In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Friends
Rebecca and Miriam were the closest of friends from the time they were little girls. In fact, they were like sisters. The close bond was not even challenged when Rebecca married Mordkhe, son of Yitzak the Baker. Said Miriam to Rebecca, Though we are not related by blood, our bond is stronger than that of most sisters and we shall never part.” But shortly after the wedding, they did have to separate. Miriam left Vaysechvoos but each vowed that if ever the other had a great need, she need only call and her “sister” would come immediately.
The occasion of their parting was the shidduch Miriam’s parents had arranged through Bella the Matchmaker. Miriam wed Reuben, the other son of Yitzak the Baker, and Reuben lived in Zvihil, which was a full day’s journey. Reuben had grown up in Vaysechvoos, but moved to Zvihil because of a falling out with his twin brother, Mordkhe. In fact, the falling out had been over Rebecca, with whom both brothers were in love. Reuben left in anger when he learned that Rebecca’s parents had arranged for her to marry his brother. He accepted the match with Miriam in hopes of forgetting his sorrow, but the two young women had been so inseparable that Reuben could not look at Miriam without thinking of Rebecca. And so his bitterness grew and he treated his wife harshly.
Rebecca and Miriam married at about the same time and it came as no surprise that each had conceived her first child at about the same time as well. As each was close to full term in carrying her child, Miriam sent a messenger to Rebecca with a note, “Sister, I need you.” Mordkhe was reluctant at first to have Rebecca travel in her condition, but she was determined to journey to Zvihil.
Rebecca arrived to find Miriam in poor health. A woman sat quietly in the corner of the room. Miriam introduced her as Shifra.
“Reuben will not be back for three days” Miriam said.
Rebecca was furious. “And he has left you alone, in this condition?”
Miriam smiled. “I’m not alone–you are here. And there is Shifra my midwife. Truthfully it is better that it be just the three of us because…” she closed her eyes, wincing with pain, “because I will not survive the birth of my child…and I need your help.
Rebecca tried to assure her friend that her fears were unfounded but in her heart Rebecca knew that Miriam spoke the truth.
“Shifra agrees with me that my husband would not take proper care of the child. It’s not that Reuben is a wicked man, but he is so filled with bitterness, there is no room to love my baby,” Miriam explained.
And then she fixed her eyes on her “sister” and said in the softest of pleas, “If I didn’t have you I could not bear it, but I know you will agree to be the child’s mother. Shifra will accompany us back to Vaysechvoos, where I will be buried. She will tell Reuben that the child did not survive. You will tell the truth to Mordkhe and no one else. Mordkhe will want to return the child to Reuben, but you will make him understand. Keep the child a secret until your baby is born, and raise them together as twins.”
Rebecca would have protested, but the pains were coming so quickly that there was nothing left for her to do but help Shifra deliver Miriam’s child. The child was a boy; his eyes and mouth resembled Reuben, but since Mordkhe and Reuben were brothers, he could just as easily be thought to resemble him. “Take good care of my son,” Miriam sighed. And then she said no more.
Rebecca was so overcome with grief, she did not notice that as Shifra cleaned the boy, she cut off a lock of his hair, wrapped it in a scarf and buried it beneath a floorboard.
Rebecca followed Miriam’s request but when she told Mordkhe, he was mortified that his brother’s child had been stolen.
“We must return the child immediately, Rebecca!”
“You know it would be best for the child to stay with us, my husband.”
Mordkhe sighed. He knew his brother well enough to realize he could be a hard man, and when Rebecca begged and pleaded that the mother who loved the child had more right to determine how he would be raised than a father who had shown only resentment, Mordkhe finally agreed.
As for Reuben, when he returned, he was grieved to find that his wife had died. He knew she had been a good wife, and he regretted some of his harshness toward her. As for the child, he grieved as well, but reasoned that the boy was better off with his mother and the Almighty.
Reuben heard that his brother had become the proud papa of twins, but he had no desire to see them. Five years passed and still Reuben would not speak to his brother or his brother’s family. He never remarried, but he amassed quite a fortune. Reuben had several businesses going at once. A real wheeler dealer you might say. Yet he never shared a kopek with his poorer relatives in Vaysechvoos.
Meanwhile, Mordkhe, while a wonderful father, was having a difficult time supporting his family. Each day after he finished up in the bakery, he would travel to the next village to take odd jobs. He would travel home late, weary from his many hours of labor. One night, he was attacked on the way home by a band of drunken thieves. He might have lived had someone heard his cries but by the time he was found….
Poor Rebecca. Not only had she lost her dearest friend, but now her beloved Mordkhe was gone. And she had the two boys to raise–alone.
Now when Shifra heard the news of Mordkhe’s death she prayed to the Almighty for guidance and then she went and told Reuben the entire story of how his wife had given birth to a healthy baby boy, and how Miriam had known she would not survive the birth. She described how Miriam had agonized over the child’s future, desiring more than anything for him to be raised in a home filled with love. She told Reuben that the little boy he had never gone to visit was not his nephew, but his son.
Reuben’s eyes bulged with fury and he began to shake. He was so angry that he could not yell and he could not scream. He spoke through clenched teeth and said, “Woman, how dare you lie to trick me into caring for my brother’s child? Leave this house and never let me see your face, or I fear some violence will befall you.”
Quick as lightning, Shifra went to the floorboard where she had hidden the lock of hair. The words rushed from her mouth as though of their own accord. “As God is my witness, I am telling you the truth, and I leave it to him to convince your heart. But here is a lock of the boy’s hair which I cut with my own hand the night he was born, and if it is in you to do violence, then his mother was certainly right to send him away. But I cut the boy’s hair thinking there is some good left in you, and that someday the child might have need of you. If I was wrong, it makes no difference whether you believe me, for the child is better off fatherless.”
Her sharp words cut through the bitterness so that his heart was finally exposed. “But my brother, my own brother never told me about the child. How shall I forgive him?” And Shifra, who had journeyed back to Vaysechvoos with Rebecca and the baby that night, told Reuben how Mordkhe had wanted to send the child back to Reuben.
“Perhaps if you had come to see them, your brother and his wife’s consciences would have been pricked and they would not have withheld the truth from you,” she said. “But you never came and you would not hear of them coming to you. And if they had told you, could you have provided the love they have given the boy these past five years?”
The next morning Rebecca was awakened by a loud knocking at her door. She was completely taken aback when she saw her brother-in-law awkwardly standing there.
“The funeral was last week, why do you come now?” she asked warily. To Rebecca’s amazement, Reuben offered a humble apology for not coming to the funeral. He then began to beg her forgiveness for one wrong after another. He apologized for having been a poor husband to Miriam and a hateful brother to Mordkhe. “They are gone now, and I can never tell them how I regret my behavior. You were closer to each of them than anyone, and since I cannot make things right with them, I have come to make things right with you…and with my son.”
Rebecca felt a rushing inside her head, as though all the blood had suddenly been drained away. And indeed, she was so pale one might have thought from looking at her that was what had happened. “Shifra has told you about the boy,” she said in a voice that seemed to come from far away, “and now you have come to take him from me, although he has been my son since the day Miriam died. Miriam is lost to me, Mordkhe is lost to me and now you want to take away my son.”
“No, Rebecca, no, I have come to do my duty, not to take the child from…his mother…and the memory of…his father. Don’t look surprised. I know Mordkhe has loved my son as his own, and has done for the living what I was not willing to do for the dead. I would not have sent a kopek to help my brother’s children but he gave all he had to treat my son like his own, and to give him the love I held back. Now I will move back to Vaysechvoos and be an uncle to your children…to both your children, Rebecca.”
And Reuben was true to his word. He returned to Vaysechvoos and saw to it that Rebecca and the children were well cared for. Both came to love their Uncle Reuben, and the townspeople marveled at his kindness toward his brother’s family. Though the boys did not call him “pappa,” in all the ways a father could love his children, Reuben cared for them. And they knew it.
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.