Saba Yehuda never spoke much about just what sort of Communist he had been in his youth. From time to time, little glimmers would pop out. Once, for example, he mentioned meeting the firebrand revolutionary Trotsky, whose sole advice had been to stress the signal importance of wearing dry socks. Yet, other than that one cryptic encounter, Saba was mum about his own political involvement.
So it was a great surprise when Saba invited me to drop by for a drop of schnapps on a summery Jerusalem Shabbat afternoon. He stated that a few of his old buddies from his youth would be there. “If you want to know about what it was to be a real communist, you can ask them.” Saba had piqued my interest.
When I knocked on Saba’s door, at the appointed hour, it was Savta Sara who greeted me. Shuffling slowly in worn house shoes, she steered me into the front porch. There I was confronted by pandemonium: Saba was huddled over an open volume of the Talmud, along with three elderly gentlemen. They were all arguing vociferously with each other, hands waving and fingers pointing. From time to time, a few drops of schnapps sprayed out of the shot glasses they gripped in their hands.
It appears that they were loudly enjoying the finer points of pilpul, or Talmudic debate. I say appears, because the three gentlemen where each speaking in a mishmash of multiple Eastern European tongues, heavily sprinkled with Yiddish. Every now and then, a bit of Talmudic Aramaic popped out. When I entered, they paused silently for a moment to look me over, and dove quickly back into the fray.
Things only settled down after a few minutes, when Savta Sarah brought out a tray of boiling hot tea in tall glasses alongside a heaping bowl of sugar cubes. One by one, the gentlemen snatched up a glass, crunched on a cube, and slurped away.
Saba used the sudden lull to introduce his three compatriots. The first, Ginsburg, was short and portly, with a round face wreathed in a massive bloom of grey hair. Looming over him was Steinsaltz, a gaunt, balding fellow whose clothes seemed to be a few sizes too large. I never caught the name of the last of the trio, a rather dark set, foreboding gentleman. His abrupt, hacking cough completely drowned out Saba’s introduction.
Ginsburg had clearly seen my bewilderment about the noisy scene I had just witnessed. “Don’t be concerned, young man”, he explained “we have been having this same argument for years now. Each of us studied the Talmud in a different way…”
At this point, Steinsaltz interjected, ” … if they studied at all. Myself, I think some of us were napping”. The nameless cougher then added some comment in Yiddish which was beyond my comprehension, but soon had all four men rolling in laughter.
Saba explained that he and his three friends got together once every couple of months to reminisce about their youth. Although none of them had actually grown up in the same town or village, they all had shared a remarkably similar background of experiences. Most significantly, all had had a basic education in Jewish studies which had ended abruptly when they were apprenticed off to the world of work.
“It’s strange”, Ginsburg said. “None of us were ever cut out to be yeshiva buchers. But these days, looking at a page of Gemara is like seeing an old friend from a happier time.” “Though you have to admit, it’s really a lot more interesting with Schnapps,” the cougher added. This lead to another wave of laughter. It was clear to me that their reminiscences over their youth had put them in a somewhat adolescent frame of mind.
The next half hour passed quickly, as one after another, the friends swapped anecdotes over their travails in cheder. There was much laughter, much hot tea, and here and there – a little schnapps. The happenings came to an abrupt end when Ginsburg stood up, pointed to his watch, and apologized for having to leave. Steinsaltz and the cougher used the opportunity to say their goodbyes as well.
After the door closed behind them, a silence settled on the room. Although I had enjoyed the opportunity to see Saba and his friends, I was a little disappointed. “What happened, Saba?”, I asked. He didn’t understand the question. “You said I was going to meet some real, fire breathing Communists from the old days. So where were they?”
Saba looked at me somewhat querulously. “They were just here!”
״What, those old yeshiva buchers ?”
“They might look like buchers to you, but in their day- they made up half of the governing committee of the ComIntern. That was the body directing Communist revolutions over most of the world. When those guys talked, the world listened. They only stopped when Stalin decided that he was tired of listening to Jews and kicked them out. But those guys were the face of Communism when they were young.” Saba said the last sentence with a certain sad reverence. “You know, communism may have turned its back on them, but thank God, their Jewish roots never failed them.״.
Saba gave me a smile and a wink. “So there you have it: Scratch an old Communist and you’ll find a yeshiva bucher”.