Tale 16 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

The Pushke(1) Battle

 

Hershel Goldberg's knees almost reached his nose as he propped his boots up on the bench in the row in front of him. All by itself this would have been annoying enough, but his constant rocking motion was vibrating both benches and disturbing the other men sitting on them.

Normally such behavior would have resulted in a yelling-match punctuated with bitter threats and insults, synagogue or no synagogue, disturbed-sermon or no-disturbed-sermon. But Hershel was Chaim Goldberg's brother, so David-Horodok quietly endured. It was a simple fact of life: the brother of the richest man in town had to be indulged, no matter how great the desire to kick him. However, since every woman looking down from the upstairs balcony had marked Hershel's latest transgression, if you had bet a hundred rubles that the tongues of David-Horodok, both male and female, would even the score by that afternoon, you would not have lost a groschen.

The congregants had no way of knowing how much his brother's misbehavior distressed Chaim the Nogid-his outer garment hid inner torment, as the old proverb says. Concerned with his family's image as well as money, Chaim was continually exasperated by Hershel's juvenile attempts to get attention. Chaim had even tried to bribe his brother to leave town, pointing out that a shoemaker could make much more money in a large city and offering to set him up in a store, anywhere else. But Hershel stayed. An accomplished provocateur engaged in small villainies, Hershel loved his avocation too much simply to abandon it, even for his own store. In a huge city, whom could he needle? More to the point, how would he get away with it?

Looking about him on this Saturday morning, Chaim was beginning to worry that his brother had once again duped him. The sermon was not going well. The maggid, whom Chaim had recommended on his brother's advice without checking the man out beforehand, was embellishing on his theme "The Villainy of Zionism" with ever greater fervor. Itinerant preachers, maggids earned their living moving from town to town. Chaim began to sweat; David-Horodok youth had been much taken with Zionism lately and the shuffling of feet and clearing of throats behind signaled growing irritation. The Slonimer rov, stroking his long white beard in his nook beside the ark, was looking askance at Chaim. They both knew the sermon was stretching tempers and heating di kalte shul in a way no one wished. Well, almost no one. Chaim's glared at Hershel.

"Zionists are exploiting the natural Jewish desire to return to the Holy Land, but the Good Book clearly states that will take place only when the messiah comes. If we try to push God, He will rain disaster on us, and even more long years shall pass before we call Jerusalem our home!" The maggid's voice rose thunderously, readying itself to drive a spear into the hearts of the heretics. "Expel these deceivers, these Zionists, from your midst. At the least they will lead you astray; at the worst, they steal from your community. The money they collect for Keren Kayemes(2) -are you sure that it's being used to buy land in Palestine? Are you sure none of it is being taken and spent by them on licentious debauchery?"

At these last words one of the young men sitting in front of Hershel jumped up. "How dare you accuse us of theft, you old goat! You and your cohorts are just lazy; you want God to carry you to Jerusalem on His back. You try to hide your own lethargy by condemning those who take action. May your children die of cholera for your lies!" Several young people shouted approval and prepared to leave. Hershel chuckled quietly.

The maggid had no intention of allowing a young nobody to insult him. "And you are a brash young radical who endangers the whole Jewish people! You have now exposed your true self before this congregation! You mock our tradition and our Torah, and worse, your own God. Apostate! Deceiver!"

From the women's balcony Leah's daughter Brokhe, ever vigilant of evil, joined the maggid. "Pinkhes, you shame this town by insulting a maggid. Such disrespect for a rebbe! Instead you should answer his questions about the money you collect. Your schemes deprive the students at the holy yeshivas in Jerusalem; their pushkes held only half the amount they did last year. People tell me they have to divide their donations between Keren Kayemes and the yeshivas. You are letting Satan and his devils in the door. Repent before God punishes us all!"

Outraged, an old Eastern-wall-sitter angrily shook his fist, "How dare a woman break the peace of a Saturday morning service. Brokhe Leahs, you desecrate God's temple! Imagine a women arguing in the synagogue!"

Leytshe, a local socialist, could not let that comment go even though she detested Brokhe. "And you live in the Middle Ages, you ignorant old man. Brokhe has the right to speak, just like any man! Woman wasn't born so that man could wipe his boots on her!" That, at last, caused general pandemonium.

Hershel was in convulsions, Chaim had turned white, and the Slonimer rov was seriously disturbed. And as if things weren't bad enough, Nieson Leib the Butcher began pounding on his bench demanding attention. His heart may have been fashioned from gold, but he had the brains of an ox. And as the rov had feared, the olive branch he waved quickly became a burning torch. "Let's not argue, fellow citizens. Is this disagreement the fault of any Horodoker? No! It is the fault of this maggid here who worked everyone up. Let's run him out of town and we'll get rid of the problem."

The maggid was appalled; Hershel had said the town would be receptive to his message. Fearing for his reputation-who would want an itinerant preacher thrown out of towns for causing trouble-he defended himself vigorously. "Butcher, you are a Haman and a subversive."

Insults having reached this pitch, a mob of screaming men formed around Nieson Leib and the maggid. The rest of the congregation broke up into minor battles which formed, dissolved, and reformed again in a kaleidoscope of argument, people hurling point after point at each other. When a few of the huskier members started throwing punches as well, the rov had the synagogue cleared, and the congregants, ashamed but still angry, went home to a less than peaceful Shabbes dinner.

The next day, the leaders of the kehilla(3) met to decide what, if anything, should be done. The men felt they had to do something to protect the reputation of the town. If the maggid left angry, who knew what he would say about them as he traveled to the many cities and towns of the Pale preaching. They had already heard his vehemence and feared David-Horodok would become the victim of every Jewish joke in Russia. They shivered when they thought of Chelm.

The Chelmner said to his friend, "What's the trouble? You look very upset."
His friend answered, "I am. I missed the train by three minutes."
"My goodness," exclaimed the Chelmner. "From the way you act I would have thought you missed it by a whole hour."

Yes, they had to pacify the maggid, but without provoking their Zionist youth to wholesale rebellion. That would be tricky work.

A member of the kehilla, Chaim Goldberg stared dejectedly at the men around him. He knew no matter what was decided, he would have to shoulder the blame because he was the one who had invited the maggid to David-Horodok.

"There's only one person here we need to reprimand," said Reb Ashenbach, a solid citizen who loaned money to worthy fellow Jews, i.e. Jews with good collateral. Chaim waited with dread. "Nieson Leib!" With unerring accuracy, Ashenbach had located the least politically powerful combatant in Saturday's clash. Chaim cheered up considerably at this suggestion. He might get out of this with his reputation only a little frayed.

"The butcher did deliver the worst insult to the maggid-suggesting that we run him out of town," Chaim ventured hopefully.

"Since he endangered the town's reputation," Reb Ashenbach took his cue, "I suggest we withdraw his right to sell kosher meat. That will show the rest of the town we don't appreciate outlandish, disruptive behavior." Ashenbach's eyes rested pointedly on Chaim, and Chaim squirmed. He knew quite well that Ashenbach was referring to Hershel.

"Maybe we could withdraw it for only a month, as a lesson. He really meant well." Guilt prompted Chaim.

"That would not satisfy the maggid. At least six months." And so it was voted.

When the Zionists heard of the kehilla's decision, they marched with a single rage to Reb Ashenbach's house and threatened to burn it down if the kehilla didn't rescind its action. Not only did they mean it; everyone in town knew it. Now a great deal more was at stake than the town's reputation; fires spread, so its very existence was at risk.

News of these happenings quickly came to the attention of the Tsar's town administrator, Avtchinkov, who called in the kehilla leaders and ordered them to settle the matter without chancing arson. Officialdom had spoken. However, besides Avtchenkov and the Zionists, the butchers of David-Horodok were also demanding something be done. Nieson Leib, without official permission to sell meat, had never been so prosperous. All the Zionists in town and most of their parents now bought their meat exclusively from him, even though he had no license and paid no meat tax to the kehilla. Because of the business the other butchers had lost, they loudly petitioned the beleaguered kehilla members every chance they got.

Everyone in town had his/her favorite scapegoat and no one could change anybody else's opinion. The situation became one enormous bruise on town life. The problem of course was that while one person may be an expert on Torah and another on pig bristles, everyone is on expert on politics. As a result, business everywhere slowed, what with so many people not talking to each other.

The Days of Awe, or more appropriately in this case, the Days of Repentance, were fast approaching, and the Slonimer rov sensed it was time to start the healing. The town had finally begun to weary of its emotional binge and the inconvenience it had brought with it. The rabbi, of course, did not preach at his fellow Horodokers; that would only have caused more recalcitrance and hurt feelings. Instead he ran into people and dropped hints.

"It's a shame how difficult God will find it to grant David-Horodok a prosperous New Year since we cannot even wish each other a good year."..

"I wonder whether God will forgive our sins, if we cannot forgive each other."..

He pointedly asked Reb Ashenbach about the interest rates he was presently charging, and joked that even God would not be able to pay back loans at such a price. Reb Ashenbach, he felt, needed special reminding that Nieson Leib was not the only Horodoker in need of compassion and forgiveness.

Erev Yom Kippur came, but as people gathered in front of the Great Synagogue they found the doors locked. The Zionists and traditionalists shuffled around in two groups at the entrance, eyeing each other, when the Slonimer rov and Chaim Goldberg pushed through to the center with Hershel in tow. Facing everyone, the Slonimer rov held up a ruble and handed it to Hershel, who dropped it into the blue and white pushke of the Jewish National Fund. Then Chaim Goldberg took out another ruble, held it up and gave it to Hershel. Hershel dropped this ruble into the red and white pushke for the support of yeshiva students in Jerusalem.

"Let the quarrel be ended," the Slonimer rov declared. "And now that we have straightened out ourselves, we must straighten ourselves out with God." Then he unlocked the synagogue, and the people filed in behind to hear the Kol Nidre.

And at this service, taking no chances, Chaim Goldberg sat Hershel down beside him.


Notes:
1. The little can or container kept in the home, often in the kitchen, in which money to be donated to charity is accumulated. Back
2. The Jewish National Fund Back
3. The governing council of the Jewish community. Back

 


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