Friday, August 17, 2007

Chassidic tale--or And Now for Something Completely Different

Chassidic Story

<>I have heard this story twice now in Israel. The first time was from the storyteller in Haifa who was supposed to be speaking on Jewish identity. He told a long, elaborate version which gave each character specific context and motivation. The second time was at the Shabbat lunch in Jerusalem, where the Jerusalem guest told the story. This time it was primarily plot, with little description of the characters. In each case the story fit the teller. But the fact that the same story was told in two different places is enough to pass it on. And I presume my telling will fit this teller as well.
The Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht) was dying. Each of his followers came to him and to each he gave a task that was his alone to complete in this world. Finally there was only one young boy left, barely past the age of Bar Mitzvah. He was an orphan and had followed the Besht since his parents had died some years before. Now he, too, wanted a task, a mission that only he could fulfill. But the Besht was reluctant: “You are too young,” he said. “You do not know what will be asked of you.” The boy insisted: “I am past the age of Bar Mitzvah. And do any of us know what will be asked of us?” To this the Besht had to agree. He thought of this particular boy and his talents. This was a boy He could not parse the halachic arguments in Talmud, but who had a gift for story and song that some of the followers took lightly—although the Besht had noticed that when the boy began a story, they were silent from beginning to end.“I will give you a task,” he said. “But you must promise that you will not accept it until you are eighteen. It is important, but not easy, and you must be old enough to take it on with full knowledge.” To this the boy agreed immediately.“You will be my storyteller,” said the dying rabbi. “You will tell the stories I have told and you will pass on the work we have done. Each week you will travel somewhere else for Shabbat, and as long as your work continues, you will have no home. Do you understand why this is so difficult?”
The boy, being young and eager to see the world, did not understand, but nodded eagerly, nevertheless. The Besht smiled, knowing something of youth, but continued. “You will want to know when your task is completed, I suppose.” The boy had not thought that far ahead, but now he nodded obediently. “There will come a time when you do not know the end of the story, but another will complete it for you. When that day comes, it will be time for you to find a wife and a home. Will you remember?” The boy nodded again and left with great eagerness. A few days later, the Besht died, and was mourned by all his followers.
The boy, obedient to the Besht, waited for several years. He did not wait idly, but practiced telling stories to old and young. He learned songs and to play a wild fiddle. And time passed very slowly, but pass it did and eventually the boy turned eighteen. The day after his birthday, he took a pack and his violin and set off down the road to tell his first stories.
After a day or so, he arrived at a small shtetl on Friday afternoon. After evening services, he announced that he was the Besht’s storyteller and the next afternoon, during motzi Shabbat, he would be in the town square prepared to tell wonderful stories. There was not exactly a huge outcry, in fact, no one really took notice, but the boy did not care, so sure was he of his mission.
But the next afternoon, only three people waited in the town square—an old woman and her two small grandchildren. The boy was disheartened, but remembered his task, squared his shoulders and began.
Now you would think—he certainly did—that the years of practice would have helped him in telling stories. And perhaps that is the case. It is certain that his voice and body had learned to move comfortably with the words of each story he had carefully and meticulously learned. But the story he told was not one that he had practiced. It was one that flowed through his body and mouth without guidance, a story that came from that place and the people listening, but also from the words of the Besht. The boy finished the story and told another and by now a few more people were listening. At the end of the third story, he was exhausted, but twelve people were in the audience and two offered to house him for the night.
<>That evening, he ate well and talked into the night. Before he fell asleep in his comfortable bed, he took out paper and pencil and sketched his hosts in words and pictures. The next morning, he packed his few belongings, took his leave, and traveled on into the woods and to the next village.
It was same at this next village—he announced himself at erev Shabbat services, he waited until Shabbat afternoon, a few people listened as he told another story that flowed through him, and when he finished his stories, the square was half-filled. <>The first months were the most difficult as he learned how to sleep, how to pack, how to wash, and how to feed himself as he traveled, each week in a new town. But over time, he learned and over time, his reputation spread, so that when he came to the town square of each village, he would find the townsfolk already assembled and waiting eagerly. And so passed the first year and the second and the third. By his twenty-first birthday, villages eagerly waited for the young storyteller to arrive and fill their Shabbat afternoons with tales that came straight from the mouth of the Besht. And the storyteller loved every minute of it, loved the way the children elbowed each other to make space in the front, and loved the way the old men and women nodded to themselves as one part or another pulled at a memory. And also the storyteller saw the young men and women who were his age marrying and beginning new lives in their villages. He was still looked forward to the next village and the next story, but part of him began to wonder when his task would be fulfilled. He had forgotten what the Besht had told him so long ago, remembering only that there would be an end—someday.
When ten years had passed, the storyteller was a strong, confident man who knew the ways of the world and had stories of his own to tell, although these he confined to the notebooks he carried with him. His job was still to tell the Besht’s stories, not his own, and he was still proud to do so. But now he found himself lonely. The men and women his age had homes and young children. He had a different bed every night and no one to share it with. And he still could not remember when his task would end. <>One day, as he played his fiddle near a brook, a horse and rider approached. “You are the Besht’s storyteller?” asked the rider. “I have been searching for you for three months. My master, who lives in Italy, requests that you come and tell stories to his community. He will pay you well.”
“I do not tell stories to be paid,” replied the storyteller. <>
“Nevertheless, he requests that you come. He beseeches you, sir,” said the servant.
“I go where the wind takes me,” said the storyteller.
“Is there a reason the wind cannot blow you to Italy and my master?” asked the servant. The storyteller smiled. He was free to travel where he wanted and if a rich Italian wanted him to come to tell the Besht’s stories, why not do so?
The rich Italian was, indeed, very rich. The storyteller slept in great comfort and was fed the finest meals Italy had to offer. If this were a different tale, the Italian would have a daughter for the storyteller to fall in love with, but in fact, he had only sons. After three days, the Italian gave a banquet for the community and at its end, the storyteller stood up to begin, opened his mouth, and found that no story emerged. He stood gaping at the crowd for a moment, his mind empty and confused, then from his own travels pulled one tale and then another. He told them well and the crowd applauded, but the Italian looked puzzled and disappointed. This was not what he had expected.
The next morning, the storyteller made ready to leave. He had taken no money from the Italian, but nevertheless felt profoundly ashamed. He had failed the Besht, he had pretended to be something he was not. He felt a great need to leave and consider whether this was the sign that his task was over. And yet, how could this failure be the end? As he set off down the road, the Italian hailed him. <>
“Sir,” he said. “May I walk with you?”
This was perhaps the last thing the storyteller would have wanted, but what could he say? The two men walked in silence for several minutes and, as they walked, the storyteller felt the familiar push of a story waiting to be told.
“Last night,” he said to the Italian, “You must have been surprised at my tales, as they had nothing to do with the Besht.”
“I was,” replied the man. “But I thought there must be a reason and so I came to you today to see what that might be.”
“The stories I tell come to me without my conscious thought,” he said. “I prepare and practice, but when the words come, they come of their own accord. They have always come—until last night when they did not. Over the years, I have collected enough stories to satisfy an audience, but what I did last night was not part of the task the Besht set me. Now, however, there is a story that I would tell and perhaps it is for you alone to hear.” <>

Here is the tale:
Near Passover one year, the Besht and a few followers came to a shtetl that appeared to be deserted. This was odd—it should have been bustling with Passover preparations, but instead, the streets were quiet and doors and windows were locked. The group of travelers knocked at one door and another, but no one answered until, toward the end of the street, they heard a door being unbolted and an old woman beckoned them in. There they found the villagers crowded together in great fear.
It seemed that there was new and fiery priest who had begun preaching against the Jews, as was not uncommon for that time. It was not uncommon during the season of Passover for Christians to tell each other how Jews would kill a Christian child to bake matzo. There was no truth in this story, but those who told and those who believed would then come through Jewish shtetls, destroying all that they found. And this new priest had the gift of inspiring action, reminding his audiences of every imagined sin of the Jews from the beginning of time until the present. It was from this that the village was hiding.
When the Besht heard the story, his face grew still. He turned to the youngest member of the group—the boy who had become the storyteller—and told him to go to the priest and tell him that the Besht would speak to him. The boy, with great reluctance and fear, made his way to the Christian section of town, staying in the shadows and praying that nothing would give him away as a Jew. He knocked on the priest’s door—once, twice, and finally on the third time, the door opened and the priest stood there. The boy did not look at him, but simply muttered: “The Baal Shem Tov wants to see you.” He could hear the sharp hiss of breath and the priest whispered: “What did you say?” The boy repeated: “The Baal Shem Tov wants to see you.” The priest swallowed and said: “Tell him I will come in two days.”
The boy nodded and raced out of the village and back to the Besht as fast as he could. But the Besht was not pleased. “In two days this village will be destroyed,” he cried. “You must return and tell him to come at once.” With even more fear, the boy made his way back to the village and to the priest’s room, where he delivered the message, expecting at any moment to be hauled in front of the crowd as the first victim of the coming pogrom. Instead, the priest sat for a moment, then pulled on a cloak and followed the boy back to the shtetl. There the Besht waited in the village square. He met the priest and they walked off together. The priest never returned and without his words to rouse them, the peasants did not storm the shtetl and the Jews observed Passover in peace. <>

The storyteller stopped and looked at his host, who was wiping his eyes. “That is not the end of the story,” said the Italian. “Let me tell you how it ended.”
The storyteller started as the Besht’s parting words, so long forgotten, came back to him: “There will come a time when you do not know the end of the story, but another will complete it for you. When that day comes, it will be time for you to find a wife and a home.” He nodded and said, “I am ready.” <>

The Italian’s tale:
Many years ago, a Jewish family was fleeing from a pogrom. It was a large family piled into a small wagon and the horse was running with all its might. If the mother had not been clutching the baby so hard; if the two older boys had not been poking each other; if the older girl had not been hiding beneath the seats—well, there are no ifs. The littlest boy, just old enough to have had his first haircut, lost his grip as the wagon turned a corner and bumped through a ditch. He found himself under a thorn bush, unable to get free, and the wagon raced on without him. Some time later, a farmwife found him crying in the yard and took him to the local monastery, which raised him as a Christian. As the boy grew he found comfort in the monks’ prayers, the same comfort that he had once found in his mother’s lullabies, although he did not then remember them and did not remember anything before life in the monastery.
<>The boy grew into a man and decided to become a priest and remain in the comfort of the prayers. Like other Christians, he was taught of the Jews’ sins and he believed them. And, for some reason, everything Jewish enraged him, infuriated him. He heard the word “Jew” and his mind would fill with resentment as words of hate came out of his mouth. The first time this happened, he was unsettled, but as the priests around him praised his fiery speech, he accepted this as a gift, and grew to embrace it.
Then just before Easter, three nights before he was to give a speech to a village arousing them to destroy a small shtetl, he had a dream. In the dream, a kind old man spoke to him: “I am the Baal Shem Tov,” said the man. “You must find me and hear my story.” The priest awoke, shrugged off the dream, and continued his preparations. But the next night the dream returned and again, the priest paid no attention. But then, after the third night, a boy knocked on his door and told him that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to see him.
It was on that walk that the Baal Shem Tov told him his story. He sang the lullabies that his mother had once sung as she rocked him to sleep. All the loneliness and rage that a small boy felt at being abandoned rose up and left, as the priest understood what had happened so many years before. Then he wept for the boy that had been and for what the man had done to his own people.
“How can I return and repent?” asked the man who had been a priest.
“You will make your way in the world, caring for those of your people who need it most,” said the Besht. “I do not know whether the damage you have done can be atoned for. But know this: if a man comes who tells you this story but does not know the end, then you will know that you have made atonement.” <>The Italian and the storyteller looked at each other, knowing that each had completed the tale of the other and each was free of their allotted tasks. They embraced and then separated. The Italian returned to his home and found that his life changed but little—except that a hole in his heart now felt full. The storyteller continued on for a time, still telling stories, but now they were his own tales of the places and people he had seen as he traveled. In not too long, he found himself in a shtetl that was most welcoming, staying with the town rabbi who had a daughter….and from this you can write the end of his story yourself. <>

In writing this, I did find that the story became my particular telling. There were bits that others put in that I thought didn’t fit; other bits that I wanted to expand. An interesting thing, telling a folk-tale….

No comments: