The Wise One

An excerpt from Figurn

Froyim Kaganovski (1893–1958) had his first story published when he was sixteen years old. He spent his early career among the Yiddish literary circles in Warsaw and Odessa, primarily writing serialized stories for Yiddish newspapers. Kaganovski was one of the most popular Yiddish writers of his time, and his short stories were praised for their character shaping, romantic motifs, and subtle humor. Kaganovski was also one of the first Yiddish writers to focus on the city rather than the shtetl.

Along the narrow Jewish street, it is easy to miss the small shop with the sign outside showing a picture of an alarm clock that looks like the wheel of a baby carriage. In the window, a few old-fashioned watches are on display… and inside, in the small, dimly lit shop, sits a young man by a table; a large, fair, childish head, with straight blond hair peeking out below the shoved-back skullcap.

His pale, lowered eyes wander. His face is veiled in thin, fragile skin and his lips, above the short blond beard, are small and rosy, like those of a girl.

On the table, where he works on the watches, an old, thick seyfer—a holy book—is always open, and more than once, upon entering the store, he could be found intensely bent over the book, eyes closed, humming a tune or prayer from the learned pages.

In the Jewish neighborhood, he is known as thekhokhem—the wise man. People who do business on the street will often stick their heads in his doorway and respectfully ask the time. The young man answers cheerfully, and they all wish that their own children were more like him. Often, when a peddler woman has made an especially good sale, she might pick out the best orange, apple, or pear and with a shy, blushing face, open his door and say, “Take this to refresh yourself… you deserve it… we’ll work it out later.”

The watchmaker runs after her with a coin in his white, delicate hand. “Woman, take the money…”

The woman runs off with a happy smile and shouts into the street, “From such as you, I do not take money…”

* * *

Where the khokhem goes after he closes the store is unknown. No one knows where he lives; they only know that after he closes his store, he wanders down the street. All the fine people of the neighborhood greet him with a cordial “Good evening.”

And should two Jews argue about a business matter, one will inevitably say, “Here comes the khokhem. Let’s ask him!”

The khokhem listens, offers a few words as if chanting from the learned book, and, smiling faintly, disappears with soft, quiet steps.

The thieves of the district often come into thekhokhem’s store, suggesting a deal. “So, tell us, khokhem, are you interested in a bargain?” They wink at him with their pushed-back hats and pull out from their sleeves magnificent, sparkling items.

The khokhem smiles, looking at them with his pale, lowered eyes. “Sit down, Jews… Yidn—”

“We have no time. Are you buying?”

“What do you mean? Do I look like a businessman? You can see that I am a poor tradesman, and how can I buy these, since I do not know—God forbid—whether they are kosher?”

The young ones look him over. “Look at thekhokhem! What does he want… is it ‘kosher’? What is this, meat?”

And they whisper in his ear, “They’re from a gentile, a goy…”

The khokhem blinks his eyes and begins to understand. “Oy, woe unto me, Yidn, now I begin to understand…”

The young people laugh and leave the shop. They like the khokhem’s whimsical humor. “Did you hear thekhokhem’s words? A good brother, the khokhem…”

Always, after such a visit from the thieves—in which they hope to make him a “fence” (receiver of stolen goods)—the khokhem remains sitting for a long time, absently holding the watch pliers in his hand, quietly pleading with God for these Jews, who play with fire and who could—God forbid—end up in Gentile (goyish) hands, and he shudders with deep pity for them. His silent heart cries out, “God forbid, God forbid, they could even be put to death… lose their lives…”

He often looks out onto the street from the small window in his shop. He sees the people strolling past. After all these years, he recognizes most of the residents. He knows children who have already become grown-ups; for example, the little girl, Feigele, from across the street, the porter’s daughter, who used to visit him when she was a child. She loved to stare at him as he wound up the watches. She especially loved when he would hold up a ticking watch to her ear. And this reminded him of the way in which he held back her thick, heavy red hair from her ear. So many years ago! Afterward, as he saw her again over the years, he wondered at how quickly she grew. In the last few years, when he sees her through the window, he can’t understand his feeling of shame as he looks at her. And on the street they do not greet one another. He would, however, like to look once more upon her thick, heavy red hair. A while back, she even came into the shop to have a watch repaired. With her came a tall, young man, and he, the khokhem, felt his heart grow heavy.

The whole evening, while at the study house, his attention was constantly distracted by an inner twinge, at how grown-up Feigele had become, and how distant.

That evening, he thought of many forgotten things: about his wife, who remained in the small town; about the divorce—the get—the cries and shouts and the loneliness in which he now lived. He felt very weak. Among the people in the street, where he has lived for over ten years, he is still unknown, a hidden person. He is a khokhem because that is the name the market folk who work around his shop have chosen for him. The name was given to him because he interspersed his speech with words from the Torah. On the spur of the moment, he feels he could leave his shop and gather to him these scattered faces with their hungry eyes who wander about. He takes great pity on all these people, and often on himself as well.

What is his life? And is he religious—a true believer? He begins to search his heart and his mind, and once again he finds his thoughts straying toward images from the surrounding streets. A hot, burning knot forms in his throat, and he begins to lose himself. Before his eyes, lighter and sharper than ever, he again sees Feigele, the porter’s daughter. The pure light of her bright eyes pierces him through, and he repeatedly feels the heavy weight of her cool, flaming red hair on his hand.

He leaves the study house very late and begins to wander down the streets. He wants to maintain his religious appearance with which he arrived from his hometown so many years ago, but all around him he sees a world seething with life. And when he returns home to his small room he finds no peace; all the sounds that come to him from the poor homes of the people seem to call to him, to tease him. He goes out into the crowded, narrow yards. The night is black, and all that is heard from the dark houses are children’s cries and the voices of frightened mothers who speak from their sleep while heavy wooden cradles rock back and forth, measuring out the long hours of the night.

The khokhem stands on the wooden steps and looks through the darkened panes. Wherever he looks he sees half-undressed people getting ready to retire for the night. Thus he roams, searching endlessly for something in the dim and lonely night.

Sitting on the dark steps in the late evenings, he loves to hear the whispers and endearments of the young couples. He found himself, on one such evening, fervently eavesdropping on such whisperings for hours. It frightened him to think that someone would discover him, and he suddenly found it strangely difficult to hold a holy book in his hands.

* * *

One evening, the door of the shop opened noisily. The khokhem, who was engrossed in examining some minute watch parts, lifted his head and suddenly saw Feigele on the doorstep. He recognized her only because of her glistening red hair, combed back under her small hat. She went over to the wall where thekhokhem had a couch, a small kettle, and a hot plate for making tea.

“Let me come in!” she burst out with a shaking voice and threw herself down on the couch against the wall. A hot wave of mingled joy and fright engulfed thekhokhem in the middle of the shop. It all seemed to him like a dream. With small, hesitating steps he came closer to the door and looked at her, sitting on the couch, head lowered. Then he approached her quietly and asked, “Feigele, what is the matter?”

She looked at him for a long time and finally answered. “I ran away… there was a raid… the police were chasing… so I ran here. They caught two girls… so I thought… an old friend…”

The khokhem wanted to say something, but he could not utter a word, and, as in a dream, with closed eyes he touched her hair.

Feigele looked startled, but almost at once this look was replaced by a pale, thoughtful smile, which roved freely over her curved, warm lips.

Suddenly, she said bluntly, “You are also like this? You who are supposed to be a tsadik—a righteous one? I tell you once more… I simply ran in here…”

The khokhem, it seems, did not hear her words. His heart began to beat faster, and a sudden surge of tight emotion constricted his throat. He felt a burning sensation. He realized the moment he saw her that it was she for whom he had always been searching in his sinful, nightly wanderings, and he realized that the small, gray world outside his shop window had a strange and terrible power to tear his world apart.

Before his eyes hovered the image of his Feigele, who in his imagination grew into an enormous picture of a woman with red hair and red-hot blood, with dazzling white skin. He had conjured up and nurtured this image of her powerful womanliness through his long lonely nights. And here she was now, sitting as though the street had hurled her onto him—a sacred offering—distraught, miserable, and suffering.

He realized that he must do something. He gazed at her small, white, girlish hands, which lay carelessly on the couch, and leaned over her.

“What do you want?” she asked simply, giving him a sideways smile that revealed her fine, white teeth, and with two fingers she neatly flicked the skullcap off his head. His soft, fair hair was mussed, and he smiled innocently, like a child.

She let him take her hand willingly and crossed her legs. “Are you really religious,” she asked playfully, “or do you just pretend to be?”

“Religion is not to be spoken of, Feigele.” He pressed her hand in his own; his eyes lit up with happy anticipation as he said, “Before we discuss religion, we have much to talk about. How can a person be religious when he is so narrowly confined?”

He wanted very much to be understood and so added, “People are always rubbing against one another… even the healthiest… I mean, even the most religious person can’t help but be influenced… I mean… I thought I was a religious person… protected. I did not want, God forbid, that sins should only be for others… here, you see what happened to you, Feigele… I also feel badly when this happens to you… I would have been happier seeing you differently… I have known you from childhood… so you see, how can I be religious if I cannot protect you?”

“I should have such a good year,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “How you speak… golden words…” Feigele suddenly burst out, and a look of softness shone through her kohl-smeared eyes. She began to sob and then wiped her nose.

The khokhem stood up straight then, with a light-hearted glance. Now, he thought, he had finally recognized her. He removed her small hat and caressed her cool, smooth face. His knees shook.

She finished weeping and began speaking in a broken, childish voice. “Believe me, khokhem… if my mother was still alive, I would never have come to this… you know my father… he didn’t even wait a year… the whole street knew of this… our bellies were swollen with hunger. I didn’t want to wash floors for my stepmother. You think she was any better? And him, my father? I don’t want to curse him for nothing… he has his own troubles… he’s in the hospital. A ‘convict,’ always fighting… and whatever I earned on the street went for his drink… so I ran away… I wanted to work… I was a waitress in a caviarne—a bar—but they didn’t give me a moment’s peace. I had a corner there, and whoever came to the house came crawling to me… the Herr and his son… the tenant… then I had a groom—akhosn. I had no idea that this was his business, his ‘trade’…”

The khokhem sat, his head sunk in his white hands.

She spoke in a raspy monotone, hair flowing freely as she half lay on the couch, her hands supporting her head. She ended the long story, yawned, and finally was quiet.

The khokhem stood up to move. She had fixed upon him a look of expectancy. When she saw that he came close to the table, she got up, stretched her hands high, and yawned once more. “I suppose it’s time to go… eh?”

He turned around with a smile. “Why, Feigele… why do you want to go? Have I somehow—God forbid—offended you?” In his hand he held a saucer with bread and butter. “I really want… you should… you must eat something… I’ll make some hot tea…”

She stared at him for a long time. He understood that she was going to stay, and happiness shone in his eyes. They glanced at each other for a moment, and then he looked toward the door to the street. Night had fallen through the panes of the door. He quickly began to busy himself, closing the doors of the shop; a deep darkness enveloped the small room. Then he lit a small lamp, which he used to read his book. He hummed a tune—a nign—and began to light the hot plate in order to make tea. She looked at his pale hands, which were shaking as he worked. She spoke out to him in a warm, familiar voice. “Let me do that… it will be faster.” And with one movement, throwing off her light coat, she quickly began to prepare the tea.

The khokhem stood in the opposite corner. He bowed toward the wall, and his lips began mumbling. The lamp threw a red light on her red hair, and her strong white hands hovered in the dark.

Suddenly she saw the ;khokhem moving his arms and whispering. She looked at him with eyes wide with excitement. She now remembered all the stories she had heard as a child about the khokhem… that he had something to do with heaven and could make magic. She saw him holding his hands up high and going from one corner to the other. She cried out, “Stop that! I am frightened…”

“Of whom are you frightened, Feigele?”

“Of you.… What are you doing?”

“I am praying, Feigele.”

“Oh, is that it?” She smiled. “Then pray for me, too.”

He suddenly ran to her, grabbed her hands, and his head fell lightly onto her bosom. His eyes shone brightly, and he spoke with a sweet, quivering voice of concern. “I’m praying for you, Feigele… I beg you, stay with me…” He was suddenly frightened by his own words, and he covered his mouth with his hand.

Then, from his closed eyes, she saw tears rolling down his face. She imagined an angry, frightening bird hovering over her. Quickly, she grabbed her coat and hat, knocking the dry bread to the ground, and with one great leap ran out of the khokhem’s room and into the dismal, flowing, happy, sinful street. ▪

Click here for the original story from Figurn (page 27)

Bracha Beverly Weingrod is an educator and lover of Yiddish and good traditional food, which inspired her to translate the The Yiddish Family Cookbook (2010). From her early days as a teacher of Yiddish in Winnipeg, Canada, she has, since 1974, taught at Yellin Teachers’ College in Jerusalem. She founded and ran the Israel Dyslexia Association, the Kohl Teachers’ Center in Jerusalem, and has written and lectured extensively on Hebrew-English learning disabilities. She is retired and lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Alex.

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