In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Strange Things
Mysterious things always seemed to be happening in Vaysechvoos: a cow might stop giving milk or a bird might plummet from the sky for no apparent reason. Can you imagine, a seemingly healthy bird dropping dead in front of you. Stranger things yet were known to have happened–like the time the three thousand finely crafted tiles arranged in neat stacks presented themselves right next to the rabbi’s house. Or the time that all of the cobbler’s leather was found spread out on the synagogue floor. Of course, such things did not happen every day, just often enough to remind people that there are demons, dibbuks, evil spirits and specters of all sorts, lurking about unseen, but not unknown.
If the comings of such things were strange, the goings were even stranger. Where did the 3,000 tiles go? Who knows. They disappeared just like they came. No one in Vaysechvoos would have taken them. Maybe such tiles were proper for a nobleman or for a gentile synagogue, or whatever you call one of their places, but no Jew had use for such fine building materials. But that’s another story for another day.
One thing that was strange, was the fact that there were a lot of bees in Vaysechvoos. They were there to stay whether the people wanted them or not. And to tell you the truth, they were not entirely bothersome. From the bees one got honey. However, the people of Vaysechvoos used little honey, except, of course, for Rosh Hashanah. How else could one usher in a year of sweetness? Then the people would take big juicy apples, cut them up and dip them into the honey and, aah, it would be like heaven. But that too is another story.
During the year, most of the honey was sold to gentiles; they used a lot of it. And as for the people of Vaysechvoos, the women used the leftover beeswax, to make holiday candles.
They did not use paraffin because who could be sure it was kosher. And they did not use oil because they were poor and oil was very scarce and very expensive. But beeswax–they had plenty. Apart from their own use of candles, once a year the women would send their candles to the marketplace for use at Hanukkah. In return, they would get some remnants of fabric and a little money; enough to have some midwinter festivities.
When the Bal Agolah said that he could get more money for beeswax candles if they were red or green, it didn’t occur to the women that he might be selling them to some other people to celebrate some other holiday than Hanukkah. They preferred bluish candles or variegated colors and those were the ones they kept for themselves…to celebrate the Festival of Lights.
Nevertheless, if it could be said that Vaysechvoos did have an industry, it was the industry of the older women and their candle-making. The process was as follows: first, they would roll the beeswax out on the marble slabs that they used for pounding their bread dough. Then they’d sprinkle dye to give it color, not that there were so many choices; a little bit of beet juice for a reddish color, a little yellow saved from the carrots, and so on. All year long they looked to this and to that to make bright colors. Then, after they sprinkled, they would with the sharpest of knives, carefully scrape the wax off into a very thin, yet soft layer. Next, they would place a linen wick on one edge and slowly roll up the beeswax. By cutting the beeswax in a triangle, they were able to create a spiral, tapered appearance to the candles. The ladies would then take three of these narrow spiral candles and braid them into one. The final product was nothing less than a fine work of art, a masterpiece!
But just a few days before Hanukkah, there was another strange happening in Vaysechvoos–all of the newly made holiday candles disappeared. A rumor spread that the teamster stole them to sell to gentiles. No one believed anything like that. Only a demon could work so fast. The people were more inclined to believe in all sorts of dibbuks and things that whistle and laugh at night than in dishonest Bal Agolahs. And besides, what would gentiles do with Hanukkah candles?
At any rate, whatever demon, spirit, specter, or for that matter, angel, took the finely made, lovingly crafted Hanukkah candles–they were gone for good! And like the tiles that appeared and disappeared, they never came back.
Oh horrors! Of all the tragic things that could befall a town: drought and plagues and pogroms and pounding hail stones, nothing could draw as much moaning and groaning and despair and disappointment as the mysterious disappearance of what made Hanukkah so bright. Where could they get beeswax to make even a few candles in midwinter? Where could they get paraffin? It did not seem that this Hanukkah would be a very joyous one for the people of Vaysechvoos.
To make matters worse, a fast and frantic rider came to tell them that a band of Cossack raiders might be coming near Vaysechvoos. At this point, you might find it interesting to hear about this particular band of Cossacks.
As peace loving and as placid as the Jews were, so the Cossacks were easily agitated and fierce. Or, at least they wanted to seem fierce. But so many years had passed since these particular Cossacks had gone out for raiding that their excitement over war had not only become dulled, but they had become very poor.
And in the camp where Ermak was hetman (which means he was the elected general, ruler of the band), they were poorer than the Jews of Vaysechvoos. Their holiday was coming and without money one could not buy presents from the peddlers. And Ermak had a young wife, Natasha, who complained that she was dressed in rags more properly worn by a goatherd than a could-be attractive wife of an important Cossack ruler.
Please, Ermak” she said, “I need something to wear. Couldn’t we sell your sabre? After all, no one has ever attacked us.”
Ermak explained, “A sabre for a Cossack is not to defend oneself, but to gain honor in the field of battle and to use in a raid on the faraway statue worshippers and Jews. With this sabre, we get what we need! The money, the clothes, the jewelry!!”
“But when?” Natasha shouted, “…when shall we have these things?”
“Before the feast of our Savior’s nativity,” he said so solemnly that it could only be taken as an oath. He then realized what he had said, but it was too late. Natasha had already run out the door shouting, “The men are going on a raid. The men are going on a raid!”
Soon the men were gathered planning how they would travel west to the land of the false church with the beardless priests who never marry. They would teach those false Christians a lesson, carry off their goods and be back in time to buy presents and liquor and have a merry holiday. Every man of the camp, who was a man, was determined to go, even the one legged Vladimir.
And thus they commenced their adventure. Ermak was proud to see that each remembered his horsemanship. After all, they were all in the Czar’s militia as auxiliary cavalry men. For days on end they marched, avoiding the towns, crossing the rivers, not on the Czar’s bridges, but on God’s own bridge of ice that could have held a whole battalion of Cossacks.
They spent their evening hours in the villages where many Russian peasants reluctantly hosted them. They did not have the heart to protest the Cossacks’ consumption of fantastic amounts of food, provender for the horses and harmless flirtation with the women of the household.
Ermak’s strategy for a raid was to pick a village not too well defended. If he could frighten the villagers with a show of terrifying fierceness, perhaps he might be able to minimize the bloodshed. Frankly, in his heart, Ermak was secretly terrified, not of getting killed, but of seeing blood. The thought of it made him sick and started his stomach wrenching violently. So he prayed and he hoped that there wouldn’t be any violence, or if there had to be violence, that he wouldn’t see it. Or if he did see it, that he would be among the first killed so that his men would never learn of his distaste for violence.
After they came to the country of churches with statues, it took several days of scouting to find the right village. But the wisdom of warfare and raiding started to come back to Ermak and he remembered what he’d been taught as a boy. He found a small village at a crossroads where there was a small market and a small contingent of constables who didn’t belong to the Czar and thus were fair game for the raid. The village had an inn and barns for storage and freight wagons would stop at the inn. Teamsters would unload the goods there until the customs collectors would inspect the cargo.
Ermak’s strategy was simple. The attack would be noisy and boisterous with much shouting and screaming. But the Cossacks would not ride as swiftly as they knew they could, thus giving the villagers, the constables and the able-bodied teamsters a chance to “escape.” Along the journey those without swords had carved wooden ones from birch trees. The swords looked almost authentic unless one got too close. So, just before the raid, they killed a farmer’s pig and completely bloodied the wooden swords.
And Ermak and his men charged into the village at what could hardly be called a gallop.
With swords held high they screamed and yelled, “Yowie, Zowie, Bowie.” The dogs barked and the cattle lowed and the horses and goats all protested as if they knew they too would be slaughtered just like the poor pig who gave his life to camouflage the swords. The townspeople were terrified. So were the constables and teamsters. Everyone ran for their lives.
Not a soul was left in the village except one defiant rooster who shouted back at the Cossacks, “Cockadoodle-doo on you and you and you!!”
Ermak and all the Cossacks drew up short; so complete was their victory they didn’t know what to do next.
“Let’s go through the houses and take what we will,” the one legged Vladimir said to Ermak.
“And” he added, “could I have a freight wagon? That way, I could sleep on it and wouldn’t need anyone to help me in or out of the saddle.” And his two sons who customarily did that task emphatically added their assent to that petition.
Now these Cossacks didn’t know a lot more about looting than they did about fighting, but if they had too little fighting for their self-respect as Cossacks, they were going to make up for it by showing their prowess and looting everything in sight.
“Hooray!” shouted a 15 year-old, as he came out of the home of one of the villagers holding up a brand new sabre with a gold hilt and a leather scabbard. That was enough to get everything started.
Each of the Cossacks began building his pile of personal loot, swords and knives, clothes and coins, dishes and harnesses, farm implements and furniture. And in the storehouse inn, they found many barrels.
Now every Cossack, whether or not he’d been on a raid, knew what is kept in barrels–whiskey and wine!! And with one barrel open and a spigot found, they tasted some spirits that were as smooth as wine and as potent as brandy. It was unanimously decided that they would take every single barrel of this wonderful stuff with them. That meant that they’d have to use all the freight wagons to cart their booty.
Ermak and his men now headed toward the steppes, tired but happy. Ermak wouldn’t have been nearly as self-satisfied if he knew what he was to discover many days later, namely, Cossacks moving cross country on their horses travel four times as fast as slow freight wagons. And by Ermak’s reckoning, at this pace they would reach their camp on the steppes early in the month of February, at least a month after the holiday over which he made his promises to Natasha He tried to urge his men to lighten the load, but with little success.
So Ermak reluctantly planned the first act of violence that he would ever commit in his life. The freight wagons would catch fire along with their cargos. From the top of the hills, he would personally see columns of cavalry pursuing them. And they would have to ride like lightning to escape those troops. It was all to happen early in the morning, after one good night of drinking and sleeping. And little did he know that he chose the sight for this violence near the little Jewish village of Vaysechvoos.
A watchman from Vaysechvoos was posted up in a tree at the outskirts of the town. Sure enough, he spotted a huge band of strangers coming with pack horses and wagons. He hastened back to warn the people. Those few who had root cellars, hid in them. Most of the people did what they had done before and huddled in the synagogue waiting for the worst to happen.
However, instead of entering Vaysechvoos, Ermak and his Cossacks stopped for the night at a stream by the leafless trees outside of the village. It came time to open another barrel of the liquor that they’d stolen but when they put it to their lips it tasted horrible. It was some sort of oily wine, nothing they had ever tasted before. The hetman examined all of the barrels and found that four of them out of the dozen were, in fact, this oily wine that was not fit to drink. As a prank, they decided to roll the barrels into the Jewish village and leave them standing there. They laughed as they envisioned the Jews getting sick from drinking the “oily wine.”
Meanwhile, they consumed what was left of the good liquor and in a drunken stupor made their way to the little huts in the village where they fell soundly asleep. When they awoke the next day, everyone had terrible headaches. Ermak changed his strategy as he saw his men stumble over one another, with heads that were clouded from the drink the night before. Ermak shouted orders to his men to pack up the booty because soldiers were coming. Meanwhile, he had taken the most valuable of the small pieces of booty during the wee hours of the morning. The heads of the men were pounding. They were confused as they abandoned the freight wagons and rode off on their own ponies with as much as they could pack. Ermak’s plan worked. He and his men headed eastward toward the steppes, their mood slightly improving as they thought of the stomach aches the Jews would have when they drank the awful “oily wine.”
As for Vaysechvoos, the Jews came out the next morning to see the Cossacks gone. They breathed a sigh of relief that the huts were still standing and they gasped in amazement, for instead of the expected destruction, they found a small fortune: some livestock, well crafted furniture, bolts of fabric, crates of anvils and hammers and nails, freight wagons, a solid silver time piece and spices.
“All these treasures before us!” Zlata the Widow exclaimed.
“What spirit was this which seemed to bring ill tidings, but brought instead, good holiday cheer?” Feivel the Tanner asked of no one in particular. And in addition to the gifts, the villagers quickly gathered up, there were the four huge barrels.
Now Jews knew the difference between wine and olive oil. Olive oil was indeed a very expensive commodity! While they couldn’t use it for cooking since it might have been contaminated by the gentiles, the Sage of Vaysechvoos reasoned, “It’s true that we cannot use the olive oil for food, but it might be mixed with the animal provender or we could use it for illumination.”
“Illumination?” asked the cobbler.
Yes, illumination!” replied the Sage. Have you forgotten the miracle of the oil at Hanukkah?”
A gasp came from the crowd. And then a smile appeared on each and every face for light would come to Vaysechvoos this Hanukkah. Every vessel in the village was needed, cups, bowls, even chards were equipped with a wick for the gentile oil.
And it was the brightest that Vaysechvoos had ever been. The huts and the homes were so warmed by the many brightly burning lights, there was no need for afire inside to take away the chill. Yes, there was laughter and singing that Hanukkah. And Jews from surrounding villages were invited to come and witness the miracle and share in the blessing! (The Cossacks and other strangers probably had a merry something else, somewhere else.)
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.