In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Hungarian Peddler
The people of Vaysechvoos could not be called ignorant; after all, the men studied the Law, Mishnah and Gemara for hours on end. Some could even quote rabbis who had lived in distant times and far away places. Yet the word simple” seemed to fit the people of Vaysechvoos. And they were always ready to believe that someone from afar knew much more than they. But they were utterly puzzled by Aristotle Ginsberg.
Aristotle Ginsberg was a peddler, pure and simple, who traveled all the way from Hungary, a place which seemed so exotic to the citizenry of Vaysechvoos that it might as well have been Brazil. And Brazil was so strange, so exotic, that its very existence was considered somewhat questionable by some of the skeptics in Vaysechvoos.
“Brazil? What’s a Brazil?” asked one.
“A place–that’s what!” another retorted.
“What kind of place could be called Brazil? You’re making it up. There is no such place.”
“Oh, but there is. And in Brazil, they have nuts as big as your big toe.”
“I don’t believe it.”
And on it went, until one by one, half the shtetl of Vaysechvoos declared that Brazil simply didn’t exist. And as for nuts as big as your big toe, they shrugged, “We already have enough nuts!”
Anyhow, Aristotle Ginsberg didn’t come from Brazil, he came from Hungary, another far away, exotic place. And the good townsfolk had to admit it existed, because here was a man who had seen it with his own eyes. Yes, Ginsberg came from Hungary, and it was as a peddler. There were those who remembered his first journey through town. He came selling holy books, which he carried in a pack on his back. He was barely a youth. And such a handsome youth! His black hair was curly and the curve of his lips was full and red. And way back then his name wasn’t Aristotle, it was Avram, a pure and simple Jewish name. A very popular Jewish name. It seemed that every ninth Jew was named Avram. But no matter.
There were many a hopeful glance cast in Avram’s direction, I can tell you. You see, there was something fine about him, a bearing that was almost noble. Peddling is an honorable enough profession, it’s true, but something in Avram seemed to elevate the position. His love for the books he sold, the way he was able to discuss the finer points of the law with the Sage of Vaysechvoos, and the way he carried himself, his back so straight, his eyes so wise…there had to be more to this one than was apparent! Whatever that something was, not a father or mother in Vaysechvoos doubted for a moment that Avram Ginsberg would make a fine son-in-law. Unfortunately, the peddler seemed blind to his prospects, even to the charms of the lovely daughter of Shlomo the Butcher. Rachel eventually was married to the wealthiest Jew in Warsaw. But that’s another story.
It was disturbing to say the least, that such a good catch should go to waste, or worse yet, to a daughter of some inferior shtetl. And just as the townspeople were wondering whether the presence of someone who thought himself too fine for their daughters should be tolerated, Malke the Meddler discovered the sad truth about Avram. Avram did not hold the daughters of Vaysechvoos in disdain; his heart was simply too broken to offer it to any woman. You see, he had not been born for the life of a peddler. Instead he had come from a fine and learned family in Hungary, the son of a respected rabbi whose destiny was also to be a respected rabbi…in a town where every table was set with a lace tablecloth for Shabbos and real silver candlesticks. And when it came to holy books, Avram had a collection the size of the average hut in Vaysechvoos to select from.
There were many who would have liked to be his wife. And it would have been proper for Avram’s family to choose a bride for him. However, since every father was so eager to have him as a son-in-law, and the dowries were competitive, Avram’s parents allowed him to choose with the understanding that he would select someone who would bring honor to the family. His family was confident he would choose wisely.
The long and the short of it was that Avram did not choose wisely. Suffice it to say that the girl he chose was not as she appeared to be, and though it was discovered before the marriage, their engagement ended in disgrace for Avram and the entire Ginsberg family. Avram’s beloved (for his heart still ached for her) ran away with a man who scorned the holy books and blasphemed the name of the Almighty.
Sick at heart, Avram could not bear to remain where his presence would be a reproach to his family. Humbled by his foolish decision, he lacked the confidence to continue his rabbinical training. Yet, he still had a great love for the holy books and a hunger for knowledge. He chose the life of a wanderer, and his travels allowed him to learn from all sorts of people in diverse places…and as he traveled mile after mile, his heartache dulled, but was never forgotten. It wasn’t long before everyone in Vaysechvoos knew Avram’s story and they sighed in sympathy and forgave Avram the peddler for his lack of interest in matrimony. Then the man they all thought they knew showed up with a new name, Aristotle, and it was very confusing.
What kind of name was that?
Now among the Jewish people, it was not unusual to change a name to celebrate an event or a relationship, or simply to describe an ailment. Beryl the Teamster who drove the mules became known as Beryl the Bent One when his arthritis got so bad that all he could do was be a helper to the tanner who was, after all, his cousin. And Chayah the Spinster, well, how could they call her that after she married and had one baby each year from the age of 25 to 35? But Aristotle?
No one in Vaysechvoos had ever heard a name that sounded anything like Aristotle. It wasn’t a Yiddish name, it wasn’t a Hebrew name. Even if it had been a Russian or Polish name, somebody should have recognized it. At first they thought that it must be a problem in understanding the dialect and he was saying that his name was Tobias. But when little Levi, the baker’s son, wrinkled his nose and said, “Aristotle sounds nothing like Tobias!” most people had to agree.
So, after the morning minyan and council of prayer, someone said to the peddler, “What happened that you should have a new name?” (Because, names were changed by events.) “And what’s this ‘Arish Stauble’?”
“Well,” said Aristotle, “It’s a long story.” Now it’s not that the people who gathered for the minyan were not diligent or eager to work, but they could always spare a moment to sit and listen. After all, this minyan was also the town council, and they did have a right to know with whom they were doing business….
“So,” started Aristotle, “we all regularly read the ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ by the beloved teacher Maimonides, Moses ben Maimon. We venerate his writings. From Moses who led the Exodus to Moses ben Maimon there arose none like unto Moses so far as being beholders of the law.”
“Yes, yes,” they all agreed. It was a common saying.
“So one day I was talking to a gentile friend who sometimes helps me, a sensitive person, and I was quoting a bit from the Shulchan Aruch. Anyway he had the chutzpah to tell me that the quotation I cited was from a gentile priest named Augustine. I assured him that the priest must have gotten the idea from our teacher. But it seems this priest lived hundreds of years before Rabbi Maimonides, so I knew at once that they both must have gotten the idea from a Jew who lived long before that.
“From time to time, I sell a few pots and pans to the wife of a learned man, a Jew of my own country, who not only knows the Torah, but all about the world of the goyim. So I asked him to solve for me this mystery, and he told me that it came from a teaching of a philosopher.”
At this, the crowd began to gabble like geese.
“What’s he saying? What word?”
“Phil-o-so-pher,” Ginsberg slowly pronounced.
“What’s a phil-o-so-pher?”
Ginsberg explained, “At first I didn’t know, either. My learned friend told me that ‘philosopher’ was another word for a rabbi. There was this philosopher, this rabbi, whose name was Aristotle. It was from him that Augustine the Priest, Moses ben Maimon and another gentile, Thomas Aquinas, all learned. And it seemed to me that if there was some rabbi who was so great that he could teach even the gentiles a lesson, and the Lord knows it’s not easy to teach them, then this rabbi must be a great man indeed. And so, in order to perpetuate his memory, I took his name–Aristotle.”
Now the Sage of Vaysechvoos was a rabbi who knew rabbis, even the obscure rabbis. He felt so ashamed that he never heard of this great rabbi before. And he knew that Shlomo the Butcher was not exactly a scholar, so when Shlomo said, “Now I remember, the rabbi Aristotle, the philosopher. I think that he came to my great grandfather’s wedding,” the sage could barely lift his head for shame.
Worse yet, Feivel the Tanner chimed in, “Oh yes. I, too, remember. Wasn’t he buried outside of Minsk? And isn’t his grandson the head of the rabbinical academy today?”
Before long, everyone present remembered something good to say about Ginsberg’s namesake, Rabbi Ari Shtauble. The Sage searched and searched his memory and sighed with relief when at last he realized why he remembered nothing of the great Aristotle. “Ah yes,” he nodded, as sagely as ever a sage could nod. “Reb Ari. The brother of my father’s father knew him as a youth, along with his seven brothers. Before he changed his name, he was known to our family as Moshe.”
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.