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[Page 239]

 

Individuals and Characters

[Page 240]

Shmul the Arouser[1]

By Israel Raychenbach/ Tel-Aviv

Translated by Gooter Goldberg

The intense eyes of Shmul, the “arouser” were always hidden behind big bushy eyebrows, and his ashen face never smiled. His voice resembled a rattle – not the Purim[2] rattle, but the famous one belonging to Pavel, the Town Crier, who used to accompany news or proclamations with a hoarse rattle. With a similar sounding voice Shmul used to summon Jews during the third watch on Friday night to get up and recite Psalms.

The sum total of Shmul's Torah[3] knowledge consisted of reciting Psalms and reading Shvat-Mussar in Yiddish. Whenever Shmul was “zogn mussar[4] to a wayward young man he used to upbraid him for not going to shmedresh[5]. He used to talk like that – in plain fashion, but when one listened to his wakeup calls to Psalms at dawn on Shabbat, one heard voices from the Worlds on High. That is when I understood the meaning of the verse in Scripture about the Jews at Sinai: “and all the people saw the voices”. Shmul's voice could be seen. Each word reverberated over streets and alleys and in dark rooms. In a loud rattle-like voice accompanied by a tune that could rise up the dead, he used to exclaim:

“Holy Nation of Israel, Treasured People of Israel, beloved Children of Israel – arise to the service of your Maker – (for this) were you created! Arise, dear Jews to recite Psalms. The clock struck six”!

After such a wakeup call – those who had the good fortune to hear it had to get up and do Shmul's bidding. A kind of sacred music, heavenly sounds was contained in those words. After such rousing it was impossible to go back to sleep.

I always used to think that Shmul might be one of the lamed-vov tsadikim[6] that disguise themselves as tailors, shoemakers, woodcutters – only he as a Psalms summoner – who knows?

With time, his wakeup repertoire expanded. To the abovementioned exhortations was added the verse “Yehuda ben Tema said: Be bold as a leopard, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven”[7].

When Shmul reached the end of the verse, his rendition of the H-e-a-v-e-n could have opened the gates of the Upper Regions. Already at the start of “Yehuda ben Tema said...” my father would sit up in bed and repeat in a plaintive voice every word of the verse; and when the H-e-a-v-e-n crescendo was reached, my father already got out of bed. However, this would not entirely satisfy Shmul, and he would give a hefty rap on the door and would not leave until he heard a clear response: “yes, yes”.

Shmul eked out a living from the pennies that he collected every Thursday; from those he woke with the addition of “Yehuda ben Tema said...” he collected twopence. When he came to collect from my father, he used to ask: “Reb Shie, do you wish me to do it with 'Yehuda ben Tema... 'or without”? Of course, my father always insisted on “with...” and kept on paying twopence...

Once, on a very frosty early Shabbat dawn, when one could already make out the echo of Shmul's wakeup call - was suddenly heard a shriek. Shmul was shouting, “help!” The first on the scene was Boruch, the harness-maker, our neighbour. After him – my father, and I, a little boy also sneaked out. This is what we beheld:

Shmul was standing in the still darkened icy street, the town's night patrolman had his hand on Shmul's shoulder and the latter was shivering – he was convinced that he was about to be hauled off to the “cooler” because he was disturbing people's sleep...

Shmul could not fathom what the constable wanted, but we figured straight away that it was not what the “wakeup man” feared. He stood bend over Shmul and begged him: “davay yeshtcho raz etu pyesnyu”[8] – he wanted Shmul to sing that song again. My father explained to Shmul what the constable was after, and Shmul in all his “attire” – wrapped in ten kaftans, scarves around his neck up to his forehead and his beard tucked over the scarves – straightened up and gave a full performance of his wakeup routine from “Holy Nation of Israel...” up to and including “Yehuda ben Tema said...”. He did it with such power that it made me look beyond the frozen streets towards the distant new cemetery to check if he had not woken the dead... The patrolman pulled himself up as if standing before a superior and listened to Shmul's “song” which was performed especially for him.

The constable wanted to reward the wakeup man for his beautiful singing and took out threepence from his pocket, but Shmul recoiled as if scalded: “What? (I'll take money) on the Shabbat?!” Add quickly added in his rattling voice - “I am not waking any more today. I am off to the shmedresh!” – and vanished forthwith.

We could hear from afar the creaky echo of Shmul's horseshoed boots on the frost-covered paving stones. The patrol officer too, left and we went into our homes half-frozen, but elated. My father was overwhelmed and wept until the Morningstar appeared and he found restfulness in the pages of the Zohar [9].

Years later, I directed drama circles in towns and shtetls. Once, whilst acting in the Sholem Asch[10] play “With the Current” in which one can hear a Psalm-arouser, I tried to imitate Shmul. Apparently I succeeded, at least partially since I was showered with praise. However, I myself felt that it was not on a par with the wakeup calls of Shmul.

All those years, whenever I was reminiscing about that frosty Shabbat dawn I used to ask myself where one could find the playwright that would adequately depict that scene of the Russian patrolman, surrounded by a cluster of Jews, with Shmul, the arouser facing the heavens and reciting his “Yehuda ben Tema said...”

I recall that the morning following that encounter our neighbour Boruch the harness maker came in to discuss with my father the events of the previous day. Boruch spoke with resentment about the goy [11], the antisemite who came up with the idea to humiliate a Jew and ask him to sing in the middle of the night. However, my father saw it somewhat differently: “Who knows? Maybe a tortured Jewish soul dwells in the goy; might not he be the grandson of a cantonist[12] that was forced into apostasy? And don't such lost souls yearn for redemption?”

After those words, Boruch was inclined to accept my father's take on the event, and even cited as proof the reverential posture of the patrolman while listening to the “song” and his willingness to pay a few pennies.

*

That Shabbat was followed by others. Shmul was waking the people in his usual fashion, and every Thursday he would call to collect his due. Once he refused to accept twopence since he had a hoarse throat and would be unable to reach the “Yehuda ben Tema...” My father agreed to give him the second penny as an advance for the following week, but Shmul refused: he would accept it only when he would be able to perform...

I always wondered how Shmul, an ordinary shmedresh kind of man became acquainted with the verse from Pirkei Avot, a fact which would imply a degree of learning. I found it hard to raise the subject with him, but finally I braced myself when I thought I found an appropriate moment.

When Shmul arrived one Thursday to collect his dues and my father was not home, I paid him and burst out with my question of who taught him the verse. He replied straight away that it was Rebbe Natone[13]. As Shmul told me, he once came to the Rebbe and asked him to teach him a few more rousing words, with which to wake the people to recite Psalms. The Rebbe forthwith strode to the bookshelf, opened a book containing the verse, gave it to Shmul to take home and learn the saying for a whole week; then he should return to the Rebbe for a rehearsal. So, he did, reciting the verse with the appropriate intonation. The Rebbe was pleased and gave an interpretation on the meaning of the saying:

“If a man serves the Almighty with all his heart and devotion, then, even he be weak and ailing - he would still be bold as a leopard; and even if he could barely stand on his feet, but he has to get up and serve Heaven with true dedication – he would become (swift) like a deer”.

And as soon as he told me the story, he swiftly left... making me wonder again – if Shmul, the arouser wasn't, perchance one of the hidden lamed-vov tzadikim...


Translator's Footnotes

  1. This is an unedited translation from Yiddish of שמואל װעקער
    an article in “Sefer Kalushin”, Published by the “Kalushiner Societies in Israel, the United States of America, Argentine, France and other countries”, Tel-Aviv, 1961. Return
  2. Purim - (Hebrew: “lots”), is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from Haman's plot to annihilate them, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther (Based on Wikipedia). During the readings of the Book of Esther, whenever Haman's name is mentioned, it is customary to make a noise with rattles. Return
  3. The term “Torah” (“learning” or “instruction” sometimes translated as “Law”), refers either to the Five Books of Moses (or Pentateuch) or to the entirety of Judaism's founding legal and ethical religious texts (Wikipedia). Return
  4. Shvat - is the fifth month of the civil year and the eleventh month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar. It is a winter month of 30 days. Shvat usually occurs in January–February on the Gregorian calendar (Wikipedia). In Shvat (25th) died Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant Lithuania (1810-1883), the founder of the “Mussar” (ethicist) movement (After Wikipedia). The idea of Mussar is to use meditations, guided imagery, and exercises to penetrate the subconscious. In this way an individual can break through the barriers that prevent the soul from expressing its purity. (http://www.aish.com/dijh/46572232.html).
    Shvat-Mussar - a simplified exposition of the principles of Mussar (?).
    Zogn mussar – Yiddish - to moralise, to reproof. Return
  5. Corruption of beis-hamedresh - Study and prayer house, small orthodox synagogue. Return
  6. Hebrew: 36 righteous ones or Tzadikim Nistarim (hidden righteous ones) refers to a belief that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, the world would end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed and the vov (vav), the numerical values of which are thirty and six respectively. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vov Tzadikim. In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, 'concealing' themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown. (From Wikipedia). Return
  7. Pirkei Avot (5:23). Literally, Chapters of the Fathers, also called Ethics of the Fathers, is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period. Pirkey Avot is unique in that it is the only tractate of the Oral Law solely dealing with ethical and moral principles (Wikipedia). The translation of the verse is that of Deborah Klee at http://www.canfeinesharim.org/learning/torah.php?page=11347, with the omission of the phrase “light as an eagle”, which had also been left out in the story. The sage's patronymic/surname is often also transliterated as ben Teima. The usual sources do not provide any information about his life and times. Return
  8. Russian for “let's have that song once more!” Return
  9. The Zohar (Hebrew: Splendor or Radiance) is widely considered the most important work of Kabbalah. It is a mystical commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses), written in medieval Aramaic. It contains a discussion of the nature of God (and) the origin and structure of the universe (From Wikipedia). Return
  10. Sholem Asch (1 November 1880, Kutno, Poland - July 10, 1957, London) was a Yiddish novelist, dramatist, and essayist. Asch received a traditional Jewish education; as a young man he followed that with a more liberal education obtained at Włocławek. From there he moved to Warsaw. Influenced by the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), Asch initially wrote in Hebrew, but later switched to Yiddish. His Kiddush ha-Shem (1919) is one of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature, about the antisemitic Chmielnicki Uprising in mid-17th century Ukraine and Poland. His 1907 drama, God of Vengeance was performed on Broadway in 1923 and was translated into German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Czech and Norwegian (Based on Wikipedia). Return
  11. Biblical Hebrew for “nation”. The expression is also used for “Gentile”, and depending on the context, it could be neutral or derogatory. Return
  12. In 1827, Tsar Nicholas I introduced what became known as the Cantonist Decrees. (The name came from the word “canton,” meaning “military camp.”) These decrees called for the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian Army. These boys were between the ages of 12 and 18 and were forced to serve for 25 years! During their army service, every effort was made to convert them to Christianity. (www.aish.com/jl/h/48956806.html) Return
  13. See page 105 of Sefer Kałuszyn. Return

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