One Kid
One Only Kid
Henry Roth
All the belated ones had straggled in. A hail of jabbering now rocked the cheder. "And-not-a-tree..." As the rabbi stooped lower and lower, his voice shot up a steep ladder of menace. "Shall-be-upright in the land!" He straightened, scaling crescendo with a roar. "Noo!" His final shattering bellow mowed down the last shrill reeds of voices. "Now it's my turn!" Smiling fiercely he rose, cat-o-nine in hand, and advanced toward the silent, cowering row. "Here!" the scourge whistled down, whacked against a thigh. "Here's for you!"


"And you!"

"Ouch! Waddid"

"And you for your squirming tonguel"

"Leggo! Ooh!"

"And you that your rump is on fire! Now sit still!"

"Umph! Ow!"

"And you for your grin! And you for your nickering, and you for your bickering. Catch! Catch! Hold! Dance!"

The straps flew, legs plunged. Shrill squibs of pain popped up and down the bench. No one escaped, not even David. Wearied at length, and snorting for breath, the rabbi stopped and glared at them. Suppressed curses, whimpers, sniffles soughed from one end of the bench to the other.

"Shah!" Even these died out.

"Now! To your books! Dig your eyes into them. The four Questions. Noo! Begin! Ma nishtanaw." "Mah nishtanaw halilaw hazeh," they bellowed, "mikawl halaylos. Sheb chol balaylos onu ochlim chametz umazoh."

"Schulim!" The rabbi's chin went down, his voice diving past it to an ominous bass. "Dumb are you?"

"Haliylaw hazeh." A new voice vigorously swelled the already lusty chorus, "kulo mazoh!"

When they had finished the four questions, repeated them and rendered them thrice into Yiddish...

"Now the chad gadyaw," commanded the rabbi. "And with one voice. Hurry!"

Hastily, they turned the pages.

"Chad godyaw, chad godyaw," they bayed raggedly, "disabin abaw bis rai zuzaw, chad godyaw, chad godyaw..."

"Your teeth fall out, Simkeh," snarled the rabbi grinning venomously, "What are you laughing at?"

"Nuttin!" protested Simkeh in an abused voice. "I wasn't laughing!" He was though --- some one had been chanting "fot God Yaw" instead of Chad-Godyaw.

"So!" said the rabbi sourly when they had finished. "And now where is the blessed understanding that remembers yesterday? Who can render this into Yiddish? Ha? Where?"

A few faltering ones raised their hands.

"But all of it!" he warned. "Not piece-meal, all of it without stuttering. Or..." He snapped the cat-o-nine. "The noodles!"

Scared, the volunteers lowered their hands.

"What? None? Not a single one." His eyes swept back and forth. "Oh, your!" With a sarcastic wave of the hand, he flung back the offers of the older, chumish students.

"It's time you mastered this feat! No one!" He wagged his head at them bitterly. "May you never know where your teeth are! Hi! Hi! none strives to be a Jew any more. Woe unto you! Even a goy knows more about his filth than you know of holiness. Woe! Woe!" He glared at David accusingly. "You too? Is your head full of turds like the rest of them? Speak!"

"I know it," he confessed, but the same time feigned sullenness lest he stir the hatred of the others.

"Well! Have you ribs in your tongue? Begin! I'm waiting!"

cautiously he picked up the thread, He felt more and more as he went on as if the others were crouching to pounce upon him should he miss one rung in the long ladder of guilt and requital. Carefully, he climbed past the cow and the butcher and the angel of death. (Gee! Last. Nobody after. Didn't know before. But sometime, mama, Gee!) Unbidden, the alien thoughts crowded into the gap. For an instant he faltered. (No! No! Don't stop!)he repeated hurriedly, Breathlessly he came to an end, wondering if the rabbi were angry with him for having halted in the middle. But the rabbi was smiling. "So!" he patted his big palms together. "This one I call my child. This is memory. This is intellect. You may be a great rabbi yet --- who knows!" He stroked his black beard with a satisfied air and regarded David a moment, then suddenly he reached his hand into his pocket and drew out a battered black purse.

A murmur of incredulous astonishment rose from the bench.

Snapping open the pronged, metal catch, the rabbi jingled the coins inside and pinched out a copper. "Here! Because you have a true Yiddish head. Take it!"

Automatically, David lifted his hand and closed it round the penny. The rest gaped silently.

"Now come and read," he was peremptory again. "And the rest of you dullards, take care! Let me hear you wink and I'll tear you not into shreds, but into shreds of shreds!"

A little dazed by the windfall, David followed him to the reading bench and sat down. While the rabbi carefully rolled himself a cigarette, David gazed out of the window. The rain had stopped, though the yard was still dark. He could sense a strange quietness holding the outdoors in its grip. Behind him, the first whisper flickered up somewhere along the bench. The rabbi lit his cigarette, shut the book from which Mendel had been reading and pushed it to one side.

Could ask him now, I bet. He gave me a penny. About Isaiah and the coal. Where? Yes. Page sixty-eight. I could ask... Chaa! Wuuh! Thin smoke glanced off the table. The rabbi reached over for the battered book and picked up the pointer.


"Noo?" He pinched over the leaves.

"When Mendel was reading about that...that man who you said, who..." He never finished. Twice through the yard, as though a lantern had been swung back and forth above the roof-tops, violet light rocked the opposite walls --- and darkness for a moment and a clap of thunder and a rumbling like a barrel rolling down cellar stairs.

"Shma yisroel!" the rabbi ducked his head and clutched David's arm. "Woe is me!"

"Ow!" David squealed. And the pressure on his arm relaxing, giggled.

Behind him the sharp, excited voices. "Yuh see it! Bang! Bang wot a bust it gave! I tol' yuh I see a blitz before!"

"Shah!" The rabbi regained his composure. "Lightning before the Passover! A warm summer." And to David as if remembering, "Why did you cry out and why did you laugh?"

"You pinched me," he explained cautiously, "and then..."


"And then you bent down --- like us when you drop the pointer, and then I thought..."

"Before God," the rabbi interrupted, "none may stand upright."

Before God.

"But what did you think?"

"I thought it was a bed before. Upstairs. But it wasn't."

"A bed! It wasn't!" He stared at David. "Don't play the fool with me because I gave you a penny." He thrust the book before him. "Come then!" he said brusquely. "It grows late."

Can't ask now.

"Begin! Shohain ad mawrom..."

"Shohain ad mawrom vekawdosh shmo vakawsuv ronnu zadekim ladonoi." Thought lapsed into monotone.

After a short reading, the rabbi excused him, and David slid off the bench and went over to where the rest were sitting to get his strap of books. Schloime, who held them' in his lap, had risen with alacrity as he approached and proffered them to him.

"Dey wanted t' take dem, but I was holdin' 'em," he informed him. "Watcha gonna buy?"


"Aa!" And eagerly. "I know w'ea dere's orange-balls... eight fuh a cent."

"I ain' gonna ged nuttin."

"Yuh stingy louse!"

--- From Call It Sleep
Henry Roth
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