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The Stranger


The Stranger

By A.S. Elchanan

       a short story rendered into English

by Aryeh Carmell

The young man was alone, in the packed synagogue. They had been standing there all morning, wrapped in their talitot, eyes closed, swaying. Their expressions mirrored the awe of the day – the Day of Atonement. All were intent on their prayers to the Creator of the World; begging Him to grant life – a life worth living. Men and boys together, united in a prayer from the heart.

He was alone. In that packed synagogue he felt lonely, isolated. The atmosphere of the synagogue was alien to his spirit. The prayers did not appeal to him. The voice of the chazzan and the responses of the congregation sounded to him like meaningless noises, grating on his ears. The all-pervading sense of seriousness disturbed him… annoyed him. The machzor lying in front of him failed to arouse in him the slightest interest. It was just boring. He felt like a stranger in their midst; alien to them and all that they stood for.

He had wanted to stay at home this morning too, just as he had done for years. At home he would at least have felt comfortable. In his colorful room, surrounded by his familiar pictures, he could have sat back and read a book or a magazine. For some reason, he hadn’t stayed at home. He had come here. His feet seemed to have impelled him in this direction and had landed him on this bench at the back of the synagogue. He had already tried several times to get up and leave, to escape from this tense atmosphere, but somehow his legs had not obeyed him.

Two hours had passed since he had arrived at the synagogue: two hours which seemed to him like two years. During this time he had managed to think about all the trips he would take during the Sukkot holidays; he had mentally visited and chatted with all his friends. He had thought of many things, important and unimportant, as the fancy took him. And now that the thoughts were finished, he wanted to go. But his legs…

A flash of anger came over him. This was ridiculous. How can my legs not do what I tell them? Am I going to allow these two lumps of flesh and bone to dictate to me what to do? Haven’t I got anything to say in the matter?

Suddenly he sensed that it was, of course, not his legs but something inside him that was holding him here. Somewhere, deep down, there was a small flicker of will. It was this that had taken him out of his room and led him to this place of prayer and it was this that was keeping him here. A small living point in his conscience! A glimmer of volition!

He tried to listen to his inner self to find out whether he could hear these faint voices in the background of his being, but they were too weak to break through the wall of stubbornness and indifference that he had erected by his own actions. But he was not going to give in so easily. He tried again and again to catch something of that muffled voice that was calling him from his own self, from deep within his own heart!

The voice of the chazzan reverberated once again through the hollow spaces of the synagogue: “O do not cast us out from your presence; do not take your holy spirit away from us!”

“Your holy spirit…” His mind mocked the words. What holy spirit? Is there holy spirit in these people sitting next to me? And even if there is, what has it got to do with me? Than a flash of inspiration passed through his mind. “Your holy spirit”. Yes, that must be it! That must be the faint, almost inaudible voice within me that is trying to get through to me. Suddenly he felt himself crying out like the others, with emotion: “Don’t take your holy spirit away from me! Oh, how small and faint is that holy spirit inside me… Lord of the world, please don’t let this tiny light go out! G-d! Have mercy! Don’t take away the little that’s still left within me.”

The voices in the synagogue were stilled. His voice too was still. But he was stirred, shocked. “Something has happened to me,” he thought to himself. “Something has been turned on.” Now he felt related to them all. He felt a great closeness to those round about him. He was afraid to leave them even for a moment. Now he felt how they were helping him to raise himself out of his depths. The voices had changed their tone utterly: now they sounded sweet, harmonious, encouraging; the atmosphere had turned pleasant and soothing.

His darting eyes lighted on the machzor lying in front of him. As one who makes a great discovery he began to turn its pages. He began to say prayers… prayers of the Day of Atonement.

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