The shrieks from the shtetl were so piercing that it seemed that they would, like lightning, flatten the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. You see, nothing struck terror in the hearts of the people more than the news of the draft–the conscription of Jewish boys into the Czarist army.
Our people have been serving in the armies of the Czars going all the way back to the ninth and tenth centuries,” commented the knowledgeable melamed of Vaysechvoos. “Why, there were records of two Jewish envoys, Saul and Joseph, who served the Slavonian Czar around 960 of the common era. And then there was the tale of one Anbal the Jassin who, in 1175, was part of the forces of Prince Bogolyubski of Kiev,” he continued. While the melamed could go on and on, the townspeople agreed that though Jews had a long history of service in the Russian army, it was not exactly something to desire.
“Of course, things aren’t quite as bad now as they were when I was a boy,” added Zayde Fishel, the patriarch of Vaysechvoos. “I remember when the Emperor Nicholas the First issued a decree which was very hard on us Jews. According to the order,” he said sadly, “the Russian authorities were allowed to take recruits from among our boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. These youngsters, some not even bar mitzvah yet, were regarded as property of the government and were taken to schools for training in the military. Oy, and where they took them, who knows? Wherever it was, it was far away from their homes and families. And the stories that were told of the inhuman tortures these recruits were subjected to, were enough to make one’s blood curdle.” He went on, “You see, not only did they try to make soldiers out of these innocent kinderlach; they forced them to convert.”
“Things were much better under Alexander. At least he did away with the laws of that tyrant Nicholas!” the widow Ruchel exclaimed. “But then again,” she said after a moment’s pause, “how much better can things be from one czar to another? It’s true, they weren’t taking boys at age twelve anymore and they weren’t necessarily sending them far away from their birthplace and parental protection so as to convert them, but army life was far from a metziah!”
The discussion by the villagers in Vaysechvoos continued:
“What did the goyim care about making allowances for Jewish religious observance?”
“How could one honor the Sabbath when ordered to perform some military duty on the holiest day of the week?”
“How could one keep kosher?”
“There was just no provision for the observant Jew!”
The comments and unanswerable questions continued and there was agreement that the worst of all things about being a Jew in the Russian army, was having to endure the ridicule of the goyim. In the shtetl, if a non-Jew, let’s say a policeman, made a derogatory comment, eh, you put up with it for the moment. You could always talk to a sympathetic person, someone who would commiserate with you. In the shtetl, you were part of the majority. However, in the army, when something bad was said about Jews, you had to hold in the anguish and the anger indefinitely. Of course, then you would feel guilty and ashamed for not standing up as a Jew, a defender of your people. For if you did stand up, you could expect worse than a good beating. Even worse yet, life would be made more difficult still for the other Jews who were conscripted.
As the law stood now, the quota for Jewish recruits was ten for every thousand people. While Vaysechvoos was a small village, it still stood to lose several shining young men to the Czar, men who would not become husbands for a long time, even if they did come back–and many never did. Boys, not men, one should say. Boys who haven’t even learned enough Talmud to be strong in the faith. Untested young men who needed the strength that only could be found in huddling together with other Jews. It’s no wonder that there was a Days of Awe lament coming from the voices of the mothers of Vaysechvoos. The notice had been posted; the quota had to be met.
Yekhiel, the son of Feyvel the Beggar and his wife Zlota, was one of the unfortunate. He was on the list. Yekhiel was barely eighteen and of all those listed for induction he had the least hope of avoiding his call. Vaysechvoos was a very poor town. Why most people considered that just being able to earn enough for a chicken or a fish on the Sabbath was a sign of doing well. What could a family of beggars expect?
Now Feyvel was a respectable beggar. There was not a funeral that took place in Vaysechvoos that he had not attended. And when a minyan was needed, even if there wasn’t a kopek or two in it for him, he attended for the sake of honoring the Holy Name. When Feyvel would plead for alms, he did it with such dignity. Not only that, but he himself was a benefactor. He would take packages from the butcher to the widows. And what he couldn’t give in money or goods he would give in time. His joy made every festive event more joyous and his mourning at a funeral showed how beloved and respected are the dead.
Every shtetl needed such a person. How else could people perform acts of charity, if there were not others who were more needy than themselves.
Feyvel had a regular collection route. He had all of his “stops” written down in a little brown book. First he would visit the butcher for alms, then the cobbler, afterwards the tailor and so on. Sometimes they would give him a few kopeks. More often though they would perform some service that they would otherwise charge for. The butcher would provide some bones with a generous portion of meat left on them for Zlota to make a hearty soup. The cobbler would repair the holes in Feyvel’s boots and reinforce the soles when they started to wear down. After all, being a beggar put a considerable amount of miles on one’s boots. Frequent repair was necessary. The tailor, why he would get together with the cloth merchants who came to Vaysechvoos and solicit a donation of merchandise that wasn’t selling well. The tailor would then make some sturdy clothing for Feyvel and his family.
In return for all of the charity bestowed upon the Beggar and his family, the people of the shtetl knew that their reward would come at a later time. The Almighty who watched over them would see to it that in the world to come they would know no want or need and more importantly, that their souls would reflect the purity of having been givers, charitable people, in the past.
But with the draft of Yekhiel imminent, Feyvel saw the situation as very bleak. Yes, as bleak as the smoky grey sky that hovered over the shtetl.
Zlota was in the kitchen, cooking and weeping. And weeping and cooking. “Ah, what will we do?” she cried to the Almighty. “Our only son, the joy of our life is to be taken away from us. Won’t you intervene? Deliver us, O Lord, show forth Your compassion, I beseech You!”
No sooner had the woman ended her prayer and plea to God that she realized an answer was there all the time. “I beseech You,” her last words kept resounding in her mind. “My dear husband has made a profession out of begging. No one can beg as wonderfully as he can. He earnestly, fervently blesses every giver into prosperity. All we need to do is go to the magistrate and beg for our son’s release. I know that Feyvel can do it. I just know.”
Her husband’s footsteps interrupted her thoughts and she turned to see Feyvel enter their little home.
“My darling husband!” The Lord has answered our prayers. Yekhiel will be spared the terrible lot of service in the Czar’s army!!”
Feyvel raised his head for the first time since the news of the draft came. “Wife, what do you mean? How? When? Tell me!”
She then recounted her prayer and how she knew that if Feyvel would use his way with words to plead with the magistrate, her son would go free. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, Feyvel said that he would speak with the magistrate, but in his heart he thought that little would be accomplished.
The next day was the day of the month that the magistrate came to the town of Vaysechvoos. Many matters were taken care of on such a visit. Matters of taxes to the landowners; disputes which were not otherwise settled. Feyvel entered the town meeting place where the magistrate “held court.” “Your majesty,” Feyvel began. “I am but a poor and humble beggar. The town of Vaysechvoos supports me and my saintly wife and young son, Yekhiel. I have little by way of earthly goods, but I ask you to hear my cause. I know you have many weighty matters to make judgments on. I wish not to take much of your valuable time. It is only because of the Czar that I would ask you to listen.”
“The Czar?” questioned the magistrate. “What has the Czar to do with your story?”
“Your most excellent majesty,” Feyvel continued, “we both believe there is none like our Czar. The words I would use to describe him would not do justice to my feelings. His name brings out the deepest of emotion within my soul. It is because we both regard this ruler of Mother Russia in an unspeakable way, that I ask you to allow me to speak.”
The magistrate had never heard a Jew speak of the Czar with such “reverence.” “Of course, Jew, go ahead and speak,” he said.
“As I mentioned, I have a young son, Yekhiel. He is a fine boy in most ways. However, inasmuch as my profession is that of a beggar, he aspires to the same work. He has watched me carefully and is eager to do the work of begging successfully. When Yekhiel saw his name on the list of the new recruits for the Czar, he saw this as a great opportunity. You see, Vaysechvoos is such a small town and such a poor one that there is room for only one beggar. Now, my son sees the whole Russian army as fertile field for him to develop his craft. He is quite good with words and I shudder to think what will happen once he is inducted.”
“I don’t quite understand,” uttered the confused magistrate.
“Well, you see, your honorableness, once my Yekhiel is in the army and practicing the art of begging, many will tribute their kopeks, even a ruble or two. He will amass much by way of earthly goods that he will need to send it back here to Vaysechvoos. For a good beggar must truly be in need in order to beg. One must keep the touch and practice constantly. As the fortune grows, the town of Vaysechvoos will prosper so much that the landowners will be bought out. The longer Yekhiel stays in the army, the more he’ll contribute, not only to Vaysechvoos, but to all the neighboring towns. Before too long, all of the land will be in the hands of our people. As a beggar, I know that we Jews are better off poor. For when we are poor, then we look to our God to provide for us. On the other hand, when we have plenty, we forget it is He who provided it. I beg you, dear magistrate, let us remain poor. Use your influence to keep Yekhiel here in Vaysechvoos. For as long as I am a beggar of the town, and I’ve got many good years left, he will not venture out on his own.”
And so it was that Yekhiel was not inducted into the Czar’s army. Zlota was proud of her husband’s skill in the art of begging. And Feyvel, well, he went on being the most beloved of all beggars in all the province. He never became a wealthy man, but in his poverty he trusted God to provide. And do you know something? God always did.