In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Wealthy Tanner
Zeidel, son of Peretz, had every, reason to be a happy man. And why shouldn’t he be happy? Zeidel was the wealthiest man in the district. He was a tanner by trade. His great-grandfather had discovered a secret that made leather softer and more durable. Soon, every cobbler in the province was bargaining for this leather and Zeidel’s great-grandfather became a wealthy man. Now Zeidel had become heir to the secret–and to the wealth.
Zeidel used to live in a village about an hour’s ride from Vaysechvoos. He cherished his privacy too much to stay there, however. The villagers were nosy and meddlesome and the schnorrers–from dawn ’til dusk they would pound on his door. Zeidel, being a generous man, would give each schnorrer a few kopeks, a chunk of bread and an onion or a slice of meat. One day, he decided he’d had enough. He sold his house in the village and had another one built a full half hour’s walk from the troublesome villagers. Zeidel supervised every detail of the construction and he often gloated when the villagers referred to his house as Reb Zeidel’s Castle.”
One foggy morning, Zeidel awoke to the sound of a gentle rain pattering against his tin roof. “Such gloomy weather again,” he sighed. But he pulled himself out of bed and Zeidel’s eye caught his own reflection in his new mirror. Zeidel gazed intently. His head was almost completely bald and his short stocky body was highlighted by a more than protruding stomach. His short red beard was flecked with white, and his pale, almost hollow blue eyes were enshrouded with dark, wrinkled lids.
“Zeidel ben Peretz,” he half laughed. “You’re getting ready for your grave.” Zeidel suddenly felt a pang of sorrow that his wife of twenty-five years had borne him no children. “Ach,” he shrugged, “children only make tsuris.” His wife was a good woman, and besides, Zeidel had already chosen an heir. Asher, his wife’s brother’s son, would take over the tannery.
Zeidel liked Asher. He was bright, sharp-witted, and he wasn’t a gossip like everyone else in the family. Of course, even Asher had his failings. Zeidel thought he was a fanatic, always talking about God. Not too long ago, the two of them had been walking through the woods. They came upon a fragrant green meadow and Asher exclaimed, “How beautiful are the works of the Almighty. His craftsmanship is so perfect. Why, the whole earth is full of His glory, don’t you agree, Uncle?”
“Don’t bother me with such synagogue talk,” said Zeidel.
Asher’s face sank. “Zeidel, what are you saying?”
“Asher,” Zeidel had responded, “you’re young, full of life. The future is yours! When you get to be my age, you’ll see things differently.”
“Zeidel, my uncle,” Asher spoke as gently as he could, “beware! It is the fool that says in his heart, ‘there is no God.”‘
Zeidel yawned and shook his head. “Enough daydreaming,” he said to himself. “It’s time to get to work.”
It was Friday and Zeidel decided to go into the village to buy hides. Instead of going to his old village where people would greet him and pry into his affairs, Zeidel set out for Vaysechvoos. He got a late start waiting for the rain to stop and, as fate would have it, he was detained. A butcher had a few hides he was willing to sell (only after a lengthy discussion about the price), but they needed to be scraped clean. By the time this was done, it was almost dusk. Zeidel knew he wouldn’t be home in time for the Sabbath. This didn’t particularly bother him, except that it wouldn’t be good for business if he was seen violating the Sabbath. Zeidel was about to sneak off when a wiry little man with crooked teeth and a scraggly black beard approached him.
“Sir,” he said, “I see that you are a stranger to our village. If I may be so bold, would you spend the Sabbath with my family?”
“I’m caught,” thought Zeidel. “If I leave now, the whole district will find out that I’m a Sabbath breaker.” Zeidel decided that his reputation was more important than his comfort. And his host had a kind, pleasant face, even though his smile lacked a tooth here and there.
During the remaining minutes before the Sabbath, Zeidel took his horse to the stable. He and Mendel, his host, went to the synagogue. Zeidel hadn’t been in shul for so long he could barely remember how to daven. After the service, Mendel led Zeidel to his home. Even though the night was dark, Zeidel could see that the rickety two-room house was a far cry from his “castle.” Inside, the Sabbath candles burned brightly, filling the home with a soft radiance.
“Ruchel,” Mendel chimed, “God has honored us and brought us a guest for the Sabbath!” Mendel began chanting the “shalom aleichem” to the angels that are said to accompany a man home on the Sabbath eve. As he chanted, it seemed to Zeidel that a peace descended on the household, a peace that even touched his own weary heart.
Mendel introduced Zeidel to Ruchel, his wife, and then to his two young daughters, who giggled and shyly wished him a good Sabbath. They sat down to a Sabbath meal of challah, soup, roast goose, a delicious noodle kugel and all sorts of cakes and cookies. After the meal, Mendel and his family broke into song, singing the Sabbath zemiros. They sang and sang, and soon the candles began to flicker. “Papa,” said Rivka-Leah, Mendel’s youngest daughter, “can we sing the one about when the Messiah comes?”
The other daughter’s face lit up. “Could we?” she chimed in.
Mendel grinned and began: “Soy zu rebeynu, tell me, rabbi, what will it be like,” and the family joined in on the refrain, “when the Messiah comes.” The song described a great feast with choice meats and wines. Moses would be there, and King David would play his harp. Each verse was faster and merrier than the one preceding it, until the final “when the Messiah comes.”
The candles were about to burn out; it was time for bed. Mendel insisted that Zeidel sleep on the feather bed while he spread out a straw mat for himself and Ruchel on the floor.
Zeidel immediately fell into a deep, contented sleep. He began dreaming; he dreamed that he was home. It was Sabbath and his house was filled with guests. Both he and his wife were radiant with joy. Then he dreamed that he was at a great feast. Was it a Sabbath meal? It seemed more like a marriage supper. There was kugel and roast goose and meats and delicacies so choice that not even Zeidel knew what they were. The line of guests looked endless and the whole world (or so it seemed) was filled with a soft radiance as if lit by hundreds, no, thousands of Sabbath candles.
Zeidel awoke refreshed. He went to the synagogue with Mendel but instead of attempting to daven, Zeidel stood thinking and reflecting: “Why is it that a poor man, a nobody like Mendel should have so much joy?” Zeidel was jealous.
“…when you have eaten and are satisfied….” a voice chanted from the reading desk, “….and have built food houses and lived in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud and you forget the Lord your God ….”
Zeidel shivered at the words from the Torah. A teardrop formed in his eye. “Perhaps,” he thought, “God isn’t such nonsense after all.”
The Sabbath soon drew to a close. Three stars shone in the sky and the moon was bright and full. Zeidel declined Mendel’s invitation to stay another night. Home was an hour’s ride. He thanked Mendel, and invited him and his family to spend the Sabbath with him any time. Zeidel hurried home; he would be meeting with Asher the next morning.
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.