The/In the Heart of the Seas/A Guest for the Night Bridal Canopy

by Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

The Bridal Canopy is set in the Jewish world of eastern Galicia in the early 1800’s, in a culture still coherent and traditional, not yet fragmented by the impact of Haskalah (the Enlightenment) and emancipation. Most Jews lived either in a shtetl (small village) or in a larger town, such as Brody, the home of Reb Yudel. In dire poverty, without bed, table, or chair, Yudel spends his life “fashion[ing] a seat for the Divine Presence.” A Hasid, he sees beneficent Providence in every occurrence and joyfully fulfills each of the 613 commandments of his religion. Unfortunately, one of these commandments is to bring the bride under the wedding canopy, and Yudel has three daughters, so he must disrupt his routine of prayer and study to go begging for three dowries and the first of three bridegrooms.

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Yudel starts his journey on the wagon of Nuta the drayman. His travels to fulfill the commandment elicit hospitality and generosity, and he and his hosts entertain one another with stories. From time to time, the two horses tell each other stories as well. These stories have little connection with one another or with Yudel’s quest; they are quarried from the rich veins of Jewish folklore and religious tradition, and are both didactic and steeped in the unquestioning acceptance of Providence and miracle.

When Yudel has collected two hundred gold pieces, he cannot continue to beg. He therefore installs himself in an inn and resumes his normal routine of prayer and study, with complete faith that God will provide. The townsfolk conclude that he must be rich, especially when they discover that his last name, Nathanson, is also that of a wealthy Brody merchant. Thus begins the series of coincidences and scenes of mistaken identity through which Yudel moves in pious serenity. He accepts a match for his daughter with the son of the town’s wealthy merchant, pledging an enormous dowry despite his poverty.

After accepting the match, Yudel returns home and resumes his interrupted routine. He is untouched by the fact that his adventures have become legendary in the verses of the popular Brody singers. As the groom’s family and the real Reb Yudel Nathanson finally discover the bride, Yudel’s wife and daughters attempt to prepare a feast in their dank cellar room. They decide to cook the rooster who awakens Yudel for the morning prayers; it escapes, however, and as the women chase it, they stumble upon a fabulous treasure in a cave. Wealthy beyond measure, Yudel finds dowries and husbands for all three of his daughters. His family obligations fulfilled, he and his wife make aliya: They “go up” to the Holy Land and live out their days there.

In the Heart of the Seas begins, in a sense, at the point where The Bridal Canopy ends. A group of Hasidim from Buczacz, in Galicia, are preparing to make aliya when they are joined by Reb Hanania. Even more pious than his new companions, he has endured much travail to reach them. He occupies himself with both organizing their journey and repairing various ritual and secular objects. As the travelers move toward the sea, the Jews along the way provide them with aid and encouragement. Unfortunately, when their ship leaves Istanbul, they discover that Hanania is missing. A violent storm blows them back; repeating the voyage, they finally reach Jaffa, kiss the soil of Palestine, and soon discover that Hanania has already arrived. He had missed the ship when he delayed in order to give the religious authorities evidence of the death of a certain man, thus ending the dead man’s wife’s status as an agunah, a woman neither divorced nor widowed, in limbo because her husband’s fate is unknown.

As the delayed Hanania had watched the ship leave Istanbul, God had suggested to him that he spread out his kerchief and sail upon it to the Holy Land. The Hasidim on shipboard had several times glimpsed this figure during their voyage and speculated upon it. While many of the Hasidim later encountered difficulties after settling in Palestine, Hanania grew stronger each year, dying at the age of one hundred; he was buried with his kerchief covering his eyes.

A Guest for the Night is narrated by an unnamed native of Shibush, in Galicia, who had been the first in the town to make aliya. When the 1929 Arab riots in Jerusalem destroyed his home, his wife and children went to stay with her parents in Germany, and he returned to visit his birthplace, arriving on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He hopes to draw strength from the sources of his childhood but finds only decay and despair. As recipient of the key of the beit midrash (house of study), he becomes provider of light and warmth in the central place of the religious tradition. Although the overwhelming desolation is attributed to World War I, it soon becomes obvious that the narrator cannot rejuvenate the fragmented and moribund traditional community. Instead, he aids the aged Reb Shlomo to join his dead son’s comrades in Palestine. When the hotel keeper’s daughter, Rachel, marries Yerucham Freeman, a disillusioned Zionist expelled from Palestine, the narrator presents their newborn son with the new key to the beit midrash.

Rejoining his family after a year and returning to Jerusalem, the narrator finds the old key in his luggage and recalls the tradition that in the messianic age all the synagogues and beit midrash of the Diaspora will be reestablished in the Land of Israel. The new child, the first to be born in Shibush for many years, named for the narrator, will thus be able to continue the tradition in the Land of Israel.

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