The Ballad Of Sigurd Jorsalfare
Norway; late autumn 1107
“Back in Norway,” said my father, “Sigurd’s brother, Eystein, was developing an eye for the virgins while sharpening his mind through rigorous Talmudic study of the law.
Norwegians were the lawyers of the middle ages and no one was more a lawyer than Eystein. Bred to argue, for lack of any physical qualities to speak of, Eystein had only his innate sense of fairness and his superior intellect to guide him through the thicket of the Ostfold.
Keenly aware of Sigurd’s growing fame as warrior par excellence, Eystein hired himself a tutor in the legal arts, a furtive Jew by the name of Mordechai Schvantz. Schvantz, who claimed to be a descendant of Rabbi Judah Lowe, the Maharal of Prague (a giant of post-medieval Jewish thought, who was yet to be born), was a creative thinker.
Schvantz had every reason to be furtive, especially in Norway, where Jews were forbidden to live since Saint Olaf (who converted Norway to Christianity the efficient way — by the sword) had decreed thusly a good century earlier.
Schvantz promised Eystein, not only fluency in the matters of Kashrut and Nida, two subjects of enormous importance in pre-industrialized Norway, but also the knowledge of building a Golem, a man-made magical creature who could do Eystein’s physical bidding on his behalf.
Kashrut alone, not to mention Nida, would normally take a lifetime of criminally boring Sunday school classes to explain properly to a reasonably committed Jew. That Schvantz managed to keep Eystein’s attention for hours on end and be done with the subject within the span of three weeks, was a testament to his creative genius as a teacher.
Norsemen had very little interest in ritual slaughter unless, of course, it involved the cutting off of noses and the reallocation of body parts as performed on reluctant Alsatians. The separation of meat from milk made no sense to anyone who ever cared about serious cuisine (as Eystein did) and, frankly, flew in the face of logic, since all manner of mammals drank milk from infancy in order to become delicious to begin with. But Mordechai Schvantz had a way with words and a passion for Halacha, the Jewish code of law that governs the daily lives of its persecuted adherents.
Pretty soon he had Eystein installing an extra sink in each of his residences, purchasing Cholov Yisroel dairy products only (produced through mysterious means by pious Jews from chaste cows under the strict supervision of the Kopenhagener Rebbe), and waiting sixteen hours between eating venison and bathing in elks’ milk, Eystein’s favorite form of relaxation.
Being the descendant of a yet-unborn luminary made Schvantz somewhat of a Ninja. One was never quite sure whether one was actually seeing him or not. One was never quite sure whether or not Schvantz even existed. For a Jew, and Schvantz was definitely a Jew, if he was at all, this was not a problem. Being ambivalent is at the core of being Jewish. Being ambivalent is a requirement, an article of faith, the only thing of which a real Jew could ever be sure.
Norwegians had no capacity for processing ambivalence in the 12th century and one could safely bet on them never developing such a capacity. Norwegians have always been certain. Often one wishes they weren’t, but they are. We can, however, take small comfort in knowing that most Norwegians are never as certain as Danes are, a small comfort, indeed.
Given all this, we can only marvel at Eystein’s total commitment to his pious Ninja and his secret obsessive ways.
For hours, they would huddle in Eystein’s antechamber, built only out of contrariness, and whisper conspiratorially. No one ever knew of what the two were whispering.
On many occasions Eystein would emerge alone from the room, his face glowing, muttering in a barely audible voice that Schvantz was davening Mincha and was not to be disturbed. No one understood what was meant by those mysterious words and, in Scandinavia, lack of clarity always led to a bar.
Ignorant ‘shgotzim’, Eystein’s new favorite expression (meaning: ignorant gentile brutes, or, in the Hasidic world — followers of another Hasidic Rebbe), emerging from such bars soaked in alcohol, began referring to Schvantz as “Eystein’s imaginary friend.” In Stavanger, local apothecaries were overheard calling Schvantz “Eystein’s hand puppet.”
At first moved to execute any offender caught using those derogatory terms about his teacher, Eystein was soon calmed by his mentor and convinced to let all such insults lie where they may.
“What gaineth a man?” Schvantz would ask and leave the perplexing words hanging in the crisp air of the Ostfold.
Eystein could see them slowly, reluctantly fall to the icy ground after being left uncompleted, perhaps offended by the abandonment of thought and a certain lack of coherence. Schvantz could be cruel.
And so, while Sigurd was off spreading the gospel of love throughout the heathen world, Eystein was acquiring an education any Jewish mother would be proud of, and waiting, patiently, for the eventual return of his bellicose brother.
It should come as no surprise that, eventually, news reached Sigurd of his brother’s Jewish fetish and his outlandish behavior.
Carrier pigeons were dive-bombing the long boats on a daily basis, bringing heavy news of dairy-laden convoys from Denmark, carrying crates of unknown contents, all marked with the letter ‘K’ and, sometimes, inscribed with the words “Glatt,” or “Hashgacha,” which some interpreted to be a secret code.
Were the Danes planning an attack? Was Eystein collaborating with them? Was Eystein a Jewish name?
If Sigurd was a bastard, which he was, was Eystein the love child of a tryst between Magnus the Barefoot and Sarah Rochel of Nemirov, the famously ravishing Jewess of ill repute?
Many traders braving the Eastern River route to Constantinople told of a devastatingly beautiful young maiden, somewhere in the Ukraine, beckoning the Norse travelers to seek wisdom in the valley of her marble breasts and find the Ancient Holy One between her alabaster thighs. Most would perish and never be heard of again, but Magnus the Barefoot, it was told, emerged from such a night with wild eyes, lathered body twitching like a horse possessed, spouting strange words laced with indecipherable sounds of Chuch and Blich and Schtup.
The fact that Magnus the Barefoot never went anywhere near the Ukraine did nothing to dissuade his admirers and since Magnus had a temper no one really dared inquire but, now that he thought of it, Sigurd could dimly recall his father screaming in delirium guttural words of unmentionable chuchiness on warm summer nights, startling his wife, the oblong queen of Norway.”