A turn of the century Jewish child’s experience

Just before the beginning of his troubles, Solly used to follow his Grandmother about like a little dog. He went around the house with her and to the market with her, and watching her face saw that her lips often moved.

“Who are you talking to Grandmother?” he asked one day.

“I am blessing God.”

And he learned that she blessed God many times a day. She blessed Him when she ate the fruit that grows on trees, when she smelt fragrant wood or flowers, when she smelt fruit or spice or oil. She blessed him when a storm broke, when she heard the roar of thunder and saw the flashing of lightening. She blessed him when the first white bud broke on the tree. She heard Him when a wise or learned man came to the house. She blessed Him when they saw beautiful animals, dogs, cats, and birds, and the gulls sweeping over the bows of the ships in the docks, on wings like the wings of angels. She blessed Him when she used anything new, when she put on new clothes or dressed Solly in new clothes, when she ate any kind of fruit for the first time in the season, and when the new moon rose over the chimneys.

Solly felt close to Grandmother, especially when she blessed her Lord God for beautiful dogs and cats, but he felt miles away from Grandfather, of whom, though he did not fear him, he stood in awe. Although Grandmother’s life was filled with her religious rites, they seemed homely, they brought her closer to Solly, they were domestic, sensuous and tenderly devout. But Grandfather was set apart by his prayers, his soul seemed to be soaring away, outside of their little house. Solly watched him, half in awe, half fascinated, he watched him wrapping himself in a shawl to pray, binding thongs of leather on his forehead and arm: heard his voice reading the Scripture in Hebrew as a voice from another world. He sensed both sorrow and emptiness in the old man. Sorrow that was oppressive, and emptiness that was frightening to a child as it would be to suddenly find himself alone in an empty house.

Moses Levi, in self-sought exile, did not find the promised land that he had dreamed of. Although his memories of it were dark, blood-red and black, and sodden with tears, he found that after all he could not tear out his roots from the Ghetto he had forsaken. There, the people, the Chosen People of God and his own people, were one in the solidarity of suffering. Their oneness set them apart and excluded the rest of the world. Their unity was not one that could be broken even by death. It was like hard rock made of multitudinous grains of sand, that has been washed in the salt of deep and bitter seas.

Caryll Houselander ‘The Dry Wood’


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