|THE FLAG OF MY PEOPLE:
A Story of Simchath Torah in Russia
by Elma Ehrlich Levinger
|Suddenly I remembered that the next day would be Simchath Torah. I was cold and wet and hungry; as I lay shivering among
the old men and half grown boys, who had thrown themselves down in the rank grass beside the road to spend the night, I thought of the way we used to celebrate Simchath Torah in our own little town before the war came to us. Half asleep, I seemed to see again our old synagogue and the men swaying in their talethim (praying shawls) and the little boys marching with bright flags. I remember how once I had made a bright green and red one for poor little Reuben, my brother. I thought, too, of the joy in old Rabbi Yossel's wrinkled face as he raised the Torah in its beautiful crimson wrappings. But now those wrappings were stained with mud and rain, and Rabbi Yossel lay beside me, his arms around the Scroll, as he sobbed in his weariness and grief, but softly, for he was an old man and very tired.
We were never quite sure what had caused the war. Not even my father knew; but he and all the strong men of our town
marched to the front when the order came. That made it hard for mother. It had always been difficult to get food for all of us children, even when father was with us; now there were many fast days, and my little brothers often cried because they were hungry.
All this was hard enough, but at least we had a roof over our heads. Then the order came that by nightfall we would have to
leave our homes. My mother had always been a quick, lively woman. She had managed the affairs of the shop when father was away; she could think and give orders as well as any man. But now she seemed stunned and bewildered and could not do any-thing for herself nor tell me what to do. Perhaps it was because she was weak and ill, for my little sister was only a few days
old, and mother had not been able to leave her bed until the order came to gather up our household things by evening. Now she sat half-dressed on the bed with the baby in her lap and my little brother sitting on the floor near her. David had his finger in his mouth and seemed puzzled because mother didn't say anything, but stared ahead and did not even cry. After a while she picked out a few things for me to make into a bundle some shawls and coats to keep the children warm, and the little food we had in the house. Once she cried; it was when I told her that it would make our pack too heavy if we carried her wedding linen. Mother
had been very proud of that linen. She used to show it to the neighbor women when they came to see her. She would never sell
it no matter how poor we were; now she cried to leave it behind.
I can't tell much about what happened after sunset. The soldiers drove us through the streets and it was horrible to hear the
women and the children screaming as we hurried to get away. As we passed the synagogue, Rabbi Yossel staggered through
the door. He carried the Scroll in his arms; he would allow no one else to carry it although it must have been very heavy for
such a feeble old man. He carried nothing for himself -- not even an extra cloak -- only his talith and his Torah. There was a
man in town, Jacob the blacksmith, whom I had been taught to avoid as an Epikuros for he used to mock at holy things and the ways of our people. They did not take Jacob for the army because he was lame; so now he limped along with all of us homeless Jews, although we had never thought of him as a real Jew before. When it began to rain he took off his leather jacket and made Rabbi Yossel put it on. The Rabbi wrapped it around the Scroll and blessed Jacob for helping protect the Torah. Jacob grew red and muttered in his beard as he limped on, the rain beating on his shivering shoulders.
When we looked back the sky was red for our town was already in flames. Some of the women prayed and wept and one of them laughed madly and clapped her hands to see the fire. It was now quite dark and we did not know to what place we were bound; we only knew that we must tramp along the muddy roads until the soldiers told us we could rest. At last they did order
us to halt for the night, and we threw ourselves down beside the road and tried to sleep. I shall never forget that night.
In the morning I found myself at Rabbi Yossel's side. He did not walk with the other old men, but with the women who carried their household goods and their children. Once he smiled a little, and, pointing to his Scroll, said; "See, I am carrying my child
too!" I remember then that my mother had once told me how Rabbi Yossel's wife had bore him one "kiddish," but that the boy
had died in his fourth year. I was glad at that moment that the Rabbi's wife and little child were resting beside my old grandparents in the Jewish cemetary. For the war could never make them unhappy.
It was about noontime when we saw some soldiers, their bayonets glistening in the sun, a beautiful flag waving at the head of
their possession. When I looked at them sitting so proudly upon their horses, and then glanced down at our miserable line of
weak women and old men dragging themselves through the mud, I felt my heart would burst with shame. Here was I, almost
13 and a man, yet I could not raise a hand to protect my mother who limped behind me, a frozen look of terror upon her white face.
"Rabbi Yossel," I told him, "It is the fault of men like my father and you and all the Jews of the world that we must suffer like
this. (I know that I should not have spoken so to our old Rabbi, but at that moment I felt that I would die unless I told someone what was in my heart. ) Those men ride out to protect their homes and their mothers; men like my father and uncle go to help
fight the battles for them; but what reward will come to us? See my father! He will not find a home when he returns. And what can I do to help my mother? If she is trampled by the horses as Simon's mother was last night, can I raise a hand to save her? These other people at least have a country to fight for -- and a flag. But we have nothing."
"My son, " answered Rabbi Yossel, "We have a country and someday it will please the Holy One, blessed be He, to lead us back
to it in joy. And have you forgotten that today is Simchath Torah -- the day of thanksgiving for our flag?" And he raised up
the Torah that he carried.
"If it is our flag, why don't we fight for it?" I cried bitterly.
He waved a trembling hand toward the line of broken women and old men who followed us. "We are fighting for our Torah
today," he said gently; "We are following our flag. When the old soldiers like me pass away, you and the other youths will carry the flag for us. There have been many nations, my son, who went to war on horses and carried swords and waved flags. But
where are they today? They have been swept away forever, but Israel remains, and will remain until all the nations of the earth
will lay aside their swords and come beneath Israel's flag." His wrinkled face glowed with a strange light. His lips moved, and though he spoke softly, I caught the Hebrew words, "In that day, G-D will be known as One, and His Name be One."
I am glad he spoke to me like that and I will always cherish his words. Two days later when Rabbi Yossel died on the roadside,
I took the Torah in my arms and carried it for the rest of our journey. Whenever I became tired I remembered that I carried the flag of my people and it gave me strength, strength for the rest of the journey, even after my mother died. Several of our neigh-bors took my little brothers and sisters before they were sent to different parts of the country. I lost sight of them and I have
never seen them to this day.
My father died in the war, fighting for a flag that was not his own. But perhaps I shall be able to serve the flag which Rabbi
Yossel gave me on Simchath Torah.
|In Many Lands - Stories Of How The Scattered Jews Kept Their Festivals, by Elma Ehrlich Levinger, 1923.|