(This is a short story, not a poem. It is long. If you are looking for poems, work back or forward in the blog and skip this. This story is in my poetry blog because I couldn’t figure out how to set up a second branch of the blog to hold my Short Stories. If you don’t mind a story for a change, read on and enjoy! Like all stories, this tale is true, even though none of it ever happened.)
Thus the old Jew from Cordoba who shipped out on a merchant vessel from Barcelona and arrived in Messina, Sicily in the Fall of 1915 is a true character, not the archetypical Wandering Jew. That his name was Aaron, after Moses’ brother, who wandered forty years in the wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, and watched his brother stay behind as the exiles marched into the Promised Land but who could not go with them, is not important, but just a name in this tale.
What is important is what Aaron wanted to do.
Aaron wanted to kill Austrians in the Italian Alps.
He knew, not as Prophets Know, but with prescience, that his homeland, Spain, (though he was not a true citizen there either, rather just an alien visitor whose shallow roots in Iberian soil sunk down a mere half a millennium), would never send Her army to fight the Central Alliance, either on the French front or the Italian. So, if he would kill the Hun, he must needs join the army of France or Italy. And, since he hated the French for their centuries of ethnic arrogance, only partly forgiven by the freedoms Napoleon had tried to implement, before the Russian Winter, the British Squares and Prussian Steel crushed Bonaparte’s attempts at reformation, Aaron decided to throw in with the nascent Italian army.
To him, it did not matter whose bullets he would be using. Or whose coins would pay him for his expertise. He could shoot a hole through Garibaldi’s head on a lira at one hundred meters as easily as through a French franc.
What mattered was killing the Hun.
He had intuition enough to sense that the more Aryans he killed in this war, the fewer there would be to kill Jews in the next. This was easy logic for an old Jew.
Of course, the Czar and his surfs were bad enough. He might have joined with the Kaiser to shoot stupid Russians as they charged, armed with scythes and axes, into machine-gun fire on the Eastern Front. He might save Jews with German bullets that way. And get rid of a few Russians.
But Aaron read.
He knew that the Russian people and their hand-wringing Czar, already castrated by his German wife, had trouble brewing. Aaron believed the Red fire flaming in Russian factories would help the Jews once the Bolsheviks ended the Romanov’s three century rule.
It was in the depraved mind of the Aryan that the real danger lurked for his people. So it would be in German hearts or Austrian brains where Aaron’s bullets would lodge. Perhaps even a Prussian, left gutted by Aaron’s bayonet on the battlefield between the trench lines, would do in a pinch.
And know, of course, that, the British were completely out of consideration. The only Jew in their history, other than Jesus, was Disraeli, (of Israel), their decades dead Prime Minister, whose family was already one generation deep into Christianity when he came to power. The Jew would never fight beside an Englishman. And Aaron could conjure a world where a Jew might kill an Englishman, if it came to that.
It would be the emotional, chaotic, nearly anarchistic Italy with whom Aaron would ally.
It is a long journey from Messina to the Alps.
But Aaron’s Sephardic good looks and his Spanish coins fared him well in his wanderings. And, of course, he hid the trappings of his faith. No Hebrew books. All tossed into the Mediterranean at Barcelona before he boarded the freighter. His yarmulke hidden in his sea bag. His fishermen’s cap sufficing to keep the sun off his balding head. And his many languages were benefits. He spoke Spanish, of course. And French from his smuggling days with his Catalonian friends in the Pyrenees. And a dialect of Italian from his wife, a refugee to Spain, fleeing from Sicily to escape the evil men who assassinated her father, a small town mayor. Aaron had met her when he was young, handsome and willing to take in a foreigner. She was five years older than he was and twenty years more experienced and she was willing to be taken. She had died after nine years of marriage, in a plague that had swept their port city with a rat filled broom. No children had come from their union. Surprising, given how much she loved to fuck with him, circumcised or not, for he was a willing student and quick to learn. And he came to learn and love her rapid fire tongue when she scolded him and for how else she could use it. That he was a Jew mattered little to her, so long as he cared for her. And he did, until…
For when he landed in Sicily, he stayed just long enough to track down the gang that had killed Teresa’s father. With his honed stealth, he became an assassin of assassins.
Then, he found a fisherman in Messina who, for a few lira, would go out to sea one morning with one extra crew member, and return three days later without him, as Aaron began his trek through Italy, north to the border and the war.
That he had no sons was a blessing for he would not take them where he was going and if he and Theresa had borne children, they would be in their thirties now and settled and might not have let their aging Poppa go on his “ridiculous adventure”. They would have been Catholic. No good Catholic kills other Christians for Jewish motives.
So, alone, Aaron marched north to join the Italian army and kill Austrians.
(Or any Hungarians or Prussians or Turks, for that matter, who were caught in his site.)
In all grand wanderings, there are always little adventures along the way. No less for Aaron’s. Like the times his rifle and his marksmanship came together to his aid.
He walked with his cherished weapon slung over his left shoulder. It was always loaded. He cleaned it every night, whether it had been fired or not. When he was hungry, a rabbit at a hundred meters was meat on the spit. If he needed a few additional coins to stop overnight at an inn for a decent meal and a bath along the way, there were always gullible peasant bumpkins as easy marks to take a bet, Aaron, leading a crowd of the fools cronies out beyond the town for a shooting contest that would leave them with empty pockets and Aaron, his rifle pointing toward their bellies, backing down the road, sometimes, if he had time to plan ahead, under the well compensated patronage of the local carbinarie, who Aaron payed off at the northern edge of their town.
Since this was Italy, Aaron arrived in Rome, tired, but richer than when he landed in Messina. And, with something of a reputation, spread by a boisterous entourage which had formed around him as he traveled north.
A killers retinue.
His skill with his rifle and his determination to kill their enemies had ignited their anti-Austrian patriotism. He was a magnet to their bloody, iron enthusiasms. By the time Aaron located the enlistment compound, he brought with him a company of bombastic, bragging comrades for war, all as foolishly willing to shed their blood “pro patri amore'”
as the Austrians were eager to spill it.
To be a sniper in a static frontal war is to be admired as a skilled warrior, but not a valiant one. Death by sniper bullet is a necessary death, but not heroic. To drop into the mud of a trench in the middle of a match-lit-card-game or in a frantic scurry from the latrine, without the charge over the top, flares lighting night into day, bayonets fixed and bloody is, to your angry comrades, a wasted death.
And the unseen enemy sniper, hidden behind a shadow, is more of an enemy than the man whose breath you smell as your knife finds a home in his heart. That man is a comrade in the mud. The sniper is a bastard whose throat you slit if you capture him, whose balls and penis you cut off and leave in the dirt next to his body.
Aaron was that sniper.
That man whose men cut crosses in his helmet with their knives whenever he killed. Who, when there was no more room on his helmet, found him a new one and dug his sacred helmet into a place of honor in the wall of their trench. And when the second helmet was was nearly filled with crosses, they found him an Austrian helmet, still attached to its owners head, crammed it into the wall, head and all, next to his first and began to cut crosses on it. And on that day, there were ninety-seven crosses on the first helmet, ninety on the second and there would be seventeen on the Austrians. Two hundred and four dead Huns to Aaron’s credit.
And to the credit of his men, since he was made captain by his now diminished band of comrades and the few new men assigned to his company, they considered those enemy dead as part of their kill as well.
A sergeant, Antonio DeAngelo, one of the new men, learned to stay at least ten yards away from Aaron when they were attacked because the Austrians knew who Aaron was, by then. And when they came for the Italians, they came first for that man, the man the Italians called The Old Jew.
DeAngelo watched as Aaron would site in on a momentarily distracted sentry. When Aaron’s rifle fired,there would be no scream. Just a barely audible thud. Then would come the curses from the opposite line. Another cross on the helmet. DeAngelo watched as Aaron slithered over the sand bags at night to his secret hiding places in the craters between the lines. DeAngelo waited for the noise of the shots. And then the agonized screams if Aaron aimed low or the curses of the other Austrians if he was merciful. Aaron would come over the bags a few hours before sunrise. Once he said, “I flanked an unfinished trench. Six dead before they could return fire. Wild, so, here I am!” And he laughed and six more crosses were cut onto Herr Fritz’s helmet. DeAngelo took worshipful note of Aaron when the Austrians charged. While the Italians fired their rifles and machine guns from their trench, Aaron stood above them, unflinching, aiming, firing, aiming, firing, loading, choosing, aiming, firing. Neither their place in the line nor any fort where they were garrisoned was ever breached.
Then early one morning, they were attacked again. The men fought well and broke the charge. But Aaron stayed down in the trench, squatting, arms wrapped around his knees, helmet pulled low. He never lifted his rifle. But DeAngelo saw no fear, no shaking, no eyes wide in panic. He saw, almost felt, a serenity around the Jew as the others fired from their positions around Aaron, protecting him. The Austrians retreated. No crosses for Herr Fritz that day.
Later that night, three hours after sunset, the Jew went over the top. DeAngelo heard ten shots from places all along the line. When he returned, Aaron whispered, “Eight.”
“Why did you wait?” Deangelo growled as the Jew crawled past him.
“Why did you wait for the night? Why didn’t you fire during the attack? Why didn’t you…”
“I was in my synagogue.”
“I was praying. I cannot shoot while I am praying. I will not kill on the Sabbath. Tomorrow, when they come, I will get twelve. It will make up for those I did not murder today.”
DeAngelo did not know whether to spit or shit. To accuse his captain would be seen as insubordinate. An insult to the Icon. To be silent would be acquiescing in the Jews treason.
One of Aaron’s “Originals”, as they called themselves, stood up in the trench. His name was Dominic Cicale. He was one of the first lambs that the Jew had fleeced. He had followed since that day, loving the dirt on which the Jew walked, the air he breathed.
Cicale stared at DeAngelo.
“Drop it and shut up. We fight for him on his one day. He kills for us on the other six. It is a good bargain, sergeant. Live with it. Or you may die without it.”
DeAngelo saw in that smile, blood on the lips. Flesh hanging from the teeth.
The trench grew tense. Three men stood up. There was the sound of steel sliding in a sheath.
DeAngelo turned away.
Cicale turned to Aaron.
“Go, rest, Captain. There will be more killing tomorrow.”
When the Austrians came early that next morning, The Jew stood up. He yelled to his men, “Shall we show our brothers-in-war the door to Hell?”
All is men roared and rose from their trench.
They moved as one beast, growling, shooting and when they were close enough, using the bayonet.
DeAngelo fought well, to prove him self to himself. For absolution for his shame, by shooting and stabbing. The Jew came to him in almost a stroll in the middle of this killing field. He stopped beside DeAngelo. The Jew gave the sergeant a slap on his back.
“Good Sergeant! Good! Keep on! Keep going on!”
DeAngelo turned on the Jew, aimed his rifle toward him and fired, killing an Austrian behind Aaron a second before the Hun could fire, saving the Jews life.
“You will be blessed, my friend!” Aaron yelled. “You have saved a thousand Jews today!”
He charged past DeAngelo, firing at a squad of the enemy as they tried a flanking move. “Three crosses!” he yelled.
Then he was gone in a blast of fire and smoke and gore.
His men saw.
raging into the Austrians, who faltered, staggered and in panic, turned and ran toward their trenches, stumbling over the wire, the bodies, through shell holes, tripping over each other, shoving each other away in a terrorized retreat to safety.
But they never made it.
Nothing could protect them from the Old Jews avenging Originals.
The slaughter on the field and in two trench lines deep that day was more than any man had seen in this sector. A lake of Austrian blood was shed, mixed with the corpses of a new company of raw Austrian recruits, children with guns, who, after they surrendered were executed before they had a chance to raise their weapons.
Only the cold mountains behind the Huns were strong enough to stop the Italian onslaught. And so, with the lines redrawn in red blood, the fighting ebbed. The broken Austrians huddled in the narrow passes leading north into the Alps. What had started for them as an ordinary, teasing incursion ended as a major triumph for the Italians up and down the lines, leaving the bloodied Austrians in cramped spaces, waiting to be blown to bits on the morrow.
What was left of the Originals found what was left of the Old Jew. His rifle’s shattered stock and barrel. His cross scared helmet. They left his other pieces on the blasted ground to be absorbed into the earth. As much of a funeral as Aaron could be given, until his men, after everything was over, could bury his few belongings in the cemetery of a small stone church two miles behind their trenches, where they and Aaron had found refuge during pauses in the horror.
His men stabbed his rifle and helmet into the altar with the Austrian’s head.
The spot, now, a holy place in the mud. Until the end, as the men mucked through the trench, they made the sign of the cross, kissed their fingers and touched the Jews helmets, for a blessing, for protection.
Sergeant Antonio DeAngelo fought the Huns with a fury rarely seen by either side. And he cried for the Old Jew in secret until the war ended, when he was withdrawn with the last of the Originals.
Nothing had changed about him. He still blasphemed in battle. He still used his bayonet with savage fury.
Nothing had changed but the small center of his heart whose new, battle-born rhythms he would begin to hear in the quiet of Armistice.
For he, like all these other survivors, who, a mere five years later would salute their new leader and his new fascist government, who a mere twenty years later would salute their new German allies and aid them in their slaughter of millions of European Jews, loved their dead captain, Aaron, their Old Jew.
My name is Jefrey Klienman.
I am a Jew, with an enviable vocation.
I love many things:
to eat, travel, write,
to watch my wife, Sarah usher in the Sabbath at sunset,
to pray at synagogue,
to listen to the woes and joys of fellow Jews all around Gods Earth, His name is blessed.
So, I write the series of books entitled: THE KOSHER GUIDE TO THE WORLD. The books are travel aids for Jews who wish to keep kosher while they visit this world.
I write for Jews who, intentionally, of their own free will, continue the old myth of the Wandering Jew but who stay not in hovels of ancient ghettos hiding from pogroms, rather in Five Star Kosher Hotels of welcoming cities and towns throughout Europe and Asia. Places where they can find tasty Kosher meals and accepting communities.
You understand, yes?
A way for observant Jews to see the sights without sinning. And, if he (or she) should want to sin a little (my personal favorite is raw octopus in a spectacular Sushi bar in Kyoto) my books show them how to get in and get out, unscathed.
Maybe you wouldn’t believe it, but I even cover Muslim countries. I’ve found that truly observant Muslim communities are safe places for practicing Jews to travel.
I’m telling you, they are not all terrorists.
You have heard, I am sure, of the American comedian, George Carlin, may that funny, angry man rest in peace! He once said that this whole world can be divided into two parts: A gentile part and a Jewish part. You wouldn’t believe how many Muslim countries are in the Jewish part of the world! I understand his humor. It is very Jewish. Was Carlin Jewish? So many American comics are Jewish. Why not? To be Jewish you have to have a sense of humor or suicide is a temptation.
But I digress.
Carlin says that, of course, Germans are Gentiles. The Brits are gentiles, also,
definitely. But not the Irish. Surprise!!! And Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Chinese, most of South-East Asia, (excluding Thais and Japanese who are Gentile), are Jewish, and all of Central and South America, except for the German parts of Argentina. What a wonderful collection of cultures for Jews to learn and feel at home in!
So, I help my rich, wandering brothers and sisters travel the world to see how their brothers and sisters live. ( Plus side trips to the Great Wall and the Sydney, Australia Opera House, where they are all Jews, according to Carlinian Logic.)
It’s interesting to me that NO JEW I have ever personally spoken to has ever put New York City on their travel bucket list. That would be like going home for vacation.
But, again, I digress.
Once, I was asked, by INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL MAGAZINE, a very reputable periodical, to write a short anecdote about an encounter I had while traveling. I will share it with you because I know you are a very intelligent person and will understand the meaning of the moment.
I know you will be surprised where this meeting took place. Saint Peter’s Square! In the Vatican! In Rome! Where Italy’s food, family and culture blur into thousands of similar Jewish communities around the world.
I was writing my twelfth book. “A JEWS ROME”. So, of course, I was sitting on a bench where I could view Saint Peter’s Basilica with those twelve Jewish saints holding up all that marble.
A young priest walks over to the bench, to sit down next to me and says, in lovely Italian accented English, “Excuse me. I do not wish to be intrusive, but, I am having a problem and I believe you may have some advise for me. Some help. Do you mind?”
I confess, at first, I thought that this was some sort of hoax, a scam. But, you know me! In for a lira, in for a C-note! So, I tapped the bench and he sat down. He introduced himself.
“My name is Carlo DeAngelo. I attend the Seminary here at the Vatican. I am soon to take my vows. But to be honest with you, a stranger, I know… I hesitate. You are a Jew, yes?”
I tapped my blue and white yarmulke. “It’s not made to be a sun hat!”
The young priest-to-be laughed.
“Yes! Very good! Not a sunhat! Very funny! Like George Carlin! I love him! Do you know him?’
I told him I did.
And then I asked, “So, my new friend, how can this Old Jew be of help to you?”
He looked relieved.
Then he became very serious.
He leaned toward me. Stared at me. And said, “Tell me about Sabbath.’
I had no idea what might be coming from this Catholic seminarian named Charlie Angel! But, never in my life, would I have guessed his problem would involve Sabbath! But this young man was quite serious. So I was serious with him.
“The Sabbath? Well, it is important to me. I obey as well as I can. I don’t travel on Sabbath if I can help it. I travel a lot. I am an author of travel books. I write about cities that are friendly and easy for Jews to visit. And safe. Capiche?”
“Yes!” the young Brother said. “How wonderful for you! A “wandering Jew” who writes of his travels! And you have observed Sabbath in many places, yes? So, how do you do it?”
“Well, I don’t know what some rabbis would say, since everything I see and do is really part of my work, my research, yes? But, I walk, I eat, I sight-see, like right now, here, in this Square. I heard your Pope Francis speak here. A year ago. He is a truly holy man, and a mensch, yes? You know, maybe, the word?
“Mensch? Yes! A good man. A brother to all. And a Father to many?”
“Excellent, Father DeAngelo! A Pope who is Brother and Father! Very good!”
“He speaks at our Seminary Convocations. Once he spoke about the very human need to rest. To come “closer to holiness in rest”,He said. He is worried about the …ah.. tempo, yes? the tempo we all live with. How it is destroying so much of what makes us human… He was talking about your Sabbath.”
I gasped! “Can the Inquisition arrest a Pope?!”
It was a joke.
DeAngelo crossed himself. He chuckled. Then, he said, “God forbid! For then I would not be able to proceed.”
“Because Pope Francis got arrested?”
And then he revealed his secret.
“My family has kept Sabbath for a century. And so do I. Quietly, in secret. In my room. For my self. I light a candle and pray at sunset.”
“You are not Jewish. And you’re not going to be ordained as a Rabbi, so there is, I can tell, more to this. Yes?”
He smiled. “No, we are not Jewish. My family has been Christian since Saint Paul came to Rome. But, I have a story to tell you about my great-grand-father, Antonio DeAngelo and a man I know only as “Aaron, The Old Jew”.
Thus, I would learn the story of a Spanish Jew from Cordoba (which gets a five star rating in my book on Spain, by the way…) who killed Austrians in the Italian Alps and would keep Sabbath, even in the middle of a battle. Yet two seconds after sundown, he would continue his one-Jew crusade against an entire army!
Judah Maccabeus, move over!
This Jewish warrior died in battle. But his faith, his constancy, impressed Brother Carlo’s great-grand-Father, a fellow soldier in The Great War, enough that he began a tradition in his Catholic family of keeping the Sabbath.
Now, a century later, his great-grand-son, Carlo, prepares to enter the priesthood in this Roman Catholic Church which boasts a new Pope who praises Jews for observing Sabbath.
And, the dilemma of this young man?
Can the continuation of his four generation family tradition of keeping Sabbath be compatible with the life of a Roman Catholic priest, living under the vows of poverty, chastity and, most importantly, in this case, obedience?
Move over, Tevye!
Was this not a Talmudic debate to relish?
To me, his Gordian Knot was easily severed. This was as plain as the Sephardic nose on my face and the Roman nose on his.
His Jesus also rested on Sabbath, yes? Did this Rabbi, Jesus Bar Joseph, not say, “…the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”…
( I am Jewish, so, I read!)..
And after this Jesus was killed on the cross, (by the Romans, not the Jews!) did he not rest the Sabbath in his tomb, until, according to Father DeAngelo’s belief, he rose on Sunday morning to greet his Abba, Yahweh?
These ideas I presented to the priest.
But he had been studying what he called “The Fathers”, who had studied Paul, who was a Jew.
And were not the Jewish laws, what he called the “ceremonial laws” including the commandment to keep the Sabbath, finished at the sacrifice of the Lamb?
I wonder sometimes how ideas could have gone so wrong?
It was ridiculous to me.
I took a pen from my notebook, leaned over to the boy and held it to his jugular.
“What are you doing?” Carlo asked, perhaps a little nervous…
“Making a point, no pun intended!
I am going to kill you with this pen. And it is no sin to do so since the commandment, from God’s own hand, “You shall not Kill” is rendered obsolete at the cross?
And after you’re dead, lying here in Saint Peter’s Square in a pool of your own blood, I will steal that gold cross you wear around your neck because “You shall not steal” is also nullified?
You do see how wrong that is?
And, by the way, Sabbath’s existence does not depend on whether or how people “keep” it! It is, period. Go jump in a lake! Swim around! While you are in the lake, you cannot say you are dry! The Sabbath is a lake we are drenched in. Wet with holy water. You know Heschel? No? You should. Read him. There is a mind! OK. Enough.
Your old Jew killed, every day, except Sabbath. So holy was Sabbath to him that he would risk his life by not killing his enemy on it!
Seems crazy, no?
I don’t follow his logic, but I love his soul!
And so did your great-grand-father!
So, go! Take your vows. Be poor. Be chaste. Be obedient to your church and your Pope who praises the Jewish Sabbath which you also will keep. Then, in your mass on Sunday morning, recognize what your Other Day means as well.
Faith in the inscrutable does not need to be so complicated!
“God is in His Heaven, therefore, let your words be few!”
That is from Solomon. A wise man. If you have not read his writing, you should.”
We sat there, silent, for a while.
Then Carlo sighed. From resignation or relief, I will never know.
“Yes. Why not?” the priest said.
“So. Have I helped you with your little problem? I am no scholar, but it makes good sense to me.”
The priest smiled at me. He took my hand in his. Then he made the sign of the cross over me, blessing me, this middle-aged Jew in Saint Peter’s Square, in the midst of this minyan of saints, Peter, John, Matthew and the rest of their Hebrew brothers. He rubbed his eyes.
And he walked away.
“Ego te absolvo, Padre!” I yelled to him, stopping some shocked tourists dead in their tracks.
Carlo laughed. With his back to me, he raised his right hand and made the sign of the cross again.
In my new book, I treat Rome very well.
Many years later, perhaps, an old priest, maybe in some small northern Italian town, not far from a nearly forgotten battle field of a horrible war is sitting in his rectory next to his old stone church. He is lighting a candle as the sun is setting on Friday night, the coming of Sabbath. It is old Father Carlo DeAngelo, a priest, much loved by all the people in his parish. By lighting this candle, he is honoring an old Jew from Cordoba, Spain. He is honoring his great-grand-father. He is honoring his family.
he is remembering.
(he should be so blessed),
he is keeping It holy.