“Rothenburg” is taken from the original Yiddish short story collection The Secret of Polar Bears (Der sod fun vayse berne, Tel Aviv, 2017) for which its author, Ber Kotlerman, received the Hirsh and Dvora Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature. It can be read in its original Yiddish version here : ראָמאַנטישע שטר אַסע
Rothenburg’s multiple roofs and towers, encircled by a wide serrated wall, presented an architectural ensemble of harmonious perfection, attractive even from a distance. The first rays of the rising sun, illuminating the town from the east, blazed like a giant red bonfire from which exploded, here and there, long flaming tongues of cupolas and towers. The nearer the fire, the more intensely it blazed. Occupying more and more space, it eventually permeated heaven and earth before suddenly breaking apart into distinct architectural elements – balconies, windows, cornices, eaves ….
Along the length of the city wall snaked an enormous rampart, overgrown with long dry grasses. Its earthen mass concealed a deep moat. Two iron chains also bore witness to the existence of this moat, and on these chains, at the entrance to the massive gate, was suspended a bridge made of coarse wooden beams.
Despite the early hour, the gate already stood wide open. A monk stuck his closely shaven tonsure out of an embrasure in the city wall. He rolled the wide sleeves of his black cassock up to his shoulders, and carefully hoisted up on a rope a pail of water filled to the brim. Unexpectedly, a ray of sunshine jumped off the halberd of a watchman in a pointy helmet, and clamoured up onto the wall.
Its wooden wheels clattering on the cobblestone road, a wagon covered with a grey-coloured canopy, emerged from the gate. For a moment the curious eyes of a little boy in a clown hat peered out of the wagon. Toward the wagon streamed a colourful crowd – men and women looking like peasants in coarsely woven clothing with baskets and sacks on their backs. This morning the people were hurrying into town faster than usual. Rothenburg was preparing for its market, famous throughout all of Lower Bavaria.
Blending in with the crowd, we walked past the guards at the gate, and through a narrow side street out onto a spacious market square. Dense shadows, hiding in the corners of the square and the narrow passageways between the houses, slowly dispersed, driven by the force of the sun rising above the town. Standing facing the sun, we put down our blue velvet bags on a stone bench. Embroidered on the bags in gold thread was a golden city surrounded by a wall, over which a golden sun was rising.
On a platform in the centre of the square, smoke wafted from a cast iron pot with food cooking inside. With a single blow of his axe, a peasant with a fan-shaped beard chopped a thick chunk of wood off a gigantic log, and threw it into the fire. As the flame burned more intensely, we were reminded of the age-old lament: “Ask, O you who are burned in fire.”
We untied our bags and took out white rectangular blue-striped linen shawls with long tassels in the corners and short tassels along the sides. Reciting a blessing, we wrapped them over our heads for a moment, and then threw the upper part of the linen shawl over our backs like a hood.
Nimble waiters, wearing cotton shirts belted with simple twine, were placing wooden tables in front of the countless inns and taverns.
From our open black mother of pearl cases we took out two small leather boxes with long black leather straps. Each of us placed one little box on our left arms and the second above our eyes, letting the straps fall on either side of our necks over our chests. Then we returned to the first little box and began to wrap the strap around the left arm down to the palm.
A bare-chested man in tight black trousers was demarcating a small market stall with some rope.
Our eyes closed due to the sun, we wrapped our middle finger with a triple ring. Thus, we were betrothed forever unto the Creator in righteousness and in justice, in love and in compassion; we were betrothed unto the Creator in faithfulness. In our stubborn desire to know Him, we kept on calling: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
On the peasant wagons in the market square their owners lovingly displayed their wares.
The violet ball of the flaming sun had risen behind our closed eyelids. This elusive violet ball remained next to the real sun even after we had opened our eyes – and around us we could already vaguely discern the Rothenburg Jews in white prayer shawls. Their heads were wrapped in prayer shawls so that it was impossible to see their faces. In vain did we search among them for Rabbi Meir Ben Barukh and Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel. No doubt we were late. Perhaps the honourable rabbis had long since left for Magentza, and Rabbi Meir had already died in Duke Albrecht’s prison after having forbidden the invocation on his behalf of the duty to ransom prisoners, and Rabbi Asher had fled with his sons to Toledo. The Rothenburg Jews swayed rhythmically and very indistinctly murmured something unfamiliar. Only from time to time could be heard the frightening refrain: “l’olam ul’almei almaya – May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity”.
Finally we were successful in deciphering some of their mutterings, which ascended ever higher, with fear and awe, until they suffused the market square and the spaces between the houses, all the way up to the violet sun. Gradually the sounds and phrases began transforming themselves into words, and the words became a strange prayer, as though Rabbi Meir had wanted to express in them his longing. It even seemed to us that we were beginning to grasp all the secrets sealed inside them:
To us God was meant to offer the Torah And afterward to destroy it by fire That was the reason that God chose Mount Sinai So he could uplift you and then dispossess you Long shall I weep and shed bitter tears Until a river of tears shall appear Reaching all the way up to your two chosen heroes Laid to rest on Mount Hor, Aaron and Moses And then I shall ask them these loyal and dear ones If they have already prepared a new Torah If you have become completely redundant And that was why God burned you in fury How can food taste sweet to my palate When I saw how they took you Through dark streets and alleys And shamed you and burned God’s most cherished possession The Creator in Heaven will yet console you He shall gather the tribes, raise up the downtrodden In garments of silk you shall be adorned You shall take up the timbrel and dance with great joy And proud shall I be when God lights up the new And the darkness of night shall vanish from view
In the house across from us a window opened, and a woman in a white bonnet stuck out her head. She looked back and forth, before suddenly, as though not noticing the men at prayer, emptying all the contents of her clay pot directly below her. She then immediately closed the shutters, and disappeared. Expecting an annoyed reaction, we looked at the Rothenburg Jews, but they, too, had already gone. In a good-sized puddle on the cobblestone ground, potato peelings frolicked in the sun’s reflections.
The strange clock on the façade of a tavern struck sonorously, and the portly figurine of Rothenburg’s former burgermeister suddenly emerged. Before returning into the clock, he proceeded to swallow a whole meistertrunk of Mosel wine, thus saving the town – for the umpteenth time – from destruction during the Thirty Years’ War.
Translated from the Yiddish by Vivian Felsen
Ber Kotlerman, professor of Yiddish literature and culture at Bar Ilan University in Israel, belongs to the new “unorthodox” generation of Yiddish writers. He spent his childhood in Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region in the Russian Far East, where his family emigrated after the Holocaust. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he was director of the Yiddish Writers and Journalists Association in Israel and the Israeli representative of the New York Yiddish “Forverts”. Since 1999, he has contributed to various Yiddish periodicals in the United States, Israel, Poland and France. A year ago, a new Yiddish book by Kotlerman was published in London, this time a suspenseful story about Jewish life in China, “Forsaken” (“Di opgeshtoysene”). Ber Kotlerman received the Hirsh and Dvora Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature for his collection of original Yiddish short stories entitled “The Secret of Polar Bears” (“Der sod fun vayse bern”, Tel Aviv, 2017) from which the short story “Rothenburg” is excerpted.
|1||From the elegy by the 13th century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg entitled “Sha’ali serufa ba’esh” (“Ask, O You Who Are Burned in Fire”) to commemorate the Paris Talmud Burning of 1244 when hundreds of Jewish manuscripts were burned by Christian clergy. It is recited by Ashkenazic Jews on the fast of Tisha B’av.|
|2||From Hosea 2: 21-22.|