Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #106, Pursue Peace

The Baal Zahav, image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Der Matmid by Budka, in the public domain.
The Baal Zahav, image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Der Matmid by Budka, in the public domain.
In this episode we take a peek inside a run-down beit midrash.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Sixteenth Era, Part 7, 1320 C.E., Chelm

As I were sayin’ before I spun off….
Our world was renewin’ in the chrysalis of Chelm. Batkol and me be overseein’ the estate of Danyo Shvarn, a trusted prince in the court of His Highness, King Vladislov.
Under the influence of a local rav,* Rodof Shallaem, known as the *baal t’shuvah,* a small kehillah** had taken shape. He served the needs and troubled spirits of the peddlers and porters and collectors of rags, and all the outcasts, battered and broke.
* another term for ‘rabbi’; *-* one who abandons faith and then returns;
** Hebrew: Jewish community
His community is the one we joined, a kehillah as much outcast as forgot, shunned, demeaned, and looked down upon. Oh, there weren’t no anger or evil intent. It’s just, if you have a shard of hope, you’re lookin’ up to them above, tryin’ to grab a higher perch, or clingin’ to a hand to help you up. And them above also be turned to the higher rungs and their privileged sons, with maybe a kick now and again at them graspin’ hands that paw at their boots. And here we be, bottom of the pile.
So our house of prayer were more like a shack on the edge of Chelm, not far from the lands that Danyo held. And me and Batkol, most privily, as our income increases, become the support of our needful kahal*.
* Hebrew: community; root of ‘kehillah’
Our rav were born to a wealthy house where all the talk was heavenly goals, but all the walk was earthly gold. They named the lad *Rodof Shalaem,* but the child took other pursuits to heart – Polish wine, women, and song were chief among his well-known sins. And so he attracted the calculating eyes of damsels, con men, churchmen, and thieves.
*-* Hebrew: pursue wholeness or peace
What kind of event can turn our soul? So many axles are turnin’ in us. So many cross-winds blowin’ the dust. Who understands such cause and effect? Therefore we calls it ‘the hand of God.’
Says our rav, Rodof Zahav:
“I remember the first time I bowed my knees during Aleinu*, just a trace of a bow on *Yom Kippur*, and so began, all unbeknowns, my return to the Lor. Now here I am, all sorrow and scar, givin’ Torah to outcast folk, and they honor me with a new name – **Rodof Zahav, the baal t’shuvah**. But mostly they call me Rav ***Baal Zahav***.”
* concluding prayer in which we bend our knees  and bow our head
*-* Day of Atonement, most solemn; **-** Pursuer of Gold, the master of return
***-*** Master of Gold
A new light shone on our kahal*. Who are the patrons? No one knows. Who pays for lumber to patch the walls? Winter set in and one cold day a stove appears. And wood to burn. What mercy is this? Freezin’ at work all day long, but three times a day we’re prayerful and warm! May mercy endure! Another wonder: one Friday night fragrant challah** and thick barley soup to start Shabbat. Is this a dream? And week by week the food keeps on, for many the only time each week when the hounds of hunger cease to bite. Now looky here: every morn a pot of steamy stew on the stove. Then Grigor the porter makes a sign – it still hangs here – *Beit Zahav*.
* community; ** braided bread for Shabbat; *-* House of Gold
Now see! That scrawny orphan, Zev, ain’t hackin’ and wheezin’, ain’t whimperin’ in bed, but joins the porters lading carts, and hopes to be betrothed one day. Our rav become like a father to him. And Hannah who begs in the tailor’s street, her who hobbled all crooked with groans, now upright like a young doe in the woods. And many another broken shell been lifted from the dust by our rav.
“Miracle worker.”
“Elijah returned.”
By such-like praises our rav be known. Each has a special name for him.
Yea, our rav’s fame washes over the land, and many a troubled and burdened soul seeks him out, that hope might renew. And many a story and many a tale coils the heart and roils the air.
Our shtuba* vibrates in his charge. One chill and windy autumn day they call me to lead the Amidah.** As I turn to look at the standin’ men, I seen him. And him, he’s glarin’ at me. Were it miracle works or envious fears that brung that Susya to our kahal? But there he be all alone by the door. Abrupt he leaves and I sees him no more.
* ‘room’; a room for prayer; a prayer house; it would transform in Yiddish to ‘shtiebel’
** prayers recited while standing; core of the prayer service
About that time, late in Kheshvon* Danyo returns to the estate all drunk and in a rage. Kattar his wife, with children and babes comes runnin’ to us.
“Batkol, hide my babes for the night. Danyo is like to ring their necks. He’s smashin’ plates and bellowin’ curses.”
“Kattar, don’t you dare go back! Saadia, you go and talk her man down.”
Like Daniel sent to the lion’s den I trudge my way, round about and slow, to give the man time to pass out on the floor.
In the next episode… facts all come with a point of view.
About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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