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[Page 578]

My Good Father

By Simcha Prawda

Translated by Chana Pollack and Myra Mniewski

I am venturing into the sensitive memories of my childhood kingdom in the small shtetl of Czyzewo, where I was born, bred, and grew up. There was so much beauty there, orchards with red cherries and juicy apples, green meadows, a forest with thick leaved trees and squirrels on the branches.

The rustle of the forest and the song of the river sound so sad to me now. None of those lovely and hearty figures, who are engraved in my memory forever, exist today, and no power in the world is strong enough to tear them from my heart. They are revealed to me in my nightly dreams and in lifelike visions at twilight and when I lie with eyes open waiting for the arrival of dawn. So much beauty shines from them, so much life, Jewish faith, Jewish stubbornness in waiting for the messiah. My father's ani ma'amin resounds in my ears, his strong voice, which in difficult times comforted and encouraged, “Jews, don't give up, salvation will surely come.”

My father was a quiet Jew, an ordinary fellow with a little blond beard. He was a humble torah scholar. He wore a black caftan woven in accordance with ritual law. His kind honest heart trembled when he heard a child cry or someone in pain, even if it was a stranger.
The modesty of my father's heart was always with me. More than once, in my rushing about, I would suddenly long for the comfort of my father's talis and tefilin, just like I longed for the homey taste of the coarse black bread following the recitation of the weekday hamoytse. And above all, I longed for his virtue, which he exhibited in all his worldly endeavors.

It was my father's habit, on his way home from the prayer house in his cowhide boots, to quietly whisper the daily psalms. And as he walked he thought of me, his Simkhe, who was keyneynhore [1], growing up already and plans for his future had to be made. But at the bottom of his heart he believed, that his son, with God's help, would grow up to be a mature, respectable, honest Jew.

It happened on an ordinary market day. The market and the little streets were full of peasants. Women, overworked with haggard faces, their bonnets tilted on their heads, were bargaining back and forth with each other. Sounds of the marketplace filled the air. My father was busy in his shop. But he remembered to send me off to school.
As I passed Motl's shop, I felt something under my feet. When I bent down, I couldn't believe my eyes— it was a wallet with money. This happened so suddenly that in that minute I forgot everything I had been taught at home and in school about the great sin of taking what was not mine. I put the wallet in my pocket and hastened my footsteps turning to look back often to make sure no one was following me.

In a quiet alley I counted the treasure. There were ten rubles and ninety kopecks in the wallet. In those days that was a large sum of money.

I did not go into the study-hall but held the wallet tightly in my hands as I proceeded to find my friends: Simkhl Gramadzin, Shmulke Lazers, and Leybish Berishes, and we all went to play cards in the women's section of the shul.

We played for a few hours, until I lost all the money. On my way home, sad, with a bitter taste in my mouth, I heard crying screams on our street, coming from Motl Feyge-Peyes store, “Give me back my money.”

My heart felt like it was breaking. With hesitant steps, I drew closer. A Jew with an old fashioned caftan—his cries, hoarse and pained, quietly complained that he was ousted from Mishenitz and that that money was his whole fortune. He was about to buy some green soap, but now he was lost.

Motl Feyge-Peyes cursed and swore on her life that she didn't know anything about it and hadn't seen any money.

The Jew was in despair, releasing a sigh that cut through my heart, “Oy, kind, merciful Father, what am I going to do now?”

I wanted to scream out, “Sir, I found your money!” But I was immediately frightened by my own idea. Where was I going to get the money to pay him back? I had lost it all.

For a few minutes an internal struggle raked me. I felt I had committed a horrible crime and if I didn't correct it now I would never be forgiven and I'd go around with a guilty conscience for the rest of my life.

I tore away from where I stood, ran to the despairing Jew and, trying to control the uproar in my heart, asked him quietly, “Tell me, how much money did you have in the wallet?”        “Ten rubles and ninety kopecks,” The Jew turned his gaze on me, his eyes full of pain, grief, and pleading. For identification purposes, he added, “There were also two buttons in the wallet, and one button was broken.”

“Come with me, I found your wallet.”

I didn't want to think about what would happen next, how I would get the money to pay him back. I knew that he had to get his money back and I was prepared to endure the greatest sufferings.


czy563.jpg [50 KB]
Bobe Sore tells 6 grandchildren a story

On top: her daughters Rivke and Perl as well as her
daughter-in-law are listening to her sweet tale

In a few minutes I was in my father's shop with the Jew. I didn't wait for my father to ask, but hastily spoke out instead, “Father, you may do whatever you wish to me, I will accept everything with love, but return the money to the Jew. I found it and lost it playing cards.”

I wanted to continue to talk, plea, cry, but the words remained stuck in my throat. My father's face grew strict, as if he were getting ready to execute a sentence. Then within a moment his gaze shifted like an extinguished flame which had suddenly been blown out by a cold wind. With all the strength of my boyish heart I wanted to shout, “Hit me, and kill me! I deserve it! But the Jew should not suffer!” But before I even managed to open my mouth, my father turned to my mother and called out, “Sara, cut three yards of linen for a frock for the Jew.”
Upon turning back to us, his face was again transformed. A warm, bright smile shone in his eyes as well as on his whole face, “Not a groshn will be missing.”He walked over to the drawer, counted ten rubles and ninety kopecks and gave them to the man, while my mother measured the linen.

Later, my father sat with the Jew, invited him for shabes and schmoozed with him as if he were a welcomed guest, a close friend.

He didn't scream at me. It was clear to me that in those moments, when my father looked deep into my turbulent heart, he was comforted knowing that his Simkhele was fulfilling the commandment of returning a lost object.

Shabes arrived. It was the nicest and grandest shabes of my life.

Soon it will be fifty years since that happened and my heart still quivers, as if it were yesterday.

You are always with me, dear father, everyday of my life. Your hard lived life, or unlived life, will accompany me like the sun, even more radiant than the sun. Your deeds will forever illuminate my disposition.



Translator's Footnote:
  1. May you be protected from the evil eye. return


[Page 567]

My Homily

Simcha Prawda

Translated by Chana Pollack and Myra Mniewski

In my shtetl, I was considered an “apikores” [heretic]. But God only knows what the nature of my heresy was. I rocked with the same enthusiasm as all the other young hasidic boys when I prayed; I recited the ani m'a amin with great devotion every day; I kept my peyes [side curls] very long. When I got a haircut I was very careful to make sure Ruven, the religious barber, should, God forbid, not inadvertently let the scissor touch a single hair of my peyes. What then was my sin to be deemed an apikores?

The answer to this may be as follows:

I once showed up in the hasidic shtibl with a short jacket and no hat! This so-called “ sin” sealed my fate and brought to pass that I should never again lay eyes on my beloved Aleksander shtibl. From that accursed day I was forbidden to set foot in the shtibl and the hasidim began to regard me as a dissident.

Having no other choice I went to pray with the minyen [quorum] of the Tiferes Bokherim [1] which had just been established. There, after prayers we gathered together, gave Zionist sermons and full of longing for Zion, sang the song, “ Al eim haderech shama misgoleles, shoshana haklilas einayim.” It was there that we decided to perform the play, “ Village Youth,” as a benefit for the library. Everyone was given a role. It was my lot to play the part of Reb Khatsye, which entailed giving a drashe [sermon).

This role was sent to me straight from heaven. It was there, through this sermon, that I was given the opportunity to get even with the hasidic minyen who had wronged me by banning me from the shtibl. In my sermon I gave my all to making fun of the hasidic fanaticism in Czyzewo. I rehearsed my lines day and night and when I enunciated the words, “ When a Jew sins with “ something” in this world, what happens to him in the next world?” I gesticulated with various hasidic grimaces to the nth degree.

Despite the fact that we rehearsed in secret in the firehall, news that we were preparing a play somehow became public. Women in the market secretly passed the word to each other, from mouth to ear, wringing their hands.

The shtetl was in a fuss, but we, prepared for the performance with all our fervor.

One shabes, after the morning prayer, as soon as they took out the Torah, Avrom Yoysef the hasid, agitated, his arms flayling, ran into the Gerer shtibl screaming, “Gevald, Jews, we're on fire!” There is no need for prayer and there is no need for learning, 'It's time to do the Lord's work; your Torah has been undone'. The forces of evil, may God protect us from them, are surfacing in our shtetl!” He screamed inflamed, his adam's apple bobbing up and down, his pointy little black beard jutting in rhythm, “Vey, vey, Jews, why are you just standing there? There's a fire burning up our homes, our whole shtetl, the fire is coming from the firehall and it's consuming our children! Gevald Jews, rescue! 'Whoever is for the Lord, come with me!

The crowd left the Torah on the table, as if in disgrace, and still wrapped in their taleysim [prayer shawls], went directly to the firehall to extinguish the blaze. At that moment, the Aleksander hasid, Reb Velvl Shmuel Zeligs, stood in the doorway of our house with his head down, looking like a mourner just returned from a funeral, God help us.

My mother, frightened at seeing Velvl in this condition, screamed, “Aron, what happened?”
“They say, that your Simkhele,” his voice cracked not completing the sentence, and all the while standing with his head bent.

“What about my Simkhele?” My mother asked, her eyes bulging, terrified.
“Your Simkhele,” Velvl began again his voice sounding as if it was coming out of an empty barrel, “Oy vey, gevald, God in Heaven—boys and girls, may God protect us, get together and play treyater and your Simkhele is the big makher among them and you are silent?”


czy570.jpg [39 KB]
Simkhe Gromadzin-Gordon, New York and Simcha Prawda, Mexico

“My Simkhele?” My mother, already calmed a bit, asked. She raised her modest eyes to heaven, as if to thank God that at least I was alive, and again asked, “What are you talking about Reb Velvl, my Simkhele? Aren't you mistaken?”
“Yes, your Simkhele. I am not mistaken,” Reb Velvel drew out his words, “Who is closer to a child than his mother? You must see to it that your dear brat allows his father, the tzadik Reb Shlomo, to rest in peace in his grave. You must see to it that he not play in any treyater. That is how you can save the entire shtetl. The curse on the shtetl will be lifted, children won't be taken from us before their time, and all ills will be cured.”

The whole time he was speaking my mother wiped her tears with her shabes apron and as soon as she saw me entering the house she looked into my eyes with weeping eyes and asked, “Simkhele, you play treyater?”
“How do you know mother?” I answered with a question.

“The whole town is fuming over you,” my mother, wringing her hands and sobbing asked me again, “Is it true?”
Silently, I let down my head and didn't answer.

Vey to the mother who has lived to see this! Woe, woe is to me that I have to witness this, and vey to your father in his grave, nebekh!” [2]

“Simkhele!” she began to plead, “Don't disgrace your father in his afterlife, obey your mother. Is it suitable for Shloymke Prawda's son and Moishe Prawda's grandson to congregate with cheeky girls to play the treyater?”

My mother's tears and pleading voice literally broke my heart. I decided not to go anymore and promised my mother, “My foot will not cross their threshold!”

But soon after, I thought to myself, “ How will I be able to do this? How could I keep my promise after I had already invested so much work, rehearsing my part with the sermon so many times and especially since the profits were designated to maintain the library. And what will Libshe, the fishmonger's daughter, say? She is expecting me with her infatuated eyes?”

Indeed, I soon regretted my holy promise to my mother not to act again. As soon as my mother fell asleep after supper, I crept out gingerly, and as if chased by a gale, went straight to the hangar where they were already waiting for me and immediately immersed myself in my role.

As soon as I saw Libshe there, I totally forgot about the promise I had made to my mother and began again to rehearse my role. When I got to the drashe I gave it my all, screaming with all of my might. It felt as if I wanted to pommel those frume yidn for my mother's tears, for disturbing our shabes, and for forcing me to deceive my mother.

When I finished yelling out my sermon, applause broke out in response to my acting. No one knew however what was going on in my heart at that moment.

Dear mother, forgive me!


[Page 571]

The Holy Billy Goat

Simcha Prawda

Translated by Chana Pollack and Myra Mniewski

Among other things, Czyzewo was blessed with goats and billy-goats. Day and night the goats used to roam the shtetl's streets and alleys, chewing their cuds and leaving tokens of their visits.

Each goat procured its food in its own way. One grabbed a little grass off an unhitched wagon, another noshed from a sack of potatoes on a peasant's cart. Another took the opportunity to stick its head into a mare's feedbag when the mare was taking a break from eating to shake off some flies. The goat continued to munch away until the mare flared its nostrils in a loud snort frightening the goat who ran away offended.

There were goats that staved off hunger with a handful of cabbage or even an apple. In a pinch, a roll from Malka the baker would also do.

That is how every goat procured its little bit of food, with no dearth of fear and often actually accompanied by the crack of a whip or hard stick over its brittle bones. That is why, when it came to milking, every goat knew who its owner was and only the owner had the right to some of its rich milk. It was never arbitrary.

Amidst the herd of Czyzewo goats, a “bokher” that freely roamed. He had a lengthy, dignified little beard and pious eyes that were overshadowed by his broad overhanging ears.

He would turn his bushy head this way and that as he strolled the streets,
bleating in his hoarse little voice, “Meh, meh, meh!” This was an indication for all to make way; the city's he-goat was coming through! Respect for the city's holy billy-goat! And people actually honored him and made way; no one wanted to get caught in his pointy horns.

The only one in town, who not only didn't honor as befit the shtetl's one and only billy-goat, but instead scornfully doled out heaping portions of blows, was Reb Itzl Kayles (his wife's name was Kayle). He was the goat's rightful owner, who according to Jewish law, was supposed to be allowed to roam freely because he was a first-born male.

As soon as the little goat arrived into the world, Reb Itzl Kayles had already calculated how many pots of milk this little goat would produce when it grew up to become a goat. With great joy he tied a red ribbon around the beautiful little goat's forehead which was marked with two adorable little patches. This served as an amulet against the evil eye. Reb Itzl was never stingy about giving the little goat milk to drink. No worries, it would, God willing, return a lot more than that.

And that's how things went along calmly and undisturbed, until. . .

One fine day, Reb Itzl noticed that the young goat was beginning to sprout a little beard, that was growing longer with each passing day and…that it was actually a he-goat and that he had been fattening up a freeloader who was sponging off him. From that day on, Reb Itzl began to decrease the goat's food ration, until one fine morning, he stopped feeding him altogether and in a huff banished him from the shed where he slept.

So the billy-goat, nebekh,[2] had to wander through the shtetl alone in search of its daily sustenance. But the day came when the billy-goat grew lonesome for his former owner, Reb Itzl. As it happened that day turned out to be the day that Reb Itzl forgot to lock his granary where sacks of wheat and flour were stored. The billy-goat leisurely strolled in and with great pleasure began sating his hunger. He buried his head and beard in a sack of barley, ate a while, tried a bit of wheat from another sack and washed it down with some buckwheat from a third sack. But when he was working on dessert, slurping from a bag of wheat-flour, an unwelcome Reb Itzl showed up at the door and without even saying hello, threw a weight he just happened to be holding in his hand at the goat.

Luckily, he missed him. Confused and embarrassed because he was caught stealing red-handed, the billy-goat let out a heart wrenching “mehhhhhh!”

[Page 575]

In his language this meant, “Why are you beating and berating me? Is it my fault God created me without an udder and I cannot give milk? Am I supposed to go hungry?” But Itzl Kayles had no intention of suppressing his anger and didn't stop beating and cursing his poor bokher for breaking into the granary without his knowledge and stuffing himself on all the goodies.

At a certain moment, the billy-goat froze in its tracks, as if he might have found a way to flee his undeserving master, but he didn't. Instead he sneezed loudly. Reb Itzel spat right in his face and chased the thief into the street, giving him one for the road with a stick across his emaciated back.

A few days later, after the aforementioned incident, Itzel suddenly noticed an eruption of warts on his face. It was the talk of the town that this was Itzel Kayles' punishment for torturing and spitting in the face of his holy bokher. From then on he received a new name, no longer Itzel Kayles, he was now called Reb Itzel the Wart.

After this incident with Itzel, every one was very careful not to lay a hand on the holy bokher. He, the holy bokher, roamed the shtetl freely paying visits to grocery stores, produce stands, even visiting bakeries to snack on some baked goods.

The billy-goat's first visit, after his unfriendly reception at Itzl's, was at the grocery store of Reb Itzl's neighbor, Reb Dovid Sara Etes (his wife's name was Sara Ete.) With his little beard, he rummaged in a sack of oats, “and he saw that it was good.” Realizing its true taste he dug his chin deeper into the oats and had a go at it. From Sara Ete's store, he went for a walk around the marketplace, grabbed a lick of farina at Mendel Liev's and saw that this too was not bad. He then honored the widow Sara Rachel with a visit, to satisfy his taste for some ground chickpeas followed by some sour pickles from the barrel at the entrance.

The townsfolk, nebekh[2], watched the antics of the holy first-born and, suppressed their anger, pursed their lips and remained silent. One may not disturb the bokher. No one dared throw anything at the billy-goat or hit him, because, God forbid, he might become afflicted as punishment for one of the worst sins, not a trivial matter. The bokher, according to Jewish law, is free to do his want, and our holy bokher indeed behaved as though unbridled.

When Yutke, Yoske Nisl's wife, saw the he-goat approaching her grocery store knowing how he freely roamed through the shops, mercilessly gorging and swilling, she was enraged. Knowing that she begrudged her own children a little farina to cook up for themselves how could she let this glutton feast free of charge? Even if he is a holy bokher was she obligated to let him gorge? Isn't it enough that he depletes everyone else's stores and no one does anything about it? Where is the judge and where is justice? No! She would not be silent!

She grabbed a rolling pin and determined, ran out into the marketplace, straight over to the billy-goat. The goat reared up on its hind legs, pointed his goatee in her face and let out a drawn out “mehehehhhh,” baring his pointy horns. All of which meant the following in goat language:

“Yutke, Yutke, who do you think you are going up against with that rolling pin? Against the “holy billy-goat”? Against Itzl's bokher, his only-son? I'll impale you on my horns and show you who's boss! Show some respect for the holy bokher!!!”

Only then did Yutke realize her mistake. She was not dealing with just any he-goat, but with the shtetl's esteemed he-goat, who, according to the law, should not be harmed. God may punish her, heaven forbid, as he did Itzl Kayles, may the merciful one protect us.

She spat three times saying, “May only my enemies suffer so.”

The holy goat again strode daintily around from shop to shop, from trough to trough on an eating spree from the nicest and best and no one disturbed him.

We kheyder [3] boys who enjoyed catching billy-goats in order to ride them would make a game of chasing them until they collapsed with the rider on their backs, having no more strength to stand back up. But Reb Itzl”s holy first-born was treated with great respect and love. We were afraid of him, caring for him as if he were our own eyes. We fed and protected him for we were scared we would wind up like Itzl Kayles, God forbid, with a face full of warts. Along with the fear we also pitied him and felt badly that Itzl had abandoned him. Indeed every boy tried to oblige the holy-billy goat, one with a piece of bread, another with a potato or beet that was taken out of the house behind their mother's back. But, as we later learned our kindness turned out to be too good.

It happened on an ordinary Wednesday. We wanted to prepare a festive meal for the holy-billy goat and brought all sorts of treats. Everyone strived to bring the most that they could and we gave it all to the billy-goat. He inhaled everything with gusto, apparently very hungry. Suddenly, he let out a resounding lament, the sound of which carried through the shtetl. People ran from all over to see what was happening. A horrific scene—the holy billy-goat is lying in a pool of filth thrashing in anguish from side to side. He raises himself up on his forelegs digging them into the earth, kicking, and ramming his horns into Mendel Liev's stone floor. In great agony he falls down, tries to get up again but cannot, groans loudly and remains on the floor stiff.

His holy soul ascended!

***

A quorum of Jews raised the holy goat, carried him into the hekdesh [4], washed him and wrapped him in a white sheet. The whole shtetl took part in the funeral. He was carried to the cemetery and every one of the assembled asked forgiveness of the goat, in case someone, God forbid, had caused him pain when he was alive. Everyone felt s/he had a part in the death of the holy-billy goat. But we boys felt clean of sin.

 



Translator's Footnotes:
  1. First born male return
  2. pitiful return
  3. school return
  4. The poorhouse return

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