In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Gitl the Artist
Gitl pushed a renegade lock of auburn hair away from her face. She disliked her hair because she felt it set her apart from the other shtetl girls. She didn’t realize that it wouldn’t have made much difference if she’d had glossy black curls instead of her reddish-brown mane that seemed to capture every stray sunbeam. Her finely chiseled features and dreamy green eyes flecked with gold would still set her apart from the others. Nor did she realize how very pretty she was; she was too busy taking in the beauty around her. This, too, set her apart since most of her neighbors didn’t find much to admire in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos.
Gitl was the child that every mother in the village wondered about. They whispered about her in the mikvah–would she ever make a marriage? What right-minded parents would let her be considered for their son? The women convinced themselves they only posed such questions out of true concern for Gitl, and they pursued their concern by repeatedly inquiring of her mother, Malke, When do you suppose that Gitl will outgrow this phase?” The “phase” that they referred to was Gitl’s inability to mend a sock, pluck a chicken, prepare a meal or perform any other such duty that any girl Gitl’s age should be able to do.
Malke always answered that Gitl was quite capable of cooking or sewing–she simply had no interest. “Her mind is always wandering. It wanders as much as she does,”she would sigh. As for plucking a chicken, Gitl was a sensitive soul, and though she tried to do whatever she was asked, she would become so distressed over a chicken carcass that the dead animal would end up drenched in tears. This was not Malke’s idea of proper seasoning.
Malke told her inquiring neighbors that she wasn’t worried. She’d smile and shrug as if to say, “No matter. She’s certain to outgrow it.” But every night she would recount to her husband the many ways in which Gitl had been “impossible.”
“Yankel, this morning, I asked Gitl to bring in a few eggs, and she wasn’t to be seen for a half hour’s time! I sent Chaya out to bring her in. Sure enough, Yankel, she was out by that tree in the field with her pencil and a scrap of paper.”
“Did she offer any explanation?” Yankel was a fair man who was usually concerned to hear both sides of a story, but he, too, was getting tired of Gitl’s mishegoss.
“She told me that the ‘sun was dancing on the branches’ and she had to draw it before the light was lost. Yankel, I just don’t know what to do with her. All of the women gossip about her, and I myself am beginning to wonder how we’ll ever find a husband for Gitl. What man will be happy with, ‘I forgot to prepare supper, but see the picture I drew of the chickens this morning?’ ”
Yankel and Malke both knew that something had to be done. Their solution was to provide her with one activity after another. They hoped that the busier Gitl became with washing linens or scrubbing floors or baking challah, the less time she would find for her drawings, and they hoped that her interest would thus wane, then disappear.
Gitl tried hard to please her parents. She loved them, and besides, she knew that to honor God, she must honor them. But she was always making mistakes. If she tried to polish the Shabbos candlesticks, one of them inevitably slipped from her grasp and dented the wood floor. Gitl would pick it up, dust it off and go at it with her polishing rag again. But her eyes were always dancing around the contours of the candlesticks. “I wonder how I could make that shadow. How can I show that sparkle of light? Can I do that with my pencil?”
She would take several minutes to stare at the shadow or the spark of light, memorizing each detail. Then at night she would pull a few scraps of paper and her precious pencil from under her quilt and try to draw what she could still see in her mind’s eye. She found it hard to sleep until she had found the way to show that sparkle or make that shadow.
Every morning, she would wake up tired, and her mother began to feel pangs of guilt as she watched Gitl stumble sleepy-eyed from their hut to bring in milk and eggs.
“Yankel, I know that she’s up until all hours of the night with that silly pencil of hers. She hasn’t once complained of all I’ve asked her to do, but I’m worried about her. She just doesn’t seem happy. You should see the way her eyes linger on the clouds. I just know that she’s thinking of drawing them. We must ask the Sage of Vaysechvoos what to do. We certainly can’t have her wasting away her days, but the child must sleep, and I can’t bear to see her so unhappy.”
The very next morning Yankel went to see the Sage. The wise man had anticipated this visit, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Gitl’s parents would need his counsel. He often noticed her sitting with paper and pencil under a tree while other children played games. He had sensed a certain thoughtfulness about her and had considered how best to encourage her special talents.
The Sage surmised from the worried look on Yankel’s face that Gitl was the reason for this visit. “Yankel, I know why you’re here. You have a daughter who is happier with a pencil and a piece of paper than she is doing the things that other girls her age are doing.”
Yankel looked relieved, “Yes! And I must know what is to be done. She’ll soon be too old for this kind of foolishness!”
The Sage sat back in his chair and folded his hands across his ever-increasing girth. He said nothing for a few moments, and Yankel felt the weight of silence with each second that crept by.
When the old man finally took a breath to speak, Yankel leaned forward to listen. “Do you ever wonder about things, Yankel? I find myself wondering about so many things. Like what our lives would be like if each of us took time to admire what God has given to us. We worry so about getting food on our tables and staying out of the way of the goyim. It is true that these things are reality, but it seems to me that maybe God wants more for us than mere survival. I don’t think that you need to spend too much time worrying about Gitl. Life will creep up on her as it has crept up on the rest of us. Let her enjoy drawing the clouds before she has to worry about whether they are going to bring rain or not.” With that, the Sage stood up from his chair. “I think I smell piroshki. I must go see what my Leah has made for me.”
Yankel showed himself out and walked slowly home. On the way, he chanced to meet a peddler, and he made a purchase. When he arrived home, Malke was shaking linens out the window, Chaya was kneading a large ball of dough and Gitl was stooping to retrieve a candlestick she’d just dropped.
“Gitl!” Yankel exclaimed. Gitl stood up at once and grasped the candlestick in her hand, certain that her father was about to reprimand her for being careless. “Bring me your pencil and those scraps of paper you’ve been hoarding at once!”
Gitl walked solemnly to get her treasures. Now I’ve done it. He must know that I’ve been drawing at night. Why did I let the candlestick drop? He thinks it’s because I’m tired. What will I do without my pencil and paper? As her thoughts tumbled through her mind, Gitl felt tears stinging her eyes. But she stood straight when she held the pencil and a small pile of paper out to her father, and she fought to hold back her tears. She didn’t notice the parcel he held in one hand even as he took away her pencil and assorted papers with the other.
“Gitl, I don’t want you wasting your time with this stubby pencil and these half crumpled up pieces of paper anymore!”
“But Papa, I–”
“Don’t but Papa me. I want you should learn an important lesson.” Gitl braced herself. She had always feared the day would come when she would be forbidden to draw.
“And the lesson is this. Always use the right tool for the job!” Yankel tried to maintain a scowl as he handed Gitl the package, but he could not conceal a smile.
And ever so carefully, so as not to waste any of the precious brown paper, Gitl opened her gift. “Oh Papa!” she exclaimed. She ran her fingers across the pages of the smooth white drawing tablet and tested the points of the three brand-new, perfectly sharpened pencils.
“Oh Papa,” she repeated breathlessly, and then she kissed his cheek. When she saw his smile break into a wide grin, she became bold. “Could you sit for just a minute? I want to see if I can draw that sparkle in your eyes.”
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.