There is a church in Moltz, The church of St. Bartholomew, It’s an old undistinguished stone church in a town of many undistinguished churches. It has the dubious distinction to be the church closest to the old Jewish ghetto now called the Jewish quarter. Indeed, one whole side of the church forms a portion of the quarter; but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish this church from a thousand other Romanesque stone churches exactly like it. In the church’s square tower is a great old brass bell made, it is said, from the melted cannon of the defeated Moors or the Ukrainians, there is some dispute about this as the records were lost decades ago.
The great bell rang only a few times a year on significant Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas and of course on St. Bartholomew’s Day. A smaller, lighter, easier to ring bell rang for daily prayers and to mark festive occasions like weddings. There was no mistaking the great bell’s voice. When Father Ignatius mustered his strength to ring it, its booming, clamorous gong could be heard for miles.
One summer day, the great bell rang for no apparent reason at all. The town’s people stopped in their tacks and looked at each other. They shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders and wondered what was going on. The following day the bell sounded again, this time in the evening, again for no reason at all. No one in Moltz could figure out what was going on. The church fathers denied they were the cause. Indeed Father Ignatius was seen taking coffee in the square when the bell sounded.
It quickly became a local mystery. People listened for the random strikes. A dozen wild theories sprang up to explain the phenomenon. Those Christians of a superstitious nature thought the bell was announcing the arrival of an angel sent by God to watch over and protect the city. Others said that bell was tolling for the departure of another soul to heaven.
The town’s Jews had their own theory. They claimed, strictly amongst themselves mind you, that the great bell rang whenever the Pope in Rome farted. They would hear the bell and give a conspiratorial chuckle.
But the truth was that no one really knew why the big bell rang when it did. Some days it did not ring at all. One day it rang three times. It came to be known as the Mystery of Moltz and slowly but surely, it brought a measure of fame to the drab little town. Learned men would come to study the bell and write their theories in scholarly journals. They would couch the mystery in scientific jargon using words like ‘temperature fluctuations’ or ‘seismic activity’ to explain the bell’s bizarre behavior.
Slowly word of the mystery spread and people would come to Moltz in hopes of hearing the bell sound. They would consider themselves lucky or blessed if they heard it. Tourists, at first from nearby cities, would book a room in Motlz’s few hotels and hope to hear the bell. While they waited, they would walk around the square, eat in the restaurants and see what little there was to see.
After the first visitor claimed she was cured of her congenital blindness by the fortuitous ringing of the bell, there was a flood of pilgrims that came to be cured. The lame and afflicted from all over the region limped or wheeled or groped their way into Moltz in hope of experiencing the miracle of the bell. Suddenly, Moltz was a destination.
The whole town prospered. The hotels were booked to overflowing. People rented out rooms in their houses if they had extra rooms. They rented barns and sheds if they didn’t. St Bartholomew’s vestibule began filling with crutches and braces from the pilgrims who were cured by the healing bell. The Bishop himself came from Metz and declared the bell an official holy site.
In the Quarter, the Jewish merchants saw no reason why they shouldn’t join this tidal wave of prosperity that had washed over the town. Moishe Cohen, the baker, baked a batch of bell shaped cookies and put them in his window. He couldn’t keep up with demand. The tailor, Yitzak Pearlman, began embroidering bells on hats and shirts— people loved them. A history of Moltz was hastily written including the wholly fabricated legend of the bell describing how it was blessed by St. Bartholomew himself.
The bell became the unofficial symbol of the town. It’s image appeared everywhere—on post cards, souvenirs, clothing. Guide books began to mention the phenomenon. This stimulated more interest and brought more business. The ‘Random Bell of Moltz’ the papers called it. This went on for three years before stopping as suddenly and mysteriously as it began.
At first, the people were not alarmed. Over the years there had been many days when the bell did not sound. That was what made it random after all. “Not to worry,” the locals told the pilgrims. But after a solid week of silence, there was serious consternation in the town. People can get used to prosperity. And after three years, everyone in Moltz was hooked on it. No one wanted it to end.
There were increasingly urgent meetings of the church fathers. Father Ignatius met with the other clergy men in town. Together they prayed and fasted for the miracle to return. Was God punishing Moltz they wondered? Had they offended Him in some way perhaps by acting too greedily? The mayor and town council met in emergency session to see what, if anything, could be done to continue the prosperity in a post bell era.
In the Quarter, the rabbi and the synagogue board met to hash out what meaning an inscrutable God might have had for ringing a Christian bell in the first place. Who could fathom the creator’s reasons for doing anything? Naturally no one had an answer. No one that is except the Rabbi. He had been thinking long and hard about the bell and its larger meaning for his congregation. When you are a small and persecuted minority, everything that happens in the world goes through the prism of “is this good for my people?” The Rabbi had to admit that in general the miracle of the bell was a good thing for the Jews of Moltz and that, if it continued, the families in the Quarter would benefit. Coming to this realization, the Rabbi waited until the next day for school to begin. When it did, he called Little Chiam Sadowsky into his office and sat the boy down opposite him.
He stared long and hard at the boy now twelve and big for his age. Two weeks before the Rabbi had caught him misbehaving and punished him. Now he looked at the boy, soon to be a man, and pondered the ways of a strange and mysterious God. He reached into his desk drawer and took out the confiscated sling shot and handed it back to the surprised lad.
As the boy reached out a tentative hand to take it, the Rabbi said, “Just not on the Sabbath, alright Chiam? We understand each other?” The boy nodded and took the object from the Rabbi’s hand.