In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Mendel the Bather
Perel was one of the loveliest girls in Vaysechvoos. Everyone expected that when it came time to marry she would certainly have her pick of the eligible young men of the town. The matchmakers rubbed their hands with glee thinking of the prospect. Perel was not only endowed with fine looks; she had a bright mind and a pleasant disposition as well.
No wonder then that tongues went wagging after the shock of hearing that she had agreed to marry Mendel the Bather. One must explain the incongruity of this shidduch by recounting a tale.
Mendel was not like other boys in Vaysechvoos. When he was just a small child, his parents moved to the little shtetl from Warsaw. They were quite affluent by Vaysechvoos standards and went to great lengths to display their wealth. Mendel wore the finest cotton clothing imported from America trimmed in expensive fur. Mendel had all the playthings the other children only dreamed of, spinning tops, toy weapons and lead-cast soldiers. Mendel even had a private tutor and therefore did not attend cheder with the other boys. The townspeople resented Mendel and his family, and as a result, he was a very lonely boy.
Mendel searched for ways to fill his loneliness by inventing friends and experiences for himself. He would talk for hours and hours with his imaginary playmates. He would travel, in his mind that is, to the far corners of the world.
One day however, while sitting in the field which lay beyond his house (a house with real wooden floors and glass in the windows), Mendel saw a city in the distance, a place he had never seen before. It shone brightly, glittering against the sky as if it were of gold. Mendel stood and began first to walk then to run in the direction of the light, his heart beating faster and faster with his quickening pace. Then, when he thought he could run no more, he was there. He looked around at the majestic metropolis and realized where he was. It certainly was a city of gold, a city of hope, the capitol of the world, Jerusalem.
Mendel couldn’t understand how he’d managed to run all the way to Jerusalem, yet he knew he was there. Confused and awed, he felt someone take him by the hand and though he didn’t recognize the robed figure, he trustingly followed. He was led to a rather large pool of water. Mendel disrobed and waded in. The waters covered him completely and he felt a warm yet refreshing sensation. Stepping from the pool, he was covered in a pure white robe. As he looked around him, the city stood even brighter than before. I am clean, like I have never been before!” Mendel exclaimed. “I feel so pure and perfect and I’m not lonely any more,” he marveled.
What happened next was vague in Mendel’s memory, but he did recall traveling the distance back to the familiar field behind his house, feeling very weary from his journey, and falling into a deep sleep.
His parents shook him awake yelling something about “sleeping his life away.” They brought him back to his house and to the world of everyday responsibilities, tensions and annoyances. Yet, Mendel could not forget the city and the pool which seemed so much more real than Vaysechvoos. And somehow he felt defiled by his distance from the city and by the friction and activities of daily life.
Mendel went to the well pump in the kitchen and drew enough water for a bath. Unlike others in Vaysechvoos, Mendel’s home had a tank for water which was kept in the kitchen as well. His family had it made specially by the town’s coppersmith. But after bathing, Mendel felt no cleaner. Several times a day and throughout the night, Mendel would bathe and bathe again, but to no avail.
The people of Vaysechvoos, including Mendel’s parents, were convinced that one of two things had happened to the boy. Either he had fallen and hit his head and was mentally impaired or he was inhabited by a dibbuk, for they could find no other explanation for his strange behavior. Everyone knew that you should bathe before Sabbath and Sabbath only comes once a week, not many times each day. Mendel was certainly an odd one!
That is why when the news spread that Perel would be marrying Mendel, the townspeople could not believe their ears. “Ridiculous!”, “Crazy,” they said. But the wedding did take place. It was like no other wedding Vaysechvoos ever had. The festivities were so solemn, a stranger could have mistaken the wedding for a funeral. The parents of the bride cried, not tears of happiness, but instead tears of grief for their beautiful daughter. The parents of the groom cried as well. Again, not tears of happiness, but of relief that their son would no longer be under their roof using up all their water with his incessant bathing.
Mendel and Perel began their married life very happy and very much in love. Yet Mendel’s peculiarities made it impossible to have visitors. In the midst of a conversation with a guest he would have to excuse himself to take a bath. But when Mendel wasn’t taking a bath, he would talk with Perel, telling her of the beautiful city he had seen — or did he imagine it? Mendel was not sure anymore.
Perel loved her husband and found it difficult to watch him agonize over his “uncleanness.” Day by day, week by week, month by month, he bathed and bathed and bathed some more. One day, while Mendel was (you guessed it) bathing, Perel went to visit the Sage of Vaysechvoos. She poured out her heart to him: “What can I do, dear Sage? I love Mendel and it’s nice to have him care to be clean, but he’s bathing so much he’s starting to look like a dried prune. He longs for a place he’s never been to, for a perfection that isn’t possible!”
The Sage wrinkled his brow as all wise men do and spoke:
“Perhaps Mendel cannot find his answers in Vaysechvoos.”
“What do you mean?” queried Perel.
“Perhaps the two of you should make the journey to the Holy Land. He’ll see then that the Holy City is not made of gold, nor is there some supernatural pool there to make him pure and perfect.”
Perel rushed home and taking the Sage’s advice, encouraged Mendel to go to Jerusalem. Mendel’s eyes lit up and within a fortnight they were on their way.
Now the people of Vaysechvoos to this day do not know the fate of Mendel and his quest for cleansing nor of Perel his lovely wife. Yet a curious message did come to the Sage one day not too long ago. It simply read,
“The answer was not in a place, but in a person. Perel.”
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.