Not many dogs live in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. The reason is simple: after people finish eating, there is not much left over to feed a dog. On the other hand cats are plentiful in that little village, for when you have a cat, well, at the very least, it can manage to feed itself with mice. In any case, the cats seem to be eating for they are all quite fat.
Most of the cats of Vaysechvoos don’t really belong to anyone, but they act like they own the village and they simply tolerate the people who live there. Their needs are not much: a warm place above the hearth where they could dream cat dreams.
One day, a very special cat came to the home of Chayim Potashnik, a poor man with many children. Maybe the cat came to the Potashnik’s home because of the abundance of mice in the fields, or maybe it was that he enjoyed the sound of children’s laughter. Who knows why a cat comes and goes?
Now, while most of the cats of Vaysechvoos don’t have names, they called this one Yonkel. Yonkel’s fur was a smoky gray with dark stripes, and his eyes were large and green. So, who says a Jewish cat can’t have green eyes? His whiskers fanned out on his wise and polite face. The reason they felt a need to even give the cat a name seemed to emanate from the character of this special feline. Yonkel carried himself with such dignity that it didn’t seem right not to give him a human name.
Yonkel was very considerate for a cat. He was quiet until after the people had finished eating. And he even encouraged the older boys in the family to study the Talmud. Only a wise Jewish cat would recognize the importance of such learning. He would press the smooth fur of his whole body against their legs as a reward for their diligence in studying the holy books. Yes, Yonkel was a regular member of the family.
But one day the Registrar came to town, as he did periodically, to record births, marriages, notify draftees, and on behalf of the government, settle matters that would not otherwise be settled by the Jews themselves. His Excellency had brought with him, as usual, his dog Nikolas.
Now, Nikolas was an obedient dog who seldom left his master’s heel while the Magistrate presided. The townspeople came in, one by one, as the Magistrate dealt with them. However, outside of the town meeting room was Yonkel, peering through the window. Nikolas saw Yonkel, and forgot all his training. He did what he had never done before; he left his master’s heel and ran outside barking up a storm. Nikolas started barking with a voice so loud that it sounded like thunder. He stood up against the building almost two meters high but he could not quite reach the window ledge where Yonkel stood. Yonkel just looked down in contempt at the ferocious dog. Then, without a twinge of fear, he jumped straight on Nikolas, like a rider on his horse. Yonkel dug his talons deep into Nikolas’ back, and the dog ran shrieking out of the town and across the fields.
The townspeople looked on in amazement, and the Magistrate was furious. His dealings were interrupted; his dog had taken the Jewish cat for a ride all over Russia for all he knew, and in his anger he levied a fine of 500 rubles on the town, declaring that a Jewish cat had insulted a Christian dog.
The people of Vaysechvoos did not know what to do. Where would they get 500 rubles? A fortune! First they tried to reason with the Magistrate.
We don’t know that the cat is Jewish, sir. After all, he just wandered into our little village one day,” blurted Potashnik nervously. Others in the village began making observations about Yonkel that would seem to indicate that his “Jewish roots” were in question. The Magistrate grew angrier and angrier as the townspeople remarked about such things as Yonkel’s flat nose and green eyes.
But the Magistrate was very cunning and so he turned to the sage of Vaysechvoos and said, “You people believe that your God is all-knowing, and He would certainly be able to tell you if the cat in question is Jewish or not, correct?”
“Of course our God knows,” responded the sage.
“Fine,” said the Magistrate, “let there be a drawing of lots. I will put two pieces of paper face down before me. On one I shall write the word ‘Jew.’ The other will say ‘Christian.’ If you draw the one that says ‘Jew,’ then I will take it as a sign from your God that the cat is indeed Jewish. You will then pay the fine of 500 rubles, and there will be no more discussion on the matter. And, of course, if you should draw the other piece of paper that says ‘Christian,’ I will immediately leave your town in peace.”
The townspeople of Vaysechvoos were very nervous.
“What will we do if the sage draws the piece of paper that says ‘Jew’ on it? We do not have 500 rubles. We do not even have 5 rubles!”
The people looked toward heaven and began to pray fervently that the Almighty would help them in this situation. Meanwhile, the Magistrate wrote on each piece of paper, “Jew,” thereby insuring the 500 rubles which he intended to pocket. He placed the papers face down before him, and said, “People, stop your praying. If your God is there, He’s heard you already. Let’s get on with the drawing.”
The sage moved slowly toward the table where the papers lay. “Which one should I choose?” he thought. “I have no idea.” Just as he was about to reach out, Nikolas and Yonkel came running into the room, Yonkel still on Nikolas’ back. Yonkel leaped off of Nikolas onto the table, upsetting the two pieces of paper. One fell upon Nikolas and seemed to hang there on the fur of the dog almost like a label of merchandise. Everyone looked down and was shocked to see that according to the paper tag, Nikolas was not a Christian dog after all, but a Jewish one. And if Nikolas was Jewish, then Yonkel must be Christian. And everything made sense to the people of Vaysechvoos, for it was not unusual for a Jew who was human to receive such treatment from the Czar’s men.
In all the commotion, the Magistrate forgot that he had, indeed, written “Jew” on both pieces of paper. He looked at Nikolas with disdain and promptly left the little village.
You might be wondering what happened to Yonkel. Well, since his religion was now in question, the rabbi decreed that the cat must become a proselyte. He was immersed in the ritual bath and the whole town knew that Yonkel the cat was earnest about his religion because he didn’t scratch or claw or complain, but dutifully shook himself off and gave a cat smile that said, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
And as for Nikolas, he was received like any other poor Jew. Of course, his name was changed to Nachum, and the townspeople fed him regularly. He took upon himself the job of being the assistant shammes, in charge of guarding the synagogue from Gentile vandals.
The Registrar-Magistrate was never seen in Vaysechvoos again. He tried to make a 500 ruble determination in another town, and the Czar’s government retired him to a rest home in Siberia.
And the Potashnik boys, with the encouragement of their parents and Yonkel, studied very hard and all became rabbis.