In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Pyoter’s Lunch
Pyoter wasn’t very smart, even for a gentile. That is what the Jews of Vaysechvoos said. The goyim who lived 10 kilometers east of the village said worse about the boy. Even their Galach called Pyoter an idiot, dumbhead, stupid ox. However he didn’t play the cruel pranks on Pyoter which so many in his parish enjoyed.
It is no wonder that Pyoter moved to Vaysechvoos. Not that he actually lived anywhere. He slept in this person’s barn or that deserted shed. Sometimes when it was very cold he would sleep in the synagogue, which was alright with the people of Vaysechvoos. He would light the Sabbath fires and keep them going. He didn’t stay in the synagogue very often because he was afraid of the Jewish customs” he had been told of by his priest. The Galach told him tales of human sacrifice and devilry. He told Pyoter of circumcision in a way that gave the teenager nightmares. So powerful was his dread that even though the shammes (who also served as the mohel) would have allowed him to sleep every night in the study room, he would only stay there on the coldest of evening.
At least once a month, Pyoter would make the long trek home and go to Wednesday night confession and Thursday night mass. He would hope that this would suffice in keeping him safe from any Jewish sorcery or demons.
He planned his journey so that he could be back in Vaysechvoos in time for the Jewish Sabbath. It was on the Sabbath that Pyoter’s services were in demand. Crusts of bread would be left out as he went into the homes to tend the Sabbath fires. He collected the food “payment” and hoped it would last the week.
Sometimes, a Jew would give him an illegal chicken, one that died of old age. It is not lawful for Jews to eat that which dies by itself. Now these were usually perfectly good chickens, not at all spoiled. Perhaps it was an elderly laying hen that was discovered by the lady of the house gathering morning eggs. At such times, Pyoter had a feast, a celebration–but there was no one else in the village he could share it with. And those chickens were few and far between inasmuch as when the eggs became fewer and far between, the villagers would send the soul of the chicken to its eternal reward while they used the body for their own nourishment.
If the villagers of Vaysechvoos had been on talking terms with the priest in the distant village, they would have known more of Pyoter’s history. He was the only child of an older woman, who was far past childbearing age. She died in childbirth. The father was unknown but, because of the boy’s flat nose and round face and unfocused eyes so close to the surface, they thought the father must be a descendant of one of the Asian peoples that swept over the village some centuries before. Pyoter certainly didn’t look like any Christian they had ever seen.
The former priest baptized him, named him and the priest’s housekeeper tried to raise the boy. Pyoter was as strong as an ox but too clumsy to be a porter. And all the children of the village where he was born, even the little ones, would hit him and bully him to show how “brave” they were. But no one in Vaysechvoos hit him or bullied him.
You may wonder how he first came to Vaysechvoos. Well, after a particularly hard day of cruel beatings, he ran a distance from the village, to the outskirts of Vaysechvoos. Pyoter fell asleep inside Feivel the Tanner’s barn. When Feivel found him, he taught the boy how to build a Sabbath fire and gave him bread. It was Feivel who led him around to tend the fires of the other Jews. Pyoter learned the routine by himself. He stayed a few weeks and made his way back to his own village where he told the priest about these people and their kindness to him.
The priest told Pyoter that it was alright to live among the Jews but to be careful because their religion was a religion of demons. Then he gave the boy a rosary and said that by reciting the prayers, the Jewish demons wouldn’t be able to touch him.
There were special times of the year when Feivel would ask Pyoter to keep the fires going, not that Pyoter could understand words like “Rosh Hashanah” or “Yom Kippur.”
But it was Yom Kippur, one of those very cold autumn nights when it might even snow. Pyoter made his way to the Jewish church and found it full to overflowing. He knew that someone would need to keep the fires going so he slipped into the narrow book closet, spread out his rags and lay down. Shimmon the Butcher saw the door to the book closet ajar and wondered if some boys might be mischievously playing inside. He opened the door and saw Pyoter on the floor. The boy stood and lit one of the candles.
Then Shimmon saw it sitting on the shelf as big as life–a white linen tash. As he pointed to it, Pyoter opened it up so that Shimmon could see the contents: two, small loaves of bread and what seemed to be a cheese cloth with a ball of cheese inside. To Shimmon it seemed obvious that the synagogue had a malefactor who had hidden this food on Yom Kippur, a person who had planned to eat during this holy fast day when no one was looking.
At the end of the service, the butcher told the rabbi of the terrible sin in the midst of the camp and the rabbi went to the book closet where the candle was still burning and Pyoter was now asleep. Shimmon’s foot roused the boy, who stood. The rabbi pointed to the linen tash and said, “What is this?” Pyoter pulled out the two loaves of finely baked bread and the ball of cheese as large as an apple. The rabbi looked at Pyoter and asked, “Whose is this?” Most of the people were still in the synagogue. Before going out into the bitter cold, the rabbi went back into the large meeting room, declared what he had discovered and demanded to know who put it there.
One by one, he looked each worshipper in the eye. His gaze made enough of an inquiry. Each denied knowledge of the bread and cheese that was found in the book room. None would admit to having violated this holiest of holy days of the Jewish year.
Pyoter stood by with his mouth open. His pounding heart felt like it would burst and his hands were trembling. Then the rabbi turned to him and asked the question again, “Whose bread and cheese is this?”
Pyoter’s lips were quivering as he stammered out the word, “Ma-ma-ma-m-mine.”
And as each villager turned to go out into the early cold they viewed the items of transgression and knew that no one would have given Pyoter such finely baked bread or such a fresh piece of cheese. Yet no one puzzled over it except for the rabbi who marveled to think that Pyoter was certainly more intelligent than he looked. How kind of him to want to protect the Jewish person who left it there. Truly, as the Talmud said, the righteous of all nations shall have place in the world to come. “And” reasoned the rabbi, “that Pyoter should protect a Jew from being shamed on Yom Kippur is truly righteous.”
After the townspeople left, in the final moments of the flickering candle, Pyoter gorged himself on the bread and cheese.
A few days later he made the long journey to his own village and his own priest. For the first time in a long time, he had a sin he needed to confess–the sin of lying. He stumblingly stammered the words “F-f-father forgive me for I have sinned. I c-c-c-committed the sin of lying.”
The priest was almost pleased. Pyoter had been coming to confession ever since he was confirmed. The only thing that he could confess before now was what he called, “having evil thoughts.” But when the priest queried him for specifics, his evil thoughts were unhappiness because he was hungry or envy for people who could live in houses when he was cold and feelings of frustration and loneliness because no one ever talked to him. “But now,” thought the priest, at last, it would be a good sign to find out that Pyoter had the cleverness to tell a lie.”
The priest spoke through the screen of the confessional, interrupting the boy’s confession. “My son, what lie did you tell?” Pyoter then recounted the details of the bread and cheese that were found and the priest demanded to know why he said that it was his when he knew that it wasn’t. Then Pyoter replied, “Because I was so very hungry.” And for the first time in Pyoter’s life, the priest gave him a penance I to say. It was true that it was only three “Our Fathers,” and the penance was given with a smile that the boy couldn’t see through the screen as he wondered why in the world those strange Jews would get angry and upset over a person putting his lunch in the study book closet.
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.