11 May Discarded Scraps Vol. 2: The Story of Eisek Yekls
In the original manuscript of The Book of Dirt, when Jakub and his friends are farewelling Jiri Langer at the pub, Langer gets into an argument with Pavel Stein (a character who, alas, remains on the cutting room floor). Stein is angry that Langer would abandon his homeland in pursuit of a fool’s errand. To make his point, Stein tells the old Hassidic story of Eisek Yekls, knowing that Langer himself had used it in his book, The Nine Gates. You might recognise it as the story on which Paolo Coelho based The Alchemist.
“L’chaim!” Josef thrust his glass forward awkwardly, hoping to avoid further argument. “To my brother and his ever-shifting ideals! To the last, great wandering Jew.”
“He’ll be back.” Stein would not let go. “Jiří knows all too well what is written in the Talmud: If somebody tells you I have looked but did not find, do not believe him. And if he tells you I did not look but I have found, also do not believe him. But if he tells you: I have looked and I have found, you must believe him for he speaks the truth. Yes, after the war he’ll return. Mark my words.”
Jiři blushed. He knew what young Stein was thinking; that he was just another dreamer, another Eisek Yekls, searching for treasures that were already under his nose.
Yekls was a Hassidic legend that Jiři had brought back with him from the tiny town of Kotz on his second to last expedition. It was to be the final great tale told to him for what would become his most important book – a Jewish Thousand and One Nights – the one that attracted the attention of Max Brod and his cadre of Czech high literati, and it was the very story used to illustrate the passage Stein had just quoted.
The legend of Eisek Yekls was told to Jiří in much the same circumstances as this night, just as he was preparing to leave town. While Muneles sat in the corner furiously wearing down yet another pencil, Jiři was engaged in heated discussion with the venerable Rav Simche Binem about the meaning of home. “You may depart tomorrow,” said the rabbi. “But wherever you go, it is not your home.” Drink had flowed, for sure, but it was a different fire in the Hassid’s stomach that was fuelling him. “We have a story here, cut from the same cloth as Peer Gynt,” said Binem. “But instead of a wastrel’s son, our story concerns a devout scholar from Cracow by the name of Eisek Yekls.
“There isn’t much to say about this Yekls that cannot equally be said about other such scholars; by day he sat in the kollel studying and by night he slept so that his soul might recover from its exhaustion. Unfortunately, as we all know, there is only one form of wealth in books. So engrossed was this Yekls in the wise words of our sages that he did not notice his own decline, until one day he woke up to realise, exactly as Adam realised and found shame in his own nudity, that he had studied himself into financial ruin. To his horror he saw his wife’s clothes hanging loosely from her once ample bosom and her cheeks drawn inwardly towards her skull. Even her wonderful pink hue, the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place, had faded to a dull yellowish grey.
Yekls went to the kollel one last time and apologised to God, asking that he might be excused from his devotion for a short while. Then he set himself to work. Yekls tried everything, from manual labour to business to begging, but no matter what he did he could not feed himself or his family. His nights were no better than his days. The peace he had once so easily found in slumber was gone, and he tossed and turned with night sweats as his poor wife whimpered in her sleep beside him.
One night, after a small meal of clear broth and half a potato, Yekls collapsed in his bed fully clothed, his battered boots still shodden to his feet. It was not so much sleep as a funereal paralysis that possessed his entire being. And then a booming voice. “Eisek Yekls, descendent of Job! Listen here so that your sufferings might finally end and your wife and children be spared. Go to Prague and follow the River Vltava until you reach a Stone Bridge that arches over her swelling belly. You will know which one when you get there for I will shine a light. Climb down to the bank and there you will find a chest with unimaginable treasures that are destined to be yours.”
Eisek Yekls could feel his body shake violently, and prepared to wrestle with an angel, but at that moment he awoke, and realised it was his wife who was shaking him. “I thought you were dead,” she cried. “Even worse,” he replied, and said nothing of the dream.
Yekls was a sensible man; the sages counsel against superstition. Visions such as his are explained in the Talmud; when a person meditates on his position every day, when he despairs his lot, he is liable to dream his own salvation. Beware such salvation, it cautions. But the voice came again the next night, when he slumbered on a stomach barely filled with broth and a wedge of onion. “Eisek Yekls, descendent of Job! Don’t be a fool and listen. I have heard your cries and wish to reward your devotion.” Again he ignored it and again it returned. This continued for four nights, the last being the Sabbath, when it is advised that all men of faith pay heed to their dreams for it is God himself who is speaking.
Over the Sabbath lunch – a thin slice of bread and a small herring – he told his wife that he was setting off the very next day to Prague, and that she should not worry, all their troubles would at last be over. The sun soon set on the Sabbath, for it was winter, and Yekls busied himself with preparations for the journey ahead. That night he slept soundly, free from despair and strange voices, and then it was morning. Yekls grabbed his stick and left with the cock’s crow.
For days he travelled along the perilous road that linked his city of Cracow with the fabled Prag Hamaatyro, Ir ve-Em be-Yisroel, Prague, Crown of the World, City and Mother in Israel. Every time he sat down to rest his weary legs, he expected to be set upon by brigands or murderers who would be on the lookout for travelling Jews. How disappointed they would be when they rummaged through the threadbare pockets of his crumpled body!
Eisek Yekls counted five moons before he reached a wide clearing, from where he could see a magnificent castle perched atop a mountain, and below it a city sprawling outwards. Immediately he saw the river, which he knew was the Vltava, and from the various bridges that crossed it could pick the one spoken of in his dream. As the voice had promised, a shard of light cut through the dense clouds and lit up its stony arches. Yekls walked like a man who had never known despair, like a man possessed, certain of his impending salvation. Imagine his horror, dear Doctor Langer, when he approached the bridge and was stopped by two soldiers in crisp, grey uniforms. “Halt, old man!” said one of them. “Show me your papers,” said the other. Reb Yekls thought it safer not to engage these sentries, and so walked back down the busy street from which he had come. At the corner he waited several minutes, hours perhaps, before doubling back in the hope that he would not be recognised. He was right, but it made no difference. “Halt, old man!” said one of the guards. “Show me your papers,” said the other. Reb Yekls walked away again and, when he thought the soldiers could no longer see him, jumped over the railing to the muddy bank and crept along the rampart until he reached the base of the bridge. He had not yet found this promised treasure when the sentries caught sight of his efforts, climbed down the stairs and arrested him. “A thief and a vagabond!” said one of them, and they dragged him to the local watch house where he was brought before the examining magistrate. “And what say you in your defence?” the man asked. Eisek Yekls knew that he had but one chance to plead his case, and he decided upon the path of honesty. At worst they would consider him mad and throw him in the city’s asylum. At best they will send him back down the path to his home. He recounted his dream. The magistrate considered Reb Yekls’s words for a while and said, “I am surprised to find such a fool amongst your people, to wander off in search of dreams. Doesn’t your Talmud warn against such things? It is futile folly, nothing more. We all dream of great wealth, even I am guilty of that. Only recently, in fact, I dreamt of a great treasure hidden in the distant city of Cracow. It was shown to me, clear as I see you standing here before me, near the fireplace in a crumbling house occupied by some unfortunate Yid. But I am not one to leave my safe post here, to abandon my wife and children, only to go scavenging for some lost Jewish treasure.” The magistrate turned to the two soldiers and said, “As if his nose for money wouldn’t have led him straight to it if he, or the treasure really existed!” The three of them shared a brief laugh, before the magistrate turned back to the prisoner. “And my dream was so vivid that I learned the name of this man. Such an absurd name it was too; you must hear it and I challenge you not to smile. Yekls… It is etched indelibly in my mind. Eisek Yekls. That was it. My poor man, I am not one to jail a dreamer, but I plead with you to give up. Dreams are nothing but lies and deception. Fools’ errands. Now go home to your wife and don’t speak a word of this lest she force you to sleep with the donkeys.” Reb Eisek Yekls immediately took to the road, rushing back to Cracow as fast as his calloused feet could possibly take him. He burst through the door and ran straight to the fireplace where he began to frantically claw at bricks that he had never previously noticed were loose. And of course, my dear Doctor Langer, what did he find? A treasure beyond his wildest dreams.” At that point Reb Simche Benim stood up and left the room. Muneles closed his notebook and slipped the pencil – now more a stub – into his pocket. And Jiři Langer just sat there, pondering the death of his religious belief.