A Story from the Shtetl
I want to share with you a poignant story from the shtetl. This story gives us a glimpse of both the tragedy and the rich beauty of a world that once was.
Tzvi Yehuda Kushelevitz, was the rabbi in a small Lithuanian town. But he not just another rabbi in town, but he was the “Rav,” meaning the foremost decider on all major spiritual and communal issues, and the Rabbinical judge of the town, to whom all matters of importance were addressed, and whose decisions were final and conclusive.
Rabbi Kushelevitz’s son, Chaim, relates the following story in his memoirs (1):
It was a harsh and rainy Lithuanian winter day. A stranger appears in our shtetl bais-midrash, our village study hall and synagogue. A small Jew, a little yidele, bent under his pack, enters the synagogue. This Jew was a magid, an itinerant preacher who would travel from shtetl to shtetl, from town to town, to give speeches and to try to inspire the locals. Usually, between mincha and maariv (between the late afternoon and evening service) these “maggidim,” Jewish preachers, would deliver a few words of Torah amid a call for repentance and self-improvement. The Jews of the shtetl, poor as they already were, appreciated the spiritual message, and would voluntarily donate after the sermon was over, and on these few and meager coins, the magid would survive. He would then disappear the way he had come.
This scene was barely extraordinary.
But this magid – this visiting preacher -- was different. Not because of who he was, and not because of what he preached, but because of what he was carrying. A baby. Crying, pale, shivering, and pitiful. Why does a perpetual wanderer, without the bare necessities for himself, carry with him a needy child?
With a broken heart, he tells his tragic story:
“I am a ‘geshtrofener mentsch,’ a punished human being. I am an orphan who was raised by a large Jewish community, without a relative in the world. Jews, ‘rachmanim benei rachmanim’ (merciful one, descendants of the merciful ones), knowing that I had no parents, gave me teg, free meals at various homes, and put me through Talmud Torah, the shtetl Hebrew School, and then Yeshiva. They sponsored my education. I married according to my class: an orphan girl, every bit as poor as myself. After my marriage, I needed to make a living, so I became a magid.
Always traveling from city to city to hold sermons in small Jewish communities, I was able to return home and see my wife only during holidays. My son was born, and -- G-d protect me -- calamity struck: my wife died, and I was left alone with my infant son. Who could I leave him with? How could I support myself? I had no choice but to continue traveling; this was my only means for earning a livelihood so that he and I would live. And I have no choice but to take my poor orphan-child, my yosemel, with me.” (A yosemis an orphan. The word still maintains much power in the Jewish world. When you say that a child is a “yasom,” an orphan, it means that all must mobilize to help him or her. The endearing term for yosem is yosemel.)
This was the story this preacher told us.
We Take In the Orphan
My shtetl, moved by the magid’s plight, offered to care for his young orphaned son -- theyosemel. To raise him and educate him. As for the expenses involved, they reasoned, to become yet poorer was in any case not possible. They found a widow, who, for a fewgroshen, a few pennies, took him in to her home and promised to try to educate him to the best of her ability.
The magid agreed to this arrangement. Better that his child has a permanent home, then shelp around with his father as a nomad. The magid took out of his satchel a few wrinkled women’s clothes and a set of tin leichter, tin candle-sticks. “His mothers inheritance. So he doesn’t get married empty handed.” He also left a paper with the yosem’s name: “Kasriel Sender ben Reb Moshe Hakohen--So he knows he is a Kohen, and that he may not marry a divorcee.” With that, the magid bid farewell to his infant boy, continued traveling, and we never saw him again.
The townspeople, who had enough of their own tzaros, their own problems, went on with their lives leaving the poor orphan with the widow. The shamash, the sexton of the synagogue, set up a pushka, a charity box—to collect the coins the villagers would donate during prayers—next to the one of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, with only three words: “Far Der Yosemel,” “For The Orphan.” Everyone knew whom this was referring to.
And this became his name: Der Yosemel, the orphan. This is how he was always known and called both by his classmates and his teachers, an eternal reminder of his tragic history. “Come Yosemel”, “Learn Yosemel”, “Go wash your hands Yosemel”. This was not meant to hurt or offend him; this was simply the way everyone knew him, and this was the most obvious term of reference. But hurt him it did. It marked him as being different, someone to be pitied, and someone all alone, an eternal orphan. This is how all others knew him, and this is how he came to know himself. The shtetl Jews, who so compassionately agreed to raise him, failed to sense the deep pain that this caused him. He was now bereft of everything: his parents, his own home, his own possessions, and even his own name.
The first time Der Yosem actually heard himself being called by his own real name was when he turned thirteen, at his bar mitzvah. He was called up to the Torah: Yamod Habachur Kasriel Sender ben Reb Moshe HaKohen, “Please step up to the Torah, Kasriel Sender ben Reb Moshe,” and he began crying.
The second time he heard his real name, he was standing under the chuppa, the wedding canopy. As an orphan, he married a girl from equal standing, also an orphan, and also penniless. The dowry he gave her was his deceased mothers tin candlesticks, and the few worn dresses his father left behind years ago. And the Rabbi announced while reading the ketuvah (marriage contract): Kasriel Sender ben Reb Moshe, our groom, chassan dinan, hereby takes this woman…
The Esrogim Show
But then his name changed.
And it came about in an extraordinary moment.
It was Motzai Yom Kippur, the evening after Yom Kippur. Immediately following the anxiety, fear, and dread of the fast-day of Yom Kippur, the shtetl burst to life, as Jews eagerly and energetically would begin to bustle about preparing for Sukkos. Women, their faces shining and their hearts light, would kick their husbands out of the house to begin building the Sukkas as soon as the fast ended. Men with long white beards would become construction workers, and the kids would make sukka decorations from colored paper and hanging fruits. In the Chassidim’s shtibel, one could hear singing and dancing long onto the night. For, the evening after Yom Kippur was like a holiday, the joy of Sukkos already had begun as Jews busily began preparing for the holiday, confident that their repentance was accepted, and that they were inscribed and destined to a good and healthy year.
But the greatest celebration in town was at the Rav’s Beis Midrash, at the Chief Rabbi’s study hall. Long tables were set up, covered in pure white tablecloths, all the chandeliers were lit, and a steaming samovar of tea was placed in the corner, providing hot drinks to anyone that so desired. The shtetl-Jews arrived, dressed in their holiday clothes, and lined up to wish the Rav, the Rabbi, a heartfelt “Gut Yom Tov.”
And the main highlight of the night – that night after Yom Kippur -- was the displaying of the esrogs, of the citrons, which we shake on the Sukkos holiday. In cases of glass, wood, or metal each man brought with him his esrog, which he had personally and meticulously chosen earlier. They came to show the Rabbi their esrog and to hear his expert and decisive opinion about its quality and beauty.
You see, the esrog is the citrus fruit that we take on Sukkos together with the other three species, the Lulav—the tall palm branch, the hadass—the myrtle branch, and the arava—the willow (hold them up to show your crowd.) However, of these four species the Torah tells us to make sure the esrog is specifically beautiful, that it is a hadar. This means that it should be perfect in color, size, shape, proportion, and most important, in "cleanliness" meaning lack of any bruises or blemishes. To this very day, Jews the world over will spend hours upon hours, as well as tremendous amounts of money for the esrog that they feel is best. Grade "A" esrogim have to pass very stringent tests. In the open markets, some buyers come with a magnifying glass. An outsider would find it quite amusing…
The laws are intricate, and the Rabbi of the town was the true connoisseur of what constitutes a beautiful citron. Each of the more well-to-do people of the town who could afford to purchase a beautiful esrog, would now proudly show off his purchase to the Rav, eager to receive his critical approval.
It was a tense moment as the Rabbi thoughtfully chose the exact proper description for each esrog: “A kosher esrog;”“a nice esrog;”“a beautiful esrog;” “a hadar,” “a masterpiece,” “a real beauty,” “stunning,” “amazing,” “dazzling.”
Suddenly, after everyone had already sat down for tea, Reb Yitzchak, the gvir of the shtetl, the richest man in town, entered carrying with him a heavy silver esrog box. (They say that every town in Eastern Europe had to have at least one Rav, one gvir, onemeshuganer, and one drunk. And they were the main players in town.) An excited hush fell over the crowd. Rumor had it that this year Reb Yitzchak had managed to obtain a truly unique and beautiful esrog, one for the record books.
After wishing the Rav a “Gut Yom Tov,” with a finger trembling from excitement, Reb Yitzchak snapped open his silver box. Tenderly and lovingly, he removed his large esrog and handed it to the Rabbi.
The esrog was a sight to see: a perfect shape, and a gorgeous color. The Rav reverently turned it over, noting its clean skin, and exquisite fragrance. “Reb Yitzchak, theaibershter—G-d—has blessed you this year with an esrog that is a true hadar, a true beauty.” An impressed murmur swept through the crowd, and the shtetl Jews looked on with a healthy jealousy.
But just as Reb Yitzchak the wealthy Jew sat down, the door opened one last time. All eyes turned to see who had entered the room. They were stunned: it was one of the poorest Jews of the town. It was Der Yosemel. “What is HE doing here,” the more affluent Jews thought to themselves? “What type of esrog can he afford?”
Der Yosemel, the orphan, entered the room, holding an esrog wrapped in a plain white cloth. He walked hesitantly and shamefacedly, with slow, dragging, and uncertain steps.
The yosemel had so much wanted to finally feel like a "real man," a baalabos, an independent householder, an aigener mentch, that he had spent his last pennies on this esrog and he came to show it to the rabbi.
But it was the esrog that nobody had wanted. It was bruised and discolored. The pitum – the stem on top of the esrog - was hanging on precariously, like the survivor of a shipwreck to his battered plank of wood.
The other Jews sitting there could not grasp why he would even come at all with such a sad-looking esrog to the Rabbi. Theirs were beautiful, while his was grotesque. It was clearly a great doubt if the esrog was even minimally kosher.
Now the Lithuanian Rabbi was a man known for his unbending adherence to the strictest letter of the law. Lithuania, much more than Poland, Russia, or Hungary, is famous for its extreme ritual conservatism, its absolute adherence to the every letter of the law. Judaism in Lita was first and foremost about halacha. No loopholes, shortcuts, or compromises. Pure and undiluted, whatever that may be, whatever that will cost. What would the Rabbi say? What could he say?
All eyes turned to the Rabbi.
The Rabbi – Zvi Yehudah Kushelevitz -- gazed at the sorry esrog, and gazed at the sorry man before him. He turned it over reverently, and tenderly rubbed its bruised skin. He meditated on the esrog very deeply.
“What is he doing,” other people thought to themselves. “What is there to meditate on? It is a lousy, impoverished esrog, and that’s the end of the story,” they said to themselves.
But then the Rabbi spoke:
“Gut Yom Tov, Reb Kasriel Sender! Thank G-d, you have a perfectly kosher esrog! And may you have next year an even more beautiful esrog!”
The orphan’s face lit up… He felt so happy, so validated, so at peace.
The Rav continued talking to Kasriel Sender: "It says in the Torah, “You shall take for yourself the four species” (Ulekachtem Lecham). This means that every person takes according to who he is and what he can afford. The flour of the poor man – say our sages -- is just as beautiful to G-d as the ox offered by the rich man. Let each man must serve G-d based on his or her own capabilities.”
The orphan was kveling. For the first time in his life he felt truly validated, uplifted, recognized as a man of status.
The other Jews sitting in the room were stunned. Really? A nice Kosher esrog? Who even knows if it’s kosher? Why didn’t the Rabbi say the truth about the esrog -- that it was ugly? And why did the Rabbi have to meditate for so long?
Then with a lightning flash of realization, the entire community present realized what the Rav had just done. Understanding the inner pain of the man before him the Rabbi made sure to grant the person those few words he so desperately needed to hear. Halachikally, the esrog was extremely questionable, and to make a blessing on a non-kosher esrog is a grave offense. Yet the Rav chose to accept upon himself the full responsibility of that risk (2).
From that instant on, Der Yosemel, that broken and sorry object of communal pity, ceased to exist. Instead he was replaced by Reb Kasriel Sender, a man with a straight back, a firm walk, and most important, a proper name. “Reb Kasriel Sender, come sit down with us." “Reb Kasriel Sender, have a lechaim.” "Reb Kasriel Sender, can I offer you something hot to drink?"