January 1, 2021

Five Yiddish Tales

By Jonah Boyarin, Jonathan Boyarin

Translator’s Preface

A couple of years ago, we took our tattered copy of Mordekhai Lipson’s Di velt dertseylt to Henry St. Bookbinders on the Lower East Side, owned and operated by an elderly khosid also named Henry (“Yeah, like the street”). “Ah,” he said. “Sheyne mayselekh [nice stories]! This one, you don’t need to repair. You can find another copy anywhere, easy.” That might very well be true in the Hasidic world, but the stories in this book have never appeared in English.

Di velt dertseylt, or in our provisional gloss, As the Story Goes, was published in 1928. It’s a collection of sharp, insightful anecdotes and sayings, primarily about rabbis from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Eastern Europe. Lipson (b. Mordechai Yavorovsky 1885 Bialystok, d. 1958 Tel Aviv) attended the Radin Yeshiva as a teenager before becoming a collector, writer, and Yiddish and Hebrew translator of secular and religious folklore in the United States and Israel. The stories in Lipson’s collection are respectful of traditional authority but emotionally and intellectually complex and diverse, giving the lie to the claim that those characteristics are mutually exclusive. Intimate, heymish, and sometimes quite funny, they offer a  window into the lives of predominantly male, observant Jews as they respond to the challenges and opportunities of their own time and place.

The Year of Redemption

           In the Hebrew year 5600 (1839-1840 C.E.), Jews in Poland talked themselves into believing the Messiah was about to come. They had discovered some kind of allusions to it in the numerical values of Hebrew words. As time went by, more and more Jews grew convinced that tof-reysh, the Hebrew year 5600, was the year of Redemption. Those who believed this were called the “tarniks,” after the initial sounds of tof-reysh, the two Hebrew letters used to indicate the year. 

           The Rabbi of Warsaw, Reb Yankev Gezunthayt, was afraid that the tarniks might (God forbid!) develop into a new heresy, like the followers of Shabtai Tsvi. So he got up in the synagogue and said, “I swear on this Torah scroll, this year Messiah is definitely not coming.”

What Would You Do?

One time, R’ Chaim Sanzer was standing by his window, looking outside. A disciple of his walked by. He knocked on the window and called the disciple inside.

         “What would you do,” R’ Chaim asked him, “if you were to find a purse full of gold coins?”

The disciple answered, “I would immediately give it away.”

“You’re an idiot,” R’ Chaim told him.

He called in a second disciple and asked him the same question.

“What am I, an idiot?” answered the second disciple. “Obviously I would take it.”

“You’re a scoundrel,” R’ Chaim told him, and ordered him to leave.

He called inside a third and asked him the same question.

“Rebbe,” the third disciple said, “first, let me find it.”

“You’re a sage,” R’ Chaim told him.

The Big Shot

The personal assistant of the Chasam Sofer, the head of the yeshiva of Pressburg, had an uncle who was a banker. The assistant thought very highly of himself: “Look at me, the personal assistant to the Chasam Sofer, and with a rich uncle to boot!”

“What makes you think you’re such a big shot?” the Chasam Sofer once scolded him. “It would be one thing if you knew as much as me and you had as much money as your uncle—then you’d have something to brag about. But you only know as much as your uncle and you’ve only got as much money as me—so what do you actually have to crow  about?”

The Cemetery

A prominent French government minister once died. All of the country’s leading officials, led by the president, participated in the funeral. Reb Tsadok Cohen, the chief rabbi of France, also attended.

The funeral cortege passed through a Jewish cemetery on the way to the Gentile cemetery. Since he was a Cohen and forbidden to enter a Jewish cemetery, Reb Tsadok walked all the way around it, until he reached the Christian cemetery and stood by the grave.

The president asked him, “Why, Monsieur Rabbi, did you avoid the Jewish cemetery?”

“I am a Cohen,” answered Reb Tsadok, “and Jewish law forbids a Cohen from entering a Jewish cemetery.”

The president asked further, “Then why did you go to the Christian cemetery? Aren’t Gentiles people, too?”

“I’ll tell you, Mr. President,” answered Reb Tsadok. “Your Jesus said that he wouldn’t die, and nobody who believed in him would die, so your graves don’t make us impure. Our Moses said that he would die: and he died. We Jews all die, so Jewish graves make us impure.”

Footing the Bill

A good number of Jews in Lemberg used to sneak into a certain gentile-owned restaurant there to enjoy a non-kosher meal.

Eventually the woman who ran the restaurant came to the rabbi, Reb Yankele Orenshteyn, complaining that Jews would come in, run up big bills, and never pay up.

“Here’s my advice,” said Reb Yankele. “The first Jew that comes in tomorrow, give him one big bill covering everything all the other Jews owe you. If he doesn’t want to pay it, summon him to the rabbi.”

The next day a Jew came into the restaurant, sat himself down and ordered a lavish meal. After he ate, the owner gave him a bill that nearly made him faint.

“What?” he protested. “How could one meal cost that much?”

“That’s what all your brother Jews who eat here owe me.”

“Why should I have to pay for all the other Jews?” he argued.

“Let’s go see the rabbi,” she responded.

As soon as he heard this, he pulled out his wallet, paid and disappeared.

The woman went right back to the rabbi and thanked him for his advice.

Jonathan Boyarin is the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University. His most recent book is Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side (Princeton University Press).

Jonah S. Boyarin (@JonahNYC) is a writer, anti-racist educator, Yiddish translator, and born-and-raised New Yorker. The Jewish Week recently named him one of 2020’s “36 under 36.” Jonah always roots for the underdog, except when it comes to his beloved NY Yankees.