Our community, in remotest Africa, was sharply divided. The women adored him – many of them anyway – probably because of his beautiful eyes. Big, sad Jewish eyes.
The men didn’t. “A hunchback!” said one.
“Nonsense,” argued another, “he just doesn’t stand straight.
He hasn’t done time in the Prussian army, not like you.”
A few referred to him as ‘the rabbi’. Others objected: “He’s not! Have you listened to those pompous sermons of his?”
“And he can’t even keep discipline in his Hebrew class!”
On one matter, however, they all agreed: his voice: “A fine voice.”
“Yes, he’s a good chazzan – a cantor. But he isn’t a rabbi.”
Even his singing could, however, provoke dissention:
“Opera tunes, that’s what he infiltrates. They desecrate the holy Sabbath!”
“Well, he did sing in the Vienna Opera.”
“.. only when he wasn’t hawking knickers from door to door.”
Wiltzig swore he had it on good authority – that about the knickers – but he was never regarded a credible witness.
“You know… at the time of the great inflation many struggled…”
And everybody knew that the Reverend Fywel had come from remotest Galicia, somewhere between Poland and the Ukraine.
The reverend cheerfully confirmed that he had had walk-on parts at the opera, yes, sometimes wearing a helmet and carrying a spear.
They chuckled: “But he looks so Jewish! They must have tucked him away in the rear ranks. He’s not your ideal Wagnerian hero, is he?”
But Vienna had taken the edge off his Yiddish pronunciation and, since he was musical, his intonation, too, soon came to sound convincingly Austrian. It was his vocabulary that always remained exotic.
When I mistranslated a Bible passage in his Hebrew class he would shout “Ich brech dir die Beine …I’ll break your leg bones.” Or worse: “Ich schlag dir den Schaedel ein …I’ll bash in your skull.”
The entire class would burst into laughter.
It sounded so incongruous coming from this mild, tubby little Jew. Often he would join in the laughter.
After ‘big break’ as the school bell rang, boys would call “Hurry, come and have your skull bashed in.” We boys tried to invent even more blood-thirsty threats but ours never sounded altogether authentic.
Fywel had a son, Arthur, then six or seven years old. The boy appeared to be making slow progress at school so the reverend asked me – I must have been around 13 – to give him some extra lessons. I did and very soon Arthur was reading satisfactorily. I refused payment but the following year, when I was sent to boarding school, the father made me a present of the three-volume History of the Jews by Dubnow. I still have volumes one and three. (Would whoever borrowed volumetwo please return it!)
I left Africa but on a return visit, some years later, I met Arthur again. The reverend Fywel had died a little earlier. I expressed my condolences: “I loved that father of yours,” I told him.
“Really? Did you?” he replied. “I hated him.”
I expressed surprise. “I blame him for my asthma… nervous asthma. I was terrified. He was always threatening such terrible things … like breaking my bones. I spent my entire childhood avoiding him. Fortunately the doctors had me sent to the Karoo desert. Dry areas, they said, are good for an asthmatic. They were certainly good for me: nobody there threatened to bash in my skull.”