# 346 (s5764-40) 4 Tammuz 5764
Schreiber the Jew
The doctor had never made real contact with the observant Jews of Byalestok; in his social circle they were regarded with disdain.
In May 1934, a young doctor completed his studies in Warsaw and returned to Byalestok. With the help of his father, a well-to-do farmer who some years earlier had moved his family to the city, he set up a small office in view of the town clock.
As the months sped by, his reputation grew and with it the size of the crowd in his waiting room. Handsome and amiable, he was at ease in the social circles of Byalestok, quickly becoming the toast of the secular Jewish community. Wealthy industrialists vied for the opportunity to introduce their daughters to him and the intellectual elite were constantly after him to address their groups and attend their social gatherings. More often than not he declined their invitations, unimpressed by the glitter of their parties and by the all-too-familiar topics of their conversations. He devoted his time to his practice; his leisure hours he spent strolling through the streets and parks of the city.
Between patients, he often glanced across the room at the graduation photograph of his elementary school class, dated 1922. Time was passing quickly. He was a doctor, respected, almost famous in Byalestok, but he was not happy with his accomplishments - something was missing. The life around him lacked purpose and consistency. Even his work depressed him at times. The death of a young patient, as he looked helplessly on, touched him deeply. What was the meaning of his life, he asked in his heart. Why did it have to happen?
One day late in October the Assistant Mayor of Byalestok, a tall educated Pole, called on the doctor.
A year earlier, the city administration had hired a new District Attorney, Andrei Maritus, who immediately set in motion a number of projects. The unabashed purpose of one of them was to close down all the mikvehs in Byalestok. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, after hundreds of Jews had immersed themselves in the mikveh of the Main Synagogue, Andrei Maritus, accompanied by the City Health Inspector and three policemen, collected two samples from the water that had become dark and turbid. A day later all the mikvehs in the city were ordered closed, pending a hearing to be held two weeks hence. Late that same afternoon, the Assistant Mayor paid Dr. Schreiber a visit.
"It's simply a matter of health," said the Assistant Mayor, a tall, square-shouldered Pole with a rim of reddish hair around his bald scalp, smiling genially. "The community must be protected from an outbreak of typhoid fever. Why, only last month six cases were discovered in Olsztyn, another four in Siedlce." Dr. Schreiber stared expressionlessly across the table. The Pole met his gaze and grinned affectedly. "This is a sample taken from the mikveh", he said, placing the vial on the table. "We want you to examine it and report to us in three days."
"I see," Dr. Schreiber said. Now the purpose of the visit was clear to him: he, a respected member of the Jewish community, was to provide the conclusive evidence.
Sensing a hint of indecision in the Doctor's eyes, the Assistant Mayor said: "It is a simple matter of health, Dr. Schreiber - the water is clearly polluted. We want your confirmation. Needless to say, you will be handsomely rewarded for your time."
Dr. Schreiber sat for a long time at his desk. From the street below came the sounds of children playing. He went to the window and looked down. Squeezed between shadows the roseate sunlight of evening blanched the faces of the children. For the first time since he had taken occupancy in this office, he wondered if they were Jewish. At length, he turned around and picked up the sample. He placed a drop on a slide, then slipped it under the eyepiece of the microscope. One glance showed him that it was full of bacteria - he did not bother to analyze it further.
He apologized to the patients waiting outside his office and hurried down the stairs into the street. He walked through the main square with the pedestrian traffic, then strolled pensively through the gardens to the commercial center of Byalestok. From there he headed toward the Main Synagogue. The enormous, domed structure dominated the surroundings for many blocks. Here and there, Jewish children played in the dusty streets, dressed in rags, their earlocks drifting in the breeze.
The doctor had never made real contact with the observant Jews of Byalestok; in his social circle they were regarded with disdain, as one thinks of a distant relative who is squandering his life, but at whom one can only shrug one's shoulders in helpless disapproval. He never understood their ways - then again, he never tried. His university days came to mind; there had been more than a trace of anti-Semitism in the air but, somehow, absorbed as he was in his studies, he made little of it, attributing it to the ignorance of a few misguided individuals in the faculty.
Suddenly, a five or six year old boy came out of a lane carrying a pail of water, and stood directly in front of Dr. Schreiber. A brown cap with a narrow visor extending over his brow covered his head, while a torn black coat concealed the little biy's body from neck to ankles.
"Where is your skull cap?" he demanded with a nuance of contempt, jutting his chin upward.
"I don't wear one," said the doctor, smiling.
"Every Jew must wear a skull cap!" asserted the boy, hot with anger.
"Not every Jew."
"Yes, every Jew!" he insisted stubbornly, pursed his lips, and shook his head reproachfully like an adult. "You wear glasses, don't you, but glasses are heavier than a skull cap," he said, with a talmudic thrust of the thumb.
The following week two elderly Jews came to Dr. Schreiber's office. One was the Chief Rabbi of Byalestok, the other Leib Orenstein, President of the Main Synagogue. They had learned that the doctor was scheduled to testify at the upcoming hearing.
"The mikveh is not a place to wash ourselves," said the aged Rabbi through the slit in his long, white beard. The axe-like handle of his cane leaned against his breast; he clasped it tremulously and went on, his narrow eyes set deeply between the swollen lids: "The mikveh is life; it is like the waters of the placenta in which the fetus lives and develops - when the infant breaks through the waters, it is alive. And so it is with a Jew when he comes out of the mikveh in the morning; he is rejuvenated, eager to serve the Creator."
The wan cheeks of the Rabbi merged into his beard and all one saw was the dark, patient eyes and the serrated outline of his beard against the backdrop of his black coat. Dr. Schreiber nodded respectfully.
"Even if you do not understand what a mikveh means", said Leib Orenstein, a clean-shaven man of sixty, in a voice straining to be calm, "you must respect that it is of the greatest importance to thousands of Jews in Byalestok. When a woman goes to the mikveh, she feels assured of a healthy child. This is not a detail in our lives; it is everything!" Unable to contain his emotion, he went on: "And do not deceive yourself into believing that this is an isolated event and that is will end here. Should they, G-d forbid, force the mikvehs to close it will encourage them to attempt more; soon they will want to destroy our slaughter-houses - cruelty to animals they will charge! Then our schools will be attacked, and then Dr. Schreiber - I ask you - what will be left?"
Dr Schreiber gazed somberly at his visitors.
"The water is full of bacteria," he said frankly. "it is a health hazard."
"No Jew has ever become sick from a mikveh," stated Mr. Orenstein, his lips trembling at the Doctor's misconception.
"That may be so, but nevertheless the water does pose a danger to the health of the community," he said, weighing his words carefully.
"Science and logic are not everything, Dr. Schreiber," said the Rabbi. "The history of the Jews is ample evidence of that."
The visitors stood up to leave. The doctor accompanied them to the corridor. He expected them to plead with him, to evoke in him a sense of guilt. But they said no more, and he respected them for it. He extended his hand to them; the Rabbi held it lightly between both his hands as if to transmit a final message through it.
Dr. Schreiber took to wandering through the streets alone, a deeply troubled look on his face. In the religious district he imbibed the hum of Torah talk seeping out of the windows and the smell of challah baking for Shabbos. He was touched by the simplicity and devotion of their activity, admiring with envy the consistency of it all. But in the Jewish secular districts he reverted to his concern for truth, his intellectual desire to defend it wherever it might be threatened.
The night before the hearing Dr. Schreiber made his way into the dark deserted mikveh room of the main synagogue. He switched on the small electric lamp. The stark nakedness of the dressing room made him shudder; the piebald walls were cracked in many places; the toilet, uncomfortably close to the benches, leaked a vivid brown fluid, and in the high corners of the room, spiders spun their gossamer webs. He stepped slowly over the wooden floor to the stairs leading down to the pool. The dressing room lamp shed a pale light over the murky water. He crouched for a better look, leaning to a side to allow the light past him. Here and there, little clusters of lint intertwined with hair floated on the dark, still surface of the water that had not been changed for weeks. He scooped up a handful and let it spill through his fingers. He smelled it, then wiped his hand thoroughly on the sleeve of his coat. A frown suffused his face and he could not remove it.
The highly publicized hearing attracted officials and journalists from all over Poland. The hall was crowded. In the front row to the left, sat three rabbis, the Chief Rabbi in the middle, his trembling fingers dovetailed over the handle of his cane. The stage was set. The District Attorney, a tall bespectacled Pole with a grape-sized growth in the middle of his right cheek, veritably bursting with confidence, strutted back and forth between his colleagues, adding the final touches. The judge, a towering man distinguished by his flowing gray hair and an involuntary smile, called the hearing to order.
Andrei Maritus wasted no time. First on the witness stand was a former janitor of the Main Synagogue, a drunkard named Babules. Anyone who was even vaguely acquainted with Babules knew that for a swig of whiskey he would testify that grass was blue. Today, however, he was a different man. Dressed in a new suit and tie, his pitch black hair slicked down, he indeed had the appearance of a decent, law-abiding citizen. Only his eyes betokened the real Babules; bloodshot, they strove in vain to follow the District Attorney as he paced back and forth in front of him a little too quickly. With a coherence that surprised many of the onlookers, Babules described conditions at the mikveh as he claimed to know them. Using adjectives and superlatives utterly alien to him, his description of the squalid conditions brought the hostile audience to shouts of outrage.
"How often I pleaded with the rabbis to permit me to change the water daily!" he testified bitterly.
"And did they let you?" prompted the District Attorney, radiant with anticipation of victory.
"Money! What else?"
"You should have offered to do it for free," suggested Andrei Maritus magnanimously.
"I did! Out of the goodness of my heart, Babules offered! I could not endure the odor, Sir! You see - I should have mentioned this earlier - but the older men were not reluctant to sneeze into the water."
"That's all for now, Mr. Babules", said the District Attorney, smiling unrestrainedly as he fondled the growth on his cheek. He glanced meaningfully at the judge, who lowered his eyes to the notepad on his desk.
Six witnesses followed. The testimony of each was increasingly more devastating. However, it was clear that the prosecutor's case rested on statements of questionable witnesses. There was no hard evidence, no scientific facts. For that, he called on Dr. Schreiber, who was seated in the back row of the hall.
"Now, Dr. Schreiber," began the District Attorney, slowly and deliberately, "you were given a sample of water from the mikveh and asked to analyze it. I presume you have had an opportunity to do so."
"Yes, Sir," Dr. Schreiber answered politely, his stern gaze wrinkling the corners of his eyes into a tiny staircase of furrows.
"What are you findings, Doctor?" asked Andrei Maritus, pointing to the glass of blackened water which a court officer had placed on the ledge of the witness stand.
"The water is dirty," said Dr. Schreiber without a trace of hesitation, meeting the Attorney's eyes with a hard stare.
"How dirty, Doctor?" he continued with confidence, glancing discreetly at the judge.
"Very dirty," answered the Doctor in the same resolute tone. A wave of silence rippled through the room.
Feeling the firm ground of his case, Andrei Maritus glanced at the crowd with a slight inclination of the head. He could barely collect himself to pose the decisive question. Meanwhile the visitors had become noisy with excitement. The District Attorney beckoned the crowd to be silent. At length, he turned to Dr. Schreiber, straining to control his every muscle.
"Would you say, then, that the water is hazardous to health?" he asked in a tone that permitted only one answer.
"The health of whom, Sir?" the doctor asked with exaggerated politeness.
A sudden hum of voices coursed through the hall.
"Silence!" the Judge ordered.
"Humans, of course!" the District Attorney enunciated haltingly, a shocked look of outrage on his face. Then he grinned nervously at the judges and pinched his cheek.
Dr. Schreiber lifted the glass to his eyes as if to ponder the question.
"For humans?" he asked reflectively, pausing for one final glance at the water. Before the stunned eyes of the crowd he brought the glass to his lips and drank it down in one gulp. Showing no sign of discomfort he placed it back on the ledge in front of him. "Are there any more questions, Sir?" he asked courteously.
Originally published in Di Yiddishe Heim Journal
Reproduced from www.chabad.org
© 2001-2004 Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.
The unsavory condition of the mikveh in the story was clearly a function of the oppressive conditions under which Judaism struggled to survive in communist USSR. The mikvehs of today are clean and sanitary, with the women's mikvehs at a level that can accurately be described as aristocratic.