Love and Magic; or, A Trip to the Circus

Looking again on my life, I can keep in mind at all times being exceedingly curious in regards to the uncommon, the mysterious, the miraculous. My father continuously spoke about saints and surprise rabbis and the miracles they labored via the ability of the Kabbalah and holy names. God himself was an excellent miracle employee. He stated, “Let there be light,” and there was gentle. The males who served him, from the time of Moses to the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, had been all males of magic. According to legend, those that opposed God may work magic, too—Satan, Asmodeus, Lilith, all of the evil hosts of demons, devils, sorcerers, in addition to the builders of the Tower of Babel and the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Since my older brother Joshua tried to disclaim or ridicule these alleged miracles in his debates with my dad and mom, I regarded for proof that my dad and mom had been those who had been proper, and never my skeptical brother. Every few days, magicians used to come back to our courtyard on Krochmalna Street, and I had an opportunity to witness numerous feats of surprise. I watched them eat fireplace, swallow knives, stretch throughout boards of nails with their bare backs. A lady with flaxen blond hair, minimize brief like a boy’s, rolled a barrel with the soles of her toes and balanced a full glass of water on a spinning wheel. My father warned me to not watch these reveals, which absolutely contained parts of witchcraft and deception. Nevertheless, I adopted these magicians from courtyard to courtyard, typically giving them the groschen that I received from my mom each morning earlier than going to heder. I fantasized about turning into a magician myself. I imagined that I had discovered a cap which may make me invisible and a pair of seven-league boots. I found a potion that made me as smart as King Solomon and as sturdy as Samson. Elijah would go to me at night time and take me in his fiery chariot, pulled by fiery horses, to the mansions of Heaven, the place I might meet God, angels, seraphim, the Messiah. On the best way, we might cease in Sodom, the place I may see Lot’s spouse, who turned a pillar of salt. I additionally had the chance to enter Asmodeus’ palace on Mount Seir, the place the king of the netherworld sat on his throne, his black beard touching the ground, a crown of onyx stones behind his horns. Naked she-demons stood in a circle, singing blasphemous and profane songs to him.

From studying storybooks in Yiddish, I knew that the powers of evil had been as ingenious because the powers of holiness. Even earlier than I discovered to put in writing, I boasted to my classmates that I might write books, as my father, each my grandfathers, and my brother Joshua had achieved.

It wasn’t solely magicians that had been unkosher for my father however all worldly establishments, all sciences, all arts. I as soon as heard him say, in considered one of his sermons, that the depraved sit all day within the theatre, eat pork, and idiot round with salacious females. Even the gardens and public parks had been taboo to him. He was advised that unbelieving girls and boys briefly attire and bare arms met in these locations and fell in love. To my father, love was nearly as forbidden as pig meat. God-fearing younger women and men married solely via a matchmaker.

I noticed early on that I performed myself like a sinner. Not solely did I observe the magicians from yard to yard however I had additionally fallen in love with Shosha, a lady my age whose dad and mom lived in our constructing. I considered her day and night time. I couldn’t focus after I recited the prayers due to my craving for her. As if all this weren’t sufficient, I used to look into my father’s books in regards to the Kabbalah, despite the fact that he’d warned me {that a} untimely indulgence in its mysteries may result in heresy and even to insanity. I used to be terribly curious to know the secrets and techniques of Heaven and Earth. I had confided in Shosha that I used to be studying philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, astrology, and that I supposed to run overseas along with her and marry her. Shosha had given me a holy oath by no means to reveal my plans to anybody.

One day I had the chance to go secretly to the Warsaw circus with Shosha. She had an uncle who thought-about himself an enlightened man. He shaved his beard, wore a brief jacket as an alternative of a protracted gabardine, and attended the Yiddish theatre. He had purchased two tickets to the circus, however a baby of his had fallen ailing, and he and his spouse, who didn’t cowl her hair with a wig, needed to keep house. He known as my father and all Hasids fanatics. He will need to have had some notion of my emotions for his niece, and he supplied the tickets to us for nothing. Going to the circus with out the data of my dad and mom, and with a lady as well, was an amazing journey and a horrible threat. It was related with many lies and different transgressions. The circus was removed from our avenue, and we needed to take a trolley automobile by ourselves. I needed to settle for the carfare from her uncle, a stranger, one thing forbidden in our house. I felt I used to be coming into all of the forty-nine gates of defilement and falling into an abyss of no return.

But the pleasure outweighed the sins. Shosha and I sat within the trolley automobile holding arms. We handed elegant streets the place solely non-Jews lived, and we noticed fancy shops with mannequins wearing splendid robes and furs. We behaved just like the lovers we examine within the Yiddish storybooks that we purchased for a groschen apiece. There was an opportunity that two unaccompanied kids wouldn’t be admitted to the circus, however the powers who dominated the world decreed that the usher didn’t pay any consideration to us. When we entered, the present had already begun. The electrical lamps threw a blinding gentle over the stage. The orchestra was enjoying. We climbed 5 flights of steps to the best bench. The music was thrilling past phrases. A horse was dancing to the sounds of fiddles, trumpets, cymbals, drums, and on its again stood a half-naked lady with golden hair and dazzling legs. She waved a whip and threw kisses to the applauding viewers. One surprise adopted one other with miraculous velocity. A person walked on a wire, balancing his steps with a protracted pole. Midgets did somersaults. A bear danced. A lion jumped via a fiery hoop. A monkey rode a bicycle. Dogs performed ball. Young women and men flew like birds from one trapeze to a different. An elephant curled a wonderful lady inside its trunk and positioned her on a golden seat on its again. A younger girl jumped off a springboard and landed on the shoulders of a person.

Shosha started to scream and I may barely quiet her. All the miracles that the sorcerers carried out within the land of Egypt had been occurring earlier than my very eyes. Had I been bewitched from making an attempt to learn my father’s Kabbalistic books? Had I fallen right into a spell of desires and visions just like the yeshiva scholar who bent down over a bathtub of water to clean his arms and lived via all his former reincarnations in a single second? I closed my eyes and I felt like an eagle hovering via the starry night time, above the roofs, over unusual cities, over towers, pyramids, royal palaces, historic fortresses, rivers, lakes, oceans, deserts, again to the time of creation, to the primeval darkness of Tohu and Bohu.

Many years had passed by, greater than fifty, greater than sixty. My father had died within the village the place he served as a rabbi. My mom had perished in Kazakhstan, the place the Russians had despatched her to do compelled labor. My brother had died in New York. In 1939, when the Polish radio suggested all males and able-bodied girls to run from the Nazis, cross the Praga Bridge, and stroll to the part of Poland that belonged to Soviet Russia, Shosha packed a satchel and took the highway towards Bialystok. Along the best way, she sat all the way down to relaxation and by no means rose once more. I used to be dwelling in New York then, a author in a language that folks thought-about useless. I not believed in God or within the powers of the Kabbalah. I had learn someplace {that a} self-made cosmic bomb had exploded some twenty billion years in the past and that this explosion, the massive bang, had created the universe. Since then, it had been operating away from itself with a continuously rising velocity into the nowhere of empty house. There was no Creator, no plan, no objective, no justice, solely blind legal guidelines of nature and blind evolution. I had made up my thoughts that, at its finest, literature was nothing greater than a distraction for these making an attempt to overlook the calamity of dwelling and dying with none hope.

Recently, a author had invited me to a literary celebration, and there I used to be launched to a girl by the title of Paula Lipshitz, and after I requested her about her occupation—a query one by no means requested a girl in former years—she advised me that she was related with the circus. “A circus?” I requested. “Are you one of those who swing on trapezes or do somersaults on wires?” No, she answered. But what she did was simply as difficult and dangerous. She raised cash, she stated, for a travelling circus known as the Big Apple. “Doesn’t the circus maintain itself from selling tickets?” I requested, and he or she stated, “Not anymore. It doesn’t pay a circus to travel from town to town the way it used to in olden times. Only the children in the very big cities have a chance to see the circus. In smaller towns in America, years pass and they never experience the joy of seeing a circus unless it is shown on television. But it is not the same. There is a desire and a need in children, as well as adults, to come into personal contact with the performer. Personal contact,” she stated, “is important also in literature, in music, and even in some sciences. Why do people attend lectures? Why do they go to the theatre instead of movies?” From the best way Ms. Lipshitz spoke, I understood that she was not solely defending her job. She was in love with the Big Apple. I needed to promise her to come back and see it, despite the fact that I doubted if I may nonetheless get pleasure from a circus in my outdated age, and with out Shosha.

Some weeks later, Paula Lipshitz took me out to the Big Apple Circus, which was enjoying in Staten Island. The journey on the ferry was already an pleasing expertise for me. This ferry had been my resort throughout my first summer time within the United States. A day didn’t cross when I didn’t spend a nickel to journey forwards and backwards. This ferry and the general public library on Fifth Avenue had been my literary laboratories and my second house. I stood on the deck of the ferry and fantasized a few novel the likes of which no author had ever written, about an setting that almost all readers on the planet had by no means heard of earlier than. It was, after all, written in Yiddish. This work turned so well-known that the League of Nations determined to make Yiddish the worldwide language. I had warned myself many times to not bask in these foolish fantasies, which took away one of the best time to work. But imagining issues had grow to be a behavior of mine since childhood. It was my opium. Now I stood on the ferry once more, nonetheless hooked on constructing what they name castles within the sky.

(Translated, from the Yiddish, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.)

This essay was initially written as an creator’s be aware to accompany Singer’s novel “The Magician of Lublin” (1960), however was not revealed. It shall be included within the forthcoming assortment “Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer,” edited by David Stromberg, out this May from Princeton University Press.

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