Wednesday, June 30, 2004


Only two posts in June:
6/27 -- A story about a lamed-vovnik.

6/13 -- One Poor Slob, Two Great Jews -- a story about the Baal Shem-Tov.

Sunday, June 27, 2004


I seem to be on a theme of what makes for a great Jew. So I will tell you a very short story I heard from Arthur Strimling, a storyteller from Brooklyn.

There is a Jewish legend that, at any given time, there are 36 just men -- the lamed-vov -- who sustain the world. If anyone of them were missing, the world would perish, it would descend into chaos and violence from which it would never return. How long ago this legend started, I have no idea. Often, a lamed-vovnik has no consciousness of who he is. He just performs his acts of justice or kindness and goes on with his life.

One time, Arthur was telling stories about the lamed-vov at a Jewish nursing or old-age home. Afterwards, an old woman came up to him and said that her husband, now deceased, had been a lamed-vovnik. He asked her how she knew and she told him this story.

When her husband was very old, sick, and confined to a wheelchair, their young grandson announced that he wanted to do something special for his grandfather. He would take him on a picnic. Grandfather agreed. His wife asked him why he was doing such a crazy thing. He lived in a lot of pain. A day out in the country would do him no good and would be very difficult for him. But he insisted.

They went and while the grandson had a grand time and took his grandfather down to the stream and showed him other wonderful things, the grandfather was in a lot of pain. You can imagine the rickety ride he got over the uneven ground. He hid it well and his grandson never knew. Later, his wife again questioned him about why he put himself through this misery. He said that one day when their grandson grew up to be a man, he would remember the wonderful day he gave his grandfather before he died and it would warm his heart. He agreed to go so that his grandson could have this wonderful memory.

And that's how I know my husband was a lamed-vovnik, she concluded. And who could disagree with her?

Sunday, June 13, 2004


I'll tell you a story about a poor Jew. I don't know his name. That tells you something about the fate of poor people. I have an excuse, but it is no excuse. I've heard this story only once, perhaps 25 years ago or more. It was performed by a troupe of Israeli actors visiting New York City. They were acting out Hasidic stories and this was one of them.

Since I heard it that day, I've never told it. I have just carried it in my head all these years. (I told this once for the first time in an email to my friend Sean in England a few weeks ago. Hi Sean, how're you doing? This is the second time I am telling it.) I am sure the chief character here had a name in the version I saw by the Israeli actors. I won't make up a name now. I will just leave him nameless to rebuke myself for treating poor people once again as they always are. Perhaps it is my own fate as well.

It seems that the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the modern movement of Hasidism) found himself repeatedly praying to God to find out who is roommate will be in the world to come. I guess they have roommates in heaven, who knew? He was really anxious to get the answer to this question. But God would not tell him. The Baal Shem would not give up. It is that Jewish attitude of chutzpah towards God. Finally, one night, God gave in.

In a dream, God reveals to the Baal Shem who is roommate will be. He tells him the man's name and where he lives. The Baal Shem goes looking for him. He has some trouble finding him because no one knows who he is. But one person realizes that it might be the quarry worker who works on the edge of town and lives by himself in a hut in the forest.

The Baal Shem finds the quarry and watches the man work from a distance. He is huge and eats like a pig. When he breaks for lunch, he does not wash up and does not appear to say any prayers over the food. He takes out an enormous quantity of food from his bag and gulps it all down. He does not wash up afterwards either and gets right back to work.

At the end of the day, the Baal Shem follows him to his hut. He can watch him now from closer up as he peers in through the window and observes the same thing. The man gulps down food like there was no tomorrow, never washes, never prays. Now the Baal Shem is getting very worried. How could this disgusting man be my roommate in the next world?

On an approaching Friday evening, the Baal Shem knocks at his door. He explains that he himself is a poor Jew a little lost in his travels. He begs to stay the night so that he will not have to continue to travel on Shabbat. The man hesitates. The Baal Shem promises that he will not be any trouble. He has his own food, he won't make any noise and will sleep off in a corner where he won't bother a mouse. The Baal Shem could look really piteous when he wanted to and the man gives in.

Off by himself in the corner, the Baal Shem says his prayers very quietly and softly nibbles his food. Perhaps he entertained some hope that the man would join him when he saw this, but the man wants nothing to do with his prayers and rituals. From this close up, the Baal Shem can see that he never stops eating and never washes. It is almost too much for the Baal Shem. He has difficulty falling asleep. He is starting to think that maybe he himself has been a bad Jew and God is punishing him by giving him this man as a roommate for all the days to come.

He stays through Shabbat and overnight again so that he will not have to travel in the dark. On Sunday morning, the Baal Shem takes his leave. On the way out the door, he suddenly turns around and speaks directly to the man for the first time. "You know," he says, "I will not trouble you about your life as a Jew. But one thing I would like to know. Why do you eat so much? It cannot be healthy. You should perhaps learn to control yourself more. And you are covered in grease. Please, for your own health, change your life."

For a moment, it looks as if the man might smack him. But then he speaks. "You have been a good guest as you promised. You were no bother. So I will tell you why I live like this. When I was a very little boy, the Cossacks came to our town. They killed many and raped many women. My father, they caught him and took him and tied him to a tree. They set him on fire. I saw it all. He was such a little man and made such a little fire. If you were a hundred feet away, I do not think you could see the smoke he made. Just a wisp. You wouldn't know someone was disappearing from the world. So I promised myself that when I grew up, I would eat and eat and eat, and grow big as a house, and if anyone caught me and set me on fire, I would make a flame so big, the whole world would see my smoke!"

And the Baal Shem Tov understood why this man would be his roommate. He blessed him before he left.

As Bob Dylan said about songs, a story stands on its own two feet. It does not require any commentary. But there is one thing I have to say. The Baal Shem Tov too is a great Jew for being so humble. Each of these men is humble in his own way. But some people might have disparaged the poor quarry worker for not being a good Jew. Not a good Jew perhaps, but he is a great Jew. The Baal Shem understood that. He understood that there is more than one way to be a Jew, and there are many ways to honor God and this world. There is no one path right for all. The Baal Shem was flexible and sensitive. Those are great qualities. We should not forget them. Nor will I forget the poor Jew who prepared himself for the fire.

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