Sober at Purim
by Eric Maroney
A ganz yor shikker und Purim nichter -- A Yiddish Proverb
“You only want to tell stories to hear yourself talk!” Yosse the Beadle spread his coat over the chair near the stove. First an ice storm, and then a blizzard, had covered the world. He had been outside spreading salt on the stairs to the study house so no one should, God forbid, fall and break his neck. Steam rose from the tattered garment near the fire. He placed his hand over the fire, and then upon the glass of the study house window, afraid, as he always was, that the thin glass would crack.
“Well, what is the saying? A Jew likes the taste of a Yiddish word on his tongue,” Nachman the Cobbler answered, smiling broadly, revealing a gold front tooth.
“But your stories never end!” Yosse the Beadle answered, tugging at his gray beard. “If you get started, no one will crack the spine of a book! You don’t want to study because you know no more of the Holy Tongue than a mule!”
“As the saying goes, if you don’t know Hebrew, you’re an ignoramus. If you don’t know Yiddish, you’re a gentile. I only know that I can’t just tell one story,” Nachman grinned before continuing. “One log doesn’t warm a fireplace,” he added, and on hearing this, all the men laughed. “Besides, books aren’t everything – they can’t fill an empty belly, for one!” and Nachman nibbled a slice of herring he had in a handkerchief.
“But you also know the saying, Reb Nachman:” a man interjected, ‘A Jewish thief steals only books.’”
“Nu,” Nachman the Cobbler gently slapped the man’s knee. “There was a man in Tarnopol who did just that, but not in the way you would think…” and all the men, realizing that Nachman the Cobbler had started, cheered and booed.
“Tarnopol is no little burgh… it has its share of good booksellers, but none was as good and prosperous as Mendele Bucker. He could procure any book anywhere. Go in there and ask for a book – some obscure title quoted in this old book or that old book which hasn’t seen the light of day since Methuselah was a pup, from some dusty corner of Babylonia that hasn’t had a Jew tamping down its dust since the flood water receded, and Mendele Bucker would listen, think for a moment, and tell you to come back tomorrow. And when you did -- lo and behold, he had the volume, in a new binding no less, in finely tooled calf skin, in exquisite calligraphy, and more often than not, the ink looked as fresh as a newborn baby’s hide!
“Well, one day a great scholar was passing through Tarnopol, and of course, he stayed in the chief rabbi’s house. And what do men of learning do when they are in the same room? Well, they set about to study the Torah, back and forth, quoting this book, citing that book -- so the erudition was as heavy as a Chasid’s fur hat left out in a downpour. Then one of them quoted a source, and the other questioned it, and soon the scholar and the rabbi were on their feet screaming, and the students were afraid it would come to blows. It didn’t -- these are Jews we are talking about here, after all, and not drunken Cossacks. But the rabbi didn’t have the book that was quoted. No one did. Someone had seen a copy in Vilna over forty years ago, but that hardly helped. Finally, they all trooped over to Mendele Bucker’s shop. The great scholar told Mendele the title of the work, and Mendele was silent as if thinking, and then told the men to return tomorrow…”
“And let me guess,” Yosse the Beadle interrupted. “They came back with the sunrise, and as if by magic the bookseller produced the tome, in a brand new binding, in fine calf skin, as smooth as a baby’s behind, in Rashi script as fresh and untrammeled as a virgin bride under the wedding canopy!” All the men laughed. Someone produced a bag of chestnuts and spread them over the top of the now glowing stove.
“No,” Nachman the Cobbler slyly smiled, “you’ve got the spirit, but not the letter of the story, Reb Yosse. You see, everyone in Tarnopol was so accustomed to Mendele Bucker that they were no longer amazed by him. What is the saying? If you sit in a hot bath, the whole town looks warm. But this scholar, he didn’t like what he was being told and even less of what he saw about Mendele Bucker. And the fact that no one in Tarnopol thought the bookseller odd, made him even more suspicious. You know the saying: If everyone pulled in one direction, the earth would keel over. So, the scholar went out that night, and snooped around the keyholes of Mendele Bucker’s shop.
“The next day, when the good Jews of Tarnopol went to get the book from Mendele Bucker, the scholar refused to so much as touch it. ‘What’s wrong?’ one of the rabbi’s men asked him. ‘Open the book and let us settle the dispute.’ But he refused, saying ‘I am a Kohen, a priest, and I can not make contact with the dead, or what has touched the dead!’ Although no one in the room knew what the scholar was talking about, they all began to moan and wail. But the chief rabbi silenced them. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked, and the scholar explained. ‘This bookseller is actually Eleizer the Scribe, the most famous scribe in Babylonia, the assistant to Saadia Gaon himself!’ On hearing this, the men began to wail and moan again. The rabbi held up a hand. ‘But the Gaon and his scribe, may their memories be blessed, died more than eight-hundred years ago.’ And then the scholar told a tale:
“ ‘Eleizer the Scribe was the most erudite man in all of Babylonia, with the exception, of course, of his master, the great Saadia Gaon. Like many men with intellectual gifts, Eleizer the Scribe became haughty, and wished to be the most erudite Jew in Babylon. So he found a forbidden book in his vast library, and summoned up a familiar spirit, who gave him access to the heavenly spheres, where all the holy books that have ever been written or will be written are stored. But there was a catch: to gain access to this sphere, once he died, Eleizer was punished by finding no respite in the grave. No, he was forced to wander the earth, practicing his scribal arts. He is a dead man. His books are unclean, Jews of Tarnopol! They should not be touched, let alone read. He stole them from the heavens using black arts, and by doing so, defiled them!’
“So all the Jews of Tarnopol were in an uproar, yelling and rending their clothes, as if half the town had been taken away in a plague; but Mendele Bucker stood there passively, as if none of this uproar was for his benefit. Finally, the chief rabbi asked the scholar how to get rid of this bookseller. ‘There is a book called The Book of Remedies that the great Gaon wrote to thwart Eliezer the Scribe. If he copies out this book, he will be forced to go on his way.’
“So all the men left, but the rabbi remained with Mendele Bucker, and requested the Gaon’s long lost book, The Book of Remedies. Mendele Bucker thought, and thought, and thought some more, and for the first time, a vexed expression crossed his face, and he then asked the rabbi to return tomorrow…”
“And let me guess,” Yosse the Beadle interrupted, using the sing-song cadence of someone chanting from the Talmud, “as it is written: by the next morning, the bookseller was nowhere to be found!”
“Ahh,” Nachman the Cobbler moaned and rubbed his hands with glee. “You please me, Reb Yosse. As the saying goes: Among Jews one is never lost! But not only was he gone – so was every book he had every made, from the Talmuds in the rabbi’s study, to the Yiddish prayer books in the women’s section of the synagogue – it all turned to dust!” On hearing this, the men began to chatter.
“What did they do without their holy books?” one man asked worriedly.
“Why, what else?” Nacham the Cobbler beamed. “They went to another bookseller and bought some more. A Jew without the holy books is like an owl without his eyes.”
The men then began to argue about dybbuks, familiar spirits, ghosts, and corpses that refused to recognize their deaths and went out into the world, worked, married and even sired children, all the while thinking they were very much alive. Nachman the Cobbler squinted as he stuffed his long pipe with tobacco and then lit it with a piece of straw that he placed on the coals. The men went back and forth, agreeing and disagreeing by turns about the residents of the unseen world, and on hearing this, Nachman the Cobbler began to laugh.
“Why do you laugh, Reb Nachman?” one man asked.
“Oh, you know the old saying, two Jews, three opinions,” and looking at Yosse the Beadle, Nachman the Cobbler noticed that he was laughing as well, but in a different way than the rest. “And why do you laugh, Reb Yosse?”
“Why? Because those things do not exist. Dybbuks, ghouls, the un-dead… the Torah mentions them nowhere.”
“Oh, Reb Yosse, you can’t be more wrong,” Nachman the Cobbler waved a finger in the air. “You know the old saying: if God lived on earth, people would break his windows. There are evil forces in the world. They surround us. The Talmud says that if a man could see them with his eyes, he would go mad. They exist to lead men astray. But there are some men who do wrong not because the evil ones impel them, but because they have contrary natures. They are just born wrong and continue to do wrongs unthinkingly, just as a cow chews its cud without a thought in its thick head. Of course, no man is free from sin. But we must be good most of the time, and sin as sparingly as possible. Otherwise, we become like the man who is drunk all year long but sober at Purim. And there was just such a man who lived in Gomel…” and the man began to titter and jeer, and someone opened a bottle of schnapps and passed it around, and another man shoveled more coal into the fire.
“There was this man, Dovid Lifshitz, and he was the living embodiment of this dictum. He was a raging drunk all year, and stone sober at Purim. He sinned simply because it was his nature. He ate on Yom Kippur; he was joyful on Tish’b Av; he was sad on Simchat Torah. He seemed to live in another world, a world where everything is upside down. Perhaps it was one of those worlds that God created and then destroyed before he stuck to this one, as the Talmud tells us…
“Anyway, none of the good Jews in Gomel could do a thing with Dovid Lifshitz. He had a contrary nature, and did evil without even relishing it. He sinned from compulsion, like a woodpecker is compelled to peck at a rotting stump. The Rabbi couldn’t mend his ways, nor Dovid Lifshitz’s wife, or children, who were not sinners, by the way. Even the town doctor tried his luck with him, but he threw up his hands in defeat. Everyone began to believe that Dovid Lifshitz was demented. They began to just leave him alone to his sin. But you all know the world, people began to talk, to tell stories about Dovid Lifshitz, and news of him left Gomel.
“A short time later, a large coach roared into the town. Four massive black horses festooned with bells and feathers pulled next to the inn; the coach bore royal insignia and coats of arms on its doors, but no Jew in Gomel could make head nor tail of them. Four men, decked out in elaborate livery, clung to the carriage, riding on its railings and running boards, and when the coach stopped, a large man alighted. He wore a tall black hat, a black cape, and a sash studded with golden coins. He took the best rooms at the inn, and stayed there for a week, seeing no one and letting no one in. He did order the finest foods and wines, and had them brought up to his suite. He paid in gold coin, and his men never took the change. The Jews in Gomel, thinking him a gentile lord, hoped he’d stay forever -- as the saying goes: live among Jews, but do business with gentiles. One day, to everyone’s surprise, he summoned Dovid Lifshitz to his rooms. Well, as arrogant as Dovid Lifshitz was, he wanted nothing to do with gentile lords. He went into the room with his cap in his hand like a boy about to be slapped with a rod by his cheder teacher, his face as white as chalk. When he left, everyone wanted to know what had happened, but he didn’t say a word, as if crows had torn out his tongue. The next day, the gentile lord walked out of the inn and into his grand coach, and was gone as mysteriously as he arrived.
“Dovid Lifshitz stayed in his house for seven days, as if he was in mourning. And do you know what he did then? He left his house and threw all the forbidden foods he was eating into the trash pile for the pigs to eat, and went to the kosher butcher to buy some meat. He woke up in the morning and donned a prayer shawl and phylacteries and said the eighteen benedictions, as Moses enjoined us to do. He was in the shul every Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath. He slept in a sukka during Booths and sold his leavened bread to the gentiles before Passover…”
“So he became a penitent, a ba’al teshuvah?” one of the men asked Nachman the Cobbler.
“Of course,” Nachman the Cobbler smiled and puffed on his pipe. “A Jew is a Jew, he can’t rub those stripes off even with a stiff brush.”
“But who was the man? The gentile lord?” another man asked.
“Well, ask Reb Yosse. He is like the lazy Galacian in the proverb: he is always skipping to the end of the book to see how things turn out.”
“He was the Evil One,” Yosse the Beadle answered, “or this is what Reb Nachman wants me to say. But this is not possible. Perhaps this Dovid Lifshitz owed money to the gentile lord? Or owed him a favor? Or impregnated one of his peasant wenches? Or a thousand other things that can be explained in the light of the day.”