MEMORIES OF PALESTINE BEFORE ISRAEL: THE LITTLE HORSERADISH WOMAN

Editor’s Note: As the world knows, earlier this month, an invading force of from the Iranian-backed Hamas militia invaded Israel from the south and committed unspeakable atrocities against Israel, Arab, American, French, British and Thai civilians, among many others. Many on the left defended these atrocities, or at claimed to understand them, as anti-colonial actions. In this reading, Israels were European colonizers with no connection to the land (like the British in India), and the Iranian militia represented indigenous people (like those of Indian nationality in India).

Back when some of us used to work for Audere Magazine, we published a series of sketches of Palestine before Israel, which attempted to combat this myth, which didn’t run in just one direction. Indeed, as we pointed out then, one frequently noted problem about the Israel/Palestine “Situation” is the reluctance of hardliners, on each side, to accept the legitimacy of their adversary. Hardline Palestinians and their sympathizers argue that the Jews currently living in Israel are not descended from anyone who had ever inhabited the land prior to Israeli independence (or, in their parlance, the “nakhba,” or “catastrophe) in 1948, and that, in fact, the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was not a Jewish Temple; and hardline advocates for Israel insist that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, and that they are merely immigrants who moved to Israel after waves of Jews began to arrive, to make up the labor shortage.

Neither of these assertions is remotely true; both Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis are “indigenous peoples” to the whole of the land of Israel/Palestine. Back then, we thought it might be a nice idea to run a few columns demonstrating the existence of both of these peoples in the land well before the current hostilities in Audere Magazine, and we think it’s appropriate now to continue this series here, in Oblivioni Magazine.

So we begin again with this reminiscence, from 1905, by Bernard Drachman, from his book, From the Heart of Israel: Jewish Tales and Types.

More to come.

How many of my readers know the little horseradish woman? Many, I have no doubt, are more or less acquainted with her; and those who are not can make her acquaintance without any difficulty. Almost any afternoon and late into the evening, except on Sabbaths or Jewish holidays, she may be found at her post in one of the blocks of upper Third Avenue, New York, standing behind her improvised little table, industriously rubbing away at her acrid merchandise, with only occasional pauses to wipe away with the corner of her snow-white apron the tears which her lachrymose occupation forces from her eyes, or to give customers extraordinarily liberal portions of her finished product. The size of the portions she sells is quite astonishing to the customer; but the little horseradish woman is scrupulously honest in matters of weight and measure, of mine and thine, and would not think of giving less.

Her tears, too, are quite remarkable. Indeed, I believe that horseradish tears have not been appreciated as they should be, for they are a species entirely sui generis, and not to be confused with any other tears that are shed on earth. Ordinary, every-day tears indicate sorrow and produce weakness; crocodile tears indicate hypocrisy and produce disgust; but horseradish tears are born of industry, and their offspring are energy and good-humor. Such, at least, is the case with our little horseradish woman; for, no sooner has she wiped away one of her periodical outbursts of tears, than she begins to rub away again with the utmost energy and the best humor in the world. My observation of the tears the horseradish woman sheds has made me their confirmed admirer. I have no liking for the lachrymose ebullitions of love-lorn maidens, of snivelling swains, or of wheezing or wheedling Pecksniffs. Give me horseradish tears; they are the honestest, cheerfullest—I had almost said—manliest tears in the world.

Our horseradish woman is known by various names. Some call her “the old Rebecca”; others, desiring to speak more formally or respectfully, refer to her as “old Mrs. Levy”; but the appellation by which she is most widely and popularly known is das Meerrettich Weible—the little horseradish woman. It makes no difference, however, by what designation she is known, she is popular under them all; for the little horseradish woman is liked. Some like her for her courage in toiling so constantly and industriously, and supporting herself at her advanced age; others like her because of her unfailing cheeriness and good-humor; others, again, because of her simple, trustful faith and earnest piety, for the little horseradish woman is more than usually religious, and is to be found in the synagogue, not only on Sabbaths and holidays, but also at the early morning and evening services on week-days, and is one of the most attentive listeners to the rabbi when he expounds the Sedrah on Sabbath mornings, or “learns Shiur” on Sabbath afternoons or week-day evenings.

It is a truly pleasing picture which the little horseradish woman presents when she stands at her post ready for business. Her regular and refined features, of the familiar Jewish type, are, it is true, worn and wrinkled, and the hair which peeps out from under the cloth band and the old-fashioned bonnet which surmount her head is whitened by the seventy or more winters which have passed over her; but the light of intelligence, of benevolence, and of pure and refined sentiments shines in her countenance and makes it singularly attractive. Her clothing is of the plainest. She wears a dress of some simple, dark material and over it a long, white apron; but no patch, tear, nor stain is visible anywhere, and we feel instinctively that we have before us a person who, though in humble, even lowly circumstances, is naturally and intrinsically refined.

But as yet we do not know the little horseradish woman. It is only upon entering into conversation with her that we really find out what she is, and a great surprise awaits us then. For this poor, little, old woman who stands upon the street in all weather and seasons, and toils so hard to earn a few cents by the sale of her commodity, comes of excellent family, has had, for her time, an exceptionally good training, and is, in some respects, a remarkably well-educated woman.

She was born as the daughter of a rabbi in a small provincial city of Germany, and her father, besides instilling into her soul the seeds of fervent Hebraic piety, saw to it that she received a thorough secular and religious training. As a consequence her manners are those of polite and well-bred circles, her German is pure and correct in grammar and pronunciation, and what is most surprising and pleasing to the Jewish scholar, she is acquainted with the entire Bible in the original Hebrew. The Book of Psalms she knows by heart and quotes with amazing fluency; and from her experience in her father’s house she has derived a large number of technical Talmudic phrases, which she uses in her conversation with entire correctness of expression and application.

And the most remarkable thing of all is the entire lack of self-consciousness on the part of the little horseradish woman. She is entirely unaware that there is anything out of the ordinary in her life, her characteristics, or her circumstances. She never comments upon the different conditions that prevail to-day, never boasts nor condemns, is simple, natural, and unaffected; a typical, humble, pious Jewish woman. Oh, that you might come, you artificial, affected daughters of an artificial, affected age, and learn simple refinement and natural dignity from this lowly sister of yours! The lesson is needed and would prove effective.

Last Saturday night, after the “going out” of the Sabbath, my wife and I also determined to go out for a stroll on Third Avenue. We often take these strolls, and enjoy them. My wife loves the excitement of the lights and the crowds, which make it doubly pleasant to meet an acquaintance or make an occasional purchase; and I am equally fond of studying human nature where it makes its most characteristic appearance, in the busy throngs of men. We had not seen the little horseradish woman for some time, for she had given up of late her habit of coming to our house with her wares, and her stand was not on any of the blocks we usually traversed.

That evening we extended our walk a little further than usual. As we neared —th Street, suddenly Mrs. —— exclaimed: “Look, there is the little horseradish woman!” Sure enough it was she, and we immediately went up to her.

While she was returning our greeting with great cordiality and friendliness, I noticed that she did not appear to be as well as usual. Her movements were lacking in their customary vivacity, and her face seemed thinner and paler than its wont.

“How are you getting on, Mrs. Levy?” I said, while she was filling a bag with our ordered portion of horseradish.

Boruch Hashem, quite well,” she responded with a smile. “My friends are good and patronize me steadily, but I feel that I am growing older. I was quite ill the other day. I nearly fainted here on the street; but the people in the delicatessen store were very kind. They took me in and gave me cold water, and kept me there until I recovered; and I am feeling quite well now.”

While listening to her words, I thought to myself how hard her lot was; and I asked myself whether it really was necessary for her to stand on the street and earn her living in such a trying manner.

“My good Mrs. Levy,” I said, “don’t you think your life is too hard for you? Would you not rather go to some institution where you would be cared for?”

“Oh, no, thank you,” she responded. “I don’t wish to go to a home. I have a husband, although he is old and feeble, and good children who do what they can for me; and I am glad that I still can earn something myself. You know what King David says in the Psalms,” and she quoted glibly, “Yegia keppecho ki sochel, ashrecho ve-tov-loch” (“If thou eatest what thy hands earn, thou art happy, and it is well with thee”). “I eat what my hands earn, so I am happy.”

“Why don’t you come to our house any more?” broke in my wife.

“Oh,” answered the little horseradish woman, “I heard that another woman brings you your horseradish, and I did not wish to be massig gevool.”

Our package was now ready and we departed. But my thoughts gave me no rest. I was thinking continually of the little horseradish woman, and whether it was not possible to devise some means of improving her lot.

A few blocks down the avenue we met Mr. and Mrs. Bergheim. They are friends and neighbors of ours, and our greetings were cordial. I soon turned the conversation to that which was uppermost in my thoughts.

“You know the little horseradish woman, do you not?” I asked.

The Bergheims nodded assent.

“Don’t you think something could be done for her?” I continued. “It does seem wrong that such a worthy old person should be forced to stand on the street and toil so hard for a livelihood.”

The Bergheims smiled at each other peculiarly.

“What would you do for her?” asked Mr. Bergheim. “She is much too proud to accept charity; besides, she really does not need to work, as her children supply her with all she requires for herself and husband. Her horseradish receipts are so much extra income that she earns.”

I must confess that this reply rather staggered me. There appeared to be a mystery about the horseradish woman which was puzzling, to say the least.

“But why, in the name of common sense,” I demanded, “does such an old and not overstrong woman toil on the streets, in rain and shine, by day and by night, if she has all she requires and does not need to work? It doesn’t seem reasonable. She isn’t touched in her upper story, I hope?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” said Bergheim; “but you see, she has rather unusual and exalted notions about duty. Since the requirements of herself and husband are satisfied and she has some strength, she thinks it her duty to labor for the poor. Every cent she earns by selling horseradish she gives to the poor. It is quite an amount, for she has many customers; and quite a long list of widows and orphans and feeble old men who are regular pensioners on her charity.

“Every Rosh Chodesh there is quite a gathering in her humble flat. All sorts of needy and afflicted persons, men, women, and children, crowd her rooms, and she divides among them, with the most kindly sympathy but with excellent judgment, all the money she has earned during the month. The blessings she gets are innumerable, and she considers herself well rewarded thereby for all her trouble.

“I found this out by accident, as she never says a word about it to any one. When I asked her why she went to all this trouble, she quoted a passage from the Pentateuch: ‘Verily, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor close thy hand against thy poor brother’; and in another from the Ethics of the Fathers, ‘The poor shall be the children of thy house,’ and said those were her reasons.

“That, my dear ——, is why you cannot do anything for the little horseradish woman, except to be her customer and patronize her liberally. She wants no charity, and will take no gifts for ‘her poor,’ whom she wishes to assist with her own earnings.”

So that was the explanation of the riddle. The little horseradish woman was emulating the work of the Master of the universe, was toiling early and late to feed His hungry ones, to dry the tears of His afflicted, to care for His poor. I was lost in admiration, both of the noble soul of this humble daughter of Israel and the sublime glory of Israel’s law, which put such thoughts into her soul.

I have made up my mind that the next time I see the little horseradish woman I shall pronounce over her the benediction which the rabbis ordain to be spoken at the sight of kings and queens, for she is a real queen, an uncrowned queen of mercy and love. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who hast given of Thy glory to flesh and blood.”

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