In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Jewish Cossack
Motke was not a very good Jew. It was not that he followed any other religion. No, Motke was altogether irreligious. His kishkes may have been Jewish, but somehow the rest of him never quite caught on. As soon as he was old enough to care for himself, he wandered away from Vaysechvoos and continued wandering.
Now and then Motke would wander back to the shtetl. You could count on seeing Motke home for the Jewish holidays, when he would come to comfort and be comforted by his widowed mother. After all, no matter how far a man gets from his people, he never gets too far from his mother. For her sake, Motke sang the songs of Zion and prayed the prayers of contrition during the Days of Awe. So what if he nibbled a bit of food on the Day of Atonement when no one was looking? He was sure that God didn’t mind.
When the holidays were over, Motke would become restless. His mother would pack the delicacies she had made for him into his knapsack and sigh as she watched him trudge away.
In the course of his travels, Motke met Valerian. Now Valerian was a Cossack, but since he was not such a good Cossack and Motke was not such a good Jew, the two got along famously. They traveled like Gypsies, sometimes tinkering to earn their bread, sometimes singing at weddings and, in the roughest of times, they survived by begging. The two took turns as spokesmen, depending on whom they encountered. Motke could plead the case for two Jews who were in need and Valerian for two Christians who needed help from the church. You see, they knew each so other well that they had taught one another their mother tongues. Valerian could speak Yiddish like a Yid, while Motke had pretty well mastered the language of the Caucasus.
When the epidemic took Valerian, Motke grieved as one would the passing of a brother. He also became much more vulnerable in his travels. He decided it would be far safer to travel as Valerian, the wayward Cossack, than as Motke, the wandering Jew from Vaysechvoos. So he sat at many campfires and sang the songs of the horseman who traveled far and had many adventures. Nevertheless, Motke never forgot his true identity and, during the High Holidays, he would always come home to Vaysechvoos.
So it was, one year, that Motke had come and gone from his shtetl. He was already a half day’s journey away when he met up with a band of Cossacks. He knew these men from various campfires where he had entertained them. Motke swallowed hard as he watched a dozen men sharpen their sabers and clean their muskets. Then he strode confidently to meet them. They received him well. He entertained them by singing a couple of songs and, in turn, they shared their meal. With a few discreet inquiries, he learned that they were on their way to a raid and that Vaysechvoos was their target.
Motke–now Valerian–thought quickly. Whereas he did not choose to live in Vaysechvoos, he appreciated the villagers who had been kind to him despite all his wanderings. And of course, there was his mother. Motke knew that he needed to do something, so he said to the leader, My dear friends, I cannot let you go alone, for even though I am not a fighter, I cannot let you walk into this ambush.”
“Ambush?” the head Cossack said. “Oh, yes,” said (Motke) Valerian, “You all know of the group, the ‘Shomrim*.'” Then Valerian explained, “I came through this village pretending to be a Jew and was entertained royally for their holidays. That was just about the time the 50 Shomrim arrived to take up their position. I did not know it was you, dear friends, for whom they were preparing the ambush. Please let me go with you. I am not a fighter, but I will do my best.”
He could see that he had struck terror in the hearts of each Cossack, but instead of showing fear to the other 11, their leader made a big show of generosity. He smiled, shaking his head. “No, Valerian, you are too small. We cannot allow such an excellent storyteller and singer to be lost in battle. And who knows, if we leave you alone while we proceed on the raid, these Jews may have reinforcements lurking nearby. And then what would become of you? Such a small shtetl is not worth risking the life of a friend. Travel with us for a while. We will protect you and you, in turn, can entertain us and provide us with bits of news.”
So (Motke) Valerian gladly retreated with the Cossacks. And thus Vaysechvoos, without knowing the imminent threat, was saved by an unrecognized son of the village.
* The Shomrim and the Maccabeans were a pair of military groups that tried to defend certain towns from such raids that were tolerated by the government by the Czar.
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.