In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Rabbi Ezra ben Nahum
In other Jewish villages, they probably talked a lot about buying and selling and doing business. Since there weren’t any shops in Vaysechvoos, there wasn’t much buying or much selling to talk about. They didn’t even have a weekly market day. But, in the summer and autumn a market day was conducted every other week.
The people of Vaysechvoos depended on peddlers and other traveling merchants, not just for their wares, but for gossip and news of the outside world. Even a beginning peddler without much inventory could find some business in the tiny shtetls in outlying areas where visitors were so rare. Whatever merchandise they might have, the villagers always welcomed them warmly. They enjoyed talking with them to find out about the bigger world.
It’s true that the peddlers of pots and cloth did better in the other villages of the district. There wasn’t much jingling of zlotys or rubles in the pockets of Vaysechvoos. The villagers were poor and except for the occasional sale of a cow that might bring money into the town, there was not much with which to make purchases. Accordingly, the peddlers and merchants only came around once in a while. And the pot seller got more business as a pot fixer.
Vaysechvoos did have a blacksmith, and market day was a profitable time for him. Nahum could forge anything that was made of steel. He was even known to make items of cast iron using molds made of sand. Perhaps his skills were wasted in Vaysechvoos, but Nahum seemed content. There were not enough horses in Vaysechvoos to keep him occupied, and for weapons, there was even less demand than horseshoes, which is to say there was no demand at all! But Nahum also repaired small tools, kept the butcher’s knives sharp and was very clever in the making of hinges, door latches and other hardware. The blacksmith’s work was known to be sturdy and cheap, and many used the market as an occasion to buy those hinges, door locks, small tools and to have their mules and horses shod.
Nahum had lived in Vaysechvoos all his life. He wasn’t much taller than the rest of the townspeople, but his shoulders seemed twice as broad as the most strapping of the young men, and no one in Vaysechvoos had the muscular strength of Nahum the Blacksmith. His father had been the blacksmith before him, and when Nahum was old enough to swing a hammer, his father taught him what he knew of the craft. Then he apprenticed Nahum to another Jewish blacksmith in Kiev.
A transformed Nahum returned to Vaysechvoos. He had attained his full growth and bearing and seemed to have a quiet kind of confidence. And no wonder, for he had not only learned much smithing in his years at Kiev, but he had learned about love as well. He surprised everyone by bringing his bride, Hannah, with him. She was a delicate beauty, a woman with a quick smile and friendly manner. All of Vaysechvoos mourned when Hannah died in childbirth. The boy survived, however, and grew to be as quiet as his father, was also studious, and a hard worker in the smithy. As a youth he was short, stocky, and he stammered like Moses. He too went off to Kiev when he came of age. Unlike his father, he did not return.
There were many other sons who left Vaysechvoos and wandered afar, never to return. Some left to be apprentices, others to receive a formal education, but Vaysechvoos remained much the same without them. The shtetl never seemed to get any larger or smaller. No one begrudged the young people who left to make a life outside the tiny village. One could hardly expect children to stay in a place that only had market every other week and where the most exciting event was the discussion of a drasha preached by a maggid in some faraway place.
No one forgot the young people who left, but it was an unspoken rule that one never inquired about them. Everyone knew that there were some departed sons and daughters of Vaysechvoos who wandered far from the religion of their parents, and some who ventured into the world of the goyim.
Once in a while one might volunteer good tidings about a son or daughter, but, for the most part that too was considered impolite. It only reminded those whose offspring had not fared so well of their sorrow.
Take for example the encounter that Shimmon the Butcher had with Zeidel the Tanner. Shimmon was bursting with the news of how his son Yonkel owned the biggest kosher butcher shop in Lodz. Poor Zeidel replied that his first son, who’d been taken away by the army, was killed in training. The other son, Heshel, became a shikker, also living in Lodz.
After that, Shimmon didn’t feel much like volunteering information on who had become the largest kosher butcher in Lodz, and he was thankful that his son was generous in sending his old clothes and a few zlotys to Heshel from time to time.
Sometimes the people talked about far-away places. They wondered aloud about America, where the streets were made of gold, but wild savages with feathers instead of hair would chase you and eat you. Of course everybody knew about the wealthy Rothschilds of Austria, France and England. The people of Vaysechvoos didn’t exactly know where these countries were, but they surmised that they must be nice places. Imagine a place where the czar couldn’t just take away your money, a place where Jews could became so wealthy that gentiles came to borrow from them! And even if only a few of the Jews were wealthy, any place that didn’t have a czar must be a better place–unless there were savages to eat you.
These were the types of things the people of Vaysechvoos loved to hear and discuss on market day. Few people expected to line their pockets that day, but a little business was better than a punch in the nose, and everyone enjoyed socializing.
There was one who never failed to do a big business on market day–and that was Yossel the bookseller. With as much business as he could do, he only wished there would be a weekly market day. It wasn’t just the annual luach the people would buy. They bought cheaply printed drashas by the dozens, even by the hundreds. The sermons were circulated so that virtually anyone in the village who could read (and that was almost everyone) read the sermons. In fact, when the snows came and the people were house-bound, they read the sermons out loud to each other and sometimes held competitions to see who could memorize them the best.
Perhaps if the rabbi of Vaysechvoos had been a better maggid, they wouldn’t have bought so many drashas, but sermons were necessary. Man shouldn’t live by bread alone,” the Sage of Vaysechvoos would say.
The metaphors, the similes, the poetry, the descriptions of far-away places were the chief literature of the people of Vaysechvoos. They had the drashas and the piyutim and the tefilos from rabbis who lived thousands of kilometers away. They eagerly read these writings in Yiddish–even in Hebrew. They didn’t, however, buy many of the circulated sermons that were rendered in Polish or Russian, and they couldn’t figure out why anyone among the gentiles would want these sermons. They thought that the writings were belaaz and not merely bilshon am zor. It hadn’t occurred to the villagers that reading the sermons in Polish and Russian was a way to learn these gentile languages–but then why would they wish to learn such languages? If they learned to talk like the goyim, who knows what they might end up saying?
At any rate, the writers of the sermons in Hebrew and Yiddish were regarded as celebrities. The people compared and contrasted their works and each was ranked according to the quality of his sermons. And the greatest of all sermonizers was Ezra ben Nahum.
People didn’t know much about Rabbi Ezra ben Nahum. His words spoke for themselves–poetic, profound, even prophetic, inasmuch as they spoke to people’s hearts about the times in which they lived. Above all, his sermons comforted people by pointing to the hand of an all-caring God. Women sobbed out loud as these sermons were read to them. Men seemed to be roused to action and piety.
So popular was Rabbi Ezra ben Nahum that some had dreamt that they might get together and sell Napoleon’s sword* in order to have a purse to invite the rabbi to come. Even so, it seemed unlikely that they would have enough money to invite a preacher of such renown.
Every four or five years, a lesser-known, unpublished preacher would visit Vaysechvoos for three or four days. The people of Vaysechvoos were always as generous as possible, but even their most profound generosity lacked persuasive power and few of the visiting rabbis returned.
“What audacity, that we should even dream of inviting Ezra ben Nahum to Vaysechvoos!” the Sage of Vaysechvoos commented after one of these lesser preachers had departed. They could not possibly entertain such an important man as he.
What they lacked in the actual presence of Rabbi Ezra ben Nahum, they made up for in the numerous readings of his sermons. When it came to discussing the sermons, their enthusiasm was evident in how each person spoke as an expert, not merely on the sermons of Rabbi Ezra ben Nahum, but on his private life as well. Not least among the experts were the women, who imagined that Ezra ben Nahum was a young, handsome widower.
And since he was a widower, with no children yet (so the rumor went), he was looking for a pious bride in Israel who would be a combination of some of Israel’s great heroines. She would have the beauty of Rachel, the wisdom of Abigail and the courage of Judith.
You see, whereas the thoughts, admonitions and the rhetoric of Ezra ben Nahum were widely known, no one really had the slightest idea if he was young or old, tall or short, fat or skinny, or where he had gone to school. So the people of Vaysechvoos felt very free to imagine their favorite rabbi exactly as they wished him to be.
To the imagination of Malkah, the grandmother, Ezra ben Nahum looked just like her fully-grown grandson who had left Vaysechvoos years ago. To Shimmon, Rabbi ben Nahum was a man who could appreciate a good shoulder of lamb. “Otherwise,” the butcher reasoned, “how would he have the sensitivity and strength to be so dynamic and dramatic in his explanation of the acts of the Almighty?”
To eleven-year-old Levi, who had been hearing these sermons with a sense of awe since he was six years old, the preacher was just like a big brother. In Levi’s imagination, Ezra ben Nahum would come by the house and invite Levi for a jaunt in the woods and a swim in the river. Ezra ben Nahum would certainly appreciate the full attention of an adoring younger brother.
Maybe the only one in all of Vaysechvoos who wasn’t given to speak much about Ezra ben Nahum was the blacksmith. He seemed to hear all of the opinions regarding the preacher with a nod of approval, and though it was known that he himself had the largest collection of sermon folios, he said very little.
Nahum lived in a big house with his second wife, a kindly woman with whom he shared six children of her youth.
Maybe it was that Nahum didn’t say much about the favorite sermonizer because he couldn’t hear as well. Some said this was so because of the constant banging on the anvil. But his children, who got by with very little, knew their father’s hearing was acute. And he certainly didn’t lack piety. He was part of the minyan every morning. He was known to be in synagogue early and to stay late. No one thought much about Nahum’s silence on the subject of their favorite maggid, so they were all the more surprised on discovering the real reason.
On an uneventful Friday, about noon, Motke the bal agolah came to town and dropped off a stranger at the home of Nahum the Blacksmith. The stranger was dressed like most people, and covered with dust and grime from the road. The only thing that was unusual was that he carried two satchels and a suitcase. Not many travelers came or went with more than one small valise.
People came up to Motke wanting to know who was the stranger who was visiting the blacksmith. “That’s no stranger, it’s his son!” Motke replied. Then they remembered the short, stocky stammerer. Everyone looked forward to greeting him in the synagogue that night. It was so nice to have a departed son of Vaysechvoos return.
That night Nahum and his son were in the house of worship, the one place that Nahum’s voice was heard loud and clear. Even the chazzen couldn’t sing as melodiously. And the son, Ezer, matched his father not only in the ability to sing, but in clothing and stature. They appeared virtually identical–except that the father’s beard was graying.
The rabbi gave his usual two drashas, one on the Torah portion, the other from the Neviim. And to speak kindly of the faithful man of God, one should say that it was just as well that there was no secretary there to record his sermons. The drashas had virtue inasmuch as they were true and, thankfully, brief.
After the service, the rabbi went into the study room that served as the cheder room during the week. Now the learning tables had their chairs pulled away, and there were plates of gefilte fish, assorted herrings and challah left over from the Sabbath meal tables. Along with that there were such things as the people of Vaysechvoos could bring to share with their chaverim. Of course they had to get it to the shul to be laid out for the oneg before sundown.
Nahum brought–as he always did–two big honey cakes, baked by his wife, for the occasion. But this time he brought a bottle of brandy as well, in celebration of his son’s return. And who didn’t want to meet and talk to the son? Chaya Yentle who had taken to shouting at everyone since her own hearing had become impaired was overheard by everyone in the room to ask, “But is he married?”–which was a question that she frequently asked when any new man presented himself in the village. She was watching out for her granddaughter, Rachel, who was already nineteen and without a shidduch.
Failing to receive an answer, Chaya Yentle approached the young man directly. With their noses but a hair’s breath apart, she stared up into his face and shouted, “Are you married?” to which he chuckled heartily and said, “Yes!”
To disguise her disappointment, she continued.
“And I suppose you are a blacksmith like your father? Where do you live?”
“I run a little school in Kiev,” he answered.
To which she responded–not lowering her voice or her gaze in the slightest. “So you are a melamed.”
“In a way,” he said, “I teach children that are a little older. My students are yeshiva bocherim.”
By now the two of them–face to face–were surrounded by every single person in Vaysechvoos, even the ones who didn’t attend shul.
“Kiev,” she said. “So then maybe you have heard Rabbi ben Nahum? He must live there because that’s where his sermons are printed.”
“Yes, I know him well…”
But before he could finish, Chaya Yentle interrupted, “So what is he like?”
At that Nahum yelled over, in the blacksmith baritone voice, “He’s here tonight. That’s my son. Look at him. You’ll see what he’s like.”
The room rippled with “oohs” and “ahs.” Then, from the rabbi there was the repetition of “oy vey” and “who knew?” as he realized that had he known, he could have had the renowned preacher in his own pulpit.
“Would you, could you,” the rabbi implored, “bring us just a word?” To which Ezra’s eyes were downcast. “No, I must leave before dawn breaks to complete my journey, but I will give you a benediction.” He then raised both hands and chanted the Birkat Kohanim:
“Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha; yaer Adonai panav elecha vichuneka; yisa Adonai panav elecha, v’yasem l’cha shalom.”
And it seemed like the short benediction lasted an eternity, and an angelic choir sang a harmony that was only heard in the hearts of the people.
* (That’s a whole other story in itself–and one for another day.)
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.