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

have enough.

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.

"Done for?"

"Done for."

"How do you mean, done for?" persists Fishel.

"I mean, it will grind us."

"Grind us?"

"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

fare-money, too.

"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