If Not Even Wiser
Hirshe-Dovid Katz
Translation: Barnett Zumoff

In a village in the suburbs of Berditshev, there was a miracle-rebbe. He healed the sick and made barren women fertile. People there lived in houses with stone walls. Everyone made a living. They took joy in God and in the rebbe (might he live and be well for many years.) It was said that people there were already dancing in their mothers’ wombs. If some one died, God forbid, they continued to dance around his grave. Who can understand khasidim?

But ― even the moon has a dark side. Whenever something went wrong, they knew right away whom to blame. If someone spoke with a nasal voice, they said he spoke with a Litvak twang. If someone didn’t observe a commandment properly, they called him “Litvak tseylem-kop”’. A contrary child was a “Litvak sheygets”’. And ever since the Vilna Gaon had excommunicated the khasidim, they even used a curse, if needed, that someone should fall into the hands of the Litvaks.

One day, a Litvak dropped in, a real one and not a make-believe one. He was a wagon-driver, with the assignment to travel to distant places. He didn’t believe in railroads; if he had to go to Istanbul, he would drive his old nag there. A stubborn Litvak.

The village shames allowed the stranger to sleep overnight in the synagogue. People came to look at the amazing sight. He had a little beard, the Litvak, wore a short jacket, and had no side-curls whatever. His hat was indeed a ‘Jewish hat,’ with a visor, but instead of a flat top it had a peak. In the streets, children yelled after him: “Blowhard Litvak!” He just smiled and told them that one blows a shofar.

In the synagogue, the Litvak took down a volume of Talmud from the shelf, Khagiga, I believe, or maybe Psokhim. He held onto the volume as if he were holding reins. That created a buzz: a Litvak wagon-driver had driven into town and was sitting in the synagogue studying a page of Talmud by himself. They suggested a private audience with the rebbe. He responded, that misnagid, that he had to finish the page. There, in the Talmud he was studying, he had run across a passage that said: “He who studies a passage a hundred times doesn’t know it as well as he who studies it a hundred and one times.” Apparently it was indeed Khagiga that he was studying.

But you know khasidim ― they never give up. So a second one interrupted him, saying that he could make up later for those few minutes, with the Almighty’s help; a private audience with the rebbe took precedence.

The Litvak took down the tractate Sabbath, and found there a passage in which Rabbi Judah the Prince had said that the punishment for contempt of the Torah is a harsh one: one’s own sons might die, God forbid!

After that, the khasidim remained silent. But a Litvak, you know, has to have the last word on everything. Forget about Hebrew! About the question of whether one can make up for wasted time, he said to them in plain Yiddish: “Here today and gone tomorrow.”

The khasidim left. The assistant shames quietly turned up the wick of the kerosene-lamp for the guest. The Litvak took pleasure in the lamp ― the letters glistened like a fiery sunset in the sky.

Later, when they were praying mayrev, everyone looked around at the Litvak. No one asked him any more questions ― if a Jew refuses a private audience with the rebbe, there’s nothing more to say.

After the prayers, the Litvak again sat down with the Talmud, by the light of the kerosene-lamp. Into the synagogue came a young son of the richest man in town; he was about eleven years old. The boy, with his side-curls flying, sat down eagerly, right next to the Litvak. He didn’t interrupt the stranger’s studying with so much as a peep.

The misnagid abruptly laid a friendly hand on the boy’s shoulder and started to interpret the Talmud for him, according to Rashi and the supplementary commentators. His Litvak accent cast a magic spell on the little boy: straight as a rail, fast as a train, sharp as a hack-saw.

Finished with one topic, the Litvak took a break. He asked the boy what his name was, and the boy asked the Litvak where he came from.

“From Narat ― not far from Garan.”

“Is that a city?”

“A tiny village, much smaller than this one and much poorer.”

“About how far is it from here?”

“Why do I need to tell you ‘about how far?’ From here, it’s exactly nine hundred and sixty-four viorsts.”

“Where is it?”

“Have you heard of Vilna province?”

When he heard “Vilna province,” a chill ran through the little boy with the side-curls. He remained silent. No khosid can remain indifferent when a Jew from Vilna province, a misnagid Litvak, is standing next to him.

“Do you have a rabbi there?”

“What then, a priest?”

“Does he do miracles?”

“Little boy! In a man, wisdom is the greatest miracle. He is as wise as King Solomon.”

“Doesn’t he go into religious ecstasy with his people? Are they really sad there?”

“Little boy! Artificial joy is sadder than any sorrow. A student’s sorrow is more joyful than any joy. When you get older, you’ll understand that. Narat ― not far from Garan.”

The following morning, before shakhris, the little boy went into the synagogue with his little friends to look for the Litvak. There was no sign of him.

* * *

Even a khosid can be nagged at by eagerness to get to the bottom of things. Oh well ― there was no hurry.

Fifty years passed. The little boy became a man with a big belly and gray side-curls. He was one of the richest men in the village. He married off his nine children. His wife died in childbirth and he did not re-marry. He gave almost all his profits to the rebbe’s court ― after all, the rebbe could do more good deeds with a penny than an ordinary man could do with thousands.

Then he had a dream about the Litvak, how he had sat in the synagogue next to the kerosene-lamp. He heard him saying, with his Litvak accent: “Have you heard of Vilna province? When you get older, you’ll understand. Narat ― not far from Garan.”

He went to the rebbe, now the grandson of the rebbe from that earlier time, for among khasidim the position descends from father to son. He told the rebbe that he had dreamt about the Litvak who had stayed overnight in the synagogue some fifty years earlier, a wagon-driver who was capable of studying a page of Talmud. Both in the dream and in the synagogue, the Litvak had invited him to look him up in Vilna province.

When he heard “Vilna province,” a chill passed through the rebbe too. He knew very well that in that place studying Torah was something everyone did. So the rebbe answered thus:

“It’s from Heaven! There’s no such thing as ‘accidental.’ The Bal Shem Tov has expounded on the topic of Divine supervision of individual affairs: when a breeze carries a tree-leaf from one place to another till it comes to rest someplace, it’s all a matter of Divine supervision of individual affairs, and that certainly applies to the Almighty’s sending the Litvak here fifty years ago. You were born for this mission! Take along khasidic brochures and the siddurs of Ar"i Hakodesh and set out for Vilna province. Warm their souls there! I bet you’ll get everyone in the city to become a khosid. Don’t forget to say your prayers along the way.”

The khosid set out. He took a wagon to Berdichev and there he got on a train. He rode through Slovita, Rovno, Brest-Litovsk, Bialystok, Grodne , and Landvarov. It was after shvues. Through the window, he saw the fields getting poorer and poorer ― Lithuanian earth really was good only for raising potatoes.

At first morning light, the train arrived at the Vilna railroad station. Wagon-drivers were waiting for the train. The once-upon-a-time wagon-driver had long since gone to wagon-driver’s heaven, so the khosid picked out a driver who looked like him.

“Where to?”

“Narat ― not far from Garan.”

“Narat? Garan? That’s the end of the world! There’s nothing there!

“You don’t have to take me ― I’ll go with someone else.”

“No, no! To Narat!”

The driver called out to the horse. The horse, a strapping chestnut stallion, pulled the wagon along the exit road and out into the city along Molodechno Street ― all that with just one tug at the reins by the driver. Along the way, the khosid thought to himself that the horse was a Litvak too.

* * *

They arrived in Narat, which was not far from Garan. The khosid got down from the wagon. In the middle of the street, he started laughing. All of Narat consisted of a few wooden cottages, half-sunken into the ground. Some city!

In the blink of an eye, all of Narat had gathered there. They enjoyed the stranger’s weird Yiddish accent and the silk and satin clothing ‘from beyond the Sambatyon’ They greeted him.

“Can a Jew stay overnight in your synagogue?”

“God forbid! What do you mean, synagogue ― you’ll stay at my house! You can sleep in the bedroom! In my house!”

“What do you need him for? In my house, you’ll feel as if you were in Glubok.”

“I’ll pay for my night’s lodging.”

“Your money’s no good here ― here we don’t take money from a Jew who’s traveling through! Narat is Narat and Sodom is Sodom!”

The village baker didn’t believe in niceties ― he took the khosid by the hand and took him to his house. The other Narat inhabitants heard just one word: “I’ve got him!”

The baker’s children ran home ahead of him. When their father came in with the guest, they sang out three times: “Sholem aleichem, malakhey hashores, malakhey elyon" (greetings, angels of God, angels of Heaven), just like on the Sabbath. It was a poor cottage with an earthen floor. In the middle stood a stone oven that also served to divide the house in two. The baker brought a bottle of whisky and had a drink with the guest. His wife served teyglekh with honey and stewed plums.

* * *

Later all the men went to the synagogue for minkhe-mayrev prayers. The khosid had never seen such a poor little synagogue, made entirely of wood. The rabbi approached him ― he rejoiced that a Jew from a distant land had come to pray in his synagogue. The khosid asked him quietly how he could pray without a prayer-belt. The rabbi put a hand on his shoulder:

“A belt is something we place around the mantle of a blemished seyfer toyre.”

The khosid questioned him further, about why some of the Jews walked around in the street bare-headed.

“There’s no law about that ― so the Gaon has ruled. Look it up in Rules For Washing The Hands Before Meals, Section 8 Paragraph 2.' ”

When he heard the word “Gaon,” a chill ran through the khosid, just as it had fifty years earlier when as a boy he had heard the words “Vilna province.” Here he was in the land of the Vilna Gaon!

Between the minkhe and mayrev prayers, the rabbi gave the men of the town a lesson in yoyre deye, with the commentaries of Rabbi Joseph Caro and Rabbi Moses Isserles. He constantly cited the commentaries of the Taz and the Shakh, and concluded each paragraph with the interpretation of the Vilna Gaon. The rabbi looked each person in the eye and explained each item till he saw that the audience understood it precisely. The khosid broke out into a sweat ― suppose someone recognized that he knew very little about the ‘tiny letters’! In the end, however, he understood everything. For the first time in his life, he understood the ‘inner meanings’ of the conflicts between passages.

Later that night, the baker said to him:

“Know that the rabbi of Narat is as wise as King Solomon.”

“Do tell! That’s what they told me about a previous rabbi of Narat fifty years ago.”


* * *

Early the next morning, the baker left for the bakery. The khosid hadn’t closed his eyes all night in any case, so he went out too. He saw the rabbi set out for the forest, and he followed him at a distance. What business could a rabbi have in the forest?

The rabbi soon spotted the khosid following him.

“Are you going for a walk in the forest too? So come along with me ― it’s more pleasant with two.”

“Where are we going?”

“A sick woman lives not far from here. In the village.”

“Are you taking her medicine?”

“The feldsher gives her medicine.”

“I have some money with me ― I’ll give her some.”

“Not necessary ― for that there is a Benevolent Society. Give it to them instead and they’ll distribute it to all the poor people.”

“Are you taking her a blessing? Our rebbe heals with a blessing.”

“My blessings haven’t healed anyone yet.”

There was no further conversation between them. Both of them got soaked from the dew-laden branches. In the distance, the cottage where the widow lived came into view. The rabbi of Narat went inside. The khosid stood silently in the doorway and watched.

“Rachel, my dear, why are you crying?”

She had been unable to speak for years. Only from her wise eyes was it apparent that she was in full possession of her faculties. From his breast-pocket, the rabbi took out a booklet. It was the Torah portion for the week, with commentaries that had been published in Vilna. To read the difficult Hebrew was beyond her strength; she held the booklet, caressed it, and leafed through the pages.

The rabbi began reading to her from the weekly portion, in his hurried Litvak voice. The sick woman started to brighten up. Then he told her what Rashi had said, now with a melody. The sick woman managed to mouth the words: “Oh, how good!” Then he began to tell stories from the midrash, in the manner of a wedding-entertainer, with both laughter and tears. The sick woman began moving her head back and forth in rhythm with the stories.

Then the rabbi told her parables from the musr-sforim, in the manner of a preacher. Finally he talked to her about a passage of Talmud that expanded on the weekly Torah portion. The sick woman could hardly understand what it was all about, but just the Talmudic melody alone, there deep in the forest in her little house, made her feel a whole lot better. With her twisted mouth, she smiled with great joy.

* * *

The khosid remained in Narat as a misnagid. Whenever anyone mentioned that the rabbi of Narat was as wise as King Solomon, he would quietly say:

“If not even wiser.”