In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Magic Suspenders
Mama, look!! That man is wearing magic suspenders!”
“Shah! You know it is forbidden to think such things! We’ll hear nothing of magic or sorcery, Leybush, or you’ll have to answer to your father.” Leah, the tailor’s wife, shifted the sack of flour under one arm and neatly encircled the boy’s shoulders with her other arm. She briskly walked him past the little town meeting place in the center of Vaysechvoos.
“But Mama,” Leybush protested. “If it’s not mag…” (the boy caught himself just as his mother gave him her most foreboding “You had better watch your mouth look”). “If the suspenders are not that thing I’m forbidden to think about, then how do his trousers stay up? There are no knots in his suspenders. I just want to know how they stay up.” The tailor’s son felt he had a right to ask questions about that all important issue, since it had a direct bearing on what would someday be his trade.
“Don’t be silly, Leybush, of course there are knots. You just didn’t look carefully enough. How else would the man be able to fasten his suspenders to his trousers? Such nonsense.” Leybush furrowed his brow. He was only eight, but he was very sensitive. He expected to be taken seriously and he certainly expected his own mother to believe him. With a sigh of resignation, Leah said, “Alright Leybush, let’s go back and take a look together.” The stranger was standing right in the center of the village where the meeting hall stood, looking slightly befuddled. Leah was curious about this stranger; Vaysechvoos so rarely had visitors. And being that he looked somewhat lost, what would be so bad about asking him if the wife of the tailor could be of some assistance? And not only suspenders and see for himself that he was mistaken.
Leah, of course, was not the only one whose curiosity drew her to the village center where the stranger stood, staring at a scrap of paper in his hand. A number of the people of Vaysechvoos were making their way to that place so they could greet the stranger and find out who he was and whether he was married. After all, he was handsome enough and better dressed than most, and wouldn’t it be fine if he were a wealthy young scholar and took a liking to one of the daughters of Vaysechvoos?
The stranger (who turned out to be Mordkhe, a friend of a cousin of a brother-in-law of Farfel the Tanner), found himself surrounded by eight or ten of the most helpful and inquisitive citizens of Vaysechvoos. They determined that Mordkhe was a tailor, and that he was a bachelor. He was on his way to Zabludeve but was asked to stop and give regards to Farfel from his brother-in-law, Joseph, who’d heard from his cousin’s friend that the stranger would be passing through Vaysechvoos on his way to Zabludeve. The stranger seemed very pleasant, but he was a bit confused. You see, his instructions mistakenly said that he could find Farfel right next to the butcher’s store. Yente shook her head at Mordhke and explained that it was a shame the stranger’s friend had not known about the quarrel between the butcher and Farfel three years earlier. Farfel had been so angry that he moved his shop as far from the butcher as he could get–which in Vaysechvoos wasn’t very far! The two were friends now, but Farfel did not want to move back across the street again.
Yente and the rest of the small crowd of people who came to meet Mordkhe soon attracted a larger crowd and before too long, just about all of Vaysechvoos had gathered there. No one wanted to miss anything interesting and different that might be happening in the little shtetl!
After the subject of the message for Farfel the Tanner was exhausted, the attention shifted to the mysterious round things on Mordkhe’s shirt and the even more mysterious way that his suspenders were attached to his trousers with no knots. Mordkhe, for his part, was very curious indeed as he looked from one person to the next, and saw what, to him, was a very strange sight.
But let me explain; in Vaysechvoos, knots were used on clothing instead of buttons. Wherever one would have expected there to be a button and buttonhole, there were two buttonholes, only they weren’t called buttonholes. They were called knotholes. And they were neatly stitched, of course, by Simon the Tailor, husband of Leah and father of Leybush.
How were knots used instead of buttons, you might ask? First Simon took a short piece of twine and passed it through both holes, and then he’d tie his knot. And such knots! Not only Simon, but all the people of Vaysechvoos were skilled in knotsmanship. After all, that was how they closed their dresses, and how the men secured their suspenders to their trousers (a very important detail!).
To be sure, the stranger found the knots of Vaysechvoos as peculiar as most of the townspeople found the buttons on the stranger’s shirt. Some had seen buttons before but dismissed them as being relics of the past, something for a museum, perhaps. Those who had not seen buttons before were absolutely mystified. One villager was so bold as to give the stranger’s suspenders a gentle tug–(it was Leybush), because he wanted to see if the suspenders were really attached to the stranger’s trousers. Mordkhe pointed to the buttons on his shirt and explained that there were also buttons sewn inside the waistband of his trousers. That, he insisted, was the way to make clothing, and he should know, he said, for wasn’t he the son of the finest tailor in Krakow? A murmur of disbelief and disapproval rippled through the crowd.
The stranger did not win any favor either, when he wanted to know why the people of Vaysechvoos fastened their clothing with knots, for the villagers thought it a silly question–like asking why one gets out of bed before going to work in the morning. How did one explain something so obvious? Knots were simply the way one wore his clothing. Why would they even consider something as strange as buttons? None of them, not even the sage of Vaysechvoos knew that a long, long time ago, buttons, not knots, were customary in Vaysechvoos. Who ever would have imagined it? It had been so long since they switched over to knots, and no one but Borekh and his wife (who’d long since gone to their reward) knew the secret of how the change had occurred.
Borekh the Tailor (who, by the way, was Leybush’s great-great-great-grandfather) had done well in business. Whenever there was a wedding or bris, Borekh would make certain the family was properly attired for the celebration. And he did such fine work!
He would make a trip once a year to Krakow and buy enough fabric, buttons, and thread to take home to keep his business adequately stocked. One fine spring day he hitched his horse to a wagon and prepared for the journey. He was whistling a happy tune because he had been commissioned by Lasar, one of the leading citizens of Vaysechvoos, to sew the wedding garments for Lasar’s daughter and future son-in-law. He was also to make a new suit for Lasar and a new dress for Sada, Lasar’s wife to wear for the occasion. Borekh was honored that Lasar had trusted him for this, the event of the year.
When Borekh got to Krakow, he bought the most beautiful fabric and the finest thread to make the wedding clothes. He started home and was two days into the four day journey before he realized he’d forgotten to buy buttons! He was angry with himself, but not too worried. If he hurried, he could go back for the buttons and return to Vaysechvoos with just enough time before the wedding to make the clothing.
When Borekh got to Krakow, he found that a terrible thing had happened. A fire, a very bad fire! The people were wandering about in a daze. Most of the town had been burned and the businesses were in ruins. Borekh felt badly enough for the people, but he felt even worse when he realized there would be no buttons to complete the finery for the wedding of Lasar’s daughter. Oh, buttons could be collected from the people of Vaysechvoos but they wouldn’t match, and Lasar would be infuriated by the shoddiness of it. Borekh would be humiliated before all of Vaysechvoos. His failure would probably affect business. He needed a solution; how to make wedding clothes…without buttons? He thought very hard and prayed to the Almighty to deliver him from this serious dilemma.
He arrived in Vaysechvoos, and still no solution. He explained the problem to his wife, who was busy embroidering some pillows she intended to give her sister as a birthday gift. Borekh looked at the basket filled with beautiful, thick embroidery threads, and the Lord (at least he thought it was the Lord!) gave him an idea. His wife consented to give him all her threads, and he twisted them together into beautiful multicolored twine. He tied knots in them, making them into dozens of short lengths, one for each button needed for the wedding clothes. Each time he needed to make a button and buttonhole, he made two buttonholes instead.
Two days before the wedding, when Lasar wanted to see the clothing, Borekh proudly displayed his craftsmanship. Lasar was horrified when he saw all the buttonholes and no buttons, but Borekh quickly explained the way the twine worked instead, telling his friend that this was the latest style from Krakow. Borekh tied beautiful knots, and with the brightly colored twine, Lasar thought it actually did look quite fashionable. He still complained that the time it took to tie the knots was too much of an inconvenience, but Borekh convinced him that it would be worth the extra effort to know his daughter’s wedding would be the finest and most up-to-date ever. Finally, Lasar nodded his head in agreement and Borekh sighed a big sigh of relief as he silently thanked the Almighty for his reprieve.
Well, the wedding was very grand, but it did provoke a little jealousy. Everyone in Vaysechvoos knew that Lasar was a leading citizen, but they didn’t see why his family should wear the latest fashion while they went about in plain old buttons. Borekh was mortified when one after another, the villagers asked him to alter their clothing so that they, too, could be in style. He didn’t dare let on that he had improvised the clothing for the wedding simply because no buttons had been available. Instead, he cheered himself with the extra business, and managed to forget the truth.
Many of the people were delighted with their new clothing, but some did feel it was silly to tie knots when buttons were so much simpler. However, the sage of Vaysechvoos favored the new way of dressing, saying that knot tying was a mitzvah because it caused people to slow down and thank the Almighty for the clothing on their backs. This seemed reasonable to the skeptics, who did not want to appear ungrateful to the Almighty.
And the people of Vaysechvoos became more and more enamored of their knot-tying. In fact they became very adept at tying knots and took a great deal of pride in the variety of knots and the agility with which they could tie and untie them. Over the next few generations, the people of Vaysechvoos forgot entirely that they had ever used anything so simple and archaic as buttons.
That is why there was a murmur of disbelief and disapproval when the stranger said that most people wore clothing with buttons, not knots. The townspeople began discussing the issue loudly. The stranger didn’t understand their values, yet he felt superior in his uncivilized clothing. He used a quick and easy way of dressing, without taking the time to be properly thankful to God for the clothes on his back. Such a lazy bum! Such an ingrate! And so blind to aesthetics, too, with no appreciation for the skill it took to tie such beautiful knots! Or perhaps he was just too clumsy to be able to dress properly. The tying and untying of a proper knot, after all, took dexterity.
The people of Vaysechvoos found the stranger most undesirable. And when Rachel, Farfel’s daughter, giggled and said, “I think he’s handsome, and those button things look rather clever,” they became fearful. Suppose Rachel fell in love with the stranger? Suppose he settled in Vaysechvoos and the two of them had children and they raised them to wear buttons instead of tying knots? Before you knew it, all the young people of Vaysechvoos would be tempted to take the easy way out, and soon, the beauty of knot-tying would be lost to Vaysechvoos and the whole village would be dressing inappropriately and improperly. Simon the Tailor’s son, Leybush, piped up, “Mama, what’s wrong with the stranger’s buttons? Do other people really dress that way? How come we don’t?” That was the last straw. The people of Vaysechvoos are not violent but when those things they hold dear are threatened, they will not sit idly by. They did not really hurt the stranger, but with a great deal of pushing and shoving, they bid him farewell. It was not the most gentle of partings.
Well, after the stranger was gone, things quieted down and the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos was peaceful once more. The disturbance hadn’t lasted more than a few minutes. Still, everyone felt a bit worn from all the excitement. Most returned to their homes or businesses to have a nice glass of tea which would soothe their nerves.
Leybush waited until the villagers had all gone their separate ways. He slipped out quietly and went back to the center of Vaysechvoos where the stranger had stood less than an hour ago. He stared at the ground thoughtfully for quite some time before he scooped up the three buttons that had come off the stranger’s clothing in the midst of the scuffle. He looked at the buttons in the palm of his hand and marvelled at their smoothness, and their exact circular shape. He glanced about and quickly slipped the buttons into his pocket. Someday, Leybush would be a tailor.
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.