An Excerpt from Der Melamed

Nineteenth-century Yiddish writer Ayzik Meyer Dik (c. 1807–1893) was a proponent of the Haskole (Haskalah), or the Jewish Enlightenment. Dik blended sharp observations of Jewish daily life with captivating, simplistic story lines to create didactic stories aimed at a broad readership, as in this excerpt from his novella Der melamed (The Schoolteacher). Often providing a critique of what he viewed as outmoded religious traditions, Dik is considered a precursor to such better-known Yiddish writers as Sholem Aleichem.

Nearly fifty years ago there was a melamed, a Jewish grade school teacher from Tsyusk who taught in Yantsits. He was called Khaykl Yentes; he was called this on account of his wife, because throughout Lite it is the women who have practical skills; the men are useless, and they are just accessories to their wives and are known by their wives’ names.

But all we need to know is that he was called Khaykl Yentes. He was a great pauper; moreover, he was by nature very stingy. After breakfast he would mark the loaf of bread with a piece of cabbage so that his wife and children couldn’t take any without his knowing.

It was the month of Nisan, three days before Passover, and our R. Khaykl didn’t have a bent penny for the holiday, as more than half his students’ fathers hadn’t paid him. But nevertheless, as the saying goes, when the need is greatest, help is closest, and so it was now, for that very evening the rabbi invited R. Khaykl Yentes over and read him a letter that the head of the Vilna rabbinic court had written to him (to the Tsyusker rabbi) asking him to let him know as soon as possible whether there was a certain man in the shtetl who was called R. Khaykl, son of R. Yisroel Skop, who had a brother, Itsik, who was eight years older than him who had disappeared over thirty years ago. And if there was, he asked whether he would send him immediately after the holiday with an affidavit signed by him (the rabbi) and the head of the Jewish community council and by the tax assessor as well, attesting that this was Khaykl Yentes. Enclosed with this letter was a six-ruble stipend for expenses.

This letter was somewhat confusing to R. Khaykl but also somewhat encouraging. Meanwhile, he wheedled two of the six rubles out of the rabbi for Passover, and the rabbi wrote that indeed there was such a person here in the shtetl, and he would send him off immediately after the holiday.

And so this R. Khaykl came to the head of the rabbinic court in Vilna. The rabbi there asked him to sit while he read him a long letter from the head of the Jewish community in Jamaica saying that a certain Jew, Itsik, son of Yisroel, from Tsyusk, of the Skop family, died there on such and such day and left a will leaving all of his possessions to a brother of his who was called R. Khaykl Yentes, son of R. Yisroel, in Tsyusk, which after his death he should leave to his children — his estate was worth more than one million dollars (half a million of our rubles); it consisted of a large plantation with three hundred black slaves. The letter also specified a bank account from which he could take out a thousand dollars for expenses.

This poor melamed was practically insane with joy; he immediately wrote home with the news and also enclosed several guilders, and their joy was even greater than his. Our R. Khaykl did not return home just yet because he wanted to go by himself first, since it would probably be easiest for him to sell the plantation and return with the money. He stayed in Vilne until he received a formal affidavit that he was the heir; then he set off for Hamburg. At this point it is appropriate for us to let him travel while we say a little about his brother — how he came to the Americas and how he became rich beyond measure.

Their father, R. Yisroel Skop, had once lived by the Neman River in a small village called Yantsits. There was no road there other than the river itself. All winter it was as quiet as a grave, and he would sit and study Torah with his older son, Itsik, who had a good head. When the river thawed, though, and boats started going to Prussia, it was as lively as a fair there. Not only did Itsik have a good head, he had a green thumb; he would plant the small field they had; he would inspect the animals; and he was a whiz with boats. His father loved him very much.

Once before Passover he caught a pike in the Neman, as he was a good sailor and a good fisher. The fish wriggled very hard, so he gave it a good whacking with the oar and got it good and bloody. Then he put it in a sack and took it home, where he soon cleaned it and salted it, leaving the bloody sack lying there.

As he was carrying the pike in the sack, it flopped and wriggled inside; the land steward, or “commissioner,” could see it from far off, and it looked to him like he was carrying some poor child, so he ran to warn people. And in a couple of hours everyone came running and took a head count. The only evidence they had was the bloodstained sack. Meanwhile they searched everywhere. But Itsik was on the other side of the Neman at that moment to see a Christian to buy some eggs for Passover. Just then one of the Christian’s children came in and told him the whole story of what was happening and that they were looking for him; this made him quite scared. Well, he felt, it would be better if he didn’t go back home. So he got into his boat and went off to America.

Now I know, of course, that you will laugh, dear reader — what do you mean, he got into a boat and went straight to America? You’re right; I don’t mean he went straight to America. There was yet another incident. It was dark and the river was high, and that night he traveled fifty miles. There he met an acquaintance who was a merchant with a boat full of hemp fiber; he took him on board and made him his secretary. In this capacity he went to Prussia, where he found out that his parents were under confinement and that people were searching for him intently. Now his fear drove him farther. He scared up a few guilders and went off to Hamburg. There he chanced to meet an American Jew who was a Hollander who had been a colonist in America. He was rich and powerful and was there on business. He really liked this Itsik and started trying to persuade him to come with him to America. “Travel with me at my expense,” he told him. “I’m an old-fashioned Jew. I have sons and grandsons, and I need a teacher for them. I’ll pay you well.” Our Itsik didn’t need to be asked twice and went with him to his plantation, and he couldn’t stop marveling at the wealth and comfort there; no count or prince could live as well as this colonist lived there.

He was also an honorable man — his slaves had two days of rest per week — but there was one matter in which our Itsik found him to be deceitful. For this colonist had no sons, only one daughter — a girl of eighteen. She was not white like our Europeans but brown — a mix of black and white, for this colonist had a Mooress for a wife. The children born of such a mix are called mulattoes, and no white man in a respectable position would marry such a person except for love. And because this colonist wanted a nice Jewish young man for his daughter, he shanghaied this young man off to his plantation. And within a few weeks he had introduced him to his daughter and given him hints about what he had in mind. Of course to him at first it seemed quite strange to take a half Mooress for a wife, but over time he started to like her — and she was quite beautiful too, with many good qualities. A half year later he became his son-in-law and thus heir to his entire estate, for he had no children, and he bequeathed all his possessions to her on the condition that if she were to die childless before him, he would inherit everything. He lived with her happily and joyfully for twenty-five years. He had children with her, but they all died, and afterward so did she, and he was left as the sole heir of the plantation, and before he died he bequeathed it to his brother. And now our Khaykl was coming to claim his inheritance.

Now let us return to this Khaykl Yentes to make fun of him a little more. This lifelong pauper traveled to Hamburg like a poor Litvish melamed. He had several hundred dollars with him for travel expenses, yet he wouldn’t splurge at all on proper food and drink. He did not change his clothes or his pipe, as it’s not so easy for a person to cast off his deeply rooted habits — especially poverty. We find those born wealthy confounded by this bad habit; all the more so someone born poor.

And so our R. Khaykl came to Hamburg, where he stayed at the charity hospital, or rather, the travelers’ hostel. And after he had used up the three free days one is allowed there, he went to the harbor to book a place on a ship bound for London. Needless to say, he bargained with a hundred sea captains and almost came to an agreement with one for ten dollars; this captain miraculously understood some of our Jewish German, and at that moment he had not a single passenger; he booked the first place — that is, he could only be above deck, eating there and sleeping there, lying like a dog out in the rain, sun, and wind and sometimes even in a downpour; and because this captain had enough cargo, he did not want to wait for any more passengers and warned the melamed that he had to be on the ship tomorrow at eight o’clock with all his things. So he went to buy provisions for the trip: ten herring, a wreath of garlic, a few loaves of bread, cheese, and a bottle of liquor, and he spent the night on the street even though he had received his exit visa. He barely made it to the next day, for it was a cold and rainy night. He was as soaked as a wet rooster; he cursed his life, but what good was that? It wasn’t worth a penny.

At the crack of dawn an English lord and his family came to this very captain and booked passage on the ship for a hefty sum with the condition that he not take on any other passengers. But the ship’s captain asked him to allow him just one — a poor Litvish Jew. “He already handed his last ten dollars over to me,” he told him. “What can I do? Give it back to him? I have no right to do so; he could sue me. But if I run off with it, that’s an even greater injustice.”

“You know what?” the lord responded. “When the Jew comes with his provisions, tell him you expect it to storm, which will make the trip take longer, so he’ll have to buy more, which will certainly delay him; meanwhile, you’ll sail off; you can leave his ten dollars with the redner [that is, the harbormaster] to send to his address; then he’ll have nothing on you.”

Well, the ship’s captain liked this advice; at eight the melamed came with his garlic, herring, cheese, and bread, and the captain scoffed, “Will that be enough for such a dangerous journey?” He said to him, “There’s a storm coming, and we ourselves don’t even know how many days it will last; and so, Jew, you’ll have to run back into town and buy twice as much; you only have half an hour.” Well, of course this scamp didn’t hire a coach; he ran around on foot and took more than an hour and found the ship already a ways out at sea, and now there was a great storm, and it was raining buckets; he forgot completely about his large inheritance and cursed the rabbi for having read him the letter and costing him ten dollars and so much hassle as well.

And so he stood there in a rage and screamed and cried when a “shipper” came up to him — that is, one of those who are always waiting in the harbor with little dinghies — and said to him, “Give me a good guilder and I’ll take you to the ship, which is only two miles from here, since it’s facing a headwind.” He bitterly parted with the guilder and sat down in the little boat, and in a half hour it brought him to the big ship. Fortunately he found the rope ladder, and he climbed up it and found his way into a nook between some bales of cargo and lay down there. Soon the weather lightened up, and the lord and his family came out of their cabins for some fresh air. Imagine their great wonder seeing this melamed lying there soaked like a cat and shivering from head to toe; he looked, furthermore, like a wild animal with his long peyes (hasidic sidecurls) reaching to his belt and his shaggy beard which he had never combed in his life, not to mention his old-fashioned clothes — an outmoded hat and a long, dirty coat, unbuttoned at the breast, and his overgrown chest looked like a bear’s fur — the likes of which the English had never seen in their lives. He gave the children of the English lord a shock, but the greatest wonder of all was how he got there, as they knew that when they sailed there was no melamed on board. “So how did you get here, you dirty Jew?” the captain asked him menacingly.

“How should I have gotten here?” the melamed answered. “I swam over here” (which is how they say “sailed over here” in the small Litvish shtetls) “and climbed up onto the boat.”

“What the devil!” the captain exclaimed. “How could a grubbing Jew swim over a mile in such a storm?”

“He must be an incredible swimmer,” the lord exclaimed, and right there on the spot he took a liking to the melamed, thought him an extraordinary person, because he had never in his life heard of such strength among the greatest swimmers of London. “With this man I could put all other famous divers to shame,” he thought to himself and invited the melamed into his cabin to warm up. He gave him a few glasses of hot grog and took care of him the rest of the trip.

In London the lord treated him as a guest and asked him if he wanted to swim some more. But the melamed took “swim” to mean “sail” and said, “But of course.”

Now, the English have passions and pastimes that you wouldn’t believe such cultivated people could have. One of them might have a compulsion, for example, to always live on the water, and another never to see the sun and to only ever be in dark rooms lit with gas, candles, and so on. Yet there is one passion that rules all the Englishmen completely, and that is betting, for every Englishman has a drive to make a bet with anyone about anything, and they lose great fortunes in the process.

So when this lord heard the Jew say that he wanted to keep swimming, he had a sudden inspiration. “Okay,” he thought to himself. “I’ve got an inside line; I could win thousands sterling.”

The next day he put out a notice in all the papers saying “Whereas I have with me a Polish Jew who is a great swimmer, I am offering a wager of four thousand sterling to anyone who can present me with a better swimmer.” In a few days ten great bankers and lords came forward to accept the wager. They agreed on an appointed place and time, weather permitting.

Our R. Khaykl, meanwhile, went back to his old habits in London. That is, he gathered alms, as he had made the acquaintance of the other beggars, and he made a pretty penny, for eighty or ninety years ago a Polish Jew was a rare sight there. He even saw posters with his portrait and a whole account — what valor he showed in Hamburg when he swam over five miles in rough weather. Hundreds of people stood around each poster; one person marveled at his beard, another at his peyes, and others at his hat; and each was eager to see him in person. But he didn’t notice at all, and he understood nothing. Even the Jewish communal leaders rejoiced that a Polish Jew would honor them this way. They reserved the best places along the Thames. In short, the whole city was in an uproar, and the lord was patting his stomach, thinking he knew for sure that no London swimmer would be able to do what he had done.

And so the appointed day came; several thousand people gathered by the great bridge over the Thames. Then came ten swimmers, young folks wearing short pants, and they paced on the banks. Their promotors laid out great buffets for them, with all sorts of refreshments, and other Englishmen kept betting among themselves on which swimmer would do the best, and then they saw the lord arriving in a carriage with the melamed, dressed exactly as we described him earlier; he was also carrying a wreath of garlic and two sacks of bread, herring, and cheese, as he thought, when the lord said he would take him swimming, that it meant the same thing as in small-town Lite — sailing. The lord asked him, “Why do you need to bring your provisions along?” He answered, “I plan on swimming a great distance,” and the lord was delighted to hear it.

They had just come to the banks when there was a great outcry — “Hurrah! Hurrah!” — as well as great mirth, for the world had never before seen such a contrast in one carriage as the two of them there, the gallant lord and that dirty melamed. Well, of course our R. Khaykl Yentes grew enraged, as he had no idea what was going on. Then one of the swimmers came up to him and asked what he needed the garlic and the two sacks around his neck for; he answered, somewhat confused, “Because I plan on swimming very, very far — all the way to America.” At this the swimmer immediately turned to his promotor and said, “Sir, look here, my good sir, your bet is null and void; we only agreed to compete with this damned Jew in the Thames, not to swim with him to America; the devil himself wouldn’t make such a bet, would he?” Another swimmer chimed in, “My lord, we’ve lost this bet. I believe this must be the Wandering Jew who travels through all four elements — through fire, air, and water and even through the earth. Against him no good Christian such as ourselves could compete.” Another swimmer responded, “I’d wager two shillings that this damned Jew is one of those water men that all the sailors tell amazing stories about seeing often in heavy storms swimming out from under their ships. No, against one of them the bet is already lost.”

And so each swimmer in turn objected, but the lord, however, stood his ground and insisted that a bet was a bet. All eyes were on the melamed, and many superstitious people (that is, those who believe in foolishness) swore that this was the Wandering Jew Ahasueros, and there was a great uproar; they practically crushed the melamed. Now he finally understood his position, and he was stricken with apoplexy; the Jewish contingent that was there carried him away and took him to the Jewish hospital, and because he was in such critical condition they searched through his bags, and they found the affidavit attesting that he was the heir of the great estate in Jamaica; now they administered every treatment to make him well; they consulted with experts; they rented a very comfortable room for him, for now they knew in all the London counting houses that a Polish Jew was the heir of the estate of such and such. In brief, he convalesced in London for three months and recovered from his illness but was left with a slightly crooked mouth. Then they sent him off to Jamaica. In this time he bettered himself a great deal; he dressed differently and cleaned himself up and ultimately learned to speak some English, and now he had an entirely different character so that by the time he arrived he was now something like a civilized person.

And so he came to the plantation and was royally received; all the slaves fell to their knees before him, and the commissary gave him an account of the total revenue; and so in one year he went from a beggar to a millionaire, from a great fool to a wise man — for he had seen the wide world — and from a miser to a philanthropist, for he soon stopped being stingy. He tracked down other Litvish Jews there, and they showed him everything, and soon he became a great expert in colonial affairs. A year later he sent for his family, and they still live there happily to this day, for now in Jamaica there are very many wealthy Jews — and very frum (observant) Jews at that. The old Jews told him all about his brother, and he in turn told his children, and they wrote it down in Hebrew; nothing came of the blood libel because the Russians were now in power in the region, and they scoffed at the charges. Now be well, my dear reader, and wait for my next story, “The Feminine Secret.”

Ben Sadock received one of the Yiddish Book Center’s two 2011 translation grants. He is a freelance editor who lives in New York City with his wife and son.