The Clergyman’s Daughter

Of the memoires recollections

We had been children in the same small township in Eastern Jutland, where her father still served as Rabbi, when we met accidentally as adults – well over thirty years ago – at a beach resort on the western shore (of Jutland). She will have been twenty-one years old at that time.

The small Jewish community of German-Polish origin where her father served as Rabbi consisted of lower middle class members, with one exception, who had to struggle hard for their livelihood. Therefore they were not viewed particularly favourably by the better-off residents of the town. Moreover, most of the members of the community were old-fashioned and orthodox and kept their homes tightly sealed off from the surrounding world, which did not enhance their esteem with the rest of the town. They lived without any contact with their fellow townspeople, other than what was required for business purposes for their families, adhered to their strange Jewish home life, the heavy atmosphere of which was spiced with a hothouse temperature, so different from the relaxed comfort of Nordic homes.

The impecunious community could not afford much for their synagogue and Rabbi and since there were many children (nine), he lived in very strained circumstances.

His young daughter will naturally have assumed that I was aware of this, and that therefore I was surprised meeting her in a place where people went for pleasure. At any rate, she informed me immediately that a wealthy relative had paid for her trip. She had been permitted to ask for a summer treat, and had selected a three-week stay at a beach resort. She had always wanted to see the sea was all she said, but something in her restless watchful eyes betrayed that the gay life of summer leisure on the Danish dunes had influenced her choice as well.

The ideal Jewish maiden beauty she had held promise to become as a child had not materialized. She was short and inconspicuous. Compared with the other young ladies at the hotel, most of whom were daughters of Jutland merchants and business men in blond heavyweight class, she seemed but half an adult. Since she was not very typical racially, she was overlooked by other guests initially.

The very first day I noticed that she ate only a few pieces of dry rolls and some jam. Naturally I understood the reason particularly since, among the guests, there was an elderly couple who – from the other end of the table – kept an eye on her. They were both from our home town, and I could understand the alarm it would cause in the small Jewish community if it became known that the rabbi's own daughter did not observe kashrut (ritually prepared food).

It was unavoidable that, little by little, also others among those sitting nearby noticed that she hardly touched the food but put something on her plate only for appearance's sake. They thought that she was not well and embarrassed her with sympathy and questions. A medical student offered to mix her a miracle appetite schnapps. Another gentleman wanted to talk her into eating what he called "Queen Victoria's tummy-waker upper". It was a slice of bread soaked in English sauce and covered with mustard, anchovy and pickled cucumber. Well meaning advice poured over her from all sides of the food-happy company, which only made the young woman increasingly miserable.

After the cause had become known, compassion turned into no less intrusive curiosity and attention. "The Rabbi's little daughter" became the topic of general conversation for a few days among the fifty or so hotel guests. No one could understand why she had come, and her willingness to expose herself to all this unpleasantness (which she must have anticipated). People were particularly curious to know what the poor soul really lived on. On inquiring in the kitchen they were informed that she received small carefully sealed packages from home every two or three days containing some meat and tallow, which she personally participated in preparing in the kitchen and subsequently ate in her room, where she also kept her own china and other eating implements.

Now this much was known. People pitied her, but they did not forget that they were on the sacred preserve of religion, and kept their views to themselves. Still, particularly elderly ladies could be heard expressing their astonishment that Little Miss Rachel did not prefer to stay away from meals in these circumstances. Of course, they understood well, they said a little put-off, that it could hardly be much fun for her to sit in her room each time we had our meals. However, they found it a bit offensive that she overtly flaunted her alien religion day after day, with its many strange commands; they felt by and large, that she – like most of her race – had an unfortunate inclination to attract undesirable attention.

To begin with, I myself had been a bit surprised by her openness on this score, because otherwise there was something squirrel-like, surreptitious and timid in her bearing. She was not at all a person who was easily understood. The merciless criticism she suffered almost everywhere could be justified by her many peculiarities and apparent contradictions, even on closer acquaintance.

She was a gifted and particularly well read young woman, whose upbringing had been guided by her learned father who had a doctorate from a German university. Compared with other young ladies at the resort, who tended to ignore her, she herself was almost a scholar, and this awareness rarely left her, to be sure.

She was hardly equally aware that, on the other hand, she lacked their poise and congenital ease with the surroundings. In her need to assert herself in this alien environment, she unwittingly perpetually gave offence. This summer vacation was the event in her humdrum existence, the adventure of which not one minute was to be wasted. She had to be wherever things were happening, so her presence was often felt to be an imposition.

There was among the guests a young and handsome architect who played the guitar and was the "heart throb" of the resort for this summer. Everywhere he went, he was seen surrounded by a gaggle of six to eight young women who were bonded in sisterhood by their admiration of him and his social talents. His seat at the table was diagonally across from us, soon I noticed how she yearned to be included in the circle and how she glowed with each sign of grace that the fêted gentleman sent her across the table. There was however no mistaking that the gaggle conspired to exclude her. She did however not let herself be discouraged by their silent rebuffs and continued her attempts to approach with a persistence that at times was shy, at times courageous, reminiscent of the flight of the moth around a candle, cautious and reckless at the same time.

One afternoon I met her walking alone along the shore, almost three miles from the hotel. I had an idea what the reason was, so did not ask any questions. We kept each other company going back. When she was alone with you like this, she did not show off her book learning by pontificating on the evolution of the concept of Faust over time, or on other profound topics that were out of proportion to her age and true maturity. But that day all tenseness had gone out of her. She was unusually quiet and dispirited. She held both her arms behind her back, and her eyes, normally so restless and observant, were mostly directed earthwards.

When she walked in this manner, she reminded me of her father, the short gentleman with a grey beard whom I remembered clearly from my boyhood years. It was not only in her posture that she evoked this memory. She recalled also the impression of loneliness which at that time – half frighteningly – had seized me at the sight of the "Jew Pastor" as he came walking along the street with his hands at his back, with hardly anybody greeting him. Because of the mysteries of circumcision and ritual slaughter that he was supposed to understand, we boys viewed him with something of the thrill we felt on reading about the priests of old performing sacrifices with their blood-stained hands. Now I began to learn from his daughter a bit about that alien spirituality which marked this Jewish clergyman's home even outside the strictly religious sphere; I also gained some understanding of the great sacrifices her father made by leaving his German homeland to serve twenty or thirty poor co-religionists in a small town of Jutland. Without any chance of influence beyond his clearly defined congregation, with whose tradesmen and craftsmen he could have little spiritual contact beyond that pertaining to the synagogue, he was truly the loneliest man in town. He had no contact even with other clergymen in town.

In spite of his university degree, these latter did not accept him as an equal; he, naturally, had no interest in the never-ending theological battles of the Church of Denmark.

He buried himself in books. The gloom of solitude, the yearning for foreign places, the sensitive high-strung anxiety of an inquisitive mind – he bequeathed all these to his favourite daughter (as Miss Rachel certainly was). Her love for him was mixed with deep veneration. And yet, I was never fully certain if, in her heart of hearts, she shared her father's faith or merely professed to do so out of obedience and duty to her home. On this point she was exceedingly coy. I felt that, in spite of everything, it was she who made a sacrifice for her home that was never recognized.

A few days later when the weather was unusually nice and calm, the hotel guests agreed at the dinner table to make an excursion to the forest. Admittedly there was no tree for miles, but a little way inland there was a tree nursery on the moor where there was rumored to be, and with a little good will, one could imagine walking in the shade. Transportation was available in the shape of a charabanc and a horse-drawn carriage, the former for the seniors, the latter for the youngsters. The plan was to set off immediately after lunch at three o'clock, in order to be back in time for the evening meal.

When we left the table, Miss Rachel pulled me aside and asked if I could tell her for certain how long the excursion would last. I was a little puzzled by her question, particularly by the worried expression with which she awaited my answer. "Around four to five hours" I said. "That long." – She stood still for a while considering the matter and then left, explaining she could not come along.

When the carriage stopped in front of the hotel an hour later, I nevertheless saw her among the first to mount the horse-drawn carriage. Like the other young ladies, she had a colourful beach scarf tied tightly around her head with a loop on the top of her head, like a cap. I had seen her with it once before, but only now did I notice how it altered her looks. Although the sun and sea air had tanned her considerably, and even brought out some freckles, the lively colours of her head-dress accentuated her Southern European features, giving her appearance a wild and alien look. Was this perhaps due to the feverish gleam of her dark brown eyes? Did this come from deep within her when, at the age of twenty-one, she looked like an ageing gypsy woman, glowing with dark passion.

I could not help teasing her a little because of her change of heart. But she came replied gaily that naturally I had misinformed her. She had asked the driver who had told her the trip could easily be made in three hours. "So?" I asked for an explanation but received none. At that moment I was not far from sharing the general view of her being an affected and hysterical female.

After a good hour's drive and sandy moor roads we reached the tree nursery and climbed down from the carriages.

There was nothing to be seen but long rows of small mounds of earth, with a sapling in each. We settled down in the hot sun on a parched meadow to drink wine and eat cookies we had brought along. Since the younger ones had been geared up for fun, we did some folk dancing (the orchestra consisted of a mouth harmonica). The gentlemen danced in their shirt sleeves and the ladies' head-dresses flapped around our ears. The senior members of our company, watching from a ditch, might well have imagined they were attending a night dance ceremony of old on the moor.

Our shadows on the ground were already long and the evening sea breeze had begun to calm before we stopped to return to our carriages. The long light evenings were no longer: this was the end of August. The sun was big and red on the horizon like a rising moon.

Suddenly Miss Rachel shot up in front of me. She was still hot from dancing, where in some incomprehensible way she had finally become part of the foursome of the architect himself. Very disturbed she asked me what time it was. When I told her she looked around in confusion and turned pale. The thing was becoming a mystery to me. Was she teasing or mad?

During our return trip I kept an eye on her. One member of the gaggle started sharing around some chocolate she had usurped from one of the ladies in the other carriage. We sat like little birds in a row, closely together on the straw, with stretched-out necks. Only Miss Rachel was silent, her face turned away brooding. Suddenly she got up and asked to be let off to walk home.

We looked at each other, agreeing that once again she was trying to attract attention. Some suspected her of plotting to have the architect to offer to accompany her.

People tried to make her change her mind. We explained to her that there were still three miles to go to the hotel, and that it would be dark before she reached it. But all our representations were in vain. She demanded very firmly to be let off the carriage. A well-meaning offer of company from one of the gentlemen (not the architect) was turned down in such a way, that we abruptly understood that it was imperative for her to be alone. She got off the carriage to general embarrassment. None of us had remembered that it was Friday evening, the holy Sabbath of the Jews; perhaps none of us knew that the observant Jew does not drive after the onset of the Sabbath, lest he violate the law that the ox and the ass also should rest during the holy day.

She soon disappeared in the mist.

We had hardly travelled more than a few minutes when two kindly ladies, who could not bear the thought of leaving her, asked the carriage to halt claiming they felt the need to stretch their legs a little. One of them told me later they had found her sitting crying by the roadside. She had thrown her arms around their necks in an outburst of despair, but only slowly had she revealed her reason for leaving the carriage.

I myself did not see her again. All next day she stayed in her room; early the morning after, she left without saying goodbye to anybody except the two ladies who had taken care of her.

I did not meet her again, and heard later only that she had died young and unmarried under tragic circumstances. Life had become too difficult for her because of the isolation into which she had been born or which she had accepted heroically in deference to Israelite loyalty to her home, and which the lack of understanding and prejudice of her fellow human beings never made easy for her.