| Family First Serial |

Within My Walls: Chapter 39 

“Any printing of mine has a letter of recommendation. As it is, people fear that the press is an invention of the sitra achra


Midday and they are all weary from riding in the heat. Eliyahu worries for Yannai, who seems to fade with each passing day, but as their horses trot along the pathway up to Jerusalem, they all seem to breathe deeper and as their lungs fill, a new strength pulses through them.

Even from a distance, they see signs of construction: great stacks of rock lashed to a wooden wagon and pulled by a team of donkeys. As the wagon passes, Yannai fixes his eyes on it. He pulls the reins for his horse to idle and pronounces, “Baruch Atah… Boneh b’rachamav Yerushalayim.
“Amen,” the chaburah answer.

The guards call a halt.

“None of this!” the chief shouts. His black hair streams behind him so that he looks like a messenger from another world. He threads his horse through theirs, singling each of them out for his message. “In Jerusalem, there is not a word about anything but the magnificence of the Sultan. Between Jews, between Moslems, it matters not. Come here and start talking about the Final Redemption and that will be the end of all of you.”

Yannai shrugs. The chief approaches him, catches his horse’s bridle with his hands, and looks Yannai in the eye. “We go not in a fever of Redemption but in a measured spirit of goodwill and readiness to work for the good of the Ottoman Empire. They have been good for the Jews and for the land, have they not?

“Look at all of you, finding refuge here after Europe became a furnace for you. It was the magnanimity of the Sultan that gave you a home. Look at this place now. Good roads. Businesses. Law and order. None of the chaos of the Mamluks.”

Yannai and the men around him nod.

The chief continues. “Suleiman believes in good cheer. Remember his words:

‘Come, don’t let

The army of sorrow

Crush the heart’s soldiers.’

“We are the heart’s soldiers, in his eyes. Let us not be sorrowful, nor exultant. Good cheer and readiness. Now let us ride.”

The printer has arrived from Salonika.

Leonora picks up the note on her desk and reads it. Excellent. For once, something is proceeding according to plan.

She looks at the log of her day. In the morning, she is to see the spice importer and meet with Yishai to go over some banking questions. In the afternoon — she closes her eyes — she has promised Ines that each afternoon she will go out on her horse. It is almost impossible to find the time, but it is not worth facing Ines’s wrath when she fails. During the afternoon repast, then.

She picks up her pen and inserts the next task into her daily log, in small cramped letters, between her morning and afternoon appointments. See the printer at the wool factory.

Leonora arrives at the wool factory to find the printer walking around the rudimentary frame she has ordered built adjacent to the tables where the wool is combed. With a grunt, the printer gets down on his hands and knees, and examines the joining from underneath.

She watches. He is agile for his age. Stockily built, though taller than she expected. His beard is white, but here and there are tufts of reddish brown. From this angle, his eyes are small and deep-set. She hopes he will be an efficient worker; certainly, he knows his job.

She hesitates, not wanting to approach when he is there on the floor. The foreman spies her and comes over, breakfast in his fists: a lump of cheese, a heel of bread, and a handful of olives that he tips into his mouth as she greets him.

She tenses. Is it because she is a woman that they treat her with so little respect? Or is this simply the way things work in the Holy Land?

“How is the work progressing?” she asks.

From the corner of her eyes, she sees the printer lift himself up from under the frame. His hands are stuck in the pockets of a leather overall, and she wonders if he wore the thing all the way from Salonika, so creased and worn it looks.

The foreman is talking to her. She turns her attention back to him.

“The men… they do not have a real sense of what they are doing. Oh, they get on with the tasks, but it is slow. Slow, slow, slow.”

Leonora nods and tries to understand. Everything has been repaired. But then, perhaps they feel that at any moment they may be attacked. No one can work that way. She remembers Papa, in the last months before they left to Portugal. Bands of men rampaging the village, thrusting themselves through doors, saying: what is yours will be mine in a week, so give it to me now, for now I have use of it.

Papa would sit down at his desk, sigh, and stand up again. He would rub his temple and say, if only I had the strength to push the whole world away and simply do what is upon me to do.

The foreman thinks for a minute and looks around, giving the machinery a little stroke. “It does not help that it is a long and complicated process. It feels like it is never done. Not just one vat of dye, but two. Not just one spinning of the wool: it is taken apart again and again, combed and cleaned and combed and cleaned over and over.”

“Well, these are fine blankets. To serve the most important army in the world.”

“Yes, yes, I understand that.” The man is impatient. “But when there seems to be no end to it all….”

She walks around the place, inspecting the different stages of the process. Whenever her gaze falls on a worker, he speeds up. The carding man pulls the comb through a knot. The dyer stirs the vat of bubbling blue liquid. But she can not be here all the time.

She turns to the foreman. “You know, in Spain, the men sang while they worked. Rousing tunes. And during autumn, when demand is high for the winter ahead, they would bring in a drummer. He would stand and bang out his beat and the men would sing and the work would be completed in all due speed.”

The foreman shrugs. “A drummer indeed? I think it would distract them, rather than make them work harder. And you would have all the children of the town out here, clapping and stamping along, and making a nuisance of themselves. No, the answer is not a drummer.”

Leonora looks around.

She turns to the foreman. “So what do you suggest?”

“Let them each take a blanket for themselves. People who work for themselves get the work done.”

She bites her lip. The idea has merit, but there is so little wool as it is. “How many workers are here?”

Twenty. Far fewer than needed. On the plus side, there are fewer people to take a blanket. She could give them blankets of inferior quality, perhaps. But these workers will run their fingers down the weave and know the difference, and an inferior gift is worse than no gift at all. Very well.

“One,” she says, holding up a finger for emphasis. “One blanket each.”

“I am glad of it. Winter is coming and the nights are cold. Most of them sleep under sackfuls of rags, mixed with hay or even wild grass that they have spread to dry over the summer.” He eyes her. “And what of their children?”

The request annoys her. There is philanthropy and there is business. If the workers want philanthropy, they can make an appointment with one of the men who report to Yishai. She is offering them business. Not blankets, but the chance to pay for a blanket of their own.

When she speaks, her voice is hard. “Their children may or may not receive a reduced price.”

She needs the blankets, but not for Tzefat, for Istanbul. She needs more wool. Her head is bursting from all the things that are wanted and needed from her.

She turns her attention to the printer; after all, this is what she came here for, not to be pursued by stories of lazy workers seeking tzedakah. The frame has been built according to the sketch the printer sent to her agent. It can be adjusted according to the printer’s preferences and specification.

The platen, the paper, all is ready. For the ink, she needs the printer. As well, the moveable type. The small squares of iron, inserted into each frame, fired with the mirror image of a letter.

She looks down at the agreement, put into writing before he got onto the boat from Salonika. The printer agreed with her agent to come, set up the printer, train in someone to work the machine — a person of intelligence, who will understand both the machinery and the typesetting and the books themselves — and then the printer will return to Salonika.

She looks at the machine; in Spain it would be mistaken for an instrument of torture. Doubtless, if people see it here, they will have another reason to protest. The scribes, certainly. The schoolteachers, too. They will moan and groan about children not bothering with their penmanship. If she achieves nothing else in her life, she will do this — bring mechanical printing to the Holy Land. But for now, she will keep it quiet enough.

The man straightens, points, and sniffs. His whole face creases. “This was not built according to my instructions.”

“I will tell the carpenter to come to you and receive direct instruction.”

“The wooden brackets are loose. And all the measurements are slightly too large.”

“Doubtless they did not want to knock it all into place without your approval.”

The printer shakes his head. “This is not a way to build. Without the confidence to actually construct the thing. Now all the proportions will be skewed. Each plank is slightly wider. I sent a measuring stick with your agent, did I not?”

She searches her memory, but then stops. If the man thinks she can be busy with every single detail of every one of her endeavors, he is wrong. “It will be found,” she says crisply, and turns away.


She is about to walk away, but she stops herself. “And when will the press be ready?”

He brings down the handle of the platen. It moves smoothly, a wooden wheel at the top serves to bring it down easily. The wheel was Amram’s idea. It would be smooth and reduce strain on the printer’s arms each time he pulled down the platen.

“This is good,” he says, lifting himself up to touch it. “I have been thinking of adding it in to the press in Salonika, but I cannot afford to stop work for a day.”

He circles the frame once more. “Why were my orders not followed exactly? I warned your agent. I do not have long here. I have manuscripts waiting, far more important than your treatise.”

“Oh, do not pretend that you did not come here to coax the chachamim here to continue sending you their manuscripts. Rav Yosef Karo. Rav Moshe Cordovero. Printing their works is not just business for you, it is prestige.”

The surprise shows on his face. She swallows a satisfied grin. In this contest of wills, it feels that they are on equal footing.

She will push her advantage, if they are talking about the prestige that he is after. “And besides, it is not only the treatise,” she says stiffly. “It is the chance to bring the printed word to the Holy Land.”

Amram told her that one of the signs of the oncoming Redemption is that the world will be filled with the Word of the Almighty, like water covers the sea. She knows the sea. If there is printing then there will be books in every household, and ignorance will be driven out, expelled, extirpated.

There is more at stake here than her treatise. But this, too, is not trivial. It will persuade the people to hope and wait for the Redemption. Not only to fear its arrival, but to know that it will fix the brokenness in their hearts, the shattered shards of hope and love that they nurse deep within, afraid to surrender, for then what will become of them.

“In the meantime, let me see this manuscript,” he says. Why is he issuing the orders? She clenches and unclenches her hands. She reaches into her leather satchel. Amram has had it copied, so there is a bundle of papers locked in her room at home. Maybe she should get an additional copy made, though it is two days of work and she can barely spare the scribe for so long.

He sets the stack of pages on the table and begins to read the first page. It is the poem by Eliyahu, yearning for the Redemption.

He speaks without looking up at her. “There is no letter of recommendation.”

“I do not deem it necessary.”

“Any printing of mine has a letter of recommendation. As it is, people fear that the press is an invention of the sitra achra. I will not have them discounting the books that I print as well.”

“But I am paying for this.”

He shakes his head, obdurate. “This is my press. I have built it and I can unbuild it. The moveable type is my own.”

The man… he is intolerable. Insufferable.

She takes a breath and lowers her voice. “Look at the essays. Each is written by another chacham.”

“No matter. This is printed in Tzefat and Jerusalem, correct?”

She nods. “Indeed.”

“Then I need a letter of recommendation from each place.”

She thinks for a moment and then draws herself up and looks him in the eye. She does not know how to name what she sees there, so she turns her gaze to the press. “Letters of recommendation. You may leave instructions for the carpenter as to the printing press. As you are under my employ at present, I will give you a stead and a guide to take you to Jerusalem. There you can procure all the letters that you need.”

She turns and sweeps out of the factory, victory settling sweetly around her shoulders.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 827)

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