Three Memorable Characters

A regular feature of “The Keidaner,” the monthly bulletin of the Keidaner Assn. of New York, were short sketches of life back in the old hometown.  Here are three:
The Coachman / The Feldsher / Yosse-Itse’s Payos


The Coachman

By B. Cassel

From “The Keidaner” bulletin, March, 1941

Feive Shmiser was the well-established wagon-driver, and a person of influence among the coachmen in Keidan. He had a pair of coaches with several horses, and used to take passengers from Keidan to the surrounding towns.

That was all before they built the railroad1. When they started building the rail line, Feive thought nothing would come of it, assuming that without a wagon driver people wouldn’t be able to find their way to a strange town.

The railroad was built, and Feive continued to behave arrogantly towards his passengers.

Finally the railroad was ready: Feive’s passengers became fewer and fewer. He had to sell one coach and a couple of horses, and kept only one horse and wagon. Making a living became a struggle, and he was forced to resort to the same trade as the other coachmen, who weren’t as stubborn as Feive; namely, driving passengers to the train station.

One morning Feive Shmiser started out with a wagonload of passengers to catch the morning train, which left from the Keidan station for Kovno at 7 a.m.

From his years as a big-shot coachman he was still quite imperious, and used to scold any passenger impudent enough to suggest to him that it might be time to get going already. Accordingly, he figured that the “choo-choo” wasn’t anything he needed to worry about; it would never leave before he delivered his passengers to the station.

But he had driven as far as the crossing where the road to the station met the railroad tracks, and had just lowered the crossing gate from under his horse’s nose, when the train flew by on its way to Kovno, rumbling loudly and tooting its whistle, as if to sneer at the dumbfounded Feive and his passengers.

At first Feive and the passengers, as well as the horse, were all startled by the rude train whistle. As he restrained his nervous horse, and calmed himself down as well, he remarked philosophically: “Blow, blow; we’ll see how long you blow. In my life I’ve seen bigger coachmen than you blowing their whistles, and in the end they all died in the poorhouse!”

And, spitting in the direction of the departing train, he turned the horse back toward the town.

The passengers exhausted themselves, calling down curses on Feive’s head. But Feive, deep in thought, just pulled his hat down lower on his brow, and uttered not a word in response.


The Feldsher2

by B. Cassel

From “The Keidaner” bulletin, January, 1941

Reb Avrohom Einhorn, the Rabbi in Sukhovole, in the Grodno district, barely made a living from his job. Therefore the rebbitsin, his jewel of a wife, made a business shipping linen to Riga.

Once when Reb Avrohom’s son, Mordkhe, a youth of about 15, traveled to Telszh to study in the yeshiva, he had to travel to Riga on a mission for his mother’s linen business.

Now the Libau-Romny train, on which he traveled, stopped at the Keidan station. And since Keidan was the home of his father’s brother, Reb Meishl Ortziks Einhorn, Mordkhe stopped for a day to visit him.

His uncle, Reb Meishl Ortziks, a wealthy shopkeeper, received him in fine style. His aunt, Sore Rive Tzviehs, made a lovely breakfast, and their guest felt right at home.

But that night, after supper, after everyone had gone to sleep, the visitor began to complain of a stomach ache; the pain grew worse and worse, and really scared his uncle and aunt. Just then Keidan was experiencing an outbreak of dysentery, which, because of the conditions of the time, had claimed many lives.

They immediately summoned Dr. Layne. But when he didn’t come quickly enough, they called for Reb. Gabriel the feldsher, who came right away.

Reb Gabriel, a very wise man whose kind words and gentle manner could ease the suffering of the sick, often carried his medicines with him, especially during a time of epidemic. After examining the patient and giving him a powder to take, he advised the sick man to lay warm compresses on his stomach.

A few minutes after Reb Gabriel left, the doctor arrived.

Doctor Layne, a converted Jew whom people continued to call by his Jewish name, Levit, was always in a foul mood, and spoke what few words he did in an angry fashion. After interrogating the sick man, he wrote out a prescription and told them to lay cold compresses on his stomach.

When the doctor had left, the worried aunt and uncle confronted their quandry: What kind of compresses should they apply? Cold, as the doctor had ordered? Or warm, as Reb Gabriel had advised?

Reb Meishl, a pious, learned man, weighed whose advice he should follow. With all his respect for the learning of the doctor, whom he nonetheless despised as an apostate, he had confidence that God would help through Reb Gabriel’s advice, and he decided in favor of the warm compresses.

And God did help: Thanks to the warm compresses, Mordkhe recovered his health. In fact Mordkhe grew up and became the famous stomach-specialist, professor Max Einhorn of New York.

And thus Reb Gabriel the Keidan feldsher saved the life of the famous stomach specialist, Professor Einhorn of New York.


Yosse-Itse’s Payos3

By B. Cassel

They were two partners, both shingle-cutters. Yisroel Hindas, a tall, dark man with a full, thick head of hair and a long, broad beard that covered his chest and reached all the way down to his belt. An easygoing, thoughtful fellow, he contemplated life philosophically.

Yosse-Itse was completely the opposite of his partner. A small, dry character with a pointy, sand-colored little beard, he came from a priestly family and was always in a state of excited motion.

From after Pesach until Shevuot the two partners worked in the forest, not far from Kroke, making shingles for the local landowning nobility. When the day before Shevout arrived, Yosse-Itse said to Yisroel: “Let us put aside the work early and go home, so that my wife can cut my hair, which has been growing these last forty days. I’m supposed to give the priestly blessing in synagogue over the holiday, and I can’t be seen looking like a wild man.”

“Why trouble your wife, who already has enough to do preparing for the holiday?” Yisroel answered him philosophically. “I’ll give you a better haircut myself, right here on the workbench. All I need is some shears, and we won’t have to give up a half-day of work.”

“Shears!” Yosse-Itse grabbed the idea. “I’ll just run over to Uzhik, the goy who shears the sheep, and borrow his shears.”

No sooner said than done. In a little while Yosse-Itse was back with Uzhik’s shears, which were almost as big as Yosse-Itse himself.

And it wasn’t long before Yosse-Itse was sitting on the workbench hatless, and Yisroel Hindas was approaching him armed with the very big, very sharp shears. Without further ado Yisroel took the shears to Yosse-Itse’s hair: A snip and a snip, and Yisroel had demonstrated his artistry as a barber. In truth, the barbered head was adorned with indents all around – but still, the head was shorn.

The first thing Yosse-Itse felt for after his haircut was his payos. And like a thunderbolt it hit him; there was no trace! How could he, a kohen4 show up to perform the priestly benediction before the town without his payos? He might as well remain in the forest a couple of months until the hair grew back.

But Yosse-Itse had a lively imagination, and was not the kind to let trouble slow him down. After thinking it over briefly, he got down on the ground and scraped together a couple of bundles of the hair that had just been cut off. And with some bits of the wood that was used to make shingles, he fastened the little bunches of hair to the interior of his hat on both sides. With his hat pulled down, the earlocks hung down over his ears, like the nicest pair of payos you ever saw.

The next morning, the first day of Shevuot, the synagogue congregation noticed nothing unusual about Yosse-Itse. But after he had delivered the benediction, and was accepting the congratulations of the crowd, Yisroel came up and, grasping the visor of Yosse-Itse’s hat, gave it a turn to the side. It was then that the surprised congregation saw one of Yosse-Itse’s payes growing out of his forehead, and the other from the nape of his neck.


Translated by A. Cassel

Footnotes

  1. The Libau–Romny Railway, constructed in 1871–74, included a stop just outside Keidan.
  2. An unlicensed medical practitioner, or folk doctor
  3. Sidecurls worn by some Orthodox Jewish men, based on an interpretation of the Biblical injunction against shaving the “corners” of one’s head.
  4. A member (by birth) of the Jewish priestly class, having certain rights and duties in the synagogue