In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Golem
Vaysechvoos is a fictitious village in 19th century czarist Russia. Stories from Vaysechvoos often appear in our 21st century publication Issues.
This story is typical of the kinds of tales Jewish authors wrote once upon a time. This is not an endorsement of kabbalah, just of Jewish shtetl tales. So in the spirit of the great writer Sholem Aleichem, we offer this piece.
Glossary Tip: Mouse over the underlined words to see the explanation of the term.
The inhabitants of Vaysechvoos were used to strange occurences. Hardly a week would go by without something odd happening, although once you have seen enough oddities, they don’t appear to be all that strange. Brooms sweeping the floor by themselves, beggars from who-knows-where appearing and disappearing, ghostly canting coming from the shul in the middle of the night. For Vaysechvoos, this was all more or less normal. Some said there was a resident kabbalist who could make all sorts of unusual things happen; others thought it was because the Torah scroll—the only one that Vaysechvoos possessed—was magical. Still others had never ventured out of Vaysechvoos; so of course, they thought that this was how life was everywhere. A child accepts things naturally: gravity, growing up, animals, rain. And some people from other shtetl were of the firm opinion that the people of Vaysechvoos were in many respects like children.
You can take that sentiment in different ways, of course. I suppose it even depends on whether you like children or not. Be that as it may, for outsiders, Vaysechvoos had a reputation for the offbeat, the odd, the unusual.
But not even Vaysechvoos was ready for what happened one summer night.
You see, there in fact was a kabbalist in Vaysechvoos, whose name was as unusual as his trade: Breine Leben. Breine Leben was a cook of sorts, whose ingredients were not cabbage and barley but letters and numbers. Late at night, he could often be seen through his window, his face preternaturally highlighted by the flickering dance of candles, juggling the letters of the alefbet through mid-air and reciting who-knows-what in Hebrew under his breath. One time, in fact, an aleph escaped from his home and was seen the next day running through the center of town, until by another Hebrew incantation Breine Leben finally was able to coax it to return. It was rumored, too, that the evil eye lived at his home; the tailor swore that it had once come into his place of business and demanded to have a suit made.
As I say, it was all “run of the mill” for Vaysechvoos.
Until one day when Breine Leben decided to make a golem.
A golem, if you have never encountered one, is a human-like creature made from kabbalah and clay. If made right, the golem will act as a protector of the Jewish people. It can be very handy to have a golem around, especially if you anticipate unpleasant occurrences such as a pogrom or two. And in shtetl like Vaysechvoos, you could always anticipate the unexpected. But it is not easy to make a golem, and it is not always easy to control one, either.
Kabbalists do not study at universities. They acquire their art through secrets handed down through holy books and holy people, and their skill only comes by long practice and the making of many mistakes. And even then, when you are dealing with Hebrew incantations and with gematria and with unruly letters of the alefbet … who knows what can happen?
And so it was late one summer afternoon, when Breine Leben returned home with a cartload of clay. Yes, he had spent the entire day collecting clay from the outskirts of town and even further. And how does a person get a cartload of clay into his home? The way Breine Leben did, for upon arriving, he simply drove his horse, cart and clay and all, right through his front door. Later that night Breine Leben could be seen within his house, and the horse too, talking to the letters of the alefbet and reciting unknown things in Hebrew. In fact, for the yentas who lived nearby, Breine Leben’s house was a heaven of hearsay, a veritable geyser of gossip. “Did you hear the koph arguing with the vav last night,” one would say the next day. “Such a ruckus!” “I hear the zayin is going to run away with the shin,” confided another.
Do you think all that sounds strange? Do you think strange things will not happen to someone who drives a horse and cart full of clay into his own house?
But a person needs clay if he is to make a golem.
No one knows exactly how it happened, but the next day in the center of town, what should appear but the golem, globulous and grey, like a man and like a lump of clay all at the same time, standing by as if awaiting orders.
That is not the unusual part. No, the really odd thing was that the golem was in the company of two other equally fantastical creatures. Shall I tell you who they were? On the one side of the golem stood Sasquatch, the legendary creature of the Pacific Coast of America, while and on the other side was a Yeti, newly removed from the mountains of Tibet.
Of course the townspeople of Vaysechvoos knew very little of life beyond their town. And so it was that they marvelled at the appearance of this most-unexpected trio. “Who are they?” rose the question into the air.
“But who are the other two?”
“Maybe we should ask them?”
“Do you think they speak Yiddish?”
To make a long story short, eventually Shmulik the Butcher was volunteered by the others to be the chief inquirer. After all, it could be bad mazel for an entire crowd to shout out questions at mud-like, human-like creatures. Better one person should be an “ambassador” on behalf of the whole town.
And so Shmulik made his way—not that he really had a choice—to the three mysterious visitors to Vaysechvoos. From the distance, he could be seen speaking with them, gesturing, inquiring, investigating. And the bystanders, having grown to a large crowd, could in turn see the three pointing, explaining, answering. At last, the exploratory conversation ended, Shmulik returned to the expectant onlookers.
“So nu?? said one of the them. “What did they say?” “Where are they from?” asked another. “Why are they here?” added a third, and “What do they want?” demanded a fourth.
Shmulik the Butcher raised his hands to quiet the crowd. “Let me tell you what they said,” he began. “The golem, we all know about. It is the creation of Breine Leben. But when Breine Leben made the golem, he also—quite unintentionally, mind you—brought these other two to Vaysechvoos.
The one on the right side of the golem says his name is Sasquatch, and that he comes from America.”
Now even the inhabitants of Vaysechvoos knew about America. “Ah, America!” they kvelled, nearly in unison, for who wouldn?t want to live in the goldene medina? “How does he like it there? Is he making a living? Has he seen this one and that one, so-and-so’s nephew and the other one’s brother?”
“No, no, not from that part of America,” said Shmulik. “He’s no grinem, believe me. He says he lives far to the west, where there are no cities and, for that matter, no Jews, and that he has lived there for a very long time.”
“And the other one? What about him?”
“The other one says that he is a Yeti, and that he comes from a land of great mountains and much snow, called Tibet.”
“Tibet?” everyone shrugged, because everyone knew about America, but who knew from Tibet?
“Of course!” said Mendele, who kept meticulous books for his business and knew all about numbers, and letters too. “It’s all because Breine Leben was juggling the alefbet. The aleph brought someone from a land that begins with aleph, and the tav brought someone from a place whose name starts with tav. America and … Tibet!” he concluded triumphantly, as though he had just balanced a ledger book.
Dear reader, you may think it very odd that Sasquatch and a Yeti should show up in an Eastern European shetl in the 19th century. After all, it is not even certain that Sasquatch, much less Yetis, really exist. Nevertheless, do not underestimate the powers of a humble kabbalist. Undoubtedly, Breine Leben made a mistake, but it was already done, and here they were, the three of them — the protector of the Jews, the neighbor of Indians, and the frightener of mountain Asians.
But really, nothing should surprise you when it comes to Vaysechvoos. And so you won’t wonder too much when I tell you that the golem, Sasquatch, and the Yeti proceeded to make their way to the shul in time for mincha. Yes, they donned yarmulkas—don’t ask me from where they got yarmulkas!—entered the shul, sat down where the shammas indicated, and davened with the other worshippers. They recited the tehillim, they said the Amidah. The Yeti was called for an aliyah—it sounds mad, I know, but visitors must be so honored—and chanted the blessings before and after the Torah reading perfectly. And when the service ended, they left in unison with the others.
I am sure you will wonder, what did the townspeople make of this strange, otherworldly presence in their town? And you will no doubt want to know how long the visitors stayed, and when and how they finally departed.
To tell the truth, Vaysechvoos was not sure what it all meant. At least, not until the next day. For the following morning, when people arrived for shacharis, miracle of miracles—they found the Haftorah scroll, sitting there on the bima, opened up, with the yad left on it, pointing to a verse. The congregation gathered around excitedly. Had the three visitors left the scroll there? Had it made its way to the bima and opened of its own accord? In the end, it didn’t really matter, because as the congregation leaned in, they saw that the yad was pointing to the prophet Isaiah, the fifty-sixth chapter and the seventh verse:
Bati beit-tefillah yiqra le-khol ammim.
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Neither the golem, nor Sasquatch, nor the Yeti were ever again seen in Vaysechvoos. Nor did Breine Leben ever make another golem. But I can tell you that he was in the shul, all ears, when on the next shabbos, the rabbi spoke about how honored Vaysechvoos was, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, should choose Vaysechvoos to fulfill the words of Isaiah.
But none of this should surprise you. After all—if you believe Moses and the prophets, you can believe even more amazing things than this!
shul – synagogue
shtetl – Jewish village in Eastern Europe
alefbet – alphabet
aleph – first letter of Hebrew alphabet
golem – creature made of clay in Jewish folklore, often a protector of the Jews; kind of a Jewish Hulk
pogrom – organized persecution against Jewish people, usually used concerning Eastern Europe
gematria – in Jewish mysticism, use of the numerical value of Hebrew letters
yenta – busybody, usually used of a woman
koph, zayin, shin – three letters of the Hebrew alphabet
mazel – luck
so nu” – not easily translatable; “so what of it?” “what now? ?tell us already”
kvell – to express great admiration
goldene medina – “golden land,” name given to America by Jews of Europe, who heard wondrous tales of life in the New World
grinem – a “greenhorn,” a newly arrived immigrant
tav – last letter of the Hebrew alphabet
mincha – in the synagogue, afternoon prayer service
yarmulka – prayer cap worn in synagogue
shammas – the sexton, the caretaker of a synagogue
daven – to pray
tehillim – Psalms
Amidah – one of the central prayers of the synagogue service
aliyah – a call to come to the front of the synagogue and chant the blessings over the Scripture readings
shacharis – in the synagogue, morning prayer service
Haftorah – reading from the Prophets corresponding to the Torah (Five Books of Moses) portion for that week
bima – pulpit
yad – pointer shaped like a hand (literal meaning of “yad”) to guide the reader in the synagogue
shabbos – Sabbath
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.