Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/November 20, 1898

A well-known Jewish Rabbi has been uttering the mind of him anent “manufacturers of mixed marriages”—the clergymen, that is to say, who marry Christians to Jewesses and Jews to Christianesses. In the opinion of this holy gentleman of God such marriages are accursed, and those of his pious brethren who assist the devil in bringing them about are imperfectly moral. Doubtless it is desirable that the parties to a marriage should cherish the same form of religious error, lest in their zeal to save each other’s immortal part they fillip with too free a hand the part that is mortal. But domestic infelicity is not the evil that the learned doctor had in apprehension; what he fears is nothing less momentous than the extinction of Judaism! On consideration it appears not unlikely that in the general blending of the two races that result would ensue. But what then?—will the hand of some great anarch let the curtain fall and universal darkness cover all? Will the passing of Judaism be attended with such discomfortable befallings as the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds? Good old Father Time has seen the genesis, development, decay and effacement of thousands of religions far more “ancient” and quite as well credentialed as that of Israel. The most daring of that faith’s expounders will hardly claim for it an age exceeding a dozen millenniums; whereas the least venturesome anthropologian will affirm of the race an antiquity of hundreds. It is hardly likely that the world has ever been without great religions of which all but a few (so new that they smell of paint and varnish) are as dead as the dodo. No portents foreshadowed their extinction, no cataclysms followed. The world went spinning round the sun in its immemorial way, men lived and loved, fought, laughed, cursed, lied, gathered gold and dreamed of an after-life as before. No mourners follow the hearse of a dead religion, no burial services are performed at the grave. Does the good rabbi really believe that the faith which he professes, rooted in time, will flourish in eternity? Can he suppose that its fate will be different from that of its predecessors, whose temples, rearing their fronts in great cities, the seats of mighty civilizations in every part of the habitable globe, have perished with the empires that they adorned and left neither vestige nor a memory behind? Does he think that of all the incalculable religions that have swept in successive dream-waves the ocean of mystery, his alone marks a continuous current setting toward some shining shore of truth and life and bearing thither all swimmers obedient to its trend? If he does he is an ass.

I cannot help thinking that the pious rabbi would better serve his people by less zeal in broadening and blackening the delimiting lines by which their foolish fathers circumscribed their sympathies and interests and made their race a peculiar people peculiarly disliked. The best friend of the Jews is not he who confirms them in their narrow and resented exclusiveness, but he who persuades them of its folly, advise them to a larger life than is comprised in rites and rituals, the ceremonies and symbolisms of a long-dead past, and strives to show them that the world is wider than Judea, and God more than a private tutor to the children of Israel.

In my small “sphere of influence” I have always been known as a friend of the Jews, and I sometimes exercise a friend’s right of reproof. Why do they fear effacement by absorption? If this entire race should disappear (as sooner or later all races do) that would not mean that the Jews were dead, but the Judaism was dead. No single life would have gone out, and all that is good in the race would live, suffusing and ennobling the characters of races having still a name. All that is useful and true in Jewish law and Jewish letters and Jewish art would be preserved to the world; the rest could well be spared. Even the rabbi’s occupation would not be gone: he would thrive as the priest of another faith. Man is not likely to cease forming himself into “congregations,” for he likes to see his teacher “close to.” And if preaching were abolished yet many kinds of light employment would remain.

As matters now are, mixed marriages—between Jew and Gentile—are not to be advised. But matters are now not as they should be, nor does my holy friend’s teaching tend to make them so. Let the Jew learn why he is subject to hate and persecution by the Gentile. It is not, as he professes to think, and doubtless does think, because his ancestors, ages ago, denied the Godhood and demanded the life of another Jew. Other races and sects deny Christ without offense; and the Gentile who daily crucifies him afresh with disrespectful word and ribald jest is no less active in dislike of the Jew than the most devout Christian of them all. Christ and Christianity have nothing to do with it. Nor is the explanation found in the Jew’s superior thrift, nor in any of those commercial qualities whereby, legitimately or illegitimately, he gets the better of his Gentile competitor; though these advantages too pitilessly used against a stupid and improvident peasantry have sometimes compelled his expatriation by sovereigns who cared no more what he believed than what he ate.

The Christians will cease to dislike and persecute the Jews when the Jews abandon their affronting claim to close and advantageous relations with the Lord of All. The claim would be no less irritating if thought well founded, as many Christians believe that once it was. When has it not been observed that a favorite child is hated by its brothers and sisters? Did not the brethren of Joseph seek his undoing? In missing the lesson of it the Jew “reeks not his own rede.” When was it not thought an insult to say, “I am holier than thou,” and when did not small minds “strike back” with brutal hands? The Christian mind is a small mind, the Christian hand a brutal hand.

The Jew may reply: “I do not say that; even in the pulpit I forbear to denounce other peoples and other creeds as outside the law and devoid of the divine grace.” In words he does not say it. But he says it with emphasis in his care to maintain his racial and religious isolation; in his maintenance of a spiritual quarantine; in the diligence with which (as in the instance of good Rabbi Myers) he repairs time’s ravages in his Great Wall lest Nature take advantage of the breach and some caroling Gentile youth leap lightly through to claim a Jewish maid. He says it distinctly in one peculiar rite, for which, being somewhat ashamed of it, he accounts by an explanation that is false and insulting. In a thousand ways, all having for purpose preservation his racial isolation in a ghetto of his own invention, the orthodox Jew shouts aloud his conviction of his superior holiness and peculiar worth. Naturally, the echo is not unmixed with Christian denial, formulated too frequently into uprighteous decrees by the voice of authority.

None than I can have greater regard for the Jewish character, as found at its best in the higher types of the Jewish people, and not found at all in those members of the race who alone are popularly thought of as Jews. If I had to choose between my Jewish friends and my Christian the latter, I solemnly fear, would suffer an awful social bereavement. None than I can have a deeper detestation of the spirit at the back of persecution of the Jews, in all its forms and degrees. Rather than have a hand in it I would have no hand. Yet I venture to say that if a high degree of “contributory negligence,” constituting a veritable invitation to evil, is foolish the calamity entailed is entitled to a place in the list of expectable phenomena; and if a certain presumptuous self-righteousness is bad its natural and inevitable punishment is not entirely undeserved. Moreover, on that last great Day to which we good Christians look forward with hope as a time for the damning of all God’s enemies whom we don’t particularly like I expect to stand before the Throne austerely demanding that Rabbi Myers be summoned to judgment, convicted of piety and cast into Suisun.

I am glad to be able to enrich these poor columns with this striking fancy by Miss Flora McDonald Shearer, with whose excellent work in verse my readers are already acquainted:


The Dream-Horse.


A forest clearing—over it the moon,

Now near her full and trembling through the trees,

Sheds waning light; there; cropping at his ease

The long, sweet grasses, by the hand of June

In lavish wealth about the woodland strewn,

A white horse stands; as my advance he sees

He lifts his head and speaks—what words are these,

In human tones conveyed, and lost as soon?

Might he but speak once more!—his accents made

My pulses leap—benign he seemed to be,

A visitant from a more regal sphere:

Again I look but darkness shrouds the glade,

And closer crowd the trees for company,

For the dead hour before the dawn is here.


Following are two quotations by the same capable hand, written, apparently, to beguile a dragging hour, certainly without a view to print:




Father of Gods and Men, thy vengeance stay;

Behold how in the dust thy children lie!

Wilt thou not lean from out thy farther sky

And sweep to thee thy suffering Dance?


A Sibyl.


A goddess once she was, but lost her wings.

That torture yet about her bosom clings.

Her eyes forever dwell on wondrous things

Hid in the tombs of long-forgotten kings.


Added to their literary interest these verses have a personal one, for they were written since their author’s illness, which was attended by a delirium too hastily named insanity. Her unimpaired deftness with the pen sufficiently attests the lack of good ground for the fears of her friends and the hopes of her enemies. I do not know that she has enemies, but hope she has, in order that she may find in their discomfiture a joy that health alone cannot bestow. Crede expertum—I’ve been ill myself.

Concerning young Mr. Alexander, who defends himself against the accusations of a girl that attempted suicide, The Iron Saint of “The Evening Post” is moved to remark with austerity: “The only conclusion possible, after reading Mr. Alexander’s statement, as published in the ‘Chronicle,’ is that he is a detestable brute.” But how if Mr. Alexander’s statement should happen to be true?—would that support his claim to the right of existence? I confess that I have not read it, and do not mean to, but the fact that a fool girl, who first threatens to shoot her lover and then shoots herself, has accused a man of rascality is not, to my mind, conclusive of his guilt. Women have not a monopoly of honor; truth and falsehood are not parted by the sex-line. Some of the basest and most dangerous persons in existence are found among respectable women and young girls. I don’t know that this is an instance; there is a numerical presumption that it is not, and the cheerful pessimists may reasonably cherish a hope that Mr. Alexander is moral after the faulty fashion that the “Post” man affirms him to be. Just the same, the accusing words of a young girl crazed by love, lead and self-pity are not, to a sane understanding, “confirmation strong as proofs of Holy Writ”—indictments admitting no defense. On a calmer consideration of the matter, and with a deeper sense of his responsibility as censor morum, my spotless friend will, I am sure, candidly confess his need of something to know better with.


In his testimony before the War Investigating Commission General Breckinridge signified his conviction that it was “the Lord’s war,” and that our success was “due to His supervision.” He declined to say whether or not he was offered the command of the army before Santiago, but declared that nothing could have made him accept it. Of course not: with General God in command there was no vacancy, excepting Shafter.

I do not know why a man who believes that God is the senior major-general of the American army should be summoned to testify about anything whatever. Experiences differ, the faculty of observation goes in degrees, and skill in deduction is a varying endowment; but for my part, with such light as is given me, I would not believe such a man as that in answer to a priest at the side of his death bed. I would not believe him if he had been sworn in every court in Christendom. A liar is only a fool relating something, and if there is a greater fool than he who thinks that armies are led by gods there is a greater liar than anybody knows about; and I think all varieties of the species have been discovered. Perhaps, though, the force of Nature being unable to go further, she has made a new kind by joining a soldier and a preacher and calling the product Breckinridge.


Another interesting witness before the Commission-and-Omission Commission was Dr. Forwood, who testified regarding the earthly paradise at Montauk Point. This cheerful person said that the newspaper men who had written dismally of that lesser Heaven were gentlemen, but they appeared to be under orders to find fault. Dr. Forwood’s conception of the character of a gentleman is unique: he seems to think that a gentleman is a little better than a thief, but not quite as good as two.

Of a burglar’s apprentice Dr. Forwood might say: “He is an honest lad, but was commanded to break into banks”; of an assistant assassin: “His heart was right, but he yielded to the suasion of friendship”; of a lawyer: “His rectitude is unimpeachable, but he is in the pay of a rascally client.” Such pleas in mitigation are as common as pictures on a wall. A familiar example is that of the biographer or other literary whitewasher who insists that in judging the moral character of an historical personage we are bound to consider that of his time and country—as if there had ever been a nation or an age that was “fit to bring up children.” The man who is no better than his contemporaries and compatriots has no claim whatever to charitable consideration. In weighing the worth of Socrates, of Marcus Aurelius, of that greatest and last of gentlemen, Jesus Christ, do we have to make allowance for environment? Why should we do so, then, in the case of the pirate Christopher Columbus or the felon Francois Villon? The ordinary man (Heaven mend him) chooses his religious faith or political party as a blind child chooses an apple—takes what is nearest to his hand; but one is under no compulsion to select his notions of right and wrong in any such way. Small-pox is catching, but no man has to get his morals by infection.


The Prayer That Brought The Rain.


O, Lord of Storms, be good anon,

And vindicate our trust:

Send down thy saving rains upon

The just and the unjust.

Alike they pray, upon their knees

Those, and upon their neighbors these.

Behold, thine earth is very dry

(And similar thy bard)—

We’ve naught to make it lighter lie:

Our very cider’s hard.

Our fields so long have moisture lacked

They gape. Our preachers too, are cracked.

They tell us that of righteous men

The prayers avail, but lo!

They take not their umbrellas when

To pray for rain they go.

But, Lord, in the resulting show’rs

Their saints are sometimes seen with ours.

We’ve set apart for thy reward

A day of gratitude

(The Spaniard and the Turkey, Lord,

Are dissident and rude)—

Our pious hearts are full, but pray

Take soundings in our wells to-day!


For next year’s harvest fit our lands

For grain and grape and peach;

This season’s crops are off our hands

Sold, and beyond thy reach.

Lord, from thy creatures turn this woe,

And let it fall on Mexico.


If the brothers and sisters of Mr. Howard Gould persist in enforcing the dead father’s will, which partly disinherits Mr. Howard for marrying the woman that chose him, it is to be hoped that he will make a contest in the courts. It is time to stop this reaching out of dead hands from closed tombs to punish the living. The reign of the dead is commonly tyrannous and always impudent. When a man is out of this world he should have no longer a lawful voice in its affairs; his wishes should have only the force that affection or respect is willing to accord them. Disposal of property by bequest is an anachronism, a survival. It smacks of the primitive, patriarchal state and ancestor worship. In nine cases in ten the law makes a more equitable and moral partition of an “intestate decedent’s” estate than he would have made himself by will. There is something to be said for the custom that we have; but something may be said for everything that we have, except Greer Harrison’s poetry. When all has been said it remains true that in secular affairs the voice from the grave is commonly a harsh and unamiable utterance. It stretches civility over-far to give a dead man the floor to scold like a jaybird in a bay-tree.


If the following speech was not made by Mr. Gage six times in a single day perhaps it was made five times:

If elected governor I will treat tramps and kings just alike. As we have more tramps than kings honest poverty will get the cream of the treatment. I will give you a courageous government—one that will not run away when face are made at it, nor hesitate to make faces itself when duty demands. Under my administration you shall all hold office, the poor will be rich and the dead go to Southern California. Eight hours of sleep shall be a day’s work and overtime shall be paid for at the rate of one yellow dog an hour. All women shall be young and pretty, all niggers pale and interesting. The towns shall be red and there’ll be a hot time in them every night. Come and hear me again discuss the political issues of the day.

(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)