sundays there was no lack of practice in reciting, translating and to a certain extent explaining the gospels and epistles after church. I now thought to do the same with the Old Testament, which because of its peculiarities held much interest for me.

My father, who never did anything halfway, decided to engage the services of the rector of our high school, Doctor Albrecht.* He would give me private lessons regularly each week until I gained a basic comprehension of the language. Father hoped that although things would not progress as quickly as they did with English, they would be completed in twice the time.

Rector Albrecht * was a most original figure in the world; small, broad but not fat, shapeless but not deformed. In short, he was an Aesop in surplice and wig.* His over seventy year old face was completed twisted into a sarcastic grin but his eyes remained wide, and although red they were sparkly and intelligent. He lived at the old Barefoot Friar's monastery, which was the seat of the high school. As a child


I had visited him several times with my parents. With anxious decorum I crossed long, dark passageways filled with stairways and obscure corners to get to the small chapel transformed into a reception room. Without making me uncomfortable he examined me and whenever he saw me he offered praise and encouragement. One day during the translocation of students * after open exams he saw me as a spectator while he passed out silver praemia virtutis et diligentiae medals near his lectern. I must have looked longingly at the bag in which he had them. He winked at me, stepped down and handed me one. My joy was great however others saw this gift as a breech of order since I was not a student, but the good old man cared little about this. He always played the eccentric in a most striking manner. He had a good reputation as a school teacher and he understood his work, although age kept him from regularly practicing his vocation. More than infirmity certain external circumstances hindered him. I had already known that he was not happy with the consistory, the scholars, the clerics or the teachers. He gave free rein to his natural tendency towards noticing the failures and shortfalls in others and his inclination towards satire, which spewed forth on public occasions such as lectures.* Lucian was practically the only author whom he read or esteemed, thus everything he said or wrote was peppered with corrosive ingredients.

Luckily for those with whom he was displeased he never made direct comments about their shortfalls but rather shrouded them in innuendo and


vague references to classical passages and biblical proverbs whenever he wish to give reprimand.* His diction (for he always read his lectures aloud) was unpleasant and difficult to understand, sometimes interrupted by coughs but more often broken by peels of belly-shaking laughter when he got to the biting comments. I found this unusual man mild and willing as I began my lessons with him. I went daily at six in the evening to him and always felt a secret pleasure as the belled door closed behind me and I wandered through the long, dark monastery corridors. We sat in his library at an oilcloth covered table. A well-read copy of Lucian never left his side.

Despite my willingness I did not succeed in my task without paying some dues. My teacher couldn't help making certain disparaging comments concerning Hebrew. I kept silent about my interest in Yiddish and spoke of gaining better understanding of basic texts. He laughed and said I should be happy if I only learned to read it. This disturbed me so I gathered all my powers of attention when it came to the letters. I found the alphabet somewhat like that of Greek; I comprehended the forms and the nomenclature was not foreign to me. * I soon had a good grasp of it and I thought we should now get on to reading. I already knew the lettering went from right to left. However now a new army of little letters and ciphers was introduced, dots and small lines of all kinds, which took the place of the vowels.


I was amazed by this because in the larger alphabet there were vowels but in text they seemed to be hidden under strange designators. I also learned that as long as the Jewish nation flourished this first system of ciphers sufficed and no other system was used for reading and writing. I would have been very happy to proceed with this older, easier system but then the old man declared somewhat strongly that one must act in accordance with the grammar as it had been known and used. Reading text without the dots and lines was a very difficult task which could only be managed by the scholars and those with the most practice. I must get used to recognizing these little markers. However this task became an ever greater source of confusion for me. The larger and older vowel ciphers had no place within text and they could not coexist with their smaller cipher offspring. These marks would indicate where one breathed a gentle sigh or uttered a gutteral sound of greater or lesser pitch. They served only as supports and abutments. Then just as one thought he had learned to recognize it all, some of the large and small characters were completely done away with leaving the eyes with much to do and the lips with very little.

Now I was supposed to stutter my way through familiar content in foreign gibberish. He told me that certain pronunciations of nasal or gutteral accent were unattainable so I laid that matter to rest and amused myself in a childish manner with the strange names of these accumulated ciphers. There were emperors, kings and dukes with accents changing here and there and this entertained me a great deal.


These shallow games soon lost their charm however I was compensated in that I now took a livelier interest in reading, interpreting, repeating, and learning things by heart in order to understand the book's content and it was enlightenment I wanted from the old gentleman. Previously I was struck by the contradictions between what is real and what is possible as presented by the traditional text.* I had placed my tutor in a difficult spot asking how the sun could stand still in Gibeon and the moon remain fixed in the Ajalon Valley. There were other improbabilities and incongruencies to consider. So many questions had arisen for me and to become a master of Hebrew I wanted to thoroughly study the Old Testament, not the Luther translation but rather the literal transciption by Sebastian Schmid *, which my father had purchased for me. Unfortunately our lessons in speaking the language began to be defective. Reading, exposition, grammar, writing and verbal repetition scarcely lasted half an hour. I began to lose sight of the subject and even though we started with the first book of Moses in order to highlight the words, their true meaning was found in later books. At first the good old man tried to keep me from such digressions but later he just seemed to be amused. In his usual manner of coughing and laughing he tried to give me information without compromising himself. I would not let up in my persistance but gradually expressing the doubts seemed more important than finding the answers.


I became ever more animated and daring while he seemed to correct my course by his conduct. I could get nothing out of him other than a belly-shaking laugh as he exclaimed, "You foolish whelp! You foolish boy!"

Still, in my enthusiasm to look at the bible from all angles, he seemed willing to give me serious consideration and a certain amount of assistance. After a while he drew my attention to a large English bible * in his library, in which there were explanations for the more difficult and deeper passages put forth in an understandable and clever way. The translation had an advantage over the original due to the great efforts of German theologians. Various interpretations were introduced and in the end a kind of arbitrated resolution was attempted whereby the dignity of the book, the basis of religion, and the confines of human understanding could coexist. Every time I ended the study hour with questions and doubts he pointed to the repository. I took up this volume and he allowed me to read it as he paged through his Lucian. When I made my comments concerning the book he broke out in his usual laugh and commented on my sharp sense. On long summer days he let me sit and read for as long as I could; in some cases alone. It wasn't long before he allowed me to take one book after the other home with me.

A human being may change his path whenever he wishes and he may undertake any task he chooses, but eventually he will return to the course which nature intends him to follow.* Thus it was for me in this current endeavor. Efforts to understand the language


Go to pages 151-156


Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks