Moishke’s Smile: A New Year’s Greeting

Artwork by Alex Levin

As we head into a new year, my heart, again, is stirred by the yearning to return to kinder, simpler times– during which we lived together in tolerance and respect, when light-hearted fun bowed to a deep caring for the other, and when the wisdom of elders directed our hearts towards improving the world around us to music in the background from fiddlers and goats on roofs.

Yes:  music even from the goats!

In this spirit of simplicity, I share with you a translation from the Yiddish of the story of Moishke’s Smile (Der Shmeichel fun Moishke, author unknown).  It is believed that the story took place just over a century ago in a shtetl long forgotten in what is now Belarus.

Moishke’s Smile

Moishke, the village fool, would walk through the dusty streets dressed in rags, but always with a smile.  Despite the smile, or perhaps because of it, the village children used to taunt him mercilessly.

“Moishke,” they would call out, “Have you any kasha and cream?”

To which Moishke always answered, “Who likes kasha? Who likes cream?”

Every day, after hours of this treatment the children would scamper home, each to his or her own house. There, their mothers would give them a steaming bowl of kasha. The wealthy ones with cream. 

One day, kindly Rucheleh—only six years-old–asked her mother, “May I bring my kasha to Moishke?  He always smiles but he never has any kasha and cream.”

To which Rucheleh’s mother replied, “Oh how kindly of you, my darling Rucheleh!  But Moishke doesn’t like kasha and cream. And in any case, he is a celiac. And also vegan.”

None of which was true. Rucheleh’s mother just didn’t like Moishke.

I am certain we can all agree that there is much to ponder in this beautiful tale.  But of all the stories of our people, why did I choose this particular one, you may ask?

Perhaps it is from a sense that, again, this year, we continue to suffer from an insensitivity to the pain of others and a shortage of kindness. Daily, the lion and the lamb lay down together, while only one arises—sated—the next morning.  How can this be? Seriously: how can this still be?

Our oceans are rising and storms are growing more severe (meltdown expected; the wheat is growing thin). Wherever we look, it seems that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Like many, I, too, yearn for quick solutions and hope that they will be in our time.

But simple solutions are for simple problems. Not the complex, wicked ones we face. It is far from straightforward to know how to choose life so that we and our children may live.

Having said this—and without commenting on a detailed road-map forward—it seems to me that one place to start this Rosh Hashana is by seeking kindness in ourselves and the willpower, wisdom and strength to project it into our world. As others have noted before me, this requires discernment and integrity to examine ourselves and our past. It also demands courage, commitment and honesty to make amends going forward and to forgive ourselves and others.

With this in mind, here are my wishes for us all this Rosh Hashana:  may we seek and find tshuva with open hearts and a deep respect for the persistence of our human frailty.

May we continue to strive together—with audacity and humility—to build a better, kinder, safer world.

May we all be blessed with a year forward of peace and love.

Shana tova!

About the Author
Daniel Sherman is a strategic and organizational consultant focusing on peace and development issues. He served as a general staff officer in the Israel Defense Forces where he worked on the peace process; developed social welfare programs for disadvantaged Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe with the Joint Distribution Committee; and was international relations director for an Israeli human rights organization. He lectures regularly in Israel and the United States. He has spoken at Israel's National Defense College, Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Vassar College and the University of California, Irvine. He has also presented at conferences within Israel's Knesset.
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