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  The

PARNAS

MEIR BARAM

FELDHEIM PUBLISHERS

Another Feldheim book by Meir Baram:
The Fateful Mission

A glossary of Hebrew words appears at the end of I he book.
Copyright 1987 by
Meir Baram and Feldheim Publishers
All rights reserved.

 

A young Jew crossed the bridge and approached the gate
to the city of Cologne. Ragged, wounded, more dead than
alive, he collapsed before the two astonished gatekeepers.
They would have thrown him to the dogs, or better yet, left
him to the ravaging Crusaders who were not far behind 
thousands upon thousands of them. But because they
thought he might earn them a few coins reward, they
dragged him to the home of the Parnas  the benefactor
and head of the Jewish community.

Gershom  for that was his name  had escaped from
the nearby community of Mainz where the Crusaders had
left a trail of Jewish death and destruction behind them.
He arrived in Cologne with a fearsome tale to tell. Yet de-
spite the urgency of his warnings, the Parnas refused to
believe or to act  not until it became clear that further
delay would mean the destruction of the Jews of Cologne.
Brave and resourceful, Gershom endangered his life again
and again as he helped his fellow Jews on a difficult and
dangerous road to partial safety.

The Parnas is a fictional novel, based on careful historical
detail. Far removed from the Jewish life we know, its stark
portrayal of the early Middle Ages is the story of bravery,
belief and Jewish courage,

About the Author

The author, a young scholar and scribe in Bnei Brak, has written
a series of historical novels in Hebrew. A second novel, The
Fateful Mission,
has also been translated into English by Feldheim
Publishers.



INTRODUCTION

The year was 4856 (1096 C.E.)  a date that will
forever be engraved in the annals of our people as a
time of terror and slaughter, bravery and martyrdom.

In the dead of winter, the leading nobles and
bishops of France gathered in the city of Clermont for
an urgent meeting with the pope. "It is a sacred duty,"
proclaimed the pope, "for all Christians to free Jeru-
salem from the Moslem nonbelievers."

The campaign to free the Holy City was sched-
uled to begin at the end of the summer, after the
harvest. But Heaven had decreed that the terrors of
the First Crusade begin earlier. When the people
heard of the pope's call, they were swept by a craze. In
the middle of spring, while the grain was still ripen-
ing, they abandoned their fields, houses, and flocks,
piled their families into makeshift wagons, and set out
on the road.

Goaded by fanatic monks and priests, the ever-
growing mass began to wend its way along the banks
of the Rhine River beyond the borders of France.

Men, women, and children, in a mass of contrast-
ing colors and costumes, set out on their terrible
march. Nobles and serfs, monks and murderers, pris-
oners and freemen  on foot, in wagons, on horses
and donkeys  they all marched together. Displaying
a red cross on the shoulders of their garments, they
headed, not east, towards Palestine, but north!

They rallied around two leaders  a man and a
woman. The man was a monk named Peter, who

inflamed the mob with his frenzied speeches. The
woman was an ignorant villager who was always
accompanied by a faithful goose that she had raised.
The masses believed that her goose had been sent by
Heaven to guide them to Jerusalem. Tens of thou-
sands of people marched confidently in the footsteps

of a goose.

The Jews of France were alarmed by the sight of
the huge, volatile mob that was attracting so many
vagrants and misfits. Seeing the frenzy that had seized
the ignorant peasants, it was not hard to guess what
lay in store for any Jew who crossed the Crusaders'

path.

But what path would the Crusaders take? In
which direction would the goose wander? Frightened,
the French Jews dispatched urgent letters warning
their brothers in the German kehilloth at the upper
Rhine of the impending danger.

Only the simple, touching reply of Mainz sur-
vives. The people of Mainz were not worried about
their own fate. "We have proclaimed days of fasting,"
they wrote, "and we pray for the peace and safety of
the Jews of France." It never entered their minds that
the route from France to Jerusalem would first lead
northward past Mainz.

But the Heavenly edict had been sealed. The
goose strutted unhesitatingly northward along the
Rhine, and the mob followed with confidence. With
no idea as to the whereabouts .of Jerusalem, they
stopped in every town along the way to ask whether it

was Jerusalem, the longed-for city.

Although they were disappointed each time, the
rabble continued to march after the goose. It moved
northward until it approached the Jewish communi-
ties along the Rhine, communities renowned among
Jews and gentiles alike. It was then that the monks
circulated through the Crusaders' camp and incited
the mob.

"Shall we undertake a long and sacredjourney to
fight the Moslem infidels, while we let the Jews here
in our own countries persist in their stubborn refusal
to accept Christianity?"

The mob responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
They were like dry straw on a hot day; the slightest
spark would set them ablaze.

The spark was ignited by the monk Peter, who
proclaimed, "Whoever kills a Jew will be absolved of
all his sins!"

The fate of the Jews was sealed. They would
either be converted or killed. And they stood the test
with great spiritual courage, sanctifying God's Holy
Name by their death.

Four glorious communities nestled on the banks
of the Rhine: Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne.
They were holy kehilloth, whose righteous and God-
fearing people were led by the outstanding disciples
of Rabbeinu Gershom Ma'or Ha-gola  the Light of
the Diaspora.

The southernmost of these towns, Speyer, was
the first to be reached by the Crusaders. Its Jews were

given a choice: convert, or die. With supreme courage
they withstood the test. They refused to forsake their
faith and chose instead to sanctify God's name with
their death. The horrible siege and massacre and the
glorious heroism of the kehilla of Speyer were
recorded by the sages of that generation in the Kinoth
prayers and are recited every Tisha B'Av.

The northernmost of the kehilloth, Cologne, is
where our story is set.



I

The sun sent out its first hesitant rays and
painted the waters of the Rhine a pale blue.
On the banks of the river, enclosed in its
protective stone wall, the city of Cologne
began to stir. A watchman climbed up the tower, as he
did every morning at dawn, to scan the horizon in the
light of the new day. Having convinced himself that
no hostile forces were in sight and no enemy threat-
ened the city's peace, he drew a horn from his belt
and blew a trill  the signal to open the city gates.

Soldiers opened the giant gates and freed the
drawbridge. It descended slowly amidst a clanking of
chains and landed with a heavy thud on the banks of
the moat that lay at the foot of the wall.

No sooner was the bridge in place than the first
traveler appeared. He had evidently spent the night
on the bank of the moat, waiting for the gates to open.
Now he staggered across the bridge. His tattered clo-
thing was covered with dust, and his tired face was
bruised and scratched. The big hat perched on his

head marked him as a Jew. He approached the gate
with his last ounce of strength, as the soldier at the
watch post eyed him with curiosity, pity and scorn.

"Hey, Jew," he called, "take out a silver piece to
pay the bridge tax. If you haven't got it, don't waste
your energy trying to cross. From the looks of things,
your purse doesn't hold even a battered copper
penny." But there was no reply. Instead, the Jew
stumbled and fell in a faint in the middle of the
bridge.

Now here was a bothersome problem! Denying a
dying Jew entrance to the city because of failure to pay
the tax was an everyday matter. But his body sprawled
out across the bridge would interfere with the flow of
traffic.

"Hans!" the soldier shouted to his comrade in
the guardhouse. "Give me a hand." The two soldiers
approached the Jew and picked him up by the arms
and legs.

"Why, he's light as a feather," said Hans in
amazement. "Let's throw him off the bridge and back
onto the side of the road."

Fritz objected. "He'll come to and retrace his
steps, and then he'll fall in the middle of the bridge
again. I'm not about to trouble myself twice for a
Jewish boy." Indeed, beneath the dust and sores one
could discern the refined, tormented face of a youth.

Hans was ready with an alternative solution.
"Let's throw him into the waters of the moat and be
finished."

With that, he began to swing the unconscious
boy back and forth, building up the necessary
momentum to throw him over the bridge.

"Wait!" shouted Fritz. "That's murder. The Jews
will raise a furor."

"No, they won't," sneered Hans. "Their end is
coming closer with every step of the blessed Crusad-
ers. As for murder, what does he care whether he
drowns today or is butchered tomorrow by the Cru-
saders' axes? Let's go! One, two, three ..."

"Stop!" yelled Fritz. "I just had a brilliant idea!
Quick! Help me carry him to the guardhouse. We'll
leave his murder to the Crusaders."

They carried the lad to the guardhouse and laid
him on the stone bench. "Now let's hear what brilliant
idea flashed through your thick skull," growled Hans
impatiently. "Open your mouth quickly, for I won't let
a Jew rob me of my seat for long."

"My plan will net you a fine rent for your bench
and some coins with which to quiet your conscience
about saving a Jew."

Fritz leaned out of the entrance and looked
around to see whether anyone was listening. Then he
drew his head back in and dropped his voice to a
whisper, "If you cover up my short absence, I'll run to
the house of the Parnas, the head of the Jewish com-
munity. He'll pay the lad's tax, bring him to his home,
and reward us for our noble behavior in saving his
life."

Hans's eyes lit up. He looked at his friend with
new esteem and slapped his shoulder heartily.

"Fritz, you block-headed genius! You don't even
begin to appreciate the brilliance of the idea you
thought up. You talk about copper pennies that will be
thrown your way, when all the Parnas's gold lies
spread out before you!"

Fritz looked confused.

"You have a perfect excuse to enter the house of
the richest Jew in Cologne. Once inside, open your
eyes and ears. Then, when the Crusaders enter the
city, we will know just where to go and what to look
for."

The deal was concluded with an enthusiastic
handshake and mutual shoulder slapping. Fritz
quickly stole out to the crooked alleys paved with
cobblestone.

Arriving at the house of the Parnas, he stopped
and fingered his mustache in confusion. The narrow,
wooden house, wedged in humbly between its identi-
cal neighbors, did not match his mental picture of
wealth and spoils.

"It must be the way they camouflage their
wealth," he thought to himself. "Very well. I shall rip
the disguise off this house. Everyone speaks of the
Jews and their treasures. Now I shall know their
secrets. In a minute I'll enter a palace of splendor,
and I'll open my eyes and take note, and when the
Crusaders arrive, it will be mine!"

With a light step he skipped up the two wooden
steps and knocked loudly. The door opened and a lad

waving a long green branch stood in the doorway.
Fritz retreated in terror before the raised whip. He
tripped over the steps and landed in the dirt. From
there he raised frightened eyes to the young ag-
gressor.

But the youth was no less frightened than Frit/.
Striking a soldier fulfilling his job was liable to bring
heavy punishment upon all the Jews of the city! He
hastily laid his strange scepter against the doorpost
and leaped to the street to help the fallen soldier to
his feet.

Seeing the lad leap, Fritz crouched on the
ground, covering his head with his hands for protec-
tion. It was beyond him how the youth had divined his
dark thoughts. How did the boy know that he wanted
to enter the house to discover its treasures? Here was
conclusive proof that Jews were indeed a nation of
sorcerers, who communicated with the forces of
impurity and darkness! And now, this very moment,
one of them, this young sorcerer, was lunging at him!

Apologizing all the while, the youth carefully
helped the soldier to his feet. Then he led him back to
the house. Fritz thought of the fairy tales of forest
witches who enticed innocent children into their
lairs.

"No," he yelled, planting his feet firmly on the
ground.

The bewildered youth looked at him in surprise.
"You came to meet with my father, did you not?"

"Yes, that is, no, I wanted ... I thought..."

"So please come inside."

Fritz walked unwillingly up the stairs, and the
youth followed. To Fritz's horror, the youth bent
down and picked up the giant branch and then closed
the door behind them.

Fritz was trapped in a den of Jews!


2

AS Fritz grew accustomed to the dimly lit
room, his eyes opened wide in surprise.
Even after staring in all directions, he
could not believe what he was seeing. The
strange sight before him verified all his dark suspi-
cions of Jewish sorcery.

The gold and silver vessels that were said to fill
the room had disappeared as if by magic. Not a trace
was found of the sparkling diamonds and gleaming
pearls that he had seen in his imagination. Instead,
the room was miraculously filled with clusters of
greens and flowers!

Green branches were attached to the walls, and
lattices of flowering vines hung from the ceiling. A
heady perfume of colorful spring flowers, accompan-
ied by the pungent scent of forest branches, filled the
room. Before he had time to recover from the
picture, Fritz was shown into the drawing room.

The drawing room, too, was adorned with
greenery, but here the scent was different  not so

intoxicating, to be sure, but far more enticing. A plea-
sant, delicate aroma of butter pastries and cheese-
cakes enveloped him. Piled high on a big table in the
center of the room were fragrant delicacies arranged
around a strange loaf of bread, long and flat, with
four mounds rising from it.

A man in a baker's apron came out of the kitchen
carrying a baking pan just off the fire. His kindly face
was red from the heat of the oven. He hurried to place
the hot pan on the table and turned to his guest with a
smile.

He greeted Fritz and extended a welcoming
hand. But Fritz, in his confusion, could barely mum-
ble an answer. A hearty gulp of beer restored his
composure. "Is all this for breakfast?" he asked, point-
ing to the table.

"Not at all," answered the Jew good-naturedly.
"Tomorrow is the festival of Shavuoth, which com-
memorates the giving of our Torah. We follow an
ancient custom and eat delicacies of milk and cheese
on that day.

"Our holy Torah is likened to milk. Just as milk is
the sole nourishment of babies and provides all their
needs, so our holy Torah is our source of life, and if
we have Torah we need nothing else."

The gentile did not absorb the lofty idea. His
eyes were glued to the mounds of delicacies, and his
mouth trembled with desire.

"Please help yourself," said the Jew, and Fritz
reached for the giant loaf in the center of the table.

"No," protested the Jew. "That is the bread of the
holiday repast, and it must remain whole until this
evening. Its special shape symbolizes the two breads
that our forefathers offered on this holiday in the
Holy Temple."

He appeased Fritz with a selection of pastries
and cakes, and the soldier ate heartily.

"If the Jew only knew that he would not sit at the
holiday table," thought Fritz, "and eat his special
challa, that the cake and pastries would not be served
to the accompaniment of festival songs ..."

After Fritz's appetite was stilled, he washed down
his meal with another gulp of beer and roared in
admiration, "You Jews have delicious festivals."

"Indeed," the Jew smiled. "And now, would you
be so kind as to explain the purpose of your visit?"

Fritz drew himself to his full height and stated
importantly, "My business is with the master of the
house, and I'll speak to no one else. Call the Parnas!"

The Jew raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I am
the master of the house."

But a man like Fritz was not about to be taken for
a fool. "Brazen liar!" he cried, stamping his foot. "Do
you think you can fool me? I saw with my own eyes
that you are the baker!"

The Parnas burst into merry laughter. He
explained to the soldier that Jews are commanded to
prepare for the Sabbath and holidays with their own
hands, even if they have an army of servants at their
beck and call. "You understand, it is as if we are

awaiting a visit from the emperor."

Fritz did not understand about the visit from the
emperor, but he did understand that he was standing
before Rabbi Ithiel, the Parnas of Cologne, and so he
began his story about the youth lying unconscious on
the stone bench of the guardhouse.

The Parnas's face turned purple with rage. "You
worthless scoundrel!" he cried. "A youth lies uncon-
scious, his very life in danger, and you stuff your
mouth with pastries? You could have told us your story
to begin with and then sat down to your feast!"

Before the soldier could defend himself, the
Parnas had already left his seat and begun to rush
about, issuing orders in every direction.

"Meshulam," he commanded his son, "take
Menachem and run with him to the guardhouse!"

"Meir!" A bearded face appeared in the door-
way. "Hurry and take one of the carriages to the
southern gate of the city!"

He strode to the kitchen, calling as he went,
"Marlen, put a kettle of water on the fire and prepare
a meat soup!"

"Leon  where is he? Run as fast as you can and
fetch Rabbi David the doctor!"

He retraced his steps and saw Fritz standing
dumbstruck in the middle of the drawing room,
amazed at the hurried preparations around him.

"Ah, here you are," he said gently, mopping the
sweat that was pouring down his brow. He came over
and offered Fritz his hand. "Please forgive me for my

outburst. I was very upset."

The soldier took the outstretched hand into his
own. "Sir, you have nothing to apologize for. I should
have told you why I came first thing. Farewell to you,
and a happy holiday."

"Just a minute," said the Parnas, and pressed two
silver coins into his palm. "These are for you and for
your good friend. Thank him in my name and in the
name of the community."

Fritz bowed. He was confused and embarrassed.
If the Jew only knew that his friend had tried to throw
the youth into the deep water! And if he had only
guessed what wicked thoughts had brought Fritz to
the house . . .

As he crossed the hall, his head spun from the
intoxicating scent of the flowers. "Do the Jews eat
flowers on their holiday?" he asked.

"No," said the Parnas, amused by the question.
"We decorate our houses with green in memory of the
great event of the giving of the Torah, when Mount
Sinai, amidst a barren wilderness, was covered with
grass and flowers."

Fritz scratched his head in confusion and went
out to the bustling street. The strange words echoed
in his mind: Mount Sinai and the Holy Temple;
Torah and flowers. And his nose still tingled with the
wonderful aroma of butter pastries. "Interesting peo-
ple, these Jews. Not at all bad folks," he thought, as he
pressed the silver coins in his palm. "What a pity that
every last one will soon be killed by the Crusaders."

3

WITH the clattering of hooves, the creak-
ing of wheels, and the neighing of
reined-in horses, a carriage screeched
to a halt before the quiet house of the
Parnas of Cologne.

Rabbi Ithiel threw the door open and watched as
Meshulam and Menachem carefully lifted the
unconscious youth out of the carriage and carried
him upstairs into a large, darkened room. Three beds
could be discerned in the dark. This was the guest
room, where shlichim raising money for yeshivoth and
merchants traveling on business could get a comfort-
able night's rest

They laid the boy gently on one of the beds, and
opened the heavy drapes to let in the morning sun.
The pale rays flooded the room and bathed the lad in
their delicate light. His tattered, stained garments
contrasted sharply with the spotless white linens.

As Meshulam studied him, pity welled up in his
heart. Who was this unfortunate youth? From where

had he come? What tragedy had struck him? Would
he ever recover? His clothing had been sewn of fine,
shiny silk, but now the precious fabric was torn to
shreds, splotched with blood and covered with the
dust of the road. He was scratched and bruised, his
wounds still fresh.

Meshulam's thoughts were interrupted by the
appearance of the famous Sephardic doctor, Rabbi
David ben Abbu. The doctor strode into the room
accompanied by Rabbi Ithiel, who carried a basin of
steaming water and a white towel. The doctor tied his
wide sleeves so they would not interfere with his work
and instructed Meshulam to roll up the patient's shirt
so that he could be examined.

Meshulam opened the torn coat and removed
the huge tzitzith. Then as he rolled up the stained silk
shirt, he let out a cry of surprise. A long, multicolored,
striped rope with innumerable knots was wound
many times about the boy's chest.

Rabbi Ithiel approached the bed and raised the
boy a bit, while Meshulam began to gently unwind the
strange rope. It soon became clear that this was not a
single rope, but a series of short ropes tied together. It
seemed to be endless, but finally, it was all undone,
revealing a folded parchment which fell heavily onto
the bed.

Rabbi Ithiel picked it up. The parchment was
filled with crowded writing. "These are Torah chiddu-
shim"
he whispered reverently, kissing the bundle.
He undid the edges of the wrapping, startled to find a

sharp knife inside which fell onto the floor. Rabbi
Ithiel's face turned white, and he bent down to pick
up the knife, but changed his mind and picked up the
rope instead. He studied it silently, fingering the silk.
Suddenly his eyes widened in horror. "The rope is
made of the sashes of cloaks!"

Meshulam and Menachem looked wonderingly
at the strange rope in the Parnas's hand. Sashes of silk
and satin, wool and cotton, striped and solid, shiny
and faded, were tied one to another.

A frightening premonition engulfed them. What
was the meaning of these many sashes? Where had
they come from? And why had they been tied
together? What had impelled the lad to wrap them
about his body, and what was the purpose of the
sharpened knife bound in a bundle of Torah
writings?

The doctor, however, was not sidetracked by all
of this speculation. He began to examine the patient
quickly and skillfully. He felt his pulse, listened to his
heart, raised his eyelids and looked into the pupils,
opened the mouth to examine the tongue, studied the
fingernails, thumped the abdomen, and inspected
the wounds and bruises. Then he stood up.

"Rabbi Ithiel," he pronounced solemnly, "the
boy is suffering from complete exhaustion, but aside
from superficial wounds he is healthy and well. The
abdomen is normal, the heart sound, and the lungs
clear. But the tongue is white and the stomach rum-
bles from extended fasting. Hunger and a terrifying

ordeal have left their imprint, and he is in a deep
faint."

The doctor took a small flask of medicine from
his bag to revive the patient, along with vials of oint-
ment to treat the wounds. He gave them to Rabbi
Ithiel together with directions for their use. One week
of absolute rest, he stated emphatically, was essential
for the cure.

Little did they know how short the youth's rest
would be.

 

 

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