Photo: Aliza Berkowitz
A Tribute to Parables
By Aaron Berkowitz
They asked too many questions, Jonathan and Chayim, these boys of hers. They wanted to know about her past, Menachem’s past, about family. They had almost no family, but knew blood comes from somewhere. And somewhere, their blood lay, staining the earth. Somewhere was a place that had defined their family for hundreds of years. Chaya gave few answers, feigned forgetfulness, hoped they would stop asking. They did not.
She would tuck them into bed. They would ask about her childhood, her mother. Did Bubbe tuck her into bed, too? Did she sing, kiss her, say goodnight? The more they asked, the less Chaya could counter with “I don’t know.” Instead she agreed to tell them a story. This story was one her mother had told her when she was a girl. This story helped define their family. It was a trade, a story in exchange for silence. She would tell a tale to bribe her boys into forgetting that they had asked for more information. She never made sense of the details, perhaps never fully understood the message, but the words were her mother’s, and these boys might learn something from the old country other than sadness and loss. They might remember what they’d learned, while she tried to forget what she knew.
It was on one night early in the winter when the Rebbe received a premonition: something terrible was coming to the village. It being his village, he went around the next day telling people to hide. Now the people were no strangers to hiding: every few months they would hole up in the spaces beneath the floorboards and listen as the local goyim would parade around their homes, smashing, breaking, drinking, and eating. If Jews were left with a pair of sheets, a goat, they felt it was a merciful raid. They did not question the Rebbe, for the Rebbe knew, always. He was even known to perform small miracles, if necessary: an amulet for healing, a prayer to bring rain, food, wealth. So when he said “Hide,” his congregation listened.
Unbeknownst to the Jews, though, this time the Rebbe did not hide. He wanted to, oh did he want to, but a voice from Heaven told him not to. And, of course, he listened. The goyim came. They began to smash and loot. But then they found him. It was a strange sight, this man who did not cower, who did not hide. The goyim did not know what to do so they kidnapped him. The fun was ruined for the night, so they left, leaving most of the village intact. At first, the Jews celebrated — such little damage, such a quick interlude! Then they realized the Rebbe was gone.
Such a wail had not been heard since they’d sat on the banks of the rivers of Babylon. The Rebbe was gone and they were not going to be able to get him back.
The next day, the Rebbe was put on trial and convicted of seditious acts against the government and its king. The sentence was hanging. The Rebbe did not offer much of a defense, except to say he was innocent and God would bear him out. The goyim laughed and argued that his God wasn’t real, that he worshipped the devil, that he was born of evil. They took him outside and hung him.
The Jews came, lamented, tore clothes, and poured ashes in their hair. They carefully removed him from the noose and buried him in the small, local cemetery where gravestones became placeholders for weeds. They sat shiva for him and ate only boiled eggs with ash. On the third day the gravedigger came running into town. He shouted that the Rebbe was gone!
“What happened?” Jonathan asked, as he sat up. “Where did he go?”
“Obviously he disappeared,” Chayim said. “You have to listen.”
“I was listening,” Jonathan said. “But just disappear?”
“Nu,” Chaya chided her boys. They always were pecking at each other. Jonathan the younger and quieter. Chayim, older and wanting to impress. The nature of brothers... “I was getting there, if I wasn’t interrupted.” She patted the bottom of Jonathan’s bed, smoothing the blanket. “Now where was I?”
“The rebbe was gone, Mommy,” Jonathan said.
“Yes,” Chaya smiled. “‘The Rebbe is gone,’ the gravedigger exclaimed.”
At first the people did not believe him. He was known to tell stories about what happened in the graveyard after dark. No proof was ever given for these tales. But he insisted, so the villagers sent out a small party to check the grave. Lo and behold, it was empty! The dirt was turned over, the coffin lay open, and no one was inside!
They went to the shamash and asked, “What could this mean? How were they to pray to the Rebbe to intercede in Heaven for them if he was not in the grave? Where did he go?”
The shamash thought for a moment and responded. “The Rebbe has risen. He must be traveling for God, trying to cultivate a new community. Perhaps we sinned when we didn’t try to rescue him. He must be on a mission for Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It would be advisable to pray to him still. He obviously has the ear of God.”
The people were satisfied. If they were honest with themselves, they’d always been worried because the Rebbe had no children. Now they need not find a successor, for the Rebbe lived on somewhere, and would hopefully one day return.
“Where did he go?” Jonathan asked.
“We don’t know,” Chaya replied.
“It can’t be true,” Chayim said. “People don’t come back from the dead.”
“They do when Mashiach comes,” Jonathan said.
“Obviously Mashiach didn’t come.” Chayim shook his head at his brother as if he should know better.
“Nu.” Chaya looked at Chayim who had stopped shaking his head. She pretended not to see Jonathan smile at his brother in triumph. “As you know, Chayim.” She looked over her glasses at him. He sat up to listen. “Stories are both true and not true.”
“How can that be?” Jonathan exclaimed.
“How can that be?” Chaya asked her eldest.
Chayim scrunched up his face, raised his right eyebrow. “A story can be true and not true if there’s a lesson?”
“What do you think, Jonathan?”
First he looked to his older brother, then said, “Yes.”
“Very good. Stories have lessons.”
“Just like the Parsha?” Jonathan asked.
“And the Gemara,” Chayim said.
“Yes, just like those.” Chaya sat silent for a minute, thinking that maybe she should say that it was true, it was all true. In her experience people did disappear and come back. They lived long after they had supposedly passed. Instead Chaya said nothing more. She got up and shut the lights. “Okay, time for sleep.” She was happy that they’d asked no more questions about the story, about her past. She couldn’t explain any more.
“Thanks, Mommy!” Jonathan said.
“Can we hear another one tomorrow?” Chayim asked.
“Let me think,” Chaya said.
“Okay, Mom.” Chayim rolled over, away from her.
Chaya waited to see if he would turn back. He did not. “And with that, boys,” Chaya said, “I will bid you goodnight. Let me hear you say the Shema.” When they were done, she rose and went to the hallway. Leaning the door, she peeked through the crack to watch the boys. She waited outside to hear if they kept talking. The lamp on Chayim’s nightstand turned on.
“You’re so thick sometimes,” Chayim said.
“Nu uh.” Jonathan replied. “I knew what was going to happen.”
“You didn’t know. You asked Mom.”
“I was asking to see if I was right.”
Silence for a moment, then Jonathan turned to his brother. “You really think the Rebbe came back?”
“No.” Chayim still lay turned away. “I think the Rebbe is dead. No one comes back.”
“Okay.” Jonathan slumped into his pillow.
“Hey,” Chayim said, turning back over. “Maybe Mashiach will come and everyone will come back.”
“Of course!” Chayim said.
Jonathan smiled and lay down. Then he sat up. “I wish Mom would tell us more stories about what happened.”
“Good luck with that,” Chaim said.
Chaim turned to his brother. “I tried asking Dad and he just said to ask Mom.”
“They’re so weird sometimes,” Jonathan said. “I saw Mom staring at me the other day, but...”
“It didn’t feel like she was looking at you?” Chaim said.
Jonathan nodded his head.
“She does that,” Chaim said. “Look.” He propped himself on his elbow. “There’re things they aren’t going to tell you, you’re not old enough. You have to learn how to get them to say things once in a while.”
“What do you know?”
“I know more than you do,” Chaim said.
“That’s just because you’re older.”
“Think what you want, I’m going to sleep.”
Jonathan watched his brother shut his eyes. “At least she told us a story.” He lay down as well.
“Yes, a story,” Chaim said. “That’s as good as it’s going to get.”
Chaya closed the door, carefully. A strange shiver went down her spine. What those boys wanted... what she told them. That story always felt familiar and strange. She must have heard it a hundred times. She must have asked the same questions her boys did, had the same doubts. She thought her parents strange too, they always had stories and lessons like this one. But, Chaya thought, even though she didn’t believe a word of that story, it clung to her. It felt part of her homeland, even a part of that secular school she was forced to attend. There was a little hope that it might satisfy the boys’ curiosity about before the war, or maybe the tale would help change their focus. She knew it would do neither. They were too smart, too curious. But what more could she tell them? The only other stories she had were ones she couldn’t share. Chaya shook her head and returned to her nightly chores. Stories were meant for children, she thought. Then she whispered a small prayer to her Rebbe, one she had not thought of in many years.