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Tale 6 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

Circles

 

Wolfe, a man of mighty girth that advertised his success to the world, blared orders from the bridge of his ship; the expressmen(1) rushed up and down the plank-here loading hides and crates of fish, there carrying rag bundles and barrels of pig bristles. Quickly, quickly, quickly. It was a shame, but this was how the peace of Shabbes was shattered Saturday evening all summer long. David-Horodokers understood that the admonition "Hasten the Sabbath's coming but delay its going" never figured in Wolfe's calculations. He booted it out the door at the first opportunity.

As on every other summer Friday before evening services, Wolfe had yesterday determined from the shammes the exact minute Shabbes would end, and then let his longshoremen know that he expected them on the loading dock ten minutes later. They complied because they needed the work. They did not need Wolfe.

"Move you bastards, move!! Time is money; money is time. I have to be in Pinsk Monday morning. Make me late, and you'll regret it!"

The Pinsker teamsters, so-called because they handled the overland route between David-Horodok and Pinsk during the winter, silently cursed Wolfe and longed for the frigid temperatures that meant freedom. They were forced to labor under his whip only while the Horin flowed. When the Horin and the 180 miles of Polesye marshes that surrounded David-Horodok froze, they drove teams of horses to and from Pinsk, pulling sleighs full of goods and now and again, people. So you see-in God's plan, everything is a boon to somebody. The icy wastes that tormented the average soul gave these men the freedom to work for themselves. But not tonight. During the summer they labored in Egypt.

"Hey Moishe-watch out for Label! Did God give you feet, Laychik? If so, move them! Moishe, don't you dare drop the Eisenberg's fish! If they arrive spoiled it comes out of your wages!"

Finally Wolfe's attention fastened on Shiah, stumbling along as fast as he could. Bent and somewhat crippled, Shiah was by far the oldest expressman in his pay, but Wolfe expected the same pace from him as he asked of all the others. "Shiah," he screamed, "what do I pay you for, to shuffle through life? You're lucky you still have a job! Move, move!"

Label, Laychik and Moishe silently began picking the heaviest loads for themselves, to give Shiah the appearance of keeping up. Wolfe, however, was not fooled; he recognized the mollycoddling with displeasure and decided it must be stopped. He needed four good workers, not three-and-a-half. He would have to fire the old fellow and find a younger replacement. Well, that was life.

Threats wrapped around orders continued to stream from Wolfe, spurred on by a relentless drive for wealth and honor. To earn the most coveted spot by the Eastern wall, Wolfe was prepared to jolt men from the soft bed of Shabbes onto the hard floor of reality every Saturday evening for the rest of his life. He had learned early to work incessantly and never let up. His uncle had explained the necessity to him while they were strolling by the river Saturday afternoons.

"Your father and I once were boatmen, but our barge broke up on a shoal. The Holy One, blessed be He, must have had some reason for destroying us." Onkel Leibke's sense of forgiveness had drowned along with the boat.

"We carried no insurance, couldn't afford it; so we gave up our dream. I became a butcher and your father settled for coppersmith. Now I slaughter animals, when I can buy them, and he turns out door handles and hinges. Even though it's steady, our income is poor, as you well know." How could Wolfe disagree? The taste of poverty was forever in his mouth.

"People praise your father for being poor-but-contented, poor-but-honest. Pah!-as if those "buts" compensate his family for empty bellies. Because of your father's "contentedness," we gave up; otherwise we might still have gotten somewhere. Don't you ever give up your dreams just because of a few tsoris!" Onkel Leibke's savageness streamed from the depths of his longing. In the stratified world of the shtetl, as he sat at the back of the shul with the other prost Jews, he despised life for its unfairness.

Leibke's message became a drumbeat through all of Wolfe's growing years. "Keep your mind on your goal and you will achieve it. Never let up!" And Wolfe never had. He knew where he was going, if it took every minute of his life and every ounce of energy from his expressmen.

On this particular evening a silent guest had joined the hard-working stevedores. From a corner on the darkening dock, the young red-haired Slonimer Rov stood and watched. Several of the men had complained privately to him that Wolfe was getting out of hand. His insults had sped up along with his tempo. And although he was driving them harder, he had cut their pay; they no longer earned enough to feed their families. The 20 kopkes they garnered in a day could buy only sandy black bread and perhaps a little barley to make soup, or a piece of kishka.

But mostly they worried about Shiah, who had been bullied into illness. Moving faster and faster-that causes injury when you get older. They hoped that the new rabbi, even one as young as the Slonimer rov, could help them handle Wolfe. The rov watched, listened, silently agreed that Wolfe needed a little humanizing, and left for home.

The new rabbi paced the floor of the ship owner's parlor several weeks later, his hands clasped behind his back. "Reb Wolfe, God wants all His creatures cared for, not just the strong, and at a just wage. A just wage for a just day's work. That's what our Torah teaches." The rov was concentrating so hard on his arguments, he failed to notice Wolfe's indifference.

"Shiah's wife came to me this morning. Since you let Shiah go the family no longer has an income; she's sick with worry. At this very moment Shiah is lying in bed, not moving. The thought of taking charity is killing him."

Wolfe coughed and took out his watch. The rov continued anyway. "Shiah needs to feed himself and his family. If God saw fit to make you responsible for his livelihood, how can you deny him the means to eat?" Wolfe twiddled his fingers; when was this do-gooder going to finish?

"Why can't you let Shiah earn the same wage as the others, even though he doesn't work as fast? Would it push you into poverty? You'd still be a wealthy man. How little it would cost to save Shiah's life! And if he dies, what payment might God extract from you?"

The rov's big finish was lost on Wolfe, who got up and put his arm around the young man. "You're not in business, rabbi, or you'd understand. I'm happy to give charity to the poor, but charity and business are not the same thing. I can't subsidize inferior workers; I would be ruined."

"I'm not asking you to forgo a profit, but surely you can forfeit a few kopkes. Have compassion man! If the rich take everything, how are the poor to eat?"

"Rabbi, look at it from my perspective. What would happen to my business if the other workers started to think that I'd pay them regardless of the job they did? They would slack off, and then how could I compete? Don't preach compassion at me until my competitors consent to being inefficient. Besides," Wolfe said escorting the rov to the door, "if my business grows, I'll provide jobs for many more of the poor in David-Horodok, and there are certainly more of those than just Shiah. But if my competitors take away my customers, then even the four jobs I now provide will be lost."

"What about making an exception just this once, for Shiah's sake? After all, Shiah worked for you a long time." Pleading was a last resort; the rabbi knew he had lost.

"I have great sympathy for those who can't keep up, but sympathy doesn't pay my bills. Shiah got sick because he couldn't carry the load I need carried; it's a shame and I feel badly about it, but ...." Wolfe's hands went up in a gesture of futility and then he gently pushed the rov out the door.

Shiah died on a holy Saturday not many weeks later. Since Jewish law forbids burial on Shabbes, his brother Mendel the Tinsmith kept watch over the emaciated body until Sunday. During the long night-time vigil, Shiah's son Idil stole into the room to be with his father for the last time.

Out of the darkness of the night and his soul, Onkel Mendel spoke his grief. "It's a terrible, cruel world. This death wouldn't have happened if there had been more justice. Where does this God of Israel, this vaunted champion of mercy, hide himself?"

"Tateh died of pneumonia. Why is that unjust?"

"Your father didn't die from pneumonia. He died from overwork, poverty and a broken heart. People say it was the evil eye that killed him; I say that eye was in Wolfe the Cutthroat's head. The brute terrifies workers with those eyes, staring down at them from the deck of his boat like Pharaoh himself. Your father told me how those eyes frightened him, searching him out the whole time he was loading ships, never leaving him in peace."

"Reb Leibke says Wolfe was doing a kindness to keep tateh as long as he did, and he's right that tateh has not felt well for a long time."

Mendel cursed. "That damn butcher you're apprenticed to would defend his nephew. But you remember, there is no defense. Wolfe the Cutthroat killed your father as surely as I'm watching over his body. He's a hawk, that one, circling, looking for prey, devouring any scrap of humanity he finds. He feeds on men. Believe me, he killed your father."

Very confused, Idil stole out of the room. Should he listen to Wolfe's Onkel Leibke or his Onkel Mendel? Who was right? Was Wolfe just a businessman or an offense against God?

The poor of David-Horodok said the answer was obvious when God took Wolfe's life in payment the very next winter. A real meisse meshina, an ugly death. The rich laughed at such talk and retorted that Wolfe's death proved nothing. They pointed to the profitable dealings Wolfe had had between. Only Wolfe's family simply mourned.

Wolfe had gone down to the quay after a particularly bad snowstorm to check on damage to his boat.

"Don't go," his wife had pleaded. "Send someone younger, someone who can stand the cold and snow better."

"Bah, it's my boat and I need to find out for myself what's right and what's wrong."

He was never seen again. Everyone assumed he had fallen off the boat's deck and crashed through the ice on the Horin. People searched the river but it was frozen and treacherous, and after a whole day everyone agreed that only a body would be found anyway, so why risk other lives. Although some black humor wended through David-Horodok suggesting that a less "weighty" person might not have broken through the ice, generally people thought Wolfe's tragic end atoned for his overweening ambition, and forgave him.

The years passed, as they will. Wolfe's son Micha took over the business, but without Wolfe's drive and energy he made a small fortune into nothing. So it was with irony and sadness that the white-bearded Slonimer rov found himself, at the end of his own life, pleading with Shiah's son Idil. "Have some compassion, Idil my boy..."

Idil had become a copy of Wolfe. He had finally ended the dilemma of his father's death by siding with his master Leibke the Butcher. To the disgust of his Onkel Mendel, he absorbed Leibke's advise as completely as Wolfe had: "Never let up." The boy had grown from local butcher into successful meat dealer who went to the Paltav region in the Ukraine every summer to buy cattle for resale in Warsaw. Since these herds went the entire way north on foot, they were accompanied by hardy cowherds who kept the animals fed and moving. Wolfe's Micha had been one of those attendants until a few weeks ago. Idil had fired him because he had become too old and weak to withstand the long trek.

Despairing of success, the Slonimer rov nonetheless pressed on. "You must understand, Micha has a family to feed ..."


Notes:
1. A David-Horodok term for longshoremen Back

 


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