Here’s a holiday offering. A story of magic, of identity, of family, of tradition. It’s a bit long, as it involves a journey of sorts. To a town of fools. After awhile, you’ll be laughing with me. Grab a cup of tea or coffee. Come, read…
On The Way From Chelm
Before she left us, Grandma gave me an old, red book of tales, told me all the old stories, and, without my conscious consent, made me – Bella, the youngest granddaughter – their guardian.
When she was alive, she was more of a keeper than a teller of tales. A quiet grandmother, full of humor. I was only ten when she died, aware neither that she had held the name of keeper nor that she had passed it on to me. I was already known as a storyteller by then, and the stories I was most often asked to tell were the stories of Chelm, the Jewish old-country town known as the town of fools.
I had learned my ten year’s worth of stories. I had eaten my ten year’s worth of poppyseed and sponge cake, of farmer’s cheese blintzes, of kasha, of dill pickles, of cholent and kugel. I had absorbed my ten year’s worth of Yiddish sprinkled into English, the only full language I spoke. I had sung my ten year’s worth of songs, and their rhythm broke free of the music, embedding itself in the stories that were now mine, stories which flew from me with laughter whenever we gathered as a family to celebrate, whenever I had an audience. I had no idea that an entire, vanishing culture and language had been planted in me, a grain of being which, if protected somehow deep inside me – an Ashkenazic child – could inch forward, unseen, to an unnamed future.
I didn’t understand that every day in my house, interacting with parents, one of whom had been raised by that grandmother, would nourish the grain with small drops of language, Yiddish language, with deeply-imprinted inflection, with gestures so easily spotted and recognized in the outside Gentile world that they were the subject of frequent, ignorant ridicule.
In the youngest years of my childhood, I was already an eager teller. And when I was ten, I became aware of those inflections, those gestures, mostly evident when I was engaged in the occupation of storytelling, but sometimes perceptible in school or elsewhere by the non-Jews with whom we shared almost all of the activities in our community.
At first, I was certain of my Jewishness, just being, not really thinking. But then I began to hear from other Jews that I was not as Jewish as they, and I lost confidence. I was not religious, therefore, they said, I couldn’t be a real Jew, as they were. I did not know the secret rituals or prayers which they knew. I was not mysterious, like the Sephardics, nor exotic, like the Yemenites or the Ethiopians; I did not wear long skirts and stay on my own street amongst women with headscarves and wigs, men in yarmulkes and long black suits, like the orthodox. I did not dream of a trip or a move to the state of Israel, like the Zionists, did not want to live in a settlement that had belonged to the Palestinians nearby and had been taken from them in a planned displacement. At ten, I understood, in some awakening sense, what these things meant, and they didn’t mean me.
I was not as Jewish as they, I was told in cracked concrete corners of the playground, after games of kickball in which I was picked last; in Purple Danger where no one tagged me. Perhaps, said one small, smug girl with a head of blonde curls – could these be more Jewish than my black ones, I wondered? – just perhaps, when I became thirteen, if I would learn the things you needed to know to be bat-mitzvah, I could redeem myself and become a real Jew, like her. She spoke Hebrew – resurrected – rather than Yiddish – made invisible. That is, she spoke something, rather than the nothing that I spoke, of our linguistic heritage. At thirteen, maybe, not so long away, I would Become, but not now. Now I was a fake-Jew, non-Jew, un-initiated, under-informed, and whatever the gestures and words and cultural excursions my life had brought to me so far, nothing that I was counted to them, the real Jews.
** *** **
More than three quarters of the way into my twelfth year, we had a large community gathering planned at our house. Jewish friends and family were coming for Chanukah, as well as a considerable number of people unfamiliar with our culture, our holiday, our way of celebrating.
My mother was at the table with my two little brothers, who were grating potatoes for latkes into a huge, makeshift sort of pan. Each brother had his own grater, and whenever they got down to the peels, one of them would pelt the other with the starchy, mangled mess. My mother was used to this and didn’t complain. “That’s what we have dogs for,” she joked. “To clean up the mess.” My sisters were in the kitchen, overheating the blender as they tried to make the process of preparing applesauce shorter and easier. “I hate this,” the oldest one was saying, “and anyway, I like my latkes with sour cream, not applesauce.” The second-oldest preferred applesauce, but now that the sister who was her senior had declared sour cream the better, could not admit it. The older one was wearing new, skin-tight jeans and an equally brand-new tunic she’d saved up for, and though it cost her months of babysitting money, she refused to change or wear an apron while doing her part to get ready for the party. “What’s the point of buying clothes if you’re just going to cover them up with a hideous apron?” she asked my other sister, just as a slimy potato peel flew out the doorway and hit her on the ear while the offending brother scuttled away. A fight ensued, with apple cores shooting from the kitchen, potato peels catapulting from the dining room, and lots of screaming and slipping on the floor. When my mother, who found the whole thing more amusing than wasteful, finally made them stop and clean up, it was only because she had remembered how many people were coming for dinner and how little time remained to get everything ready. Perhaps they’d been allowed this wild display because it was Chanukah, not Passover, that we were observing. Passover was, in our family, the time to talk about oppression and suffering, a dark and serious holiday especially as celebrated by Jews like us. But Chanukah was not that at all. What we were celebrating was togetherness, cooking, eating, dancing, gift-making, singing and storytelling, and the closeness afforded us by those activities. It was our favorite, and it had, without a doubt, its own lighthearted magic.
I had my grandma’s big, red book under my arm. I’d been carrying it around all day, shirking my share of the work and preparation for our celebration. This book contained generations of humorous stories in it, leaning heavily toward the Ashkenazic shtetl tales which themselves leaned towards my specialty, the Chelm stories. What I liked was to be funny, having not yet learned the power of making people weep, and, if you could get a real Jewish audience, the Chelm stories were a sure hit. I was too excited about that evening’s Chanukah party, however, and could not count on the stories of my memory. I needed help. For this, I counted on my late grandma, or rather, her gift, the book. I set it on the seat of my chair, for later.
After all the guests arrived and were seated, we lit the first of our menorahs. People usually light whatever menorahs they have all at once, but my mother, who liked darkened rooms illuminated with little flames from many candles, had four or five menorahs which she had us light in succession as the evening went on.
We sang the favorite songs – Rock of Ages, my mama’s favorite for its beautiful melody and melancholy sound and not a bit for its biblical lyrics; Chanukah Oy Chanukah (the Yiddish version) followed somewhat disdainfully by Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah (the English version with the Hebrew spelling of the holiday name); the Dreidel Song, which even all the little non-Jewish kids in our neighborhood knew; a number of others which I am not sure had anything to do with the holiday that was upon us. In fact, I’m pretty sure they were the songs of other holidays, but my mother just liked them and didn’t worry about that kind of thing.
Then we danced the hora, all around the downstairs, from room to room, while my uncles played the music. They didn’t play well, but they played. It was enough. We danced until our breath was choppy and hard, and then the kids sat down to play dreidel. We used the huge plastic kind, not the beautiful ones anymore. We’d nearly destroyed some of my mother’s carved, wooden ones with our wild carelessness over the years, so they were now just for display, replaced with these unattractive ones that nevertheless served the purpose. I never remembered what the four symbols meant and relied on my sisters to run the game and shell out the chocolate gelt. Some of us ate our way out of the game, though my mother had told us not to eat candy before dinner.
When at last it was time to eat the meal, the latkes were suspiciously smooth, though my brothers had been the ones to grate the potatoes. I was sure my sisters, who did not trust our little brothers with chores of any kind, much less those involving things to be eaten, fished out the lumps before frying the latkes. There had been, as usual, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of latkes made, but every one was eaten, and the oil and potato and sour cream/apple sauce-excess left all the guests and family members in some kind of stupor, barely able to move, satisfied and greasy in their chairs. This was my moment, my captive-audience moment.
I took out the red book and turned to certain pre-marked pages, everyone looking expectantly at me. What came first were a few short tales. They were not even tales, really, just a few humorous lines. I was too young for some of the themes – old rabbis, married couples’ troubles, naked men at the bathhouse -which made the telling funnier. The harmless first of these was without a name. I began:
“Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the learned rabbi. “The moon, of course,” replied the rabbi. “It shines at night, when it is needed. The sun shines only during the day, when there is no need of it at all! (Ausubel)
And the next:
A man of Chelm, having concluded that people could be distinguished from one another only by their clothing, began to fear lest one day he be lost in the bathhouse, where all are naked and therefore indistinguishable one from the other. To guard against such a risk he tied a string around his leg. Unfortunately the string came loose, and he lost it. Another man of Chelm found it and, perhaps disturbed by the same fear, fastened it around his own leg. The first man noticed the second as both were emerging to dress. “Woe is me,” he cried, “If this fellow is me, who am I?” (Ausubel)
When I finally announced – five or six tales later, each longer than the one before – that I would tell The Chelm Goat Mystery, the adults at the party unfamiliar with our humor were already lost from me, having found the Town-of-Fools idea more than a little silly. They weren’t aware of what lay beneath the surface of these tales. And how could they have been? Had anyone explained anything, recounted our history on the shtetl, the overly-contemplative, constantly- reasoning pious townspeople and students of the Talmud, or the revolutionaries who sprang from these same towns later, still looking deeply for answers, though not in their holy books? Had anyone let them know the importance of the town rabbi back in that time and place where our small, foolish Chelm was said to have been? They could not be expected to have prior knowledge of the scholarly history of the Ashkenazim, the mysterious pursuits of the Sephardim. But I didn’t realize all that then. I was a child. I only noticed that they weren’t laughing much, were distracted and drifting away from the room to get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
Yet I still had an ample, willing audience, and, though exhausted and drowsy myself, this was a tale I had to tell. As my voice grew hoarse and my arms too weary to support the red book, I set it down, and began, from memory:
The rabbi of Chelm once fell gravely sick. While he could work wonders for others, he refused to use his supernatural powers for himself – such a saint he was! So they had to do the next best thing and call the doctor. The doctor examined the holy man and shook his head. “Bad, bad!” he muttered to the rebbetzin, “there’s only one thing that can help him – a steady supply of fresh goat’s milk. But for this you’ve got to own a goat. My advice to you is ‘buy a goat.’ So the rebbetzin asked two of the rabbi’s disciples to go to the next village and buy a good nanny goat at a reasonable price… (Ausubel)
I felt my eyelids flicker and heard my own words begin to fade, the smiling listeners begin to murmur in hushed, sweet voices…
*** ** ***
I awoke on my feet, with the dust of the market clogging my eyes and nose. I wiped my face with my sleeve and flinched, knowing at once that the goat whose tether I held in my hand was not real. I reached out to touch it, thinking I would feel nothing but the air in front of me, but I was mistaken, and the goat jumped and shrugged me lightly away. I looked around when a man’s voice blurted out from a doorway, saying, “Nu, Mendel, what are you waiting for? Tie up the nanny over there in the stable, and let’s celebrate on behalf of our beloved Rabbi!” And without an order from my own brain, my feet began to walk, my body moving forward with the swagger of a proud, confident and foolish man – not the girl I was, but a man! – and I yanked at the tether, the pure-white goat reluctantly following my lead.
“Fayvel,” I said, without trying or wanting to, “to have succeeded in acquiring such a fine nanny goat, whose milk will without a doubt bring our dear Rabbi Chaim back to the fine health he once enjoyed, is certainly cause for a little round of schnapps.” So saying, I tethered the nanny goat to a little stall in the stable behind the inn where we had apparently stopped for the night. Linking arms with this man, this good friend Fayvel who wore clothing just like mine, I entered the inn, and for the first time in my real life, drank not one but several rounds of schnapps.
The innkeeper, Reb Yankel, was very eager to keep the schnapps flowing and the boasting going– yes, I admit it, we were boasting about the good price we’d been given by the goatseller, the economical purchase of such a gusher of a nanny. And why shouldn’t we boast? We knew that the next day, the rebbetzin, no longer young but still able to appreciate such fine fellows as we, the clever disciples of her husband, would reward us with a loaf of warm challah and a word of praise.
Reb Yankel, winked as he poured us another round of schnapps – “This one’s on me, to celebrate your judicious purchase, and your safe journey back to Chelm in the morning,” he said – and excused himself briefly before calling his plump and lovely Ruchele to prepare the beds for us.
The next morning I found myself not in the warm (if somewhat hard) bed of the inn, but on the floor of the stable; and not in my own poor but decent garb befitting a disciple of a
beloved rabbi, but in a white coat of fur fit for, well, the billy goat I had, it seemed, become. And Mendel: I was no longer Mendel, for there was Mendel himself at the stable door, stinking with an unwashed, human overnight smell, saying, “Come along, my fine nanny, let’s bring the Rabbi what he needs.” And what could I do? My owner, the innkeeper, had taken away that zaftig little nanny and put me in her place in the stable. This new Mendel, this rabbi’s disciple with enough shnapps still on his breath to make even my sorely-missed nanny-friend blush (if only she were still here!) took the rope now tethered to the collar I was wearing. In the company of the equally- disheveled Fayvel, he led me off towards Chelm, that miserable town where wise men and fools are one and the same.
All along the way, Mendel and Fayvel sang and danced in hung-over celebration. When they crossed from the town of Belz into Chelm, a half-dead tree marking the transition from one town to the other, they sped up, suddenly in a great hurry to reach the rabbi’s house.
“Rebbetzin! Rebbetzin!” called Mendel. “She’s here! The fine, beautiful nanny is here – with money to spare, it was a good price we made. And what a gusher she is! We saw her milked with our own eyes by the goatseller. Now our beloved Rabbi Chaim will have all that he needs to become once again healthy and strong, and guide the pious men of our village with his wisdom!”
Hearing this, the rebbetzin ran out of the Rabbi’s humble home, grabbed a pail and a stool and dashed to my side. She grabbed me – you’ll forgive me if I speak too roughly – by the putz and gave such a terrible twist that I nearly fainted. “Bubbele” I bleated, though she couldn’t understand this goat language that had become mine, “You won’t get what you’re after from a billy like me, and if you don’t mind, dear Bubbele, I’ve got my eye on that fluffy little nanny the innkeeper switches me for over at the stable, and if I can ever get across the stall to her when next I’m there, I’d like to be able to show her what a billy can do!”
The rebbetzin, getting no milk from me, of course, and seeing that her hand touched the wrong part of the goat – you’ll excuse me for saying – flew into a rage and berated Mendel and Fayvel for their mistake.
“I ask for a good milking nanny, a necessity for the health of our learned Rabbi – may he recover soon – and this” (she gestured disparagingly at me) “pitiful, useless billy goat is what you bring? Go away, both of you, and come back in the morning to take this miserable animal back to that swindler of a goat seller!”
With a disdainful swish of the hand, the rebbetzin shooed the Rabbi’s disciples away. I spent the night tied up in the yard, and awoke the next morning stiff and cold, flat upon the ground save for a twist in my middle. When Mendel and Fayvel came to fetch the goat, they picked me up, loosened me from the collar of the billy to remove the twist in the tether I’d become while everyone slept, reattached me to the collar and gave an unnecessarily hard tug on the loop where the hand goes through. The billy followed along stupidly, as such a brainless animal will inevitably do.
All the way from Chelm to Belz, from the Rabbi’s house to the inn, Mendel and Fayvel passed me (and the goat to whom I was tied) back and forth, twisting and tugging, moaning and complaining about their unlucky situation.
“Vey is mere,” whined Mendel, yanking me off to one side of the road to avoid a large stone. “I’m so hungry. Here I’d been thinking of the rebbetzin’s delicious challah all the way from Belz, but instead, we spent the night with empty stomachs. I don’t know if I can make it all the way to market to see the goatseller.”
“I know, Mendel, I know,” answered Fayvel, pulling me out of Mendel’s hand, with a hard twist, to take his turn leading the goat. “And to make it even worse, I can’t understand what
has happened to the goat. I saw the goatseller’s wife milk this nanny with my own eyes! She was a gusher, a good little mama. What could have happened?”
On and on they went, getting weak with hunger, until we all reached the inn. At the sight of that building, Mendel and Fayvel brightened up considerably, walking more briskly, standing a bit taller, until each looked at the other invitingly, and a wise Chelm decision was made. “Nu, Fayvel, a little bit of schnapps will give us the strength to face the goatseller, don’t you think?” said Mendel. Agreeable to this idea, Fayvel yanked again, led the goat (and me) once again into the innkeeper’s stable, tied me (and the goat) to the post in the guest stall and joined his friend for a few rounds of schnapps.
** *** **
So, in they came again, these two brilliant disciples of Rabbi Chaim of Chelm, through the door of my inn, complaining of their misfortune with the nanny-billy problem. For two hours they sat, this Mendel and Fayvel, discussing all the possible mishaps and misconnections of the universe which might have caused their error. When the feeling of schnapps began to take over their speech, I briefly excused myself and left the inn to – shall we say – check on the guests’ valuables entrusted to me in the stable. I returned just in time to hear our Fayvel suggesting to our Mendel that they had better get to the market before that swindler-of-a-goatseller had the chance to play any more of his tricks on the poor, unsuspecting customers. They paid for their schnapps and, with a little smile and a tip of my cap, I waved them off and out the door.
** *** **
When they came to get me that afternoon, I had been moved from the stall which wasusually home to the billy – that stupid brute! – and tethered in what you might call the “guest stall” of the stable. No one even glanced at the real billy, assuming I was he. If they had, they would have seen the big gash where I kicked him with my hoof when the klutz tried to jump over the half-wall to my stall for a little fun. Feh! Can’t he see I’m not interested? I’ve got my own troubles to worry about, what with the goatseller and the innkeeper and the milking and the babies left behind at the market…I need another billy like a hole in the head. Well, so I gave him a little kick, what’s the problem?
In any case, these two Chelmites, Mendel and Fayvel – no better than that stupid billy, let me tell you – came out to the innkeeper’s stable and put the tether around me and gave a big tug, as if they’d have had to convince me to go back to the goatseller’s with them. As if it would have taken a lot of coaxing to get me away from the billy and back to the market to see my little kid. Oy.
So we got to the market and the one called Fayvel swaggered over to the goatseller and pointed at me and said, “You swindler you! We paid you a fair price for a good milking nanny and you sold us this billy instead! Don’t you know our beloved Rabbi Chaim – may he recover soon – is waiting in his sick bed back in Chelm for the fresh goat milk to cure him? Do you think we can’t tell a nanny goat from a billy goat?”
The goatseller looked at the Chelmites in amazement. He had, after all, raised me himself and was now taking care of my own kid, and even without that, what kind of a goatseller can’t tell a nanny from a billy? He called over his wife, and she grabbed a stool and a pail, sat down next to me and in ten seconds flat had proven to these two disciples that I was in fact a nanny, as they could have seen for themselves if they’d just bent over and taken a peek before accusing the goatseller. “Nu, schlemihls, are you satisfied now?” said the goatseller, gesturing in my direction.
Mendel and Fayvel were astonished. Apologizing to the goatseller, they once again led me off. The two disciples were not at all ready to explain anything to the angry rebbetzin at
home in Chelm, so, perhaps to buy themselves a little time, perhaps to sleep off some of the schnapps they’d drunk earlier, they went back to Reb Yankel’s inn and asked for a simple little room in which to spend the night. “Certainly, my friends,” smirked Reb Yankel. “Here, let me put your lovely nanny in the stable. You go in and tell my Ruchele I said to prepare the room once again for Rabbi Chaim’s respected disciples!”
** *** **
Need I tell you again the terrible treatment I received that night from Miss High-and-
Mighty, Mendel and Yankel’s fancy-schmancy nanny goat – may she be judged in heaven – who laughed and made fun of me all night long from the stall on the other side of the railing? I was none too pleased at my owner, Reb Yankel, for letting her rest so nicely in the comfortable stall that was mine…and I was even angrier that he didn’t let me join her, for I can be a really persuasive billy when I put my mind to it. Still, even though she was so good-looking, with her shiny white hair, I was still hurting in the places she’d kicked me before– not to be too specific, you’ll forgive me the suggestion. And the words she used to taunt me! Who would have thought such language could escape the pink lips of a nanny so beautiful, so regal? It was a little shocking, but to tell you the truth, it was a little bit, well…appealing, too, if you know what I mean…But never mind, never mind, I got absolutely nothing for my troubles but a cold night in an inhospitable stall in a stable kept by a troublemaking innkeeper who, to tell you the truth, kept even his chickens in better food than he kept me, the billy goat who provided him with such amusement. I got absolutely, positively nothing for it all! And to make matters worse, Reb Yankel’s little game went on and on for five days! Five days! Back and forth went Mendel, went Fayvel, from Chelm to Belz three times, stopping and scnappz-ing at the inn at every passing. And the nanny, well, she was none too happy to be prancing back and forth between the inn and the market, saying goodbye over and over again to her little kid, still in the care of the goatseller. Believe me, I heard all about it every night. She went on and on, bleating and kicking, and if I said “Please, shayna nanny, spare me! It’s enough already! All this gabbing! At least reward me a little for the use of my ears for your woes – give a poor billy a little something for his troubles…” Oy, did she give me a little something – a big kick is what she gave me!
The rebbetzin – well, do you think she was any more admiring than the nanny? Of course not. After the second time, the rabbi himself was consulted. This I know because I saw the disciples and the rebbetzin herself crowding in to the little house to seek his advice; and I saw again, many hours later, after I’d been left in the hot, dusty yard with several annoying chickens and the very proud rooster to whom they’d given their hearts, when they all came back out, Fayvel telling the neighbors waiting at the gate how the Rabbi had concluded that the goatseller was some kind of a swindler – a real specialist. The only way to deal with such a swindler, he said, was to force him to go with Mendel, Fayvel and the goat to pay a visit to dear Rabbi Schmul of Belz. There, Rabbi Chaim said, they should get a signed document verifying that the goat they leave with is a nanny and not a billy. The next part I missed, as I was again at home in the stable of Reb Yankel, where the brilliant disciples had brought me while they helped themselves to a little bit of schnapps-assisted reasoning and a dash of complaining. Even locked away as I was, I could hear the loud voice of Reb Yankel, as he served perhaps the third round, bellowing, “You’re a bunch of shlehmihls! If your goat dealer had played a trick on me like that I’d have broken every bone in his body!” And Mendel – or was it Fayvel? – bellowed back, “Never fear! We’ll fix him so he’ll see his dead grandmother!
They took the nanny again, who’d been put in my place as they finished off a last round or two, and this I didn’t mind so much for a change. A billy can only take so much without a
little rest, after all, and it was at least peaceful there without the brandishing of the sharp hooves of my beloved.
And it was she herself who recounted the rest: how Rabbi Schmul, having had a demonstration of a milking – this she told me with great pride – gave a signed and sealed document for the brave and clever disciples of Chaim of Chelm to carry home to their wise and respected Rabbi.
And, as such men are always predictable, Fayvel and Mendel, sure that their troubles were over, again stopped to celebrate the precious and irrefutable document they had acquired from the learned Rabbi Schmul of Belz.
** *** **
Reb Yankel was not done playing with our heroes, as you may have imagined. I was scooped up carefully by the celebratory pair, and, after careful deliberation, it was decided that Mendel, who had the deepest pockets with the least number of holes in them, would carry me, so carefully tied as I was with a ribbon melted into the seal of Rabbi Schmul. And Fayvel, apparently having a firmer grip, would drag the reluctant goat as they went singing along. They cried out, ecstatically, after crossing the town line and approaching the Rabbi’s gate, “Rebbitzen! Come, come, you’ll see! We have a real, genuine nanny this time, certified by the respected colleague of Rabbi Chaim – the Rabbi Schmul himself!”
I was carefully removed from Mendel’s pocket and handed to the Rebbitzen, who, after laboriously inspecting me, set me down carefully on a tree stump and sat down to milk the goat. Up she jumped with a big shriek, calling the disciples every kind of name you’d never expect to hear from the mouth of the rebbitzen. “Zol vaksn vi a tzibele mit deyn kopf in drerd!” she cursed at the trembling Mendel and Fayvel, dragging them in to see the Rabbi. On the way, she snatched me up from the tree stump, a little more roughly than before, and nearly threw me down on the bed where her husband was resting.
The disciples begged Rabbi Chaim. “What does it mean, learned Rabbi? What does it mean? Is there, perhaps, the Evil Eye in this?”
Rabbi Chaim sat up slowly against his pillows and asked for his spectacles. As silence came over the room, he carefully untied my ribbon, and for several hours, he turned me this way and that, reading and re-reading the words of Rabbi Schmul, examining to see if the seal was in any way malformed. After this long, concentrated time, having been deep in thought, having consulted the holy books several times, looking far away in contemplative consideration, Rabbi Chaim removed his spectacles. He set them down on the bedside table, cleared his throat and addressed his respectful, attentive audience:
“This is my opinion: Rabbi Schmul is a wise and upright man. He never writes anything that is not true. If he tells you that the goat is a nanny you can rest assured that it is not a billy. Now, you will ask: how is it that the goat he tells us is a nanny turns out to be a billy? He answer is very simple: true, the goat he examined and testified to was a nanny. But such is the confounded luck of us Chelm schlimazls that, by the time a nanny goat finally reaches our town, it’s sure to turn into a billy!”
He put me down on the bedside table, next to the spectacles, but I rolled and fell to the floor as the disciples, the rebbetzin and the others who had gathered for the verdict of Rabbi Chaim began, in agreement and wonder, to murmur amongst themselves in soft, admiring, sweet tones…
** *** **
I woke up on the couch as my mother and father said goodbye to the last guests of the evening. The candles had all burned down, the multi-colored wax melted in opaque, magical patterns down the side of each of the menorahs on the sideboard. I could make them out there, a short distance from where I lay.
“Leave her, Benjy,” my mother whispered to my father. ”I’ll put another blanket over her. We can leave the boys, too, until morning. It feels so nice in the room right now…Let’s sit for awhile with them.” So my father turned on some quiet music, covered me with a quilt and my brothers with one blanket over the two of them. I peeked with one eye and saw them there, my little brothers, asleep on the floor like a pair of Chelm disciples after a night of schnappzing, their small feet sticking out of the makeshift covers, one hand outstretched as if to receive a warm, fresh slice of challah. I closed my peeking eye and must have fallen asleep quickly, as the next thing I remember is the sound of my sisters complaining in the kitchen, banging the dirty pots and pans around in an effort to wake me up and make me help with the cleanup.
** *** **
A week later, in school, I was finishing the pre-holiday tests and participating, if somewhat grudgingly, in the chorus practices for the Christmas program and the personally- irrelevant holiday art projects. With these classmates, I was singing about snow-covered Christmas trees and Silver Bells, trying to be a good sport by making fancy paper ornaments and auditorium decorations, by listening, however glumly, as they asked the same questions over and over and over: “So, what did you ask for? What do you want for Christmas? Did you do your Christmas shopping yet?” Chanukah had been early that year, as the regular American calendar goes. Of course Chanukah is a holiday of the Jewish calendar, not in any way synchronized with Christmas. I hated years like that: we had to keep up with all the school work right through our own holidays, and then, when all the non-Jews were having a good time, getting lots of beautifully-wrapped presents and having big parties, all we did was go bowling and eat pizza, trying hard to act like nothing special was going on anywhere.
I wanted to commiserate with the few Jews who, like me, had to sit through all those chorus practices, had to glitter up the intricate, fancy Swedish papercut ornaments in red and inauthentic green and go along with it all while the glow of the now-past latkes and dreidels and singing with the guests was quickly obliterated by the loud shimmer of Christmas cheer. I wanted to commiserate, it’s true, but all I had was some know-it-all, easy-to assimilate olive- skinned dimly-Sephardic boy named Maxwell Manassas and that blonde-curled SuperJew who’d said I needed a Bat Mitzvah to validate my membership in The Tribe. She was, in fact, haranguing and mocking me at that very moment, scissors in hand. “So, Bella, you’re birthday’s coming up in less than three months…not much time to prepare for your Bat Mitzvah, is there? “ she sneered. “What’re you going to do, go sign up for a crash-course in Hebrew or something? I hear Congregation Ohav Shalom has an easy one you could do, and you can rent that little hall they have for next to nothing. It’s probably big enough for your last-minute guests anyway.”
I felt like a fool sitting there, listening to Blonde-Curls Girl define for all the ornament- making classmates working with us what a Jew is, what I was not. A fool. A Mendel to her Reb Y ankel.
I missed my little brothers, though they were just down one floor and around a corner in the K-through-3rd-grade hallway of our K-through-8th school. I missed my grandma, who would have had just the tale to reveal what I needed, how to deal with that troublesome girl. I missed last week’s latke fight, and the lighting of my mother’s numerous menorahs. I missed the inn and the clever goats and the goatseller’s outrage, the smell of the elusive challah bread and the marketplace. I missed them, and I was not about to let this one, small girl with her well-studied Hebrew lessons keep me in that place, stuck between the Christmas carols and the Bat Mitzvah. In reality, a Bat Mitzvah was, to me, an event, and of events I had had no shortage, would never have a shortage.
I got up, a little tentatively, stuck an unfinished string of papercut ornaments down in front of Blonde-Curls and said, “Here, you finish this up. And you know, don’t worry about the hall or the synagogue, Blondie. I’m not having a Bat Mitzvah. I don’t want one, and I actually don’t need one. “
It was almost the end of the school day, but I was going to get my coat on a little early. My brothers got out of school right before me, and if I left just then, I had a good excuse for the office: I could make it in time to walk them home from school. They tended to get themselves in a bit of trouble when they walked home unaccompanied, a situation not at all unfamiliar to the principal and school secretary.
I leaned over and said something to Blonde-Curls Girl – Already-Bat-Mitzvah Girl – flicking glitter off of my hands and, perhaps accidentally, onto her pretty little outfit. “We come from Yiddish speakers.”
I caught up with my little brothers, holding the left hand of one, the right hand of the other, a brother-sister sandwich. They were in my care, they knew, and to me and my inevitable tales they entrusted their long afternoon and the walk home from school.
1 Ausubel, Nathan. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers , 1948. pg. 333. Print.
2 Ausubel, pg. 333
3 Ausubel, pg. 327
4 Ausubel, pg. 327
5 Ausubel, pg. 329
6 Ausubel, pg. 330