In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: For Women Only
The ladies of Vaysechvoos, like women in the shtetlach throughout the Czar’s land, had little education. They were, of course, taught those things necessary to make a home for their families: clothes-making, cooking, cleaning and so on. They were taught to obey the precepts of the rabbis: the taking out of a small portion of the challah dough, which was burned in the oven in memory of the portion given to the priests when the Temple was standing; niddah, or the separation of a wife from her husband during the unclean times; mikvah, the ritual cleansing at the end of the niddah days; and finally, hadlakkah, the kindling of the Sabbath lights. Most could read Yiddish and knew many of the prayers in Hebrew by memory. Yet when it came to the holy writings in the holy language, women were just not schooled to read.
That is why it was of much curiosity to the old Sage of Vaysechvoos that Reuven the Peddler had a quantity of siddurim for women only.
How do you expect to sell us siddurim for our women?” the Sage chuckled.
“Why should I have a problem?” inquired the bewildered peddler.
The Sage responded, “Can you be so uninformed that you don’t know that our wives and daughters don’t read the holy tongue? This is not Kiev, after all!”
Reuven was not in the least dissuaded from peddling his wares. Reasoned the elderly man, “Everyone should have their own siddur. Not having the skill of reading is a minor obstacle.”
Reuven then made his way from door to door of the humble dwellings that were homes in Vaysechvoos. The first door he knocked on was that of Chaya, the butcher’s wife.
“Good day,” the peddler smiled. His wide grin revealed several gaps of missing teeth that had gone the way of his many years.
Chaya invited the peddler in and offered him some of the tea that was already brewing.
“Old peddler, what is it that you are selling? Perhaps some fine material so that I can make dresses for my marriageable daughter?” Reuven shook his head, “No.” “Oh, then is it pots and pans that you’d like for me to consider?” Again Reuven shook his head.
“My dear woman,” the peddler began, “I come to sell you something far more valuable. It is of such importance that I would like you to call all the other women of Vaysechvoos to come and see. I will be in the meeting hall tomorrow at this same time. Have all the wives, daughters and widows present, and I promise you that you will not regret it.”
The peddler spoke with such sincerity and power that Chaya could only manage an assenting nod. “What could it be?” she thought. Reuven the Peddler, sensing Chaya’s wonderment, exclaimed, “Now you and the others mustn’t tell your husbands about this. And you mustn’t discuss it among yourselves. But I promise you, once you know why I’ve come, you’ll not regret it!”
The peddler left, and Chaya wasted no time in letting the other women know of her strange visitor and the all-important meeting.
The next day, one by one, the women filed into the meeting room until it was filled to capacity. Last to enter was Reuven the Peddler carrying a large sack. He made his way to the platform at the front. The chatter that filled the room became silence as all eyes were fixed on the old peddler.
“Good day ladies,” he began. “I am Reuven the Peddler. And no doubt Chaya, the butcher’s wife, has told you that I asked to see you all together for the purpose of selling you something more valuable than cloth or jewels or even goose feathers. What I bring is an opportunity for you to own your own siddur in the holy language. Now, before you tell me that you can’t read, and what good would a book of Hebrew prayers be to you, I want you to hear a story.
“In a town, many weeks journey from here, I brought my siddurim to show to the women as I do here today for you. They laughed and said, ‘How can we profit from a book of prayers when we can’t read it?’ One woman was not laughing; she was the rabbi’s daughter, Leah. ‘I’ll teach you to read!’ she exclaimed, as she stood to her feet. I have kept it a secret, but now I must tell you. I quietly hid in the corner while the boys’ cheder was in progress.
“‘Little by little, I learned what was not necessary for girls to learn. Yet, I tell you that my world has become so large through reading the holy books. My only regret is that my mother left this world before I could teach her what I learned. But maybe, if I teach all of you in her memory, it will count to her credit with the Almighty.'”
Reuven then paused as he looked out on all the women of Vaysechvoos and in a penetrating voice said, “Which of you has learned to read Hebrew? There must be a few among you.”
Chaya spoke up, “What difference does it make? Even if one or two here could read Hebrew, when would the rest of us have the time to learn? We don’t have servants to do our work. This isn’t Kiev, you know.”
The peddler smiled and untied the cord that held his sack closed. He reached in and pulled out the siddurim for all to see. “Do you have time to learn to read but one page of written prayers? The Talmud says, ‘When you address the Holy One, let your words be few!’ So learn a few words, then a few more. Before you realize it, you will learn to read this entire book. Look, see for yourselves.”
With that, the peddler passed the siddurim to the ladies. Each inspected the books of prayer and was amazed to see that only one of the many pages were with writing, each a different page. Then they understood the peddler’s plan. Between all of them they could learn to read the entire siddur, if each would just learn her one page!
Now you may ask, Did the ladies get the siddurim? Well, to tell the truth, they had but a few kopeks each, and the siddurim cost several rubles. The peddler wasn’t able to make one sale.
But the women of Vaysechvoos were so taken with learning Hebrew that the town of Vaysechvoos became the first Jewish shtetl in the province to begin a girls’ cheder.
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.