Sabbatai Zevi, who proclaimed himself, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the long- and cagerly-awaited Messiah, has remained to this day an outstanding figure in Jewish history. For it required, indeed, more than ordinary courage and daring to come out openly as a militant deliverer at a time when Ukrainian Jews had just been slaughtered by the tens of thousands and when he tbonfires of the Inquisition were still piled high with Jewish victims.
Salomon Poliakoff, author of “The Romantic Messiah”, or “The Rejected Messiah”, is a native of Russia, where he distinguished himself as foreign correspondent of one of the largest dailies in Moscow and, later, as a journalist on the staff of Professor Milukoff’s “Ryetch”. He also wrote a number of plays, one of which won the Ostrovsky prize and was produced by none other than Souvorine himself, publisher of “Novoye Vryemya” and notorious anti-Semite. Another play was presented in Italy, by Pirandello, of “Seven Characters” fame. Mr. Poliakoff at present resides in France, where he has taken active part in the work of the ORT, the Zionist movement and other Jewish affairs. He visited the United States a few years ago as a special emissary of Dr. Chaim Weizmann.
In Poliakoff’s novel, Sabbatai Zevi is pictured, not as a mysterious, unfathomable personality, but as a man who, while believing himself destined for great things, is quite human and #ble to the weaknesses of the fl# to this treatment, “The Roman#h” emerges as a vivid, thrilling nar# racy and Dumasesque in style, but never at a sacrifice of lignity or historic truth.
The Cossack serfs of Bogdan Khmelnitski had revolted against slavery, against the Polish nobles and their Jewish agents. The smouldering religious intolerance of the Cossacks had burst forth in pogroms.
Panic seized the Polish Jews. Abandoning their homes, their wealth, the places they loved, they fled to the forests where they perished from hunger and exhaustion. Fields and roads were strewn with corpses. Rivers running red with blood proclaimed the news of God’s wrath as they rushed onward to the sea.
The storm passed. Polish power was reasserted in the Ukraine. Little by little the scattered Jews returned to their villages, to the cemeteries where the dust of their ancestors lay, and to their synagogues where endless generations had worshipped in joy and sorrow. The agents resumed their duties, craftsmen once more bent over their work, merchants and inn-keepers returned to their bars and counters.
Children’s voices were heard again in the heders, and from morning to night students in the iechibots droned like swarms of bees over the huge pages of the Talmud.
It was in the year of 1656 on the ninth of Ab-the anniversary day of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. In the outskirts of a small town in Volhynie, the Jews were chanting the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the synagogue.
The synagogue had been built in times immemorial. The beamed walls, which the patina of time had rendered the color of lilacs, were incrusted with a delicate moss; the roof which crowned them, peaked and inordinately high, dominated the building. It was as if the faithful prostrated themselves in prayer under the roof of a huge and ageless pigeon house.
Near the old walls, redolent of humility and peace, lay a wide, hard road. From country to country, from one century to another, streamed past an endless procession of merchant carayans, droves of sheep, or wandering vagabonds. But the synagogue, standing apart from this life, existed in itself alone, spearing its pointed roof toward the sky.
The thick warm light of August was fading. As if forged upon an anvil, two glowing rays of the setting sun rose from behind the woods and melted slowly into the twilight. In the far east a new moon raised its delicately wrought scythe.
The doors of the synagogue were wide open. Some Jews had settled themselves on the floor to read Jeremiah by the light of the wax candles. At the far end, near the altar, seated on the floor and dressed in the tallith, the swaying cantor intoned The Lamentations. The warm reflection of a candle trembled upon his face, wandered across his half-open mouth, his bright teeth and his dark beard. In the half-light playing over his white clothes he looked like a Bedouin. His exalted face seemed slightly drunk with prayer. His rich voice, finding too little space under the high ceiling, escaped in deep waves toward the small square, where happy children, obeying an ancient tradition symbolic of torture, threw thistles at each other.
How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!
The cantor’s passionate voice expressed so much love for this Jerusalem he had never seen, so much pride for its past grandeur and so much sorrow for its destruction, that hundreds of generations seemed to utter through his voice their joy and their despair.
An old Jew with bowed head was sitting at the doors of the synagogue. He was not praying. Near him was a young man pensively watching the children at play.
The old Jew raised his eyes to heaven, closed them, and, his face hardened by suffering, said to the young man:
“Listen to the cantor. I am not praying. I cannot. I feel that if I sat down with the others, I should break into sobs, I should bite the floor with my teeth and claw the earth with my nails, I should awake the death and not leave God in peace…. wish to know: why? Why does nothing ever change in the world? Those words spoken by the Prophet Jeremiah three thousand years ago, in the Holy Land, why do they seem to have been uttered only yesterday and for us only? Listen, listen.”
The sobbing voice came from the synagogue:
She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies. “Listen, listen,” repeated the old Jew.
The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning. The crown is fallen from our head: woe upon us, that we have sinned!
“Countless centuries have fled,” continued the old Jew. “Prophets, Talmudists, Rabbis, Gaons have gone. Before the face of God hundreds of generations have disapappeared like shadows, hundreds of graveyards have been overgrown with weeds, hundreds of kings have followed one another on their thrones, and yet our agony still remains.”
“Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud that our prayer should not pass through,” the cantor sang wit’. all his strength.
“And there is no end to that, no end to it,” went on the old man.
“No end, no end,” repeated the young man.
Two children were playing near the iron railings of the graveyard adjoining the synagogue. They had no more thistles to throw and one of them suggested, pointing to the graves:
“Let us go in, we’ll find many there.”
His playmate glanced fearfully at the cemetery. In the fading twilight, the tombstones gleamed among the trees, grey and unreal. Moonlight spread a pale and delicate gold over the Catholic convent whose crosses glistened above the tombs. The child was terrified.
“It is late,” he said, “I am frightened.”
The other laughed. He was the son of the sexton, the guardian of the dead.
“Frightened? And what about? With me along you have nothing to fear. We’ll gather many thistles.”
The two children ran along the dark paths.
Meanwhile the prayer had ended. The women left the synagogue first and melted away like shadows. The men went out slowly. The old Rabbi appeared, solemn and calm, followed by the cantor whose throat was wrapped in a scarf.
In the square silent groups of worshippers assembled. Their faces were lined with a sorrow which prayer had softened to a sweet, to an almost joyous cadness.
Tortured souls had bathed in the majesty of prayer and came out refreshed as from the still waters of Siloam.
But now the sound of a violin drifted toward the square where the Jews had gathered. The melody became more and more distinet, and they all recognized it as an old Jewish song, Isaiah’s song of consolation.
Anger distorted the grave face of the Rabbi and an angry murmur ran through the crowd. On this day of mourning the song of consolation sounded like blasphemy.
To be continued tomorrow
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.