The Magician
Yitskhok Leybush Perets

A magician once came to a little town in Volhynia.

His coming caused a great stir, even though he appeared during the troubled pre-Passover days, when the worries of a Jew outnumber the hairs on his head.

A man of mystery! Ragged and tattered and yet with a real top hat, creased and crumpled but genuine! A Jewish face dominated by the specific Jewish nose — and yet shaved like a Gentile! No passport! Nobody saw him eat, neither Kosher nor non-Kosher! How was anybody to guess who he was? To the question: “Where from?”, he replied: “From Paris.” Asked: “Where to?”, he answered “London.” “But how did you get here?” “I got lost!” He was apparently making his way on foot. He failed to show up at prayers. He stayed away from synagogue even on the sacred Sabbath preceding Passover. If people became too persistent and crowded about him, he disappeared as suddenly as though the earth had swallowed him and to the surface again on the other side of the market-square.

On arriving, he rented a hall and began to display his art.

Real magic! Before the eyes of the entire community, he swallowed burning coal like macaroni. From his mouth he drew forth all kinds of ribbons, red, green, or any color called for by the audience, ribbons of endless length. From the upper part of his boots he pulled out sixteen pairs of turkeys — yes, turkeys as big as bears, real live turkeys that ran all over the stage. Then he lifted his foot and pared off gold ducats from the boot’s sole. An entire plate of golden coins! Encouraged by applause, he whistled; immediately Sabbath loaves and fine breads came flying towards each other through the air and began to execute dance steps under the ceiling. He whistled again and at once everything disappeared; no more Sabbath loaves, no more ribbons, no more turkeys — all was gone without a trace!

Now magic may be of two kinds. The black magic, practiced by the Egyptian sorcerers of old could probably boast of even greater tricks. One question, however, remained unanswered: why was he himself so very poor? As a person who extracted gold coins from the soles of his boots, how was it that he didn’t have enough to pay for his lodging? With a single whistle he baked more Sabbath loaves and fine breads than the largest baker in town, he brought forth turkeys from the tops of his boots — and yes, he had such a lean and hungry look and his face was so emaciated that a corpse would be ashamed of it. The wits of the town jested: a fifth question can now be added to the four that are usually asked on Passover evenings.

But before coming to the questions of the Seder-ceremony, let us take leave of the magician for the present and turn to Chaim-Yoyne and his wife Rivke-Beyle.

Chaim-Yoyne was a former lumber merchant. He once bought a forest as a good investment; soon thereafter the forest was declared closed to woodchoppers, and he emerged penniless with a single shirt on his back. He the became a foreman for another lumber-dealer but not for long. It was now months since he had lost his job and had been without earnings of any kind. Somehow he survived the winter — may all foes of Zion experience such winters!

After winter came the season of Passover. Since everything from the chandelier to the last pillow had already found its way to the pawnshop, Rivke-Beyle told him: “Go over to the community fund and get some of the money donated to provide the poor with wheat flower for Passover cakes.” Chaim-Yoyne answered that he had faith in God, somehow help would come, and he wouldn’t have to lose face. Rivke-Beyle went through the house once more, searched again every nook and corner, and did indeed find an old worn silver spoon — a veritable miracle of heaven. That spoon had been lost for years and years! Now Chaim-Yoyne took the spoon, went off, sold it, and donated the few pennies as wheat money for the poor. He maintained that poor people had a prior claim.

Meanwhile time marched on and ever fewer were the weeks before Passover. He, however, remained steadfast in his faith. He insisted that God never abandons his creatures. His wife continued silent. A woman must obey her husband. Day followed day. Rivke-Beyle didn’t sleep nights. She buried her face in her straw mattress and cried to herself. Chaim-Yoyne must not hear her. Still there was no sign of any change for the better, and Passover loomed so near. Her days were even worse than her nights, since in darkness a person may weep to his hearts content, but in the daytime a person must pinch his cheeks, should this be necessary to retain the proper color. Neighbors were always watching, gaping, searching with their eyes, piercing her with pity sharp as needles. Some went so far as to ask: “When will you bake Matsos? How far are you with beets for Passover?” Intimate friends said: “Tell us what’s the matter, Rivke-Beyle ? If you need anything, we’ll lend it to you, etc.”

Chaim-Yoyne, however, wouldn’t accept any of the help offered him and, since Rivke-Beyle could not act against her husband’s wished, she constantly looked for new excuses, her face glowing and flushing.

Her neighbors saw that something was the matter. They ran to the Rabbi with their tales. The Rabbi listened with great sympathy, sighed sadly, and became lost in thought. Finally, he replied that Chaim-Yoyne was most learned and pious, and if such a person retained his faith, others too should hope for the best.

Rivke-Beyle, accustomed to ushering Jewish holidays with the Blessing of the Candles, was, alas, left even without candles for Passover.

Passover came!

Chaim-Yoyne walked home from the synagogue. He saw all the windows casting their gay, festive light upon the market-square. His own house, however, stood like a mourner at a bridal procession, like a blind person among the seeing. But still he didn’t lose heart. The thought ran through his head:

“If God wishes, we’ll yet celebrate Passover!” He entered and said cheerfully: “Happy Holiday to you, Rivke-Beyle,” and heard her tear-laden voice from a dark corner: “Happy Holiday! Happy Year!” Her eyes burned through the darkness like two glowing coals.

Chaim-Yoyne went over to her and said: “Rivke-Beyle, today is a holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. Do you understand its meaning? Mourning is not allowed. Besides, what is there to mourn about? If the Creator of the Universe doesn't want us to have our own Passover ceremony, we must bow to his will and attend somebody else's Seder. We shall be welcome everywhere. All doors are open. All Jews are now reciting the passage of the Hagada: 'Whosoever is in need, let him come in and eat.' So come, take your shawl, we'll go to any Jewish home.”

Rivke-Beyle, who always did what her husband asked, restrained convulsively the tears that welled in her throat, put on a torn shawl, and was ready to go.

At that very moment, the door opened, someone entered, and said: “Happy Holiday!”

The couple made the customary response: “Happy Year,” without looking up to see who had come in.

The newcomer said: “I want to be your guest at your Seder.”

Chaim-Yoyne answered: “We are ourselves without a Seder.”

The stranger countered: “I brought my Seder with me. ”

“A Seder in the dark,” sobbed Rivke-Beyle, who could no longer control herself.

“By no means! ” replied the guest. “You'll have light! ” He waved his hands: “Hocus pocus!” and two silver candlesticks with lit candles appeared in the corner of the room, suspended in midair. Light flooded the house.

Chaim-Yoyne and Rivke-Beyle saw that they were confronted by the magician. They gaped at him, unable to utter a word for sheer amazement and fear. They clasped each other by the hand and stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed. The magician meanwhile turned to the table, which was standing abashed in a corner: “Well, youngster, cover yourself and come here.” Hardly had he uttered these words, than a snow-white tablecloth fell from the ceiling to the table and covered it. The covered table began to stir and shift, until it came to the middle of the room. It halted directly under the light, and the silver candlesticks moved down slowly and placed themselves on the table.

“Now only the couches to recline on are missing.” said the magician. “Let there be couches for reclining!” Three footstools from three corners of the room started to move; they came up to the table and placed themselves on three sides. The magician commanded them to become wider; they thereupon expanded until they became armchairs. He exclaimed: “Softer! ” They covered themselves with red satin. At the same time, white, snow-white pillows fell down from the ceiling and stretched themselves out on the armchairs until these became real couches fit for reclining. From nowhere appeared red cups, bottles of wine, Matzos, and everything necessary for a Kosher and happy Seder. There were even Hagadas with golden edges.

“Do you have water to wash? ” asked the magician. “I can also bring water! ”

Only then did the couple awaken from their amazement and Rivke-Beyle whispered into Chaim-Yoyne's ear: “May we? What so you think?” Chaim-Yoyne didn't know what to answer, so she advised: “Go. my husband, and ask the Rabbi.” He replied that he couldn't leave her alone with the magician and suggested that she go. She maintained that the Rabbi wouldn't believe the foolish chatter of a woman, and would probably think her out of her mind. Both therefore went to the Rabbi and left the magician behind with the Seder.

The Rabbi told them that what is brought about by black magic is not real to the touch, because magic is only a delusion dazzling the eyes. He advised them to go home and, if the Matzos could be broken by their fingers , if the wine could be poured into the cups, if the pillows were substantial in their hands, then all was well, and had been sent to them from heaven, and they had a right to enjoy it.

Such was the Rabbi's decision. The couple returned home with fluttering hearts. They entered the house. The magician was gone and the Seder stood just as before. They touched the pillows, they poured the wine, they broke the Matzos.

Then only did they realize that the magician was none other than Elijah the Prophet, and they enjoyed a most happy holiday.