In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Natan the Apprentice
No one in Vaysechvoos questioned the saying,
Many daughters, many blessings and many worries.”
After all, the worry of finding suitable husbands was quite an ordeal. But to have too many sons was actually considered a curse. For only one son could go into the father’s business and what would be left for the other brothers?
Natan was the youngest of the three sons of Shimmon the Butcher. Meyer, the oldest son, was already apprenticed to his father and would take over the family business when the time came. Yosef, the second son, was indentured to the dairy man with the promise of a herd of his own one day. But for young Natan there was nothing. So, the butcher indentured his youngest to a blacksmith named Sholem who lived two days journey from Vaysechvoos.
Shimmon knew this blacksmith to be a craftsman of remarkable skill. They met when the blacksmith came to install the iron gates which were the glory of the prayer house in Vaysechvoos. Shimmon had been impressed with the man, and found reason to exchange an occasional letter with him. Over time, their friendship grew, and when Natan was fourteen, he was bundled up with his few possessions and taken to the home of Sholem the Blacksmith, there to be indentured for six years.
Natan’s chores varied. He cleaned the stable, helped repair the thatching on the roof, looked after the livestock, pumped the bellows and during the evening hours, he studied Talmud. Sholem the Blacksmith made certain Natan earned his keep, but he was far from unkind to the boy. He provided Natan with clothes of good quality, a bed in a room with his own sons, and a home of piety and observance. The blacksmith’s love of the Almighty and his respect for the traditions was apparent in all that he did. Yes, Natan was surrounded by a family who loved God and wanted to please the Lord.
When Natan first arrived at the home of the blacksmith, he thought that Sholem looked like a giant, bigger and stronger than any Jew in Vaysechvoos. But to Natan’s surprise, within a couple years and a few months, Natan was just as big and was becoming just as strong. It was then that he began to learn the craft.
The blacksmith’s older son, Lazar, would occasionally pump the bellows, so Natan could learn to use the forge and the anvil. Natan liked Lazar and prayed to the Almighty that he would never become covetous of the blacksmith’s son. Natan knew that Lazar would some day take over his father’s business whereas he, Natan, would have to struggle to find work. You see, there wasn’t enough business to support a blacksmith in every village–certainly not in Vaysechvoos. Even if he became an accomplished blacksmith, what would he do with his knowledge?
Even so, Natan loved the work and devoted himself to the business. His first opportunities at blacksmithing came in the making of nails. One could always buy a supply of nails for carpentry from the blacksmith. Then came more complicated work: hinges, hearth hangers and occasionally gates and window guards. Now and then Sholem even allowed Natan to help when some shul or wealthy homeowner commissioned him for an ornate job using the finest wrought iron. The work was hard, but Natan took great pride in fashioning the metal with skill and precision.
Natan was always allowed to return home to Vaysechvoos for the holidays. These family reunions were wonderful, but they were also the only time Natan felt he could unburden his soul and voice the deep concerns of his heart regarding his future. And so it was the year he turned twenty. He faced the fact that his apprenticeship was coming to an end with a mixture of excitement, sadness and anxiety.
“Don’t be so concerned, my son,” said Shimmon the Butcher. “I’m certain that all will be well. Who’s to say, you won’t get work right where you are?” Natan patiently explained for what seemed like the hundredth time: “Papa, the blacksmith has two sons and they will surely go into the family business!”
“Don’t be so sure,” his father replied. “Sholem’s younger boy does not have the physical constitution to wield the heavy tools of your trade.”
“True, father, but what about Lazar?” said Natan.
“Ah, God will provide for you, don’t worry,” said Shimmon.
Natan smiled, but inwardly wondered, Doesn’t my father see that I am merely an apprentice, a servant? It is Lazar who is destined for his father’s business, just as Meyer is destined for my father’s business.
Yet as Natan sat at the table for the evening meal in the home of the blacksmith just a week later, he was struck by how much a part of their family he had become. The blacksmith’s two sons were like brothers to him. The blacksmith’s wife seemed as concerned for him as she was for her own children. But then there was their daughter, Rifka. He had grown up these past six years thinking of her as a sister, but lately. . . No, I cannot allow myself to think of her in a different way, he told himself as she smiled and served him a second helping of cholent. The blacksmith chose that moment to speak. “Natan, you are nearing the end of your apprenticeship and I want to commend you for your diligence these years.”
Is he about to tell me that my services are no longer needed? thought the young man.
Instead, the blacksmith went on, “As you know, my youngest son is not destined for this work. He will be apprenticed this year to the tailor in our village. He is well suited for that work and we will have him nearby. There is still my Lazar, who is strong enough to handle the blacksmith work, but his heart is elsewhere. I’ve always been so proud of his skill in understanding the sages; when he was a small boy, I was sad to think that he would not be able to pursue his desire to continue his studies. After all, who would take over the business? So you can imagine the joy, the hope it has given me to watch you, who are like a son to me, become so capable in the trade that has been my life’s work.” Natan could not believe what he was hearing, but still the blacksmith continued. “Lazar has been accepted to continue his studies at the talmudic academy in Kiev. I would like to give him my blessing, but you see I cannot let him go unless you promise to stay.”
Natan was speechless, but the joy on his face was promise enough.
Still, the blacksmith was not finished. “Natan, not only do I want you to stay, but I’ve noticed how you look at my precious Rifka and more importantly, how she looks at you.” Rifka blushed, her brothers laughed and her mother started crying tears of joy.
“And so I think you had better take Rifka in marriage.” Sholem winked at his future son-in-law, then tried to sound gruff, “After all, how else can I keep my business in the family?”
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.