In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Yoshka the Goy
Vaysechvoos didn’t have a tavern and it is doubtful that people would have frequented one if it did. Instead, when the days grew short and they had eaten their evening meal, the men of the village would amble over to the old synagogue and occupy one of several large rooms situated near the main prayer room. Each room had a hearth and one room in particular usually had a fire. It was in this place that the men would gather and discuss important affairs.
Questions such as, What possible reason could God have had for making an elephant’s nose so long? Or, Which came first, the day or the night? The latter wouldn’t be a question at all except for the fact that the day begins with sundown. After solving such important problems, the men would then discuss local matters, such as whether or not milk from a goat was as good as milk from a cow and if so, why? And what the economic implications would be for the people of Vaysechvoos if the goat’s milk and the cow’s milk were of equal value.
There was one topic, however, that would stir debate every few weeks. That was, simply, Who in the town, or the district for that matter, was truly pious or godly? This was by no means a popularity contest. Each person had something to say on what made for godliness. Of course, the rabbi was always the one to be nominated. After all he was a learned man, a moderate man, a generous man and one who had a kind word for most people.
However on this particular evening, Shimmon the Butcher contended that it was Lazer the Simple who was most godly. Since Lazer didn’t usually join in these evening news and discussion sessions and most of the other men from the village did come, it was up to Shimmon to speak on Lazer’s behalf. Shimmon pointed out that Lazer was first to come to the morning prayers and the last to leave. He also reminded the other men that Lazer had a kindly nod for everyone but he didn’t mix into everyone else’s business. Finally, Shimmon remarked that when the town couldn’t find a woman who wanted to marry Lazer the Simple, he stayed in Vaysechvoos anyway.
But said Feivel the Tanner, “No one ever remembers him saying anything wise or profound. The holy writings tell us that ‘Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive.'”*
But one of the other men responded, “Feivel, couldn’t it be that he is really wise and knows enough to keep his mouth closed, unlike the rest of us?”
The men of Vaysechvoos went back and forth between the rabbi and Lazer. Yes to the rabbi, and no to Lazer. Then yes to Lazer, but they wouldn’t say anything against the rabbi.
Somehow Lazer’s presence was always comforting company. He had two hands ready to help. It was true that he was simple, but he did his duty, paid his debts and always helped whomever he could and never complained. He was a good candidate for godliness.
Since the debate was so fierce and not producing any resolve, they decided to take the matter to the Sage and see what he would say. So without telling the rabbi and without telling Lazer, they went to the Sage to determine who was godlier.
The Sage listened to all of the arguments and then in almost a whisper, said the following:
“The most godly man that I ever met was a goy. He lived in Vaysechvoos when I was a boy and not many people have forgotten him. We just don’t like to talk about him. We never knew why he wanted to live here, but he made his home in the shed by the dairy and took up being the Shabbos Goy. He did errands for our Jewish people. He asked for nothing and if we gave him a kopek or two he seemed very pleased. He learned a pretty good Yiddish and spoke to us in our own language.
“We ridiculed him and called him ‘Yoshka,’ after his god. He took the name with honor. He seemed to know so much of our folkways, that we almost thought him to be a Jew, but he was not.
“Oh, by the way,” the Sage went on, “…did I mention that he was a shtimmer and couldn’t speak? He could hear very well and could gesture rather poignantly. When necessary he could write notes in Yiddish. Back in those days, the Cossacks would raid every four or five years. We expected it and dug our cellars deep. They would come upon us with little warning, but we had little enough to take into the basements.
“In those days we would come forth after one of those raids and discover that the cattle that hadn’t been scattered were carried off, and three or four of the houses would be burned. We lived with it and that was part of the price of being a Jew.
“One time, we heard rumors that there was going to be a colossal raid. The Cossacks had a new leader and instead of a couple of dozen, hundreds of pillagers would be coming our way with wagons to carry away the loot. An attitude of fear settled over the town, but Yoshka was as cheerful as ever. My own mother scolded him for the cheerfulness, saying, ‘It is alright for you to be cheerful, they won’t touch you because you are one of them.’
“He wrote a strange note that said, ‘I won’t let any of my Jews be hurt.’ At least that is what mother told us that it said.
“We could see the smoke of burning villages kilometers away and all the townspeople hid except for me. Maybe I was too curious for my own good. I found a hiding place at the top of a barn from where I could watch. I saw them coming from far away. They were in no hurry.
“When they got near the town, Yoshka came out and confronted them. This man who could only stutter, suddenly had a voice. He held out his hands on either side of him and in a loud voice said, ‘Stop! Go no farther! These Jews whom you hate are people that I love and in the name of all that is holy, I command you to return to your homes.’
“At least that is what I think he said, and I remember the horror on their faces as they looked at him. He seemed like someone else to them. I hate to say it but he looked like the statues of their god and they turned and galloped away at breakneck speed.
“The man we called Yoshka didn’t come back to the village. He kept on going. I can’t remember much about him, except that he had scars in the palms of his hands. I think that he was the most godly because to us Jews he came as a servant. He was a commanding presence for our protection.”
After listening to the Sage’s story, the men of Vaysechvoos had an answer, though it wasn’t the answer they were expecting, nor the one they had hoped to hear.
* Proverbs 17:28
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.