Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Elul 5763 - September 4, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Pen to Repentance

by Udi Mohr (Zusman)

"For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under the heavens" (Koheles 3:1).

I. A Time to Give Birth; A Time to Die

The wailing of a baby suddenly rang out. It came from behind the door and spread with the speed of sound throughout the house. A pair of elderly feet swung down from an iron bed and straight into a pair of worn slippers, righted themselves and marched towards the door. It was opened a crack, but nothing could be seen except for the familiar notorious street. A perennially thick smog reigned outdoors and the skies were cloudy and gray.

The door almost closed shut when the wailing was again heard. A pair of old eyes looked down at the threshold. Astonishment. A child's cradle rested there, occupied by a baby, a human whelp stretching up its arms. "Good heavens!" murmured the old man. He looked about, at all sides, searching, and finally dragged the basket into his home, took the baby out, and fed it. The child calmed down, and so did the old man.

Two days afterwards, the old man got an anonymous cable in his mother tongue relating to the baby. He read it. It was a will involving a sorrowful tale, but better than the death that would have surely awaited him. Two weeks later, the child was already in a government orphanage. The old man had been unable to cope with his needs. A year later, the old man passed away. All that was left for the child in the orphanage was that cable, and a fountain pen.

II. A Time for Silence; A Time for Speech

Yonah grew up. He was no different from the rest of his friends in the orphanage, without worries but lacking all restraint. Close to his thirteenth birthday, the administrator, a kindhearted, decent and upright person, called him to his office. Yonah was a dark-haired boy with bright eyes that flitted warily. They called him `Yonah' because that was the name given him in the cable which contained the very will that the director now handed over to him.

"Read this," he ordered, but Yonah had never seen this type of letter; it was a foreign tongue. His reading skills, even in his own language, were none too developed either. The director was surprised, having naively taken it for granted that he would recognize his "native tongue." Hadn't he entered the orphanage in his first year? The letter was extended but Yonah just stared at it in silence.

When Yonah's helpless surprise finally registered with the director, he went about finding a translator. He was told about a venerable old man with a long white beard -- the color of those clouds way up high near the sun -- who was familiar with the language. The man was brought to the orphanage and given the cable. At first, he read it to himself. As he approached the end, his face grew pale and fearful. He gazed at the boy standing before him and seemed at a loss what to do. Finally, he said, "It says here that this boy is a Jew and his name is Yonah."

The director gave an inscrutable smile and said that he was already aware of the fact, but knew nothing more. When he reached the age of thirteen, it was requested that he be given his negligible inheritance. "Yonah's father was curt and explicit," he said, "and all he bequeathed to his son was his fountain pen, the pen which he had always used."

The man removed his eyes from the paper and fixed them upon the director. The latter smiled foolishly. "You must be talking about this," he said, bending down and taking out a somewhat dusty pen from the first drawer of the desk. It was a good, fine pen. The old man shrugged his shoulders.

"Your father must have been a strange man," said the director pointedly, in a pleasant but cold voice. Yonah did not reply. He couldn't understand what all this commotion was about. The elderly Jew did not smile; he only sent a compassionate look to the boy.

"Now tell me, sir," said the director. "When the strange old man brought this child here about twelve years ago, he said that he was a Jew and that in twelve years hence, I should summon some Jew who would know what to do. Now look here, you can't adopt the boy. The law does not allow it. So what can you do? What did the old man have in mind?"

It was the Jew's turn to smile. "Bar mitzva," he murmured. "Allow me to teach him about the ancient heritage of his ancestors."

III. A Time to Guard; A Time to Discard

The Jew took Yonah and began teaching him. He invested the majority of his energy and time, and even means, in doing so. But regretably, the boy was more attracted to his childish games and school friends.

One day, at twilight, the old man took Yonah for a walk along the ridge that overlooked the sea. They watched the crashing waves that washed across the beach like a hand passing over one's hair, seemingly friendly. Like a tongue licking a popsicle in summer, inviting-looking, or like a breeze caressing wrinkles, creasing them. So many thoughts filled Yonah's head there, but the right thought fell by the wayside, like a needle in a haystack. The old man asked him, "Did you ever think about what this" -- and his hand swept across the horizon -- "is all about?"

"No," replied Yonah coldly. The word left his mouth and settled between them, as if it were an entity of itself. It had no teeth, only a long tongue that lashed out like a black whip, silent, like a heart that had stopped beating.

With a phlegm thickly coating it, the sun was barely visible from between the clouds, like life and its fullness as seen through the mist of semi-blindness. And then the sun sank down, small and fiery, rolling quickly down below the horizon like an ember from some celestial fire. A nocturnal sadness hovered over the scene with a timelessness too weary to be eternal.

Nothing helped. After the aliya leTorah which concluded with a garbled brochoh, Yonah returned to the orphanage as if nothing had transpired. The fountain pen which his father had bequeathed him was now his to keep, and he did guard it zealously. He loved this pen dearly, kept it in his trousers pocket and walked around with it proudly, through streets and marketplaces, presenting it for the inspection of alley cats and corner loafers.

One day, Yonah stopped by the window of a stationery shop. A pen caught his eye. No ordinary writing utensil, but a slim, silver thing that rested regally upon a wooden pedestal, itself finely worked -- so distinguished looking. Suddenly, Yonah felt a strong desire to possess that penmanship tool with its pointed nib, and began calculating in his mind how he could possibly become its owner.

Yonah entered the shop. The owner saw him and wanted to eject him at once. Yonah looked like a typical street urchin in his tattered, patched clothing. But an innocent dove chirped from behind those rags, behind the pale, besmirched face, and declared that he was prepared to do anything in order to become the possessor of the pen in the window. The owner attempted again to shoo him out of the store, perhaps with a rough push to boot -- or boot to push -- his face a study of livid anger.

Except that, for some mysterious, totally unknown whim, he suddenly remembered that of late, he really had needed a helper in the store, an extra pair of ready hands. Yes, he did need a worker. On the spot, he hired Yonah and promised him the pen in return for sixty days of labor. Yonah was taken aback, somewhat, but another glance at the pen on display in the window made him forget his reservations.

Yonah toiled from morning to night, evading school and absorbing a hefty measure of punishment. But nothing could distance him from that pen, the object of his heart's desire, the sum of his earthly yearning. Sixty days he labored, tirelessly. Sixty days and the pen was his.

On the day he received the pen, he took it and laid it on the table in his room, if one could call the damp, dingy cell- like compartment a room. He sat across from it, staring at it -- a handsome Waterman pen -- in silence. He sat wordless and gazed upon it for a full day. And when he had had his fill, he went back to the store and continued to work for additional pens.

They lay next to the fountain pen he had inherited from his father, his most precious possession which he could now identify as a rare Parker 51 -- first an exquisite thing with a tiny nib, a glittering gem on the case, in creamy mocha. This was followed by equally rare and beautiful writing instruments that joined his quality collection which only connoisseurs could full appreciate.

IV. A Pen to Seek; A Time to Lose

Yonah grew, together with his collection. He grew with this hobby, which became an obsession, the driving force in his life. He opened a pen factory which boasted in its display showroom all the pens he had collected. It was not long before he engraved his name as a trademark for his product, a hallmark of quality designated by a dove, his namesake. Yonah got married, had children, and lived on an estate in a small village, content and secure in life.

The world continued to turn on its axis, and Yonah, around the world itself. He visited collections, met new people, and his own treasure of writing implements accumulated accordingly. He dealt with them, bought and sold them -- rare, costly pens of all kinds. A Shaefer fountain pen which only connoisseurs could appreciate, with an inner pump tube of the highest quality; Monte Graffe pens made of superb craftsmanship and materials like gleaming silver and shiny ebony Chinese lacquer. He also possessed a handmade Italian Olmes and a minute Aurora with a stunted nib designed especially for calligraphy.

Night. The world slept. The marsh became alive with chirping crickets and the croaking of amphibian creatures, and with a pair of feet treading firm ground. A rowboat was moored in the thicket. Yonah's estate, oblivious of the guest it was welcoming with its open-armed branches, accepted the stranger in the open way made possible by unwalled property. There was no guard to hinder his entry, no electric fence to impede his progress, only the marsh which had once been a lake-home to many animal denizens.

A few hunks of meat thrown to the pair of ferocious dogs which roamed the grounds freely were enough to silence them. The stranger was very black, and he knew the tricks of his trade expertly. A mere two minutes elapsed from the time he stood at the threshold of the mansion until he stood inside the display room where the collection of inanimate pens rested, and another two minutes before all of them were safely deposited inside a large black case. And a similar lapse of time until he was back on the lawn which led down to the marsh.

The bog betrayed its owner.

Morning. The world arose. Disaster had struck Yonah's home, chaos reigned in his showroom. Yonah's world had collapsed. Hot tears fell upon the fancy parquet floor, seething until they cooled off and collected in a puddle of salt.

"My pens! My pens!" Yonah murmured. But his pens were not there to hear him, to answer him. He fell to his knees and wept for a long, long time. When his eyes were dry of their tear mists, they opened to the light of an errant sunbeam that glistened upon something on the floor. His eyes lit up.

It lay there, as inanimate as it had been when he had first received it, no longer dusty but shining, gleaming, beautiful and glowing, the Parker 51, that item which had begun the whole circle, the hobby, the rare collection, the pen plant. The pen that was so close to his heart, not because he loved to show it off in his jacket pocket, to flaunt it importantly, though he never stopped to think why this was so. He had never known his father, so what was so special about this pen? But . . . but something hovered about it, some aura that encircled it like a creature searching for a watering spot on dry land.

He gathered it up quickly, like a mother swooping up her child, gathered it to the bosom of his fingers, and suddenly found himself laughing and crying alternately.

V. A Time to Burst Forth; A Time to Build

The assault upon his house and the theft of his collection, to Yonah's misfortune, proved an evil harbinger. The pen collection business began a downward spiral from bad to worse and from worse to worst. He was unable to explain it, even when he tried. His loss was total.

He still produced prestigious pens in limited numbers which brought in returns; he still acquired a Montblanc Master Stock with its snowcap trademark, and a Pelican 400 with its green streamline running down its length. But that was all. Rivers of ink dried and died, everything shriveled and went -- his will, his life's passion, not only the collection but even his interest in the factory and in business itself. From the pinnacle of financial success, he experienced a plummeting spiritual decline.

Bad luck is not a good sign, but Yonah's luck fortunately brought him in contact with those who ply the pen, men of letters, the market of writers, manuscripts and graphology.

He soon became conversant in the field: talent, a great deal of innate talent, came to his aid and again, the same driving spirit that had promoted his collector's mania was aroused as a psychological need that begged to be requited. His new interest became manuscripts and graphology, a field in which he soon became expert. But whenever he returned home, a strange thing happened: the pen of his inheritance seemed to scream to him from his bedroom dresser where it was placed as a memorial monument. Strange, indeed.

Its cry was inexplicable. What did it signify? He could not have fathomed it even if he had tried.

At first, Yonah suffered its silent siren stolidly. He turned his gaze away from it, ignored its presence.

But one night, he arose in a fright and rushed frenziedly to the pen, pounced upon it and buried it deep, deep inside a dresser drawer.

A few days passed before the silent scream of the pen surfaced again from the far depths of the drawer-grave, surfaced like a brush fire and spread fiercely all about, its shouting shattering the eardrums of his heart. Black circles of sleeplessness gathered around Yonah's eyes.

VI. A Time to Rend; A Time to Mend

Came that day when he was reminded of a friend who wielded a pen, a writer of Jewish matters, or something of the kind. Someone who used a fountain pen, for this facilitated his writing.

Yonah decided to take action. He plugged his ears from hearing and his eyes from seeing as he removed the pen from its burial place within the depths of the drawer and went to his Jewish acquaintance. The Jew, Gedaliah by name, greeted him warmly, but showed no great interest in the pen Yonah proffered him. Yonah lowered the price, repeatedly, but Gedaliah was not at all interested.

Yonah could not help noticing a scattered array of manuscripts strewn about the table and in reply to his question, learned that these were ancient manuscripts produced by various Jewish scholars, some famous and others not yet known to the world at large.

Yonah, his graphological interest piqued, asked to examine them. He desired to analyze the handwriting of one of them. At first, Gedaliah resisted. He wasn't sure that this was the right thing to do -- to analyze the handwriting of gedolim.

He finally capitulated and handed over a manuscript written by some anonymous sage; he felt that perhaps Yonah would be able to shed some light upon its writer. Yonah studied it with deep concentration until finally, he took his pen in hand and jotted down his graphological analysis of the document.

The output of the pen filled an entire page. Yonah handed it to Gedaliah, who read it, some of it aloud. "A great genius, a very warm person, extremely concerned for his family's welfare . . . "

When he finished, Gedaliah told Yonah about the study he was making to learn more about the particularly fascinating author who was responsible for these unique writings. Yonah, taken up by this project, decided on the spot to underwrite the research on this unknown figure and have the results published.

Now, as a seasoned salesman, Yonah again pushed the pen towards Gedaliah.

"How much do you want for it?" asked Gedaliah. Yonah quoted a price. Gedaliah grimaced. Yonah lowered the price but the frown remained. He went down some more but the look remained fixed. Finally, he came up with a strange offer that took both him and Gedaliah by surprise.

"Write the draft of your research on the author, and the book itself, with this pen -- and it's yours to keep."

At first, Gedaliah thought Yonah was teasing him but Yonah was altogether serious. Gedaliah agreed and Yonah was satisfied.

VII. A Time to Weep; A Time to Smile

Suddenly, it began to rain. Several cooing doves gathered on the window sill, near a nest of olive branches. Lightning and thunder alternated threateningly, without one touching upon the other. The heavens released a deluge of water, as if some celestial stopper had become unplugged. It rained and rained for a long time. Inside, it was warm and cozy. Glasses of tea released swirls of steam that spiraled past the yellow glow of a low lamp, disappearing as they swept upward past the light. Thus for a long time. At long last, a wind swept the land and the rains subsided. The fountains of heaven were again contained and the waterspouts plugged up again.

Gedaliah unscrewed the pen, an act which irked Yonah, but he said nothing.

"I'd like to examine its durability before I embark upon such a long project; it's such an old pen, you know," Gedaliah announced.

A small note fell from inside the pen. The two looked at it as it dropped to the table, landing with a rustle. They eyed one another, then the note. Gedaliah finally took the piece of paper, flattened it out, and read:

"My dear son, I received this pen when I initiated you into the covenant of Avrohom Ovinu, at your bris. I called your name, in Jewish tradition, Yonah. And I am now bequeathing this very pen to you as your inheritance. Your mother passed away from typhus. Because of my stature among my Jewish brethren, I was forced to flee from the king's soldiers, who are determined to persecute me. I don't know if I will escape and survive. Heed, my son, the rebuke of your father and do not abandon the teaching of your mother. (Signed) . . . "

Yonah's ear were perked. "Yonah, did you say? Yonah?" Some of the syllables got entangled with his vocal cords and came out grating and hoarse.

Gedaliah did not reply, only stared at the note. Suddenly, Yonah grabbed the note from his hand and in a moment of impulse whose origin he could not explain, pulled the anonymous manuscript close to him. He looked from one to the other, back and forth, comparing the two. The handwriting was identical, absolutely so. Hot, scalding tears poured forth from his eyes, burning, searing, cascading down, drenching his face.

The doves flew away.

EPILOGUE -- A Time to Mourn; A Time to Dance

The pen is still in my safekeeping, in my cupboard, an inheritance from my grandfather. Copies of the holy manuscript which, they say, was written completely with that Parker 51 pen, have not yet seen the light because my grandfather found another manuscript of his father's which requested that those writings not be publicized. This is currently being dealt with halachically.

But one person, at least, did study those writings. I never knew him. My father, who told me this story, said that the only person who studied the writings of my great- grandfather was his father, that is, my grandfather, Zeidy Yonah, R' Yonah.


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