Michael Hoffman

Saba Yehuda and debts never repaid

The tale at hand always started with a smile and a sigh, as Saba Yehuda seemed to gather in the memories of a different time and place. He called up a Jerusalem a little after the storms of the First World War had passed. Jerusalem then was really no more than a dusty sleepy village nestled within stone walls, filled to overflowing with ancient history and tradition, but little else.

Saba was part of a group of youthful idealists who had set up camp, literally, in the wilds of the Judean hills, at a middling distance from the bounds of the Old City of Jerusalem. He and his fellow pioneers had drifted down from the Galil in Israel’s North, where they had set up the first collective settlements, or kibbutzim. Their heads filled with dreams of reclaiming a shiny Israel from the grips of moribund past, they had come to set up a communal farm – Ramat Rachel- on Jerusalem southern borders.

The hilltop site for their agrarian adventure offered great views of pastoral Beth Lechem, but little else. The scraggy hillside was littered with rocks and stone- the scourge of till and plow. The soil was fine for olive trees and such, but not much for vegetables and their like.

Worst of all was the lack of water. Springs frequently ran dry, and wells were less than bountiful. The pioneers of Ramat Rachel became past masters of water reclamation. Water used for cooking became water for bathing, and that in turn became water for laundry. The large barrels of soap suds were then wheeled out to irrigate freshly planted tree seedlings.

There is no doubt that with sweat and perseverance the settlers would one day make a go of it at Ramat Rachel. And indeed today, nearly a century later, it is a thriving community. But this was by no means the case for its founders, who found it hard going to put food on the table. In order to make ends meet, many of the young men and women hired themselves out in a variety of odd jobs.

And that is where Saba’s tale really begins.

Although Saba loved taking care of the livestock at Ramat Rachel, his real contribution to the communal coffers came from two jobs that he had conjured up. One of these was working at a small quarry not too far from the kibbutz, where he helped turn slabs of Jerusalem stone into building blocks and paving stones. He and his co-workers took heart in the fact that the fruits of their labors were being used to create the streets and edifices of a new, modern Jerusalem. In later years, he would point to this or another weathered stone facades with paternal pride.

In addition to his work in the quarry, Saba had a second “gig” as they now call it, working for the Jerusalem municipality. Saba was an imposing young man – tall, sturdy, muscled, and with an imposing demeanor. Although he was by no means threatening, he was not someone you would want to mess with. These qualities made him the perfect character for his job as collector for the municipal water department. Dressed in a hat and a special leather belt – with money pouch attached – Saba would make the rounds of those making use of the water delivered in a city water system owned by His Majesty, way back in London Town.

His job involved traipsing over the hills and valleys of the Jerusalem countryside, visiting the far flung clientele of the water department once a month. His employers had given him one little notebook to record the monthly usage numbers on that client’s water clock, and a second, collection book to tell him how much he was to collect for the previous month. The system was pretty much cash and carry. Whatever coins the client paid went into the special pouch, in return for a longhand receipt offered with particular flourish. In the unfortunate case when a client refused to pay his bill, Saba was given a key to close the water main, cutting off the water supply to the offending party.

Once a month, Saba’s two jobs would overlap, when he was called upon to collect the water bill from the owner of the quarry where he worked. And on those days, his fellow workers would look upon him with a certain trepidation.

Water, it seems, is the very lifeblood of stone cutting. Water cools the stone cutting tools, it wets the blades, it carried off the dust which would otherwise foul up the whole quarrying enterprise. Without water, there is no quarrying to be done.

So when Saba’s appeared as bill collector at the quarry, it was the source of no little anguish for workers there. All was fine, tf the quarry owner had been diligent and set aside the money for the water bill,. If not, Saba would be forced to pull out the key, and shut off the water, thereby shutting down the quarry. His friends and co-workers would then find themselves temporarily out of a job, until the owner could straighten out his affairs with His Majesty’s municipal water department.

This was a situation which put an idealistic youth like Saba in quite a bind. His friends, however, took it in stride, and never complained when Saba was forced to turn the key.

Yet, one time Saba had to face an even more heartbreaking turn of events. Although the quarry owner handed over the stack of coins to cover the monthly bill, he seemed unusually quiet and distraught. When Saba asked him why, the owner explained that he was short of funds, and had to decide whether to pay his workers that week or pay the water bill. After talking it over with the workers, they had decided the water bill came first. They needed the work- the pay could come later.

By the time Saba had finally written out the receipt, all of the quarry workers had left for the day. Maybe they didn’t have the stomach to watch their payday walk off in Saba’s special leather pouch. Maybe they didn’t want to make Saba feel worse for what he had to do. Life was hard in those days, and no need to make it harder.

In any case, everyone had gone. Everyone but one lone worker, huddled next to a giant boulder. When Saba looked over, he had no trouble recognizing the fellow- it was Yankel. Yankel was a tall, thin beanpole of a man, with a permanent pale pallor that resisted every effort of the hot Mediterranean sun to give him a tan. Unlike Saba and his mates who had come to Israel driven by faith and ideals, Yankel had come to the Promised Land to run away from some cloud in his past. There were probably more auspicious places to run to, but somehow Yankel had washed up on the shores of Palestine.

Yankel was a day worker who rented a room back in the Old City, about an hour’s walk away. Saba was going that way in order to turn in his pouch and collection book, and suggested to Yankel that they keep each other company on the way back. Yankel grimaced at the suggestion. “There’s no reason for me to go back to town – I’m just going to sleep out here in the quarry.”

“Why would you do that?”, Saba wondered out loud. Yankel gave a short, bitter laugh: “The reason’s there in your money pouch. I rent my room from day to day. The owner paid for the water, but didn’t pay me. So I have nothing to give my landlady. I guess I’ll just rough it here”.

Yankel’s lament put Saba in quite a quandary. He knew that sleeping at the quarry at night was no laughing matter. The countryside was rough, with all sorts of wildlife that could easily nip and bite. There were no end of snakes, scorpions, poisonous spiders, rabid dogs, wolves, and foxes. And Yankel didn’t even have a jacket or blanket to cover himself against the evening chill. How could Saba- a dyed in the wool socialist, a lover of Zion and his fellow man – leave Yankel in the lurch?

Without even thinking, Saba put his hand down to the money pouch. He knew what he was about to do broke his sacred vows to the city fathers and His Majesty back in London. No matter. Saba took out the smallest coin in the collection pouch – a half grush – and handed it over to Yankel. “Take this, and give it back when you next get paid.” The small coin – barely bigger than the whole in its middle – would get Yankel through the night.

Yankel grabbed the coin and ran off toward town, leaving Saba to wonder at what he had just done. How was he going to explain the missing sum back at the water department? It was an interesting question indeed, but one that Saba never explained when he told the tale. He had greater heights to climb.

Payday came and payday went at the quarry, but Yankel never came back to Saba with the half grush. At first Saba thought that Yankel probably had other, more pressing financial needs. Saba didn’t want to pressure him, or embarrass the man- heaven forbid! But days passed, and weeks, until one day – Yankel disappeared. Some of the men thought that Yankel had left Jerusalem. Others said that he had left Palestine. In those days leaving Palestine was an all too common event. Those without a dream and a burning desire found it hard to stick around. Life was tough.

After a while, Saba stopped thinking about Yankel altogether. After an even longer while, he stopped thinking about the half grush.

And so it was that Saba was completely shocked when one day – walking down Jerusalem’s still unpaved Jaffo Road- he saw Yankel. But this was not the thin, disheveled Yankel of the quarry. This was a plumper Yankel, dressed in a fine suit of clothes, looking quite the man-about-town. It was clear that Yankel’s boat had come in and fortune had smiled upon him.

Could this really be Yankel? Yes, indeed! Saba ran up to him, shaking his hand, glad to see Yankel had made his way in life. Yankel shared briefly where he’d been and the marvelous luck he had enjoyed, ever since the day he had gotten the half a grush from Saba.

“And so Yankel, now that all is good for you- can I have the half a grush back already?” Saba asked.

“The half a grush? That half a grush? Oh no, my friend! That half a grush saved my life, and gave me a new one. A coin like that can never ever be repaid.״

And with that, Yankel turned and briskly walked off, leaving Saba to ponder: Maybe Yankel was right? Maybe there are some debts that can never be repaid?

About the Author
Psychologist and builder in Jerusalem for last 55 years with family roots going way back.
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