Fishel The Teacher
Twice a year, as sure as the clock, on the first day of Nisan and the
first of Ellul--for Passover and Tabernacles--Fishel the teacher
travelled from Balta to Chaschtschevate, home to his wife and children.
It was decreed that nearly all his life long he should be the guest of
his own family, a very welcome guest, but a passing one. He came with
the festival, and no sooner was it over, than back with him to Balta,
to the schooling, the ruler, the Gemoreh, the dull, thick wits, to
the being knocked about from pillar to post, to the wandering among
strangers, and the longing for home.
On the other hand, when Fishel does come home, he is an emperor! His
wife Bath-sheba comes out to meet him, pulls at her head-kerchief,
blushes red as fire, questions as though in asides, without as yet
looking him in the face, "How are you?" and he replies, "How are you?"
and Froike his son, a boy of thirteen or so, greets him, and the father
asks, "Well, Efroim, and how far on are you in the Gemoreh?" and his
little daughter Resele, not at all a bad-looking little girl, with a
plaited pigtail, hugs and kisses him.
"Tate, what sort of present have you brought me?"
"Printed calico for a frock, and a silk kerchief for mother. There--give
mother the kerchief!"
And Fishel takes a silk (suppose a half-silk!) kerchief out of his
Tallis-bag, and Bath-sheba grows redder still, and pulls her head-cloth
over her eyes, takes up a bit of household work, busies herself all over
the place, and ends by doing nothing.
"Bring the Gemoreh, Efroim, and let me hear what you can do!"
And Froike recites his lesson like the bright boy he is, and Fishel
listens and corrects, and his heart expands and overflows with delight,
his soul rejoices--a bright boy, Froike, a treasure!
"If you want to go to the bath, there is a shirt ready for you!"
Thus Bath-sheba as she passes him, still not venturing to look him in
the face, and Fishel has a sensation of unspeakable comfort, he feels
like a man escaped from prison and back in a lightsome world, among
those who are near and dear to him. And he sees in fancy a very, very
hot bath-house, and himself lying on the highest bench with other Jews,
and he perspires and swishes himself with the birch twigs, and can never
Home from the bath, fresh and lively as a fish, like one newborn, he
rehearses the portion of the Law for the festival, puts on the Sabbath
cloak and the new girdle, steals a glance at Bath-sheba in her new dress
and silk kerchief--still a pretty woman, and so pious and good!--and
goes with Froike to the Shool. The air is full of Sholom Alechems,
"Welcome, Reb Fishel the teacher, and what are you about?"--"A teacher
teaches!"--"What is the news?"--"What should it be? The world is the
world!"--"What is going on in Balta?"--"Balta is Balta."
The same formula is repeated every time, every half-year, and Nissel the
reader begins to recite the evening prayers, and sends forth his voice,
the further the louder, and when he comes to "And Moses declared the
set feasts of the Lord unto the children of Israel," it reaches nearly
to Heaven. And Froike stands at his father's side, and recites the
prayers melodiously, and once more Fishel's heart expands and flows over
with joy--a good child, Froike, a good, pious child!
"A happy holiday, a happy holiday!"
"A happy holiday, a happy year!"
At home they find the Passover table spread: the four cups, the bitter
herbs, the almond and apple paste, and all the rest of it. The
reclining-seats (two small benches with big cushions) stand ready, and
Fishel becomes a king. Fishel, robed in white, sits on the throne of his
dominion, Bath-sheba, the queen, sits beside him in her new silk
kerchief; Efroim, the prince, in a new cap, and the princess Resele with
her plait, sit opposite them. Look on with respect! His majesty Fishel
is seated on his throne, and has assumed the sway of his kingdom.
* * * * *
The Chaschtschevate scamps, who love to make game of the whole world,
not to mention a teacher, maintain that one Passover Eve our Fishel sent
his Bath-sheba the following Russian telegram: "Rebyata sobral dyengi
vezu prigatovi npiyedu tzarstvovatz," which means: "Have entered my
pupils for the next term, am bringing money, prepare the dumplings, I
come to reign." The mischief-makers declare that this telegram was
seized at Balta station, that Bath-sheba was sought and not found, and
that Fishel was sent home with the etape. Dreadful! But I can assure
you, there isn't a word of truth in the story, because Fishel never
sent a telegram in his life, nobody was ever seen looking for
Bath-sheba, and Fishel was never taken anywhere by the etape. That is,
he was once taken somewhere by the etape, but not on account of a
telegram, only on account of a simple passport! And not from Balta, but
from Yehupetz, and not at Passover, but in summer-time. He wished, you
see, to go to Yehupetz in search of a post as teacher, and forgot his
passport. He thought it was in Balta, and he got into a nice mess, and
forbade his children and children's children ever to go in search of
pupils in Yehupetz.
Since then he teaches in Balta, and comes home for Passover, winds up
his work a fortnight earlier, and sometimes manages to hasten back in
time for the Great Sabbath. Hasten, did I say? That means when the road
is a road, when you can hire a conveyance, and when the Bug can either
be crossed on the ice or in the ferry-boat. But when, for instance, the
snow has begun to melt, and the mud is deep, when there is no conveyance
to be had, when the Bug has begun to split the ice, and the ferry-boat
has not started running, when a skiff means peril of death, and the
festival is upon you--what then? It is just "nit guet."
Fishel the teacher knows the taste of "nit guet." He has had many
adventures and mishaps since he became a teacher, and took to faring
from Chaschtschevate to Balta and from Balta to Chaschtschevate. He has
tried going more than half-way on foot, and helped to push the
conveyance besides. He has lain in the mud with a priest, the priest on
top, and he below. He has fled before a pack of wolves who were
pursuing the vehicle, and afterwards they turned out to be dogs, and not
wolves at all. But anything like the trouble on this Passover Eve had
never befallen him before.
The trouble came from the Bug, that is, from the Bug's breaking through
the ice, and just having its fling when Fishel reached it in a hurry to
get home, and really in a hurry, because it was already Friday and
Passover Eve, that is, Passover eve fell on a Sabbath that year.
Fishel reached the Bug in a Gentile conveyance Thursday evening.
According to his own reckoning, he should have got there Tuesday
morning, because he left Balta Sunday after market, the spirit having
moved him to go into the market-place to spy after a chance conveyance.
How much better it would have been to drive with Yainkel-Shegetz, a
Balta carrier, even at the cart-tail, with his legs dangling, and shaken
to bits. He would have been home long ago by now, and have forgotten the
discomforts of the journey. But he had wanted a cheaper transit, and it
is an old saying that cheap things cost dear. Yoneh, the tippler, who
procures vehicles in Balta, had said to him: "Take my advice, give two
rubles, and you will ride in Yainkel's wagon like a lord, even if you do
have to sit behind the wagon. Consider, you're playing with fire, the
festival approaches." But as ill-luck would have it, there came along a
familiar Gentile from Chaschtschevate.
"Eh, Rabbi, you're not wanting a lift to Chaschtschevate?"
"How much would the fare be?"
He thought to ask how much, and he never thought to ask if it would take
him home by Passover, because in a week he could have covered the
distance walking behind the cart.
But as Fishel drove out of the town, he soon began to repent of his
choice, even though the wagon was large, and he sitting in it in
solitary grandeur, like any count. He saw that with a horse that dragged
itself along in that way, there would be no getting far, for they
drove a whole day without getting anywhere in particular, and however
much he worried the peasant to know if it were a long way yet, the only
reply he got was, "Who can tell?" In the evening, with a rumble and a
shout and a crack of the whip, there came up with them Yainkel-Shegetz
and his four fiery horses jingling with bells, and the large coach
packed with passengers before and behind. Yainkel, catching sight of the
teacher in the peasant's cart, gave another loud crack with his whip,
ridiculed the peasant, his passenger, and his horse, as only
Yainkel-Shegetz knows how, and when a little way off, he turned and
pointed at one of the peasant's wheels.
"Hallo, man, look out! There's a wheel turning!"
The peasant stopped the horse, and he and the teacher clambered down
together, and examined the wheels. They crawled underneath the cart, and
found nothing wrong, nothing at all.
When the peasant understood that Yainkel had made a fool of him, he
scratched the back of his neck below his collar, and began to abuse
Yainkel and all Jews with curses such as Fishel had never heard before.
His voice and his anger rose together:
"May you never know good! May you have a bad year! May you not see the
end of it! Bad luck to you, you and your horses and your wife and your
daughter and your aunts and your uncles and your parents-in-law and--and
all your cursed Jews!"
It was a long time before the peasant took his seat again, nor did he
cease to fume against Yainkel the driver and all Jews, until, with God's
help, they reached a village wherein to spend the night.
Next morning Fishel rose with the dawn, recited his prayers, a portion
of the Law, and a few Psalms, breakfasted on a roll, and was ready to
set forward. Unfortunately, Chfedor (this was the name of his driver)
was not ready. Chfedor had sat up late with a crony and got drunk, and
he slept through a whole day and a bit of the night, and then only
started on his way.
"Well," Fishel reproved him as they sat in the cart, "well, Chfedor, a
nice way to behave, upon my word! Do you suppose I engaged you for a
merrymaking? What have you to say for yourself, I should like to know,
And Fishel addressed other reproachful words to him, and never ceased
casting the other's laziness between his teeth, partly in Polish, partly
in Hebrew, and helping himself out with his hands. Chfedor understood
quite well what Fishel meant, but he answered him not a word, not a
syllable even. No doubt he felt that Fishel was in the right, and he was
silent as a cat, till, on the fourth day, they met Yainkel-Shegetz,
driving back from Chaschtschevate with a rumble and a crack of his
whip, who called out to them, "You may as well turn back to Balta, the
Bug has burst the ice."
Fishel's heart was like to burst, too, but Chfedor, who thought that
Yainkel was trying to fool him a second time, started repeating his
whole list of curses, called down all bad dreams on Yainkel's hands and
feet, and never shut his mouth till they came to the Bug on Thursday
evening. They drove straight to Prokop Baranyuk, the ferryman, to
inquire when the ferry-boat would begin to run, and the two Gentiles,
Chfedor and Prokop, took to sipping brandy, while Fishel proceeded to
recite the Afternoon Prayer.
* * * * *
The sun was about to set, and poured a rosy light onto the high hills
that stood on either side of the river, and were snow-covered in parts
and already green in others, and intersected by rivulets that wound
their way with murmuring noise down into the river, where the water
foamed with the broken ice and the increasing thaw. The whole of
Chaschtschevate lay before him as on a plate, while the top of the
monastery sparkled like a light in the setting sun. Standing to recite
the Eighteen Benedictions, with his face towards Chaschtschevate, Fishel
turned his eyes away and drove out the idle thoughts and images that had
crept into his head: Bath-sheba with the new silk kerchief, Froike with
the Gemoreh, Resele with her plait, the hot bath and the highest bench,
and freshly-baked Matzes, together with nice peppered fish and
horseradish that goes up your nose, Passover borshtsh with more Matzes,
a heavenly mixture, and all the other good things that desire is
capable of conjuring up--and however often he drove these fancies away,
they returned and crept back into his brain like summer flies, and
disturbed him at his prayers.
When Fishel had repeated the Eighteen Benedictions and Olenu, he betook
him to Prokop, and entered into conversation with him about the
ferry-boat and the festival eve, giving him to understand, partly in
Polish and partly in Hebrew and partly with his hands, what Passover
meant to the Jews, and Passover Eve falling on a Sabbath, and that if,
which Heaven forbid, he had not crossed the Bug by that time to-morrow,
he was a lost man, for, beside the fact that they were on the lookout
for him at home--his wife and children (Fishel gave a sigh that rent the
heart)--he would not be able to eat or drink for a week, and Fishel
turned away, so that the tears in his eyes should not be seen.
Prokop Baranyuk quite appreciated Fishel's position, and replied that he
knew to-morrow was a Jewish festival, and even how it was called; he
even knew that the Jews celebrated it by drinking wine and strong
brandy; he even knew that there was yet another festival at which the
Jews drank brandy, and a third when all Jews were obliged to get drunk,
but he had forgotten its name--
"Well and good," Fishel interrupted him in a lamentable voice, "but what
is to happen? How if I don't get there?"
To this Prokop made no reply. He merely pointed with his hand to the
river, as much as to say, "See for yourself!"
And Fishel lifted up his eyes to the river, and saw that which he had
never seen before, and heard that which he had never heard in his life.
Because you may say that Fishel had never yet taken in anything "out of
doors," he had only perceived it accidentally, by the way, as he hurried
from Cheder to the house-of-study, and from the house-of-study to
Cheder. The beautiful blue Bug between the two lines of imposing hills,
the murmur of the winding rivulets as they poured down the hillsides,
the roar of the ever-deepening spring-flow, the light of the setting
sun, the glittering cupola of the convent, the wholesome smell of
Passover-Eve-tide out of doors, and, above all, the being so close to
home and not able to get there--all these things lent wings, as it were,
to Fishel's spirit, and he was borne into a new world, the world of
imagination, and crossing the Bug seemed the merest trifle, if only the
Almighty were willing to perform a fraction of a miracle on his behalf.
Such and like thoughts floated in and out of Fishel's head, and lifted
him into the air, and so far across the river, he never realized that it
was night, and the stars came out, and a cool wind blew in under his
cloak to his little prayer-scarf, and Fishel was busy with things that
he had never so much as dreamt of: earthly things and Heavenly things,
the great size of the beautiful world, the Almighty as Creator of the
earth, and so on.
Fishel spent a bad night in Prokop's house--such a night as he hoped
never to spend again. The next morning broke with a smile from the
bright and cheerful sun. It was a singularly fine day, and so sweetly
warm that all the snow left melted into kasha, and the kasha, into
water, and this water poured into the Bug from all sides; and the Bug
became clearer, light blue, full and smooth, and the large bits of ice
that looked like dreadful wild beasts, like white elephants hurrying and
tearing along as if they were afraid of being late, grew rarer.
Fishel the teacher recited the Morning Prayer, breakfasted on the last
piece of leavened bread left in his prayer-scarf bag, and went out to
the river to see about the ferry. Imagine his feelings when he heard
that the ferry-boat would not begin running before Sunday afternoon! He
clapped both hands to his head, gesticulated with every limb, and fell
to abusing Prokop. Why had he given him hopes of the ferry-boat's
crossing next day? Whereupon Prokop answered quite coolly that he had
said nothing about crossing with the ferry, he was talking of taking him
across in a small boat! And that he could still do, if Fishel wished, in
a sail-boat, in a rowboat, in a raft, and the fare was not less than one
"A raft, a rowboat, anything you like, only don't let me spend the
festival away from home!"
Thus Fishel, and he was prepared to give him two rubles then and there,
to give his life for the holy festival, and he began to drive Prokop
into getting out the raft at once, and taking him across in the
direction of Chaschtschevate, where Bath-sheba, Froike, and Resele are
already looking out for him. It may be they are standing on the opposite
hills, that they see him, and make signs to him, waving their hands,
that they call to him, only one can neither see them nor hear their
voices, because the river is wide, dreadfully wide, wider than ever!
The sun was already half-way up the deep, blue sky, when Prokop told
Fishel to get into the little trough of a boat, and when Fishel heard
him, he lost all power in his feet and hands, and was at a loss what to
do, for never in his life had he been in a rowboat, never in his life
had he been in any small boat. And it seemed to him the thing had only
to dip a little to one side, and all would be over.
"Jump in, and off we'll go!" said Prokop once more, and with a turn of
his oar he brought the boat still closer in, and took Fishel's bundle
out of his hands.
Fishel the teacher drew his coat-skirts neatly together, and began to
perform circles without moving from the spot, hesitating whether to jump
or not. On the one hand were Passover Eve, Bath-sheba, Froike, Resele,
the bath, the home service, himself as king; on the other, peril of
death, the Destroying Angel, suicide--because one dip and--good-by,
Fishel, peace be upon him!
And Fishel remained circling there with his folded skirts, till Prokop
lost patience and said, another minute, and he should set out and be off
to Chaschtschevate without him. At the beloved word "Chaschtschevate,"
Fishel called his dear ones to mind, summoned the whole of his courage,
and fell into the boat. I say "fell in," because the instant his foot
touched the bottom of the boat, it slipped, and Fishel, thinking he was
falling, drew back, and this drawing back sent him headlong forward into
the boat-bottom, where he lay stretched out for some minutes before
recovering his wits, and for a long time after his face was livid, and
his hands shook, while his heart beat like a clock, tik-tik-tak,
Prokop meantime sat in the prow as though he were at home. He spit into
his hands, gave a stroke with the oar to the left, a stroke to the
right, and the boat glided over the shining water, and Fishel's head
spun round as he sat. As he sat? No, he hung floating, suspended in the
air! One false movement, and that which held him would give way; one
lean to the side, and he would be in the water and done with! At this
thought, the words came into his mind, "And they sank like lead in the
mighty waters," and his hair stood on end at the idea of such a death.
How? Not even to be buried with the dead of Israel? And he bethought
himself to make a vow to--to do what? To give money in charity? He had
none to give--he was a very, very poor man! So he vowed that if God
would bring him home in safety, he would sit up whole nights and study,
go through the whole of the Talmud in one year, God willing, with God's
Fishel would dearly have liked to know if it were much further to the
other side, and found himself seated, as though on purpose, with his
face to Prokop and his back to Chaschtschevate. And he dared not open
his mouth to ask. It seemed to him that his very voice would cause the
boat to rock, and one rock--good-by, Fishel! But Prokop opened his mouth
of his own accord, and began to speak. He said there was nothing worse
when you were on the water than a thaw. It made it impossible, he said,
to row straight ahead; one had to adapt one's course to the ice, to row
round and round and backwards.
"There's a bit of ice making straight for us now."
Thus Prokop, and he pulled back and let pass a regular ice-floe, which
swam by with a singular rocking motion and a sound that Fishel had never
seen or heard before. And then he began to understand what a wild
adventure this journey was, and he would have given goodness knows what
to be safe on shore, even on the one they had left.
"O, you see that?" asked Prokop, and pointed upstream.
Fishel raised his eyes slowly, was afraid of moving much, and looked and
looked, and saw nothing but water, water, and water.
"There's a big one coming down on us now, we must make a dash for it,
for it's too late to row back."
So said Prokop, and rowed away with both hands, and the boat glided and
slid like a fish through the water, and Fishel felt cold in every limb.
He would have liked to question, but was afraid of interfering. However,
again Prokop spoke of himself.
"If we don't win by a minute, it will be the worse for us."
Fishel can now no longer contain himself, and asks:
"How do you mean, the worse?"
"We shall be done for," says Prokop.
"How do you mean, done for?" persists Fishel.
"I mean, it will grind us."
Fishel does not understand what "grind us, grind us" may signify, but it
has a sound of finality, of the next world, about it, and Fishel is
bathed in a cold sweat, and again the words come into his head, "And
they sank like lead in the mighty waters."
And Prokop, as though to quiet our Fishel's mind, tells him a comforting
story of how, years ago at this time, the Bug broke through the ice, and
the ferry-boat could not be used, and there came to him another person
to be rowed across, an excise official from Uman, quite a person of
distinction, and offered a large sum; and they had the bad luck to meet
two huge pieces of ice, and he rowed to the right, in between the floes,
intending to slip through upwards, and he made an involuntary side
motion with the boat, and they went flop into the water! Fortunately,
he, Prokop, could swim, but the official came to grief, and the
"It was good-by to my fare!" ended Prokop, with a sigh, and Fishel
shuddered, and his tongue dried up, so that he could neither speak nor
utter the slightest sound.
In the very middle of the river, just as they were rowing along quite
smoothly, Prokop suddenly stopped, and looked--and looked--up the
stream; then he laid down the oars, drew a bottle out of his pocket,
tilted it into his mouth, sipped out of it two or three times, put it
back, and explained to Fishel that he had always to take a few sips of
the "bitter drop," otherwise he felt bad when on the water. And he wiped
his mouth, took the oars in hand again, and said, having crossed
himself three times:
"Now for a race!"
A race? With whom? With what? Fishel did not understand, and was afraid
to ask; but again he felt the brush of the Death Angel's wing, for
Prokop had gone down onto his knees, and was rowing with might and main.
Moreover, he said to Fishel, and pointed to the bottom of the boat:
"Rebbe, lie down!"
Fishel understood that he was to lie down, and did not need to be told
twice. For now he had seen a whole host of floes coming down upon them,
a world of ice, and he shut his eyes, flung himself face downwards in
the boat, and lay trembling like a lamb, and recited in a low voice,
"Hear, O Israel!" and the Confession, thought on the graves of Israel,
and fancied that now, now he lies in the abyss of the waters, now, now
comes a fish and swallows him, like Jonah the prophet when he fled to
Tarshish, and he remembers Jonah's prayer, and sings softly and with
"Affofuni mayyim ad nofesh--the waters have reached unto my soul; tehom
yesoveveni--the deep hath covered me!"
Fishel the teacher sang and wept and thought pitifully of his widowed
wife and his orphaned children, and Prokop rowed for all he was worth,
and sang his little song:
"O thou maiden with the black lashes!"
And Prokop felt the same on the water as on dry land, and Fishel's
"Affofuni" and Prokop's "O maiden" blended into one, and a strange song
sounded over the Bug, a kind of duet, which had never been heard there
"The black year knows why he is so afraid of death, that Jew," so
wondered Prokop Baranyuk, "a poor tattered little Jew like him, a
creature I would not give this old boat for, and so afraid of death!"
The shore reached, Prokop gave Fishel a shove in the side with his boot,
and Fishel started. The Gentile burst out laughing, but Fishel did not
hear, Fishel went on reciting the Confession, saying Kaddish for his own
soul, and mentally contemplating the graves of Israel!
"Get up, you silly Rebbe! We're there--in Chaschtschevate!"
Slowly, slowly, Fishel raised his head, and gazed around him with red
and swollen eyes.
"Chaschtschevate! Give me the ruble, Rebbe!"
Fishel crawls out of the boat, and, finding himself really at home, does
not know what to do for joy. Shall he run into the town? Shall he go
dancing? Shall he first thank and praise God who has brought him safe
out of such great peril? He pays the Gentile his fare, takes up his
bundle under his arm and is about to run home, the quicker the better,
but he pauses a moment first, and turns to Prokop the ferryman:
"Listen, Prokop, dear heart, to-morrow, please God, you'll come and
drink a glass of brandy, and taste festival fish at Fishel the
teacher's, for Heaven's sake!"
"Shall I say no? Am I such a fool?" replied Prokop, licking his lips in
anticipation at the thought of the Passover brandy he would sip, and the
festival fish he would delectate himself with on the morrow.
And Prokop gets back into his boat, and pulls quietly home again,
singing a little song, and pitying the poor Jew who was so afraid of
death. "The Jewish faith is the same as the Mahommedan!" and it seems to
him a very foolish one. And Fishel is thinking almost the same thing,
and pities the Gentile on account of his religion. "What knows he, yon
poor Gentile, of such holy promises as were made to us Jews, the beloved
And Fishel the teacher hastens uphill, through the Chaschtschevate mud.
He perspires with the exertion, and yet he does not feel the ground
beneath his feet. He flies, he floats, he is going home, home to his
dear ones, who are on the watch for him as for Messiah, who look for him
to return in health, to seat himself upon his kingly throne and reign.
Look, Jews, and turn respectfully aside! Fishel the teacher has come
home to Chaschtschevate, and seated himself upon the throne of his