In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Chaya the Kind
Nobody in Vaysechvoos could remember why they thought Chaya was crazy; they just did. Perhaps it was because she rarely left her house—the only time anyone ever saw her was at shul or on an occasional walk alone—or because she hardly ever said a word to anybody, or because nobody really knew anything about her at all…other than that she seemed a bit odd. Most of the children of Vaysechvoos were a little afraid of Chaya the Crazy” and she made the adults a little nervous, too.
“It’s not that I think she’s dangerous, really, but right in the head she’s not,” Leah, wife of Lazar the water-carrier, told her son.
“How do you know?” little Samuel asked.
“Some things you just know,” Leah replied, as they hurried past Chaya’s house on their way to see Leah’s brother, Chayim the tailor. As they walked, Samuel looked back at the tiny house where Crazy Chaya lived. He thought he saw movement by the window—
“Stop staring,” his mother commanded as she yanked his arm. “You want to invite trouble?”
When they reached Uncle Chayim’s place, Samuel was still curious as to what made Chaya crazy, so he asked his uncle.
“Oh, Chaya’s crazy, that’s certain,” Chayim said, nodding his head.
“But how do you know?” Samuel asked.
“What do you mean, how do I know? Everybody knows that, Samuel. Look, every shtetl has to have at least one meshugge, nu? So Chaya just happens to be ours.”
“That’s what I told him, Chayim. Now, stop asking questions!” Leah told her son.
When Samuel asked his friends why everyone called Chaya crazy, they offered a bit more information.
“My papa told me that Chaya once had a husband long ago, but that one night he disappeared, and nobody has seen him since,” Lev said knowingly.
“I heard she eats rats,” Shimmon said, grimacing.
“Once I saw her talking to Motel’s horse,” Abie chimed in. “She was speaking to it like it was a person.”
And that was the way most conversations about Chaya the Crazy went. Samuel wondered if the old woman knew that people talked about her. He wondered if it would bother her if she did know. Did crazy people know they were crazy, he asked himself, and shrugged. Everyone in Vaysechvoos couldn’t be wrong, he reasoned. She must be some sort of lunatic. Samuel made up his mind not to think about Chaya the Crazy anymore.
A month later, someone noticed that the place where Chaya always sat during shul was empty. A few of the women dared to enter Chaya’s house, where they found her. She had died in her sleep.
The chevra kaddisha took care of all the arrangements, but nobody in Vaysechvoos really mourned Chaya’s death. After all, they hardly knew her. And yet, her absence created a hole in daily life that many noticed. “I can’t believe she’s really gone,” someone would say, and another would agree.
Chaya had no family that anyone knew about, so the Sage of Vaysechvoos suggested that a committee of women be formed to sort through Chaya’s belongings and tidy up her house. Truth be known, some women agreed to help with this task more out of curiosity about the inside of Chaya’s home than out of an earnest desire to serve. “Who knows what we’ll find there?” Leah thought to herself as she prepared to leave for Chaya’s on a quiet and cold Friday morning. The women wanted to start their work early and end early so they would have time to prepare for Shabbat.
When the four women entered Chaya’s home, they found it a simple place, quite clean already, though a bit dusty. There was a chair by the window, where they guessed Chaya sat and watched people go by, and a small table, and on the table sat a book.
Leah went to the table, picked up the book, wiped some dust from the cover, and opened it gently, as some of the pages were loose.
“What did you find, Leah?” her friend Hannah asked.
“It looks like some sort of journal,” Leah replied. The pages were marked with dates, and there were notes for each day.
“Little Motke looks so sad today…hope he is all right…and there’s little Shimmon, how much he has grown this year!” Leah read out loud, continuing, “That Samuel seems like such a nice boy, and his mother, Leah, she’s so pretty…” Leah stopped, looked up at the faces of her astonished friends, and turned a page.
“I heard that Hannah is sick…must remember to take her some barley soup…”
“What?!” Hannah cried, and grabbed the book from Leah, and read the words for herself. A tear appeared in her eye. “Last year, while I was sick, and Mendel was so busy working in the field…one night, there was a knock at the door. I sent little Thalia to answer it, and she came back to me and said, ‘Mama, there was nobody there, but I found some soup on the step.’ I never knew who had brought us food when we so needed it. It was good soup, too, I remember, and there was some rye bread, too.”
The four women pored over Chaya’s journal, thoughts she had written down, lists of kind acts she had done in secret, prayers for her neighbors. There was nobody in Vaysechvoos who didn’t have a place in the heart of this woman, it seemed. It was a glimpse into the life of a stranger who perhaps wasn’t so strange after all. Her words and deeds spoke loudly, though she would be forever silent in her resting place.
A year after Chaya’s death, on her yahrzeit, the people of Vaysechvoos, all of whom had finally realized Chaya’s true nature, gathered at the cemetery for the unveiling of her tombstone. Samuel stood near the front of the crowd, and was one of the first to read the simple inscription on the headstone, the plain block letters that read: “Chaya the Kind.”
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.