: JUDAH STEINBERG
At the time I am speaking of, the above was about forty years old. He
was a little, thin Jew with a long face, a long nose, two large, black,
kindly eyes, and one who would sooner be silent and think than talk, no
matter what was being said to him. Even when he was scolded for
something (and by whom and when and for what was he not scolded?), he
used to listen with a quiet, startled, but sweet smile, and his large,
ly eyes would look at the other with such wonderment, mingled with a
sort of pity, that the other soon stopped short in his abuse, and stood
nonplussed before him.
"There, you may talk! You might as well argue with a horse, or a donkey,
or the wall, or a log of wood!" and the other would spit and make off.
But if anyone observed that smile attentively, and studied the look in
his eyes, he would, to a certainty, have read there as follows:
"O man, man, why are you eating your heart out? Seeing that you don't
know, and that you don't understand, why do you undertake to tell me
what I ought to do?"
And when he was obliged to answer, he used to do so in a few measured
and gentle words, as you would speak to a little, ignorant child,
smiling the while, and then he would disappear and start thinking again.
They called him "breadwinner," because, no matter how hard the man
worked, he was never able to earn a living. He was a little tailor, but
not like the tailors nowadays, who specialize in one kind of garment,
for Yitzchok-Yossel made everything: trousers, cloaks, waistcoats,
top-coats, fur-coats, capes, collars, bags for prayer-books, "little
prayer-scarfs," and so on. Besides, he was a ladies' tailor as well.
Summer and winter, day and night, he worked like an ox, and yet, when
the Kabtzonivke community, at the time of the great cholera, in order to
put an end to the plague, led him, aged thirty, out to the cemetery, and
there married him to Malkeh the orphan, she cast him off two weeks
later! She was still too young (twenty-eight), she said, to stay with
him and die of hunger. She went out into the world, together with a
large band of poor, after the great fire that destroyed nearly the whole
town, and nothing more was heard of Malkeh the orphan from that day
forward. And Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber betook himself, with needle and
flat-iron, into the women's chamber in the New Shool, the community
having assigned it to him as a workroom.
How came it about, you may ask, that so versatile a tailor as
Yitzchok-Yossel should be so poor?
Well, if you do, it just shows you didn't know him!
Wait and hear what I shall tell you.
The story is on this wise: Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber was a tailor who
could make anything, and who made nothing at all, that is, since he
displayed his imagination in cutting out and sewing on the occasion I am
referring to, nobody would trust him.
I can remember as if it were to-day what happened in Kabtzonivke, and
the commotion there was in the little town when Yitzchok-Yossel made Reb
Yecheskel the teacher a pair of trousers (begging your pardon!) of such
fantastic cut that the unfortunate teacher had to wear them as a vest,
though he was not then in need of one, having a brand new sheepskin not
more than three years old.
And now listen! Binyomin Droibnik the trader's mother died (blessed be
the righteous Judge!), and her whole fortune went, according to the Law,
to her only son Binyomin. She had to be buried at the expense of the
community. If she was to be buried at all, it was the only way. But the
whole town was furious with the old woman for having cheated them out of
their expectations and taken her whole fortune away with her to the real
world. None knew exactly why, but it was confidently believed that old
"Aunt" Leah had heaps of treasure somewhere in hiding.
It was a custom with us in Kabtzonivke to say, whenever anyone, man or
woman, lived long, ate sicknesses by the clock, and still did not die,
that it was a sign that he had in the course of his long life gathered
great store of riches, that somewhere in a cellar he kept potsful of
gold and silver.
The Funeral Society, the younger members, had long been whetting their
teeth for "Aunt" Leah's fortune, and now she had died (may she merit
Paradise!) and had fooled them.
"What about her money?"
"A cow has flown over the roof and laid an egg!"
In that same night Reb Binyomin's cow (a real cow) calved, and the
unfortunate consequence was that she died. The Funeral Society took the
calf, and buried "Aunt" Leah at its own expense.
Well, money or no money, inheritance or no inheritance, Reb Binyomin's
old mother left him a quilt, a large, long, wide, wadded quilt. As an
article of house furniture, a quilt is a very useful thing, especially
in a house where there is a wife (no evil eye!) and a goodly number of
children, little and big. Who doesn't see that? It looks simple enough!
Either one keeps it for oneself and the two little boys (with whom Reb
Binyomin used to sleep), or else one gives it to the wife and the two
little girls (who also sleep all together), or, if not, then to the two
bigger boys or the two bigger girls, who repose on the two bench-beds in
the parlor and kitchen respectively. But this particular quilt brought
such perplexity into Reb Binyomin's rather small head that he (not of
you be it spoken!) nearly went mad.
"Why I and not she? Why she and not I? Or they? Or the others? Why they
and not I? Why them and not us? Why the others and not them? Well, well,
what is all this fuss? What did we cover them with before?"
Three days and three nights Reb Binyomin split his head and puzzled his
brains over these questions, till the Almighty had pity on his small
skull and feeble intelligence, and sent him a happy thought.
"After all, it is an inheritance from one's one and only mother (peace
be upon her!), it is a thing from Thingland! I must adapt it to some
useful purpose, so that Heaven and earth may envy me its possession!"
And he sent to fetch Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber, the tailor, who could
make every kind of garment, and said to him:
"Reb Yitzchok-Yossel, you see this article?"
"I see it."
"Yes, you see it, but do you understand it, really and truly understand
"I think I do."
"But do you know what this is, ha?"
"Ha, ha, ha! A quilt? I could have told you that myself. But the stuff,
"It's good material, beautiful stuff."
"Good material, beautiful stuff? No, I beg your pardon, you are not an
expert in this, you don't know the value of merchandise. The real
artisan, the true expert, would say: The material is light, soft, and
elastic, like a lung, a sound and healthy lung. The stuff--he would say
further--is firm, full, and smooth as the best calf's leather. And
durable? Why, it's a piece out of the heart of the strongest ox, or the
tongue of the Messianic ox itself! Do you know how many winters this
quilt has lasted already? But enough! That is not why I have sent for
you. We are neither of us, thanks to His blessed Name, do-nothings. The
long and short of it is this: I wish to make out of this--you understand
me?--out of this material, out of this piece of stuff, a thing, an
article, that shall draw everybody to it, a fruit that is worth saying
the blessing over, something superfine. An instance: what, for example,
tell me, what would you do, if I gave this piece of goods into your
hands, and said to you: Reb Yitzchok-Yossel, as you are (without sin be
it spoken!) an old workman, a good workman, and, besides that, a good
comrade, and a Jew as well, take this material, this stuff, and deal
with it as you think best. Only let it be turned into a sort of costume,
a sort of garment, so that not only Kabtzonivke, but all Kamenivke,
shall be bitten and torn with envy. Eh? What would you turn it into?"
Yitzchok-Yossel was silent, Reb Yitzchok-Yossel went nearly out of his
mind, nearly fainted for joy at these last words. He grew pale as death,
white as chalk, then burning red like a flame of fire, and sparkled and
shone. And no wonder: Was it a trifle? All his life he had dreamed of
the day when he should be given a free hand in his work, so that
everyone should see who Yitzchok-Yossel is, and at the end came--the
trousers, Reb Yecheskel Melammed's trousers! How well, how cleverly he
had made them! Just think: trousers and upper garment in one! He had
been so overjoyed, he had felt so happy. So sure that now everyone would
know who Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber is! He had even begun to think and
wonder about Malkeh the orphan--poor, unfortunate orphan! Had she ever
had one single happy day in her life? Work forever and next to no food,
toil till she was exhausted and next to no drink, sleep where she could
get it: one time in Elkoneh the butcher's kitchen, another time in
Yisroel Dintzis' attic ... and when at last she got married (good luck
to her!), she became the wife of Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber! And the
wedding took place in the burial-ground. On one side they were digging
graves, on the other they were bringing fresh corpses. There was weeping
and wailing, and in the middle of it all, the musicians playing and
fiddling and singing, and the relations dancing!... Good luck! Good
luck! The orphan and her breadwinner are being led to the marriage
canopy in the graveyard!
He will never forget with what gusto, she, his bride, the first night
after their wedding, ate, drank, and slept--the whole of the
wedding-supper that had been given them, bridegroom and bride: a nice
roll, a glass of brandy, a tea-glass full of wine, and a heaped-up plate
of roast meat was cut up and scraped together and eaten (no evil eye!)
by her, by the bride herself. He had taken great pleasure in watching
her face. He had known her well from childhood, and had no need to look
at her to know what she was like, but he wanted to see what kind of
feelings her face would express during this occupation. When they led
him into the bridal chamber--she was already there--the companions of
the bridegroom burst into a shout of laughter, for the bride was already
snoring. He knew quite well why she had gone to sleep so quickly and
comfortably. Was there not sufficient reason? For the first time in her
life she had made a good meal and lain down in a bed with bedclothes!
The six groschen candle burnt, the flies woke and began to buzz, the
mills clapt, and swung, and groaned, and he, Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber,
the bridegroom, sat beside the bridal bed on a little barrel of pickled
gherkins, and looked at Malkeh the orphan, his bride, his wife, listened
to her loud thick snores, and thought.
The town dogs howled strangely. Evidently the wedding in the cemetery
had not yet driven away the Angel of Death. From some of the
neighboring houses came a dreadful crying and screaming of women and
Malkeh the orphan heard nothing. She slept sweetly, and snored as loud
(I beg to distinguish!) as Caspar, the tall, stout miller, the owner of
Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber sits on the little barrel, looks at her face,
and thinks. Her face is dark, roughened, and nearly like that of an old
woman. A great, fat fly knocked against the wick, the candle suddenly
began to burn brighter, and Yitzchok-Yossel saw her face become
prettier, younger, and fresher, and overspread by a smile. That was all
the effect of the supper and the soft bed. Then it was that he had
promised himself, that he had sworn, once and for all, to show the
Kabtzonivke Jews who he is, and then Malkeh the orphan will have food
and a bed every day. He would have done this long ago, had it not been
for those trousers. The people are so silly, they don't understand! That
is the whole misfortune! And it's quite the other way about: let someone
else try and turn out such an ingenious contrivance! But because it was
he, and not someone else, they laughed and made fun of him. How Reb
Yecheskel, his wife and children, did abuse him! That was his reward for
all his trouble. And just because they themselves are cattle, horses,
boors, who don't understand the tailor's art! Ha, if only they
understood that tailoring is a noble, refined calling, limitless and
bottomless as (with due distinction!) the holy Torah!
But all is not lost. Who knows? For here comes Binyomin Droibnik, an
intelligent man, a man of brains and feeling. And think how many years
he has been a trader! A retail trader, certainly, a jobber, but still--
"Come, Reb Yitzchok-Yossel, make an end! What will you turn it into?"
"That is to say?"
"A dressing-gown for your Dvoshke,--"
"A morning-gown with tassels,--"
"And besides that?"
"A pair of trousers and a jacket--"
"Why not? A--"
"Pelisse, a wadded winter pelisse for you."
"There, there! Just that, and only that!" said Reb Binyomin, delighted.
Yitzchok-Yossel Broitgeber tucked away the quilt under his arm, and was
preparing to be off.
"Reb Yitzchok-Yossel! And what about taking my measure? And how about
Yitzchok-Yossel dearly loved to take anyone's measure, and was an expert
at so doing. He had soon pulled a fair-sized sheet of paper out of one
of his deep pockets, folded it into a long paper stick, and begun to
measure Reb Binyomin Droibnik's limbs. He did not even omit to note the
length and breadth of his feet.
"What do you want with that? Are you measuring me for trousers?"
"Ett, don't you ask! No need to teach a skilled workman his trade!"
"And what about the charge?"
"We shall settle that later."
"No, that won't do with me; I am a trader, you understand, and must have
it all pat."
"And how much less?"
"How should I know? Well, four."
"Well, and half a ruble?"
"Remember, Reb Yitzchok-Yossel, it must be a masterpiece!"
* * * * *
For five days and five nights Yitzchok-Yossel set his imagination to
work on Binyomin Droibnik's inheritance. There was no eating for him, no
drinking, and no sleeping. The scissors squeaked, the needle ran hither
and thither, up and down, the inheritance sighed and almost sobbed under
the hot iron. But how happy was Yitzchok-Yossel those lightsome days and
merry nights? Who could compare with him? Greater than the Kabtzonivke
village elder, richer than Yisroel Dintzis, the tax-gatherer, and more
exalted than the bailiff himself was Yitzchok-Yossel, that is, in his
own estimation. All that he wished, thought, and felt was forthwith
created by means of his scissors and iron, his thimble, needle, and
cotton. No more putting on of patches, sewing on of pockets, cutting
out of "Tefillin-Saecklech" and "little prayer-scarfs," no more doing up
of old dresses. Freedom, freedom--he wanted one bit of work of the right
sort, and that was all! Ha, now he would show them, the Kabtzonivke
cripples and householders, now he would show them who Yitzchok-Yossel
Broitgeber is! They would not laugh at him or tease him any more! His
fame would travel from one end of the world to the other, and Malkeh the
orphan, his bride, his wife, she also would hear of it, and--
She will come back to him! He feels it in every limb. It was not him she
cast off, only his bad luck. He will rent a lodging (money will pour in
from all sides)--buy a little furniture: a bed, a sofa, a table--in time
he will buy a little house of his own--she will come, she has been
homeless long enough--it is time she should rest her weary, aching
bones--it is high time she should have her own corner!
She will come back, he feels it, she will certainly come home!
The last night! The work is complete. Yitzchok-Yossel spread it out on
the table of the women's Shool, lighted a second groschen candle, sat
down in front of it with wide open, sparkling eyes, gazed with delight
at the product of his imagination and--was wildly happy!
So he sat the whole night.
It was very hard for him to part with his achievement, but hardly was it
day when he appeared with it at Reb Binyomin Droibnik's.
"A good morning, a good year, Reb Yitzchok-Yossel! I see by your eyes
that you have been successful. Is it true?"
"You can see for yourself, there--"
"No, no, there is no need for me to see it first. Dvoshke, Cheike,
Shprintze, Dovid-Hershel, Yitzchok-Yoelik! You understand, I want them
all to be present and see."
In a few minutes the whole family had appeared on the scene. Even the
four little ones popped up from behind the heaps of ragged covering.
Yitzchok-Yossel untied his parcel and--
"Wuus is duuuusss???!!!"
"A pair of trousers with sleeves!"