Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya
Meets the KKK
Then his eyes strayed beyond the water to an out-of-step phalanx approaching from the Shadyac Avenue side of the bay. It was in the nature of a counterparade that turned out to be, as they drew nearer, a delegation of local members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were decked out in their Halloween finest, white robes and pointed hoods, several of them carrying a large wooden cross horizontally on their shoulders like pallbearers. Muni's stomach tensed at the mob's resemblance to one of those Old Country Easter processions that were often the prelude to a pogrom, but the North Main Streeters retained their holiday mood, seeming if anything more amused than afraid. In fact, they began to make a game out of identifying the men beneath the robes.

"There's Joe Hankus Munro," said Mr. Bluestein. "I sold him the sheet he wears that it's cut on the bias." It was a signature feature his fellow citizens would recognize, as Mr. Bluestein, the tailor, was also a mohel.

"That one's Early Dewlily, the chandler, and that's the druggist Lyle Sugg," cited Leon Shapiro, asking the assembled to note the quality of the material they wore. "You can't get from Pin's Merchandise linen like that," he boasted for the benefit of chafing his business rival.

Pinchas took the bait: "It's shmattes compared to the muslin Ernest Poteet that he buys in my store." He pointed to the silk-trimmed robe with its elaborate insignia at the head of the procession, its wearer daintily lifting the hem to keep it from being soiled.

They continued their sport of spotting the individuals behind their getups, this one by his tumescent belly, that one by his pigeon toes, even as the klavern came to a halt before the Jews.

"Howdo, Ernest," said the neighborly Sam Alabaster to their leader, who replied, "Hidey, Sam," before clearing his throat. Then he commenced a formal address to the North Main Street gathering in his capacity as Grand Syklops of the North Memphis Chapter of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the White Kamelia. It was a mild, moonless twilight, the rustling of the Klansmen's robes abetted here and there by Hershel Tarnopol, who stole among them lifting their skirts to reveal trousers rolled above hairy calves.

"As the symbol of our struggle to scourge our beloved Southland of the mongrel element that would contaminate our bloodline and pollute the purity of our womenhood," declared the Syklops, a lawyer, in his syrupy drawl, "and as a warning against their satanic chicanery, we hereby plant the holy standard of Caucasian Christendom."

A burly fellow in a crumpled white cowl stepped forward with a posthole digger and punched a hole in the sludge. Then the team of cross bearers inserted the foot of the tall cypress cross into the hole, swiveling it as if turning a giant screw. Still the cross leaned at a precarious angle, and no amount of shoring it up with more mud and stones could keep it from tilting. Making do nonetheless, they doused the cross liberally with a canister of kerosene. One man struck a match and lit a stick of punk, which, at a word from the Syklops, he touched to the base of the cross. Instantly it was ignited, flames climbing the spar and fanning out along the transverse arms until the whole crackling rood was blindingly incandescent. Though it was not yet dark out, the brightness of the blaze banished the rest of the world to its obscurest perimeter. Everyone stood admiring the burning cross, some of the Jews even offering their compliments to the Klan --- one of whom had just had his hood snatched by the impish Hershel. Exposed as Hiram Peay, a sleepy-eyed slinger of hash, the man raised his skirts and made stumblingly to give chase.

Then a grumbling was heard among the ranks of the masked intruders, some having grown impatient with symbols, however impressive, and a tension set in between the two opposing camps. Dr. Seligman mopped his brow with a monogrammed hankie and suggested it was maybe time to disperse, which was the cue for Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya to step resolutely forward. He shuffled near enough to the fire to endanger his beard from the sparks and removed a small bone box from his caftan. Opening the box, he took a pinch of snuff, stuffed it into his tuberous nose, and inhaled, after which he sneezed robustly and wiped his schnoz on his sleeve. "Gezuntheit!" chorused his disciples, as flames from the fiery cross shot high into the cobalt sky. The rabbi took another pinch, inhaled it into his other nostril, and sneezed again. "Gezuntheit!" Went up like a cheer, and the flames rose even higher. From their vantage on the soggy embankment it seemed to the gathered parties that the conflagration had risen to the height of the clouds, igniting their fleece as surely as the punk had kindled the cross. A towering tree of flame now ascended from earth to the firmament, its trunk funneling like a cyclone that threatened to suck all and sundry into its swirl. Whipped by that incendiary wind, Jews and gentiles alike had to hold on to one another to keep from being swept away. (The exceptions being the lunatic Hasids, who tempted fate by joining hands to dance round the fire.) Soon the cypress cross was completely consumed, its torch absorbed into the billowing clouds that glowed an intense crimson hue before being doused by the night.

There was a general exhalation on the part of everyone in attendance. Some of the Jews muttered a hushed "Aleinu," while the Klansmen, who may have secretly hoped to provoke just such a spectacle, yipped and slapped their thighs. The entire company seemed to share in the thrill of having witnessed indisputable evidence of an age of wonders.

Then Pinchas leaned toward Muni as if to whisper, though he made certain his voice was in earshot of one and all. "The rebbe," he scoffed, "a showboat."

---From The Pinch: A History
Steve Stern
©2015 Graywolf Press
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