In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Magic Suspenders
Mama, look!! That man is wearing magic suspenders!”
“Shah! You know it is forbidden to think such things! We’ll hear nothing of magic or sorcery, Leybush, or you’ll have to answer to your father.”
“But Mama,” Leybush protested, “if it’s not mag…(the boy caught himself) if the suspenders are not that thing I’m forbidden to think about, then how do his trousers stay up? There are no knots in his suspenders.”
“Don’t be silly, Leybush, of course there are knots. You just didn’t look carefully enough. How else would the man be able to fasten his suspenders to his trousers? Such nonsense.” Leybush furrowed his brow. He was only eight, but he was very sensitive. He expected to be taken seriously and he certainly expected his own mother, Leah, the wife of the tailor of Vaysechvoos, no less, to believe him. With a sigh of resignation, his mother said, “All right, Leybush, let’s go back and take a look together.”
The stranger was standing right in the center of the village looking slightly befuddled. Leah was curious about this stranger; Vaysechvoos so rarely had visitors. And being that he looked somewhat lost, what would be so bad about asking him if she could be of some assistance?
The stranger (who turned out to be Mordkhe, a friend of a cousin of a brother-in-law of Farfel the Tanner) found himself surrounded by eight or ten of the most helpful and inquisitive citizens of Vaysechvoos. The townspeople learned that Mordkhe was a tailor, and that he was a bachelor. He was on his way to Zabludeve but had stopped to give regards to Farfel from his brother-in-law. But that fact became obscured as the attention shifted to the mysterious round things on Mordkhe’s shirt and the even more mysterious way that his suspenders were attached to his trousers with no knots. Mordkhe, for his part, was very curious indeed as he looked from one person to the next, and saw what, to him, was a very strange sight.
But let me explain: in Vaysechvoos, knots were used on clothing instead of buttons. Wherever one would have expected there to be a button and buttonhole, there were two buttonholes, only they weren’t called buttonholes. They were called knotholes. And they were neatly stitched, of course, by Simon the Tailor, husband of Leah and father of Leybush.
How were knots used instead of buttons, you might ask? First Simon took a short piece of twine and passed it through both holes, and then he’d tie his knot. And such knots! Not only Simon, but all the people of Vaysechvoos were skilled in knotsmanship. After all, that was how they closed their dresses, and how the men secured their suspenders to their trousers (a very important detail!).
To be sure, the stranger found the knots of Vaysechvoos as peculiar as most of the townspeople found the buttons on the stranger’s shirt. Mordkhe explained that there were also buttons sewn inside the waistband of his trousers. That, he insisted, was the way to make clothing, and he should know, he said, for wasn’t he the son of the finest tailor in Krakow? A murmur of disbelief and disapproval rippled through the crowd.
The stranger did not win any favor either, when he wanted to know why the people of Vaysechvoos fastened their clothing with knots, for the villagers thought it a silly question—like asking why one gets out of bed before going to work in the morning. None of them, not even the sage of Vaysechvoos knew that a long, long time ago buttons, not knots, were customary in Vaysechvoos. No one but Borekh and his wife (who’d long since gone to their reward) knew the secret of how the change had occurred.
Borekh the Tailor (who, by the way, was Leybush’s great-great-great-grandfather) had done well in business. Whenever there was a wedding or bris, Borekh would make certain the family was properly attired for the celebration. And he did such fine work!
He would make a trip once a year to Krakow and buy enough fabric, buttons, and thread to keep his business adequately stocked. One fine spring day he hitched his horse to a wagon and prepared for the journey. He was whistling a happy tune because he had been commissioned by Lasar, one of the leading citizens of Vaysechvoos, to sew the wedding garments for Lasar’s daughter and future son-in-law, as well as for the bride’s parents.
When Borekh got to Krakow, he bought the most beautiful fabric and the finest thread to make the wedding clothes. He started home and was two days into the four-day journey before he realized he’d forgotten to buy buttons! He was angry with himself, but not too worried. If he hurried, he could go back for the buttons and return to Vaysechvoos with just enough time before the wedding to make the clothing.
Returning to Krakow, Borekh found that a terrible thing had happened. A fire, a very bad fire! Most of the town had been burned and the businesses were in ruins. Borekh realized there would be no buttons to complete the finery for the wedding of Lasar’s daughter. He would be humiliated before all of Vaysechvoos. His failure would probably affect business. He needed a solution—how to make wedding clothes…without buttons? He thought very hard and prayed to the Almighty to deliver him from this serious dilemma.
He arrived in Vaysechvoos, and explained the problem to his wife, who was busy embroidering some pillows she intended to give her sister as a birthday gift. Borekh looked at the basket filled with beautiful, thick embroidery threads, and the Lord (at least he thought it was the Lord!) gave him an idea. His wife consented to give him all her threads, and he twisted them together into beautiful multicolored twine. He tied knots in them, making them into dozens of short lengths, one for each button needed for the wedding clothes. Each time he needed to make a button and buttonhole, he made two buttonholes instead.
Two days before the wedding, when Lasar wanted to see the clothing, Borekh proudly displayed his craftsmanship. Lasar was horrified when he saw all the buttonholes and no buttons, but Borekh quickly explained the way the twine worked instead, telling his friend that this was the latest style from Krakow. Borekh tied beautiful knots, and with the brightly colored twine, Lasar thought it actually did look quite fashionable. Borekh convinced him that his daughter’s wedding would be the finest and most upto- date ever. Finally, Lasar nodded his head in agreement and Borekh sighed a big sigh of relief as he silently thanked the Almighty for his reprieve.
Well, the wedding was very grand, but it did provoke a little jealousy. Everyone in Vaysechvoos knew that Lasar was a leading citizen, but they didn’t see why his family should wear the latest fashion while they went about in plain old buttons. Borekh was mortified when one after another, the villagers asked him to alter their clothing so that they, too, could be in style. He didn’t dare let on that he had improvised the clothing for the wedding simply because no buttons had been available. Instead, he cheered himself with the extra business, and managed to forget the truth.
Some did feel it was silly to tie knots when buttons were so much simpler. However, the sage of Vaysechvoos favored the new way of dressing, saying that knot tying was a mitzvah because it caused people to slow down and thank the Almighty for the clothing on their backs. This seemed reasonable to the skeptics, who did not want to appear ungrateful to the Almighty.
And the people of Vaysechvoos became very adept at tying knots and took a great deal of pride in the variety of knots and the agility with which they could tie and untie them. Over the next few generations, the people of Vaysechvoos forgot entirely that they had ever used anything so simple and archaic as buttons.
“Buttons, what nonsense!” they shook their heads at the stranger. Leybush piped up, “Mama, what’s wrong with the stranger’s buttons? Do other people in other places really dress that way? Why don’t we?” That was the last straw. The people of Vaysechvoos are not violent but when those things they hold dear are threatened, they will not sit idly by. They did not really hurt the stranger, but with a great deal of pushing and shoving, they bid him farewell. It was not the most gentle of partings.
Well, after the stranger was gone, things quieted down and the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos was peaceful once more. Still, everyone felt a bit worn from all the excitement. Most returned to their homes or businesses to have a nice glass of tea, which would soothe their nerves.
Leybush slipped out quietly and went back to the center of Vaysechvoos where the stranger had stood less than an hour ago. He stared at the ground thoughtfully for quite some time before he scooped up the three buttons that had come off the stranger’s clothing in the midst of the scuffle. He looked at the buttons in the palm of his hand and marveled at their smoothness, and their exact circular shape. He glanced about and quickly slipped the buttons into his pocket. Someday, Leybush would be a tailor.
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.