Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 47.

The Feast of Tabernacles

EVA had withdrawn from her father to her former remote position, the moment that she had recognised the two friends, and was, therefore, not in hearing when her father received them, and said, ‘Welcome, noble stranger! the noble Emir here, to whom a thousand welcomes, told me that you would not be averse from joining a festival of my people.’

‘I would seize any opportunity to pay my respects to you,’ replied Tancred; ‘but this occasion is most agreeable to me.’

‘And when, noble traveller, did you arrive at Esh Sham?’

‘But this morning; we were last from Hasbeya.’ Tancred then inquired after Eva, and Besso led him to his daughter.

In the meantime the arrival of the new guests made a considerable sensation in the chamber, especially with the Mesdemoiselles Laurella. A young prince of the Lebanon, whatever his religion, was a distinguished and agreeable accession to their circle, but in Tancred they recognised a being at once civilised and fashionable, a Christian who could dance the polka. Refreshing as springs in the desert to their long languishing eyes were the sight of his white cravat and his boots of Parisian polish.

‘It is one of our great national festivals,’ said Eva, slightly waving her palm branch; ‘the celebration of the Hebrew vintage, the Feast of Tabernacles.’

The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persist in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards. What sublime inexorability in the law! But what indomitable spirit in the people!

It is easy for the happier Sephardim, the Hebrews who have never quitted the sunny regions that are laved by the Midland Ocean; it is easy for them, though they have lost their heritage, to sympathise, in their beautiful Asian cities or in their Moorish and Arabian gardens, with the graceful rights that are, at least, an homage to a benignant nature. But picture to yourself the child of Israel in the dingy suburb or the squalid quarter of some bleak northern town, where there is never a sun that can at any rate ripen grapes. Yet he must celebrate the vintage of purple Palestine! The law has told him, though a denizen in an icy clime, that he must dwell for seven days in a bower, and that he must build it of the boughs of thick trees; and the Rabbins have told him that these thick trees are the palm, the myrtle, and the weeping willow. Even Sarmatia may furnish a weeping willow. The law has told him that he must pluck the fruit of goodly trees, and the Rabbins have explained that goodly fruit on this occasion is confined to the citron. Perhaps, in his despair, he is obliged to fly to the candied delicacies of the grocer. His mercantile connections will enable him, often at considerable cost, to procure some palm leaves from Canaan, which he may wave in his synagogue while he exclaims, as the crowd did when the Divine descendant of David entered Jerusalem, ‘Hosanna in the highest!’

There is something profoundly interesting in this devoted observance of Oriental customs in the heart of our Saxon and Sclavonian cities; in these descendants of the Bedouins, who conquered Canaan more than three thousand years ago, still celebrating that success which secured their forefathers, for the first time, grapes and wine.

Conceive a being born and bred in the Judenstrasse of Hamburg or Frankfort, or rather in the purlieus of our Houndsditch or Minories, born to hereditary insult, without any education, apparently without a circumstance that can develop the slightest taste, or cherish the least sentiment for the beautiful, living amid fogs and filth, never treated with kindness, seldom with justice, occupied with the meanest, if not the vilest, toil, bargaining for frippery, speculating in usury, existing for ever under the concurrent influence of degrading causes which would have worn out, long ago, any race that was not of the unmixed blood of Caucasus, and did not adhere to the laws of Moses; conceive such a being, an object to you of prejudice, dislike, disgust, perhaps hatred. The season arrives, and the mind and heart of that being are filled with images and passions that have been ranked in all ages among the most beautiful and the most genial of human experience; filled with a subject the most vivid, the most graceful, the most joyous, and the most exuberant; a subject which has inspired poets, and which has made gods; the harvest of the grape in the native regions of the Vine.

He rises in the morning, goes early to some White-chapel market, purchases some willow boughs for which he has previously given a commission, and which are brought, probably, from one of the neighbouring rivers of Essex, hastens home, cleans out the yard of his miserable tenement, builds his bower, decks it, even profusely, with the finest flowers and fruits that he can procure, the myrtle and the citron never forgotten, and hangs its roof with variegated lamps. After the service of his synagogue, he sups late with his wife and his children in the open air, as if he were in the pleasant villages of Galilee, beneath its sweet and starry sky.

Perhaps, as he is giving the Keedush, the Hebrew blessing to the Hebrew meal, breaking and distributing the bread, and sanctifying, with a preliminary prayer, the goblet of wine he holds, the very ceremony which the Divine Prince of Israel, nearly two thousand years ago, adopted at the most memorable of all repasts, and eternally invested with eucharistic grace; or, perhaps, as he is offering up the peculiar thanksgiving of the Feast of Tabernacles, praising Jehovah for the vintage which his children may no longer cull, but also for His promise that they may some day again enjoy it, and his wife and his children are joining in a pious Hosanna, that is, Save us! a party of Anglo–Saxons, very respectable men, ten-pounders, a little elevated it may be, though certainly not in honour of the vintage, pass the house, and words like these are heard:

‘I say, Buggins, what’s that row?’

‘Oh! it’s those cursed Jews! we’ve a lot of ’em here. It is one of their horrible feasts. The Lord Mayor ought to interfere. However, things are not as bad as they used to be: they used always to crucify little boys at these hullabaloos, but now they only eat sausages made of stinking pork.’

‘To be sure,’ replies his companion, ‘we all make progress.’

In the meantime, a burst of music sounds from the gardens of Besso of Damascus. He advances, and invites Tancred and the Emir to follow him, and, without any order or courtesy to the softer sex, who, on the contrary, follow in the rear, the whole company step out of the Saracenic windows into the gardens. The mansion of Besso, which was of great extent, appeared to be built in their midst. No other roof or building was in any direction visible, yet the house was truly in the middle of the city, and the umbrageous plane trees alone produced that illimitable air which is always so pleasing and effective. The house, though lofty for an eastern mansion, was only one story in height, yet its front was covered with an external and double staircase. This, after a promenade in the garden, the guests approached and mounted. It led to the roof or terrace of the house, which was of great size, an oblong square, and which again was a garden. Myrtle trees of a considerable height, and fragrant with many flowers, were arranged in close order along the four sides of this roof, forming a barrier which no eye from the city beneath or any neighbouring terrace could penetrate. This verdant bulwark, however, opened at each corner of the roof, which was occupied by a projecting pavilion of white marble, a light cupola of chequered carving supported by wreathed columns. From these pavilions the most charming views might be obtained of the city and the surrounding country: Damascus, itself a varied mass of dark green groves, white minarets, bright gardens, and hooded domes; to the south and east, at the extremity of its rich plain, the glare of the desert; to the west the ranges of the Lebanon; while the city was backed on the north by other mountain regions which Tancred had not yet penetrated.

In the centre of the terrace was a temporary structure of a peculiar character. It was nearly forty feet long, half as many broad, and proportionately lofty. Twelve palm trees clustering with ripe fruit, and each of which seemed to spring from a flowering hedge of myrtles, supported a roof formed with much artifice of the braided boughs of trees. These, however, only furnished an invisible framework, from which were suspended the most beautiful and delicious fruits, citron and pomegranate, orange, and fig, and banana, and melon, in such thickness and profusion that they formed, as it were, a carved ceiling of rich shades and glowing colours, like the Saracenic ceiling of the mansion, while enormous bunches of grapes every now and then descended like pendants from the main body of the roof. The spaces between the palm trees were filled with a natural trellis-work of orange trees in fruit and blossom, leaving at intervals arches of entrance, whose form was indicated by bunches of the sweetest and rarest flowers.

Within was a banqueting-table covered with thick white damask silk, with a border of gold about a foot in breadth, and before each guest was placed a napkin of the same fashion. The table, however, lacked none of the conveniences and luxuries and even ornaments of Europe. What can withstand the united influence of taste, wealth, and commerce? The choicest porcelain of France, golden goblets chiselled in Bond Street, and the prototypes of which had perhaps been won at Goodwood or Ascot, mingled with the rarest specimens of the glass of Bohemia, while the triumphant blades of Sheffield flashed in that very Syrian city whose skill in cutlery had once been a proverb. Around the table was a divan of amber-coloured satin with many cushions, so arranged that the guests might follow either the Oriental or the European mode of seating themselves. Such was the bower or tabernacle of Besso of Damascus, prepared to celebrate the seventh day of his vintage feast.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19