The Animal in the Synagogue

In our synagogue there lives an animal about the size of a marten. One can often get a very good view of it, for it allows people to approach to a distance of about six feet from it. It is pale blue-green in color. Nobody has ever yet touched its fur, and so nothing can be said about that, and one might almost go so far as to assert that the real color of its coat is unknown, perhaps the color one sees is only caused by the dust and mortar with which its fur is matted, and indeed the color does resemble that of the paint inside the synagogue, only it is a little brighter. Apart from its timidity, it is an uncommonly quiet animal of settled habits; if it were not so often disturbed, it would doubtless scarcely be in this place at all, its favorite haunt being the women's compartment; with visible delight it sinks its claws into the lattice, stretching itself and gazing down into the main chamber; this audacious attitude seems to please it, but the beadle has instuctions never to tolerate the animal's being on the lattice, for it would get used to the place, and that cannot be permitted on account of the women, who are afraid of the animal. Why they are afraid is not clear. True, at a first glance it looks frightening, particularly the long neck, the triangular face, the upper teeth, which jut out almost horizontally, and on the upper lip a row of long, obviously hard, pale bristles, which extend even farther than the teeth--all that may be frightening, but it does not take one long to realize how harmless this whole apparent horror is. Above all, it keeps away from human beings, it is more shy than a denizen of the forest, and seems to be attached only to the building. And it is doubtless its personal misfortune that this building is a synagogue, that is, a place that is at times full of people. If only one could communicate with the animal, one could, of course, comfort it by telling it that the congregation in this little town of ours in the mountains is becoming smaller every year and that it is already having trouble in raising the money for the upkeep of the synagogue. It is not impossible that before long the synagogue will have become a granary or somthing of the sort and the animal will then have the peace it now so sorely lacks.

To be sure, it is only the women who are afraid of the animal, the men have long ceased to bother about it, one generation has pointed it out to the next, it has been seen over and over again, and by this time nobody any longer wastes a glance on it, until now even the children, seeing it for the first time, do not show any amazement. It has become that animal which belongs to the synagogue--why should not the synagogue have a special domestic animal not found anywhere else? If it were not for the women, one would hardly be aware of the animal's existence any more now at all. But even the women are not really afraid of the animal, indeed it would be more than odd to go on being afraid of such an animal, day in, day out, for years, for decades. Their excuse is that the animal is ususally much nearer to them than to the men, and this is true. The animal does not dare to go down below where the men are, it has never yet been seen on the floor. If it is stopped from getting on he lattice of the women's compartment, then at least it wants to be at the same height on the opposite wall. There, on a very narrow ledge scarcely two inches wide, which extends round three sides of the synagogue, the animal will sometimes flit to and fro, but mostly it sits quietly curled up on a certain spot opposite the women. It is almost incomprehensible how it so easily contrives to use this narrow path, and it is remarkable to see the way it turns round up there when it gets to the end, for after all, it is by now a very old animal, but it does not shrink from taking a most daring leap into the air, nor does it ever miss its foothold, and having turned in mid-air it runs straight back again the way it came. Of course, when one has seen this several times one has had enough of it, and there is no reason why one should go on staring. Nor is it either fear or curiosity that keeps the women fidgeting about; if they were to pay more attention to their prayers, they might be able to forget about the animal; the devout women would certainly do so if the others, who are in the great majority, would let them, but these others always like attracting attention to themselves, and the animal provides them with a welcome pretext. If they could and if they dared, they would long ago have enticed the animal to come yet closer to them, so that they might be more frightened than ever. But in reality the animal is not at all eager to approach them, so long as it is left alone it takes just as little notice of them as of the men, and probably what it would like best would be to remain in the hiding place where it lives in the periods between the services, evidently some hole in the wall that we have not yet discovered. It is only when prayers begin that it appears, startled by the noise. Does it want to see what has happened? Does it want to remain on the alert? Does it want to be in the open, ready to take flight? It is in terror that it comes running out, it is in terror that it performs its capers, and it does not dare to withdraw until divine service is at an end. It naturally prefers being high up because that is where it is safest, and the places where it can run best are the lattice and the ledge, but it does not always stay there, sometimes too it climbs down farther towards the men; the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant hangs from a shining brass rod, and this seems to attract the animal, it quite often creeps towards it, but when it is there it is always quiet, not even when it is right up close to the Ark can it be said to be causing a disturbance, it seems to be gazing at the congregation with its bright, unwinking, and perhaps lidless eyes, but it is certainly not looking at anybody, it is only facing the dangers by which it feels itself threatened.

In this respect it seemed, at least until recently, to be not much more intelligent than our women. What dangers has it to fear, anyway? Who intends it any harm? Has it not been left entirely to itself for many years? The men take no notice of its presence, and the majority of the women would probably be miserable if it were to disappear. And since it is the only animal in the building, it has no enemy of any kind. This is something it really ought to have come to realize in the course of the years. And though divine service, with all its noise, may be very frightening for the animal, still, it does recur, on a modest scale daily and on a grander scale during the festivals, always regularly and without ever a break; and so even the most timid of animals could by now have got used to it, particularly when it sees that this is not the noise of pursuers, but some noise that it cannot understand at all. And yet there is this terror. Is it the memory of times long past or perhaps the premonition of times to come? Does this old animal perhaps know more than the three generations of those who are gathered together in the synagogue?

Many years ago, so it is recounted, attempts were really made to drive the animal away. It is possible of course, that this is true, but it is more likely that such stories are mere inventions. There is evidence, however, that at that time the question whether the presence of such an animal might be tolerated in the house of God was investigated from the point of view of the Law and the Commandments. Opinions were sought from various celebrated rabbis, views were divided, the majority were for the expulsion of the animal and a reconsecration of the house of God. But it was easy to issue decrees from afar, in reality it was simply impossible to catch the animal, and hence it was also impossible to drive it out for good. For only if one could have caught it and taken it a long distance away could one have had anything approximating to a certainty of being rid of it.

Many years ago, so it is recounted, attempts were really still made to drive the animal away. The beadle of the synagogue says he remembers how his grandfather, who was also beadle, liked to tell the story. As a small boy his grandfather had frequently heard talk about the impossibility of geting rid of the animal, and so, fired by ambition and being an excellent climber, one bright morning when the whole synagogue, with all its nooks and crannies, lay open in the sunlight, he had sneaked in, armed with a rope, a catapult, and a crookhandled stick....

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