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Seated in his library, enveloped in a faded figured gown, a black velvet cap on his massive head, there was an Oriental look about him that arrested your attention at once. Power and gentleness, childlike simplicity, and scholarliness, were curiously mingled in this man. His library was a reflex of its owner. In it were books that the great public libraries of the world could not match - black-letter folios that were almost as old as the printing art, illuminated volumes that were once the pride and joy of men who had been in their graves many generations, rabbinical lore, theology, magic, and great volumes of Hebrew literature that looked, when placed beside a modern book, like an old ducal palace alongside a gingerbread cottage of today. I do not think he ever felt at home amid the hurry and rush of San Francisco. He could not adjust himself to the people. He was devout, and they were intensely worldly. He thundered this sentence from the teacher's desk in the synagogue one morning: "O ye Jews of San Francisco, you have so fully given yourselves up to material things that you are losing the very instinct of immortality. Your only idea of religion is to acquire the Hebrew language, and you don't know that!" His port and voice were like those of one of the old Hebrew prophets. Elijah himself was not more fearless. Yet, how deep was his love for his race! Jeremiah was not more tender when he wept for the slain of the daughter of his people. His reproofs were resented, and he had a taste of persecution; but the Jews of San Francisco understood him at last. The poor and the little children knew him from the start. He lived mostly among his books, and in his school for poor children, whom he taught without charge. His habits were so simple and his bodily wants so few that it cost him but a trifle to live. When the synagogue frowned on him, he was as independent as Elijah at the brook Cherith. It is hard to starve a man to whom crackers and water are a royal feast.
His belief in God and in the supernatural was startlingly vivid. The Voice that spoke from Sinai was still audible to him, and the Arm that delivered Israel he saw still stretched out over the nations. The miracles of the Old Testament were as real to him as the premiership of Disraeli, or the financiering of the Rothschilds. There was, at the same time, a vein of rationalism that ran through his thought and speech. We were speaking one day on the subject of miracles, and, with his usual energy of manner, he said:
"There was no need of any literal angel to shut the mouths of the lions to save Daniel; the awful holiness of the prophet was enough. There was so much of God in him that the savage creatures submitted to him as they did to unsinning Adam. Man's dominion over nature was broken by sin, but in the golden age to come it will be restored. A man in full communion with God wields a divine power in every sphere that he touches."
His face glowed as he spoke, and his voice was subdued into a solemnity of tone that told how his reverent and adoring soul was thrilled with this vision of the coming glory of redeemed humanity.
He knew the New Testament by heart, as well as the Old. The sayings of Jesus were often on his lips.
One day, in a musing, half-soliloquizing way, I heard him say:
"It is wonderful, wonderful! a Hebrew peasant from the hills of Galilee, without learning, noble birth, or power, subverts all the philosophies of the world, and makes himself the central figure of all history. It is wonderful!"
He half whispered the words, and his eyes had the introspective look of a man who is thinking deeply.
He came to see me at our cottage on Post street one morning before breakfast. In grading a street, a house in which I had lived and had the ill luck to own, on Pine street, had been undermined, and toppled over into the street below, falling on the slate-roof and breaking all to pieces. He came to tell me of it, and to extend his sympathy.
"I thought I would come first, so you might get the bad news from a friend rather than a stranger. You have lost a house; but it is a small matter. Your little boy there might have put out his eye with a pair of scissors, or he might have swallowed a pin and lost his life. There are many things constantly taking place that are harder to bear than the loss of a house."
Many other wise words did the Rabbi speak, and before he left I felt that a house was indeed a small thing to grieve over.
He spoke with charming freedom and candor of all sorts of people.
"Of Christians, the Unitarians have the best heads, and the Methodists the best hearts. The Roman Catholics hold the masses, because they give their people plenty of form. The masses will never receive truth in its simple essence; they must have it in a way that will make it digestible and assimilable, just as their, stomachs demand bread, and meats, and fruits, not their extracts or distilled essences, for daily food. As to Judaism, it is on the eve of great changes. What these changes will be I know not, except that I am sure the God of our fathers will fulfill his promise to Israel. This generation will probably see great things."
"Do you mean the literal restoration of the Jews to Palestine?"
He looked at me with an intense gaze, and hastened not to answer. At last he spoke slowly:
"When the perturbed elements of religious thought crystallize into clearness and enduring forms, the chosen people will be one of the chief factors in reaching that final solution of the problems which convulse this age."
He was one of the speakers at the great Mortara indignation-meeting in San Francisco. The speech of the occasion was that of Colonel Baker, the orator who went to Oregon, and in a single campaign magnetized the Oregonians so completely by his splendid eloquence that, passing by all their old party leaders, they sent him to the United States Senate. No one who heard Baker's peroration that night will ever forget it. His dark eyes blazed, his form dilated, and his voice was like a bugle in battle.
"They tell us that the Jew is accursed of God. This has been the plea of the bloody tyrants and robbers that oppressed and plundered them during the long ages of their exile and agony. But the Almighty God executes his own judgments. Woe to him who presumes to wield his thunderbolts! They fall in blasting, consuming vengeance upon his own head. God deals with his chosen people in judgment; but he says to men, Touch them at your peril! They that spoil them shall be for a spoil; they that carried them away captive shall themselves go into captivity. The Assyrian smote the Jew, and where is the proud Assyrian Empire? Rome ground them under her iron heel, and where is the empire of the Caesars? Spain smote the Jew, and where is her glory? The desert sands cover the site of Babylon the Great. The power that hurled the hosts of Titus against the holy city Jerusalem was shivered to pieces. The banners of Spain, that floated in triumph over half the world, and fluttered in the breezes of every sea, is now the emblem of a glory that is gone, and the ensign of a power that has waned. The Jews are in the hands of God. He has dealt with them in judgment, but they are still the children of promise. The day of their long exile shall end, and they will return to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads!"
The words were something like these, but who could picture Baker's oratory? As well try to paint a storm in the tropics. Real thunder and lightning cannot be put on canvas.
The Rabbi made a speech, and it was the speech of a man who had come from his books and prayers. He made a tender appeal for the mother and father of the abducted Jewish boy, and argued the question as calmly, and in as sweet a spirit, as if he had been talking over an abstract question in his study. The vast crowd looked upon that strange figure with a sort of pleased wonder, and the Rabbi seemed almost unconscious of their presence. He was as free from self-consciousness as a little child, and many a Gentile heart warmed that night to the simple-hearted sage who stood before them pleading for the rights of human nature.
The old man was often very sad. In such moods he would come round to our cottage on Post street, and sit with us until late at night, unburdening his aching heart, and relaxing by degrees into a playfulness that was charming from its very awkwardness. He would bring little picture-books for the children, pat them on their heads, and praise them. They were always glad to see him, and would nestle round him lovingly. We all loved him, and felt glad in the thought that he left our little circle lighter at heart. He lived alone. Once, when I playfully spoke to him of matrimony, he laughed quietly, and said:
"No, no - my books and my poor schoolchildren are enough for me."
He died suddenly and alone. He had been out one windy night visiting the poor, came home sick, and before morning was in that world of spirits which was so real to his faith, and for which he longed. He left his little fortune of a few thousand dollars to the poor of his native village of Posen, in Poland. And thus passed from California-life Dr. Julius Eckman, the Rabbi.