Little Portraits

By Dr. Chaim Epstein and B. Cassel

Originally published by the Keidaner Assn. of New York, 1930. 

Only the devil could stand it

Reb Noach Reubens often suffered from toothaches. In those days there were no dentists in Keidan, and even if there were Reb Noach could not himself have afforded such a luxury. So he relied on various folk remedies. Once he even allowed himself to be talked into a cure by the old German baker on German Street.

One time his wife Rashe brought a bottle of brandy home and poured a small glassful for Reb Noach, telling him to keep it on his aching tooth. This was supposed to be a proven remedy for toothache. A bit later, Noach begged her, “Rashe, let me have another glass! I swallowed the first one.” “Wretched man!” shouted Rashe, “Keep it on your tooth!” “Only the devil can stand that!” answered Reb Noach.

‘For Chana’s sake’

Bunikov, Keidan’s justice of the peace, once passed Chana Lipe’s shack “across the water.” It was a miracle the shack was still standing, propped up as it was on all sides with beams and boards. Its window panes were shattered and the roof was torn apart. Bunikov decided on a way to help poor Chana rehabilitate her home. He came up with the idea, that whenever people were brought before him on charges – say someone failed to keep the area in front of his house clean, or a couple of peasants were fighting in the marketplace – he would fine them an appropriate amount “for Chana’s sake.” Jews who paid fines did so willingly, even with pleasure, since they knew their money was going to help a poor Jewish widow.

But one Thursday, a market day, there appeared before Bunikov a bunch of drunk peasants who had been fighting among themselves. Bunikov realized that such a large group presented an opportunity to raise enough money to complete the renovation of Chana’s house. He fined each of them two rubles. He was quite surprised a short while later when his clerk came in and said that none of the peasants had any money, but that they would be willing to sit in jail “for Chana’s sake.”

Language maven

Reb Shimon Gedalias owned the only clothing store in Keidan. He also had an overwhelming ambition to take part in community affairs. One day a Government Inspector came to town to hold a public hearing about selecting an appropriate place for a proposed Jewish slaughterhouse. The Jewish property owners were not very adept with the Russian language, so a number of young people were brought along to assist them. The Inspector, who had a German background, wanted to hear directly what the property owners had to say and began to speak German, assuming that any Jew would know that language. Shimon Gedalias pushed his way through the crowd, removed his hat, and shouted out – “Daitz! Let me!”  

‘Dr.’ Herzl?

They tell that the same Shimon Gedalias was opposed to Zionism. Once, when the young people in Keidan held a Zionist meeting in the synagogue, Reb Shimon ran out into the anteroom shouting sarcastically, “Those young punks think that Hertske the feldsher is going to deliver them to the land of Israel!” He was derogating Dr. Herzl by suggesting that he was not a real doctor, but only a feldsher.    

A ghost story

Reb Itse Moishe Yudes was long established as the city gravedigger. Once a faction was organized to try to hire a new gravedigger to replace him. After a long debate it was decided to try out a candidate for the job to test his fearlessness. His test was to go to the cemetery one night and dig up a grave. The candidate gathered up his courage, drank a good shot of schnapps and went out to the cemetery.

Reb Itse Moishe Yudes’ friends did not stand idly by. A group of men, women and children donned white robes and sheets, and went to the cemetery to confront the competitor.

When the candidate approached the cemetery, he encountered the group of “corpses” at the gate. At first he was very frightened and he retreated. Then he returned, and called out three times: “Please forgive me. Return to your resting places!” Seeing no one move, he became angry and lifted his shovel high with both hands and shouted: “Well, I can forgive the adult corpses. But you kids. I’ll knock you over with my shovel if you don’t return to your resting places!”    

Chanukah gelt

Khaim Zalmen the cobbler was a cobbler in name only.  His main occupation was being involved with synagogue and community activities. He helped the assistant shamash select candles for the Sabbath; he traversed the city with one of the preachers to collect charitable contributions and engaged in other such communal affairs. But his status was not “official” enough to allow him to canvass the houses in the city for Chanukah money.

Once on a dark Chanukah night, Leyzer the shamash got very excited when he was entering a well-to-do person’s home to collect Chanukah money, and he ran into Chaim Zalmen the cobbler in the anteroom, on his way out carrying a lantern.

Leyzer said: “Zalmen, do you mean to tell me that you’re going about collecting Chanukah money?”

“Yes,” answered Zalmen, “but not for myself.”

“For whom, then?”  asked Leyzer.

“For Mnukhe Esther’s.”

“What do you mean, for Mnukhe Esther’s?” Leyzer asked, bewildered.

“It’s very simple,” Chaim Zalmen answered artlessly. “I owe Mnukhe for three loaves of bread, so I’m collecting Chanukah money to pay her back.”  


Reb Yudel Yanover was a very impoverished teacher. He supplemented his income from teaching by preparing juice from pickled beets. Once his product was well pickled and ready to sell, Reb Yudel would pour himself a glass of the red juice to test it. As he looked through the red liquid in the glass and smacked his lips he would say to his wife in his hoarse voice: “Listen, Tsipe, if God would help me to become rich, I wouldn’t sell a drop of this stuff but drink it all myself.”   

Sabbath peace

Friday night.

There is a burning frost outdoors. The earth is covered with a thick, frozen snow. The steps of a passerby echo with a metallic ring.

Itse the water carrier, who lives next door to my teacher, Reb Hirshe Dovid, is done eating. But before he manages to get through the after-meal grace, he falls asleep with his head on the table.

And it’s no wonder. This wintry Friday is so short, and the water carrier is so very tired, having had to arise an hour before daybreak to deliver water enough to last the homes in the neighborhood until Sunday.

It’s very warm in the house. The furnace was stoked up twice on this Friday – first in the morning to bake the challah and again in the afternoon for the tcholent.

The smell of  the tcholent stewing in the oven wafts throughout the house.

From the open area under the furnace emanates an odor of the several chickens nestled there, as well as the stink of the garbage pail nearby.

Several small children, asleep in the bedding laid out for them by their mother, are disheveled, half-naked since it is so warm.

The overworked mother has also fallen asleep on her bench in the middle of her chores, embracing a pillow with both arms, bits of fluffy feathers escaping from a torn seam.

After a short but deep sleep, Itse awakens from his uncomfortable position.

The wax candles have burned out, except for one, flickering its last in the brass candlesticks and throwing strange lights and shadows through the room. The smell of the melting tallow mingles with the odors of the cold stew and the unwashed utensils under the table.

It is pleasantly warm. Itse’s first thought is: “It’s Friday night.” He feels well-fed after a meat meal. Tomorrow it’s Shabbos, and he doesn’t have to go to his hard work with the water pails. The smell of the tcholent in the oven comforts him; the family will eat well again tomorrow.

He stands up, stretches, yawns and says happily:

“Oh, Creator of the Universe! How wonderful it is!  They say that Friday night is only a thousandth part of the world to come. Just think then, how wonderful the world to come will be!”     


Translated by Meyer Dwass.



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