Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
“The Kerchief” is a lyric memory of a pious, naïve childhood in a traditional Jewish household in Galicia. In a series of thirteen episodes, or chapters, requiring from one to a very few paragraphs each, the first-person narrator recalls his relationship with his mother and father, the background of the kerchief, which was a gift from his father to his mother, and the time of his Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen, when he gave away the precious kerchief to a beggar.
The first ten sections of the story focus on the emotional effect on the family of the father’s yearly weeklong visit to the Lashkowitz fair, where Jewish merchants gathered together from all over the district to sell their wares. The narrator remembers especially the sadness of his mother in his father’s absence, during which she refrained from rebuking the children severely and spent much time standing at the window looking out. These absences of the father are likened to the week of the Ninth of Ab, observed in memory of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
While his father was gone, the narrator slept in his father’s bed. He used to meditate about the promised Messiah who would reveal himself suddenly in the world and lead them all to the Land of Israel, where his father would not have to go to fairs and he himself would not have to go to school, but would walk all day in the courts of the House of God.
The child would sometimes dream of this fabulous event of the future, when the precious gifts of God would seem like a heaven of many-colored lights. However, often a great bird would come and peck out the lights. One night the dreamer tied himself to the wings of the bird and commanded it to take him to Father. The bird took him instead to the gates of Rome, where he saw a miserable beggar suffering from many wounds. The dreamer turned his eyes away so as not to see the beggar’s suffering, but where he directed his eyes a great mountain arose covered with thorns, thistles, and evil beasts. He was terrified, but he did not scream lest the creeping things on the mountain should enter his mouth. Then Father appeared, wrapped him in his prayer shawl, and returned him to his bed.
The father always brought gifts for everyone when he returned from the fair. The child thought that the Master of Dreams must have informed the father of their most secret desires, for the presents were always something for which each had been longing. One day Father brought for Mother a lovely silken kerchief adorned with flowers. She wore it on her head thereafter on all the most sacred occasions of family ritual and religious festivals. The narrator remembers, “I used to look at Mother on the Day of Atonement, when she wore her kerchief and her eyes were bright with prayer and fasting. She seemed to me like a prayerbook bound in silk and presented to a bride.”
The eleventh section concerns an unlucky beggar who arrived in town sick with running sores. Children used to throw stones at him. Even the grown-ups, who were not by nature cruel and who generally were hospitable to the poor and suffering, rejected this particular beggar and drove him away.
The twelfth section recalls the day of the narrator’s Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen, “when I entered the age of Commandments and was to be counted a member of the congregation.” He was very happy and pleased with himself and dressed “like a bridegroom.” Best of all, his mother had tied her precious kerchief around his neck before he went to the House of Study. As he walked home alone, he came suddenly on the despised beggar sitting on a heap of stones. The boy was terrified, “as a man who sees in waking what has been shown him in dream.” Overcome, however, by an unaccountable sweetness he had never experienced before, he untied the kerchief from his neck and gave it to the beggar, who took it and wound it around his sores.
The last section tells of his confrontation with his mother when he had to beg forgiveness for having given away her most precious possession. His mother accepts the deed with love and affection, apparently as evidence of obedience to the Holy Law.
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