The Escape Artist by Henri Zvi Deutsch
The Escape Artist

Volume 4 , Issue 3


MENDEL AWOKE BRIGHT AND EARLY. It was his twelfth birthday, one more year and he would be a man. They usually didn't celebrate birthdays in his house, but Mendel had five older sisters. Being the only boy in a large family made him special. He got dressed and said his morning prayers. After doing his chores, he ate breakfast, said goodbye to his mother and ran off to school. He loved going to cheder. The Rebbe always said that Mendel had a golden head. At first Mendel was confused, for his hair was black, but he soon understood what Reb Shmarya meant.

?Don't let these compliments go to your head,? said his mother Rivka. ?You don't want to tempt the evil eye, God forbid!?

Mendel ran to cheder. He liked being the first one there. if the Rebbe was in a good mood ? which, unfortunately, wasn't too often ? Mendel would ask him some of the questions on the Talmud which troubled him, but which he was afraid to ask in front of the other boys.

As he turned the corner he ran into an officer of the Czar's army. Mendel fell to the ground, and when he eyed the angry officer, he shivered with fear.

?Excuse me, sir,? he whispered in Yiddish.

The officer stared at him, but said nothing. Their eyes met for a moment and the stranger smiled. Mendel took this as a cue that he had permission to leave and scurried away

?Who is that boy?? asked the officer of Shimon the Fool, who had been hiding in a doorway.

?That's Mendel, the son of Berel the tailor.?

?He's a fine-looking boy. He should make a good soldier for the Czar.?

Shimon knew what it meant for a Jewish boy to enter the Czar's service: twenty-five years away from home! Although he was known as the Fool, he was wise enough to know that he had to do something to save Mendel from such a fate.

?He's only a baby. Not even ten years old.?

?Really?? asked the officer, smiling secretly.

?He's big for his age. All of Berel's children arc big.?

?All the more reason for him to serve the Czar.?

Shimon tried. to distract the officer. ?How about going to Mashals for a drink?? asked Shimon sheepishly.

The officer laughed. ?It's too early in the day for a drink. Anyway, I want to have a clear head while I investigate this Jew Mendel.?

The officer turned towards the marketplace, with Shimon the Fool a few paces behind him. Shimon knew just what would be uncovered:

?Mendel, the son of Berel the tailor? A prize!?

?Mendel, the son of Berel the tailor? What a head on his shoulders!?

?Mendel, the son of Berel the tailor? Any father would gladly go into debt to have him for a son-in-law!?

That's exactly what the officer learned that day. He recorded everything in his little black book. When the recruiting officer came to town, he would be ready for him.

Shimon prayed to himself all day, and in the evening, he knew what he had to do. Walking through alleys, he finally arrived at the home of Berel the tailor. The family was seated around the table eating dinner. Shimon's mouth watered as he looked through the window and saw the blood-red borscht and the silvery pieces of herring. He gathered his courage and knocked on the door.

?Who could that be?? asked a worried mother.

?I saw an officer from the Czar's army in town today,? said an excited Mendel.

?Chas v'shalom! Heaven forbid that it should be he!? said his mother.

The knocking was more persistent. ?What could he want?? asked Sheindel, the eldest.

?Whatever it is, it can't be good,? said Reizel, the family pessimist.

?There's only one way to find out,? said Reb Berel, as he got up from the table and opened the door.

?Good evening, Reb Berel. Can I come in for a minute?? asked Shimon the Fool nervously.

?It's only Shimon the Fool,? laughed Reb Berel, facing his worried family.

?Don't stand there like a Golem,? said Rivka with relief. ?Come in. Sit down. Eat something.?

Shimon didn't have to be asked twice. It wasn't often that he was invited to participate in such a feast.

The family squeezed together to make room for the uninvited guest. There was barely enough food on the table to satisfy their own hunger; now the food would have to be shared with an outsider, and a fool at that.

As soon as dinner was over, Reb Berel turned to Shimon the Fool.

?What brings you here, Reb Shimon??

Shimon the Fool didn't know where to begin. Remembering how others started conversations, he imitated them.

?Business,? he uttered matter-of-factly.

?If it's one of my daughters, save your breath,? said the tailor. ?Malka the shadchan is looking after them.?

?Not your daughters. Reb Berel. Your son,? whispered the fool.

Mendel was Reb Berel's pride and joy. This was another matter.

?Come outside,? he said curtly. ?For men's talk, we need privacy.?

The daughters ceased their giggling as the men stepped outside.

?What's your business with my Mendel?? asked Mendel's father.

The fool looked away. His tongue was frozen to its roots.

?Nu??

?It all started this morning. An officer from the Czar's army hired me for a job.?

?What job can a fool do?? sneered the tailor.

?You'd be surprised, Reb Berel. There are many things that we can do. Act as guides, point out the best market stalls, recommend the best restaurants, point out all kinds of interesting things.?

Reb Mendel froze. But after a moment, he said, ?Point out Jewish sons for the Czar's army? Betray his own people for a drink of vodka? Tear apart a Jewish mother's heart so she will have no further rest until her dying day??

?It was nothing like that!? cried the fool. ?You have it all wrong!?

?Then what else could it be, Reb Shimon??

?I was on my way to Shui. There was a bris this morning. Reb Simcha has a new grandson.?

?Mazal tov,? said Reb Berel automatically.

?On the way, this officer stopped me. He told me to follow him, yet to keep out of the way. Around the corner. he met your son. Mendel bumped into him ...?

?I always warned him to be careful ...?

?He would have noticed him anywhere. How can you miss such a handsome boy??

?Don't give him the evil eye!? hissed Mendel's father.

The fool had nothing to say.

?What happened then?? asked the tailor, gentler this time.

?He asked for his name. Could I lie?', ?One can't lie to an officer.?

?And then he asked for his age. I told him he's a baby.?

?That's not a lie. He is MY baby!?

?All day he went through the marketplace asking questions. Do you know Berel the tailor? Do you know his son Mendel? What is he like??

?Nu?? asked Mendel's father, anxious to hear the praises of his son,

?The praises were endless,? said the fool.

?If he had asked me, I could have told him stories only a father knows!? said Mendel's father proudly.

?And do you know what he did? He wrote everything down in his little black book!?

?Why would he do that?? asked a puzzled tailor.

?To give to the recruiting officer. Why any fool knows that!? said the fool.

?Do you know what it means for a Jewish boy to enter the Czar's army? Goodbye Mamma, goodbye Pappa, goodbye Yiddishkeit! We can't let that happen to our Mendel, God forbid!?

?The recruiting officer will be here in a few days. You don't have much time.?

?This is a job for the Rebbe. Only he can tell us what to do!?

?The Rebbe isn't here. His son Chaim just got married. He has to wait until the sheva brochus are over before he comes home. You have to decide for yourself,? said the fool.

?I have no one to turn to,? said Reb Berel. ?My two brothers are in America??

??There's your answer!? cried the fool triumphantly. Send him to America!?

?That takes a fortune,? said the tailor. ?I have five daughters to marry off before I can think of America!?

?He can go to another shtetel until this blows over,? said Reb Shimon. ?The Czar's men won't wait around forever.?

?Once you're on their list, they won't give up. That's what happened to Reb Leib's son.?

?The chazzan??

?The chazzan. The officers came to the house, but the son had been warned. He was hiding in the oven. For six years he didn't see a ray of sunlight. When they thought that everything was forgotten. he came out of hiding. Soon afterwards, he was married to the butcher's daughter. As they were standing under the chuppah, the Czar's officer appeared with his henchmen.?

?Was it before the ketubah was signed or was it afterwards??

?For a fool, you ask many questions. The men were silent, each one engrossed in his own thoughts.

Suddenly the fool had an idea. ?There's a group of young people. They're preparing for a journey. Maybe Mendel can go with them??

Reb Berel thought for a moment. Maybe this is all for the good. Mendel has outgrown cheder. Maybe it's time to go to a real yeshiva. ?Where are they going? Warsaw? Vilna? Pressburg? Whose yeshiva will they attend??

?Not exactly a yeshiva ? said the fool weakly. ?It's the Yishuv.?

?Yishuv?? asked a puzzled tailor.

?They're pioneers ? chalutzim. They're going to settle in Palestine.?

?The clutches of the Czar or the clutches of the mad Zionists. In either case, I lose my son.?

Reb Berel paced back and forth. Never before had he made a decision of such magnitude without first consulting the Master.

?Maybe he can hide until the Rebbe comes home?? offered the fool hesitantly.

Out of the mouth of a fool, the solution was found. Mendel didn't go to school the following day. In fact, his cheder days were over. They cleaned the cellar and emptied the vegetable bin. They found an old straw mat and placed it in the corner. For the first time in his life, Mendel had his own room. He spent his time in the cold and dreary cellar thinking of what he was missing in cheder.

Two days later there was a pounding on the window. Rivka opened the door and stared at two of the Czar's soldiers.

?We're here from the Czar. We have come to recruit men for the Czar's army.?

?My husband is a poor tailor. He has a weak heart,? said Mendel's mother.

?We are not interested in your husband. It's your son Mendel we're after,? said the taller one.

?Mendel? My Mendel?? said Rivka. ?He's a baby. A little boy.?

?That's just what the Czar likes. Little boys he can make into men. Where is this Mendel of yours?? asked the shorter one.

?He went to cheder,? said his mother.

?We went there. He hasn't shown up for two days,? said the taller one.

?No wonder you Jews are so stupid,? sneered the shorter one. ?Your children don't go to school ? even if it is a cheder.?

?He said goodbye two days ago and I haven't seen him since,? wailed Mendel's mother. ?Where are you, Mendel? What happened to you, my beloved? My kaddishel??

?That's exactly what we want to know,? said the taller one. ?Where is he??

?Sometimes he goes to learn with Gavriel. That's his study partner. When the Gemarra is especially difficult, they study it together at night,? said Mendel's mother.

?Who is this Gavriel?? asked the taller one.

?Where does he live?? asked the shorter one.

?Gavriel is the son of Tuvia the carpenter. They live in the next shtetel in the green house near the bridge,? said Mendel's mother.

?We'll find him. Rest assured,? said the taller one.

?The Czar's men don't give up,? said the shorter one.

The soldiers left and Rivka heaved a sigh of relief. The story was somewhat exaggerated by the time Berel the tailor heard it.

He made sure to be home the next day when the soldiers were certain to return.

The following morning, the soldiers were back.

?There's no trace of this Mendel of yours,? said the taller one.

?That's strange,? said Mendel's father. ?Where could he be??

?Did you report him missing to the police?? asked the shorter one.

?The police?? laughed Berel the tailor. ?What will they say? One less Jew to worry about??

?We will look around. Woe to you if he is hiding on the premises,? said the taller one.

?Woe to you,? said the shorter one.

The men entered the house and looked around, but they found no trace of Mendel. Reb Berel silently offered a prayer of thanks as they crawled out from the cellar.

?We have orders to post two men outside until he shows up,? said the taller one.

?We need two chairs and two meals a day,? said the shorter one.

?You'll be praying he shows up, just to. get rid of us,? laughed the taller one.

?Otherwise we'll be posted here until doomsday,? chimed in the shorter one.

Reb Berel brought out two of three company chairs and rushed to the Rebbe's house.

?Shalom Aleichem, Reb Pinchas,? said Mendel's father. ?Welcome home.?

?What's new, Reb Berel? You know what's new? My Chaim's wedding. What a simcha! Guests from everywhere! Rebbes and Rebbetzins and dozens of yeshiva bochurim. You should have been there! And do you know who said the sheva brochus?? asked Rebbe Pinchas.

?Later, later. First I've got to worry about a problem with my Mendel.?

Reb Berel brought the Rebbe up-to- date with the story of Mendel and the recruiting officer.

?You did well in hiding him, Reb Berel, but he can't stay in the cellar forever. We must find a way to get him to safety.?

?That's why I came to you, Rebbe.?

?First things first. You have five daughters at home?? asked the Rebbe.

?That's right, Rebbe. Five.?

?What happens when you take two soldiers and tempt them with five young maidens?? asked the Rebbe.

?Don't ask, Rebbe!?

?You don't tempt them,? said the Rebbe.

?What should I do with my daughters? Send them to a convent, God forbid???

?We'll find homes for them. They'll stay with Jewish families until the soldiers go away.?

?How can 1 find five families for my daughters?? asked Reb Berel. ?I'm a poor tailor.?

?Leave it to me,? said the Rebbe. ?I'll take care of everything. Have your daughters pack a bag and bring them here tonight.?

?How can I ever thank you, Rebbe?? asked a relieved father.

?No need to thank me,? said the Rebbe.

Reb Berel hurried home to tell his wife Rivka and their five daughters the news.

The Rebbe's wife was Malka the Shadchan. She would have a list of the marriageable males in the? community. All she would have to do is match a daughter to a bachelor, and by letting nature take its course, in time there would be five weddings to perform. Granted that Reb Berel the tailor was a poor man, but a tailor's hands were golden. Rebbetzen Malka had asked him for a new dress for Passover. Not only would she have a new dress; with the Almighty's help, she would have a new coat as well.

The Czar's officer was angry. The Jew Mendel had eluded him. He was determined more than before to trap the Jew. He called the two guards to his office.

?What do you have to report regarding the Jew Mendel??

?Nothing, sir,? said the taller one.

?Keep your eyes and ears open, men,? said the Czar's officer. ?We must catch this boy at all costs.?

?Yes sir,? they responded in unison. They returned to their post and followed the officer's orders.

Poor Mendel was in the cellar, only a few feet away from the guards, wearing out the soles of his only pair of shoes as he paced back and forth across the narrow space, reciting the passages of the Talmud which he knew by heart. Each time his mother brought him food or a change of clothes, she cried to herself. Her fear was that if Mendel, were given the choice of being a prisoner in the cellar in his father's house or a soldier in the Czar's army, he might choose the latter.

Reb Berel went to the Rebbe with his concerns. The Rebbe scratched his head, finished his glass of tea and scratched his head again.

?Nu, Rebbe?? asked Mendel's father.

?Nu,? said the Rebbe. ?Here's the solution. During the cheder year, Reb Shmarya stays with a different family each week. He'll move in with you and each night, he'll learn with Mendel. This will help your son to keep his sanity and continue with his studies. He has a golden head, your Mendel.?

?How can I feed another mouth?? asked the poor tailor. ?I already have to feed two soldiers twice a day. For men who don't do any work, they sure build up an appetite,? wailed Reb Bore'. ?And everybody knows how Reb Shmarya cats. His mouth is a gobbling machine. No food is safe from his reach.?

?Don't worry Reb Berel,? said the Rebbe. ?God will provide.?

Reb Shmarya moved in and became a familiar figure to the two guards. Each morning as he went to shul and each evening as he returned from cheder they asked the same question. ?Did you see the Jew Mendel?? and each time Reb Shmarya gave the same answer: ?No.? He didn't really see him. It was so dark in the cellar that you could only see the darkness.

Chanukah passed and Mendel memorized more pages of Gemarra. Purim was a few calendar leaves away and the thought of spending spring in the cellar brought pain to Mendel's heart.

The Czar's officer checked the tailor's mail, but never was there a word about the boy Mendel. With each passing day, the challenge became greater. He had to catch the Jew Mendel.

Shimon the Fool also remembered Mendel. He had helped him once. He would find a way to help him again.

Purim came. That was the one day in the year when Shimon the Fool was the hero of the day, for on that day it is a mitzva to play THE FOOL. The bochurim in cheder organized a Purimshpiel and the star of the show was none other than Shimon the Fool.

They put on costumes and masks and let the wine go to their heads. For one day in the year they didn't have to think of Rebbes and Gemarra and empty stomachs.

The troupe, led by Reb Shimon, went from house to house presenting their little Shpiel. In return, the Jews gave them cake and wine, and those who had it to spare, a few kopecks.

When they came to Reb Berel's house, the two guards frightened the cheder bochurim, for they knew what the Czar's soldiers did to Jewish boys, but the masks and costumes gave them courage. Today they weren't cheder bochrim; today they were fools.

?What's going on here?? asked the taller one.

?Today is Purim,? said the Fool. ?It's a mitzvah to get drunk,? and he poured hefty glasses of vodka for the guards.

Reb Berel and his wife came out of the house, followed by Reb Shmarya. They sat on a bench near the irell as the troupe performed their Purimshpiel.

The guards enjoyed the show even though they didn't understand Yiddish. Glass after glass of vodka must have made them brighter.

One of the players entered the house, and ten minutes later he was back. Just in time, too, for the troupe had to hurry to perform in the next shtetel.

In the afternoon, Mendel's mother carried the Purim seuda to her son. She prepared his favorite foods: roast chicken and cabbage and for dessert, cherry blintzes.

?Mendel,? she called. ?Where are you, Mendel? Why don't you light a candle? I can't see you.? There was no answer. ?I have your Purim seuda, my Mendel. Your favorite.?

She set the tray on the table and lit the candle. ?Mendel, where are you??

Candle in hand, she went to the straw mat which served as his bed. There was Mendel, sleeping in his long underwear. She shook him gently to wake him up so that he could fulfill the mitzvah of eating the Purim meal before sunset.

?Mendel,? she said gently. ?Wake up.?

Smelling the vodka on his breath, she stepped back in horror. ?You're not Mendel! What happened to my Mendel?? she wailed.

The noise brought down Reb Berel who had never heard his wife so distraught. He had to calm her lest the guards outside come in to investigate.

?What's going on, Rivkele?? asked Reb Berel. ?What's the commotion??

?Look at your son who is not your son,? she said, pointing to the figure on the mat.

Reb Berel took the candle and cautiously approached the sleeping figure. ?Mendel?? he whispered.

After a moment, he turned the snoring head to the side and was surprised at what he saw. He quickly grabbed the blanket and covered the underwear-clad body. Not that he was concerned whether he was cold or not, but a married woman was in the cellar and it was a question of tzniyut ? of modesty.

?What's the meaning of this?? he asked. ?Where's my son??

Reb Shimon opened his eyes and told his story.

?During the performance, I came down the cellar and gave Mendel my costume and mask. He joined the troupe and they took him to the next town where he joined the group of Chalutzim.?

?What?? shrieked Mendel's mother. ?My Mendel is a chalutz??

?Not yet,? said the fool. ?It takes time to get to Eretz Yisrael. Now he's on his way to Italy.?

?What do you mean Italy??

?That's where they will take a boat. In a few day's time, they will arrive in the Holy Land.?

This was a task for the Rebbe. Only the Master could tell them what to do.

The tailor found some old clothes and gave them to the fool, and together they sneaked out of the house to see the Rebbe. They needn't have worried about the guards; they were fast asleep on the com?pany chairs, with empty bottles of vodka in their hands.

The Rebbe listened to their story; then he paced before the window, hands behind his back.

?Nu, rebbe? What do you say?? asked Mendel's father.

?What I say is that it was beshert ? it was his fate.?

?How can it be beshert?? asked a surprised Reb Berel.

?Beshert is beshert,? said the Rebbe.

?How can a Jew go to Eretz Yisroel when the Messiah has not yet come??

The Rebbe thought for a moment. ?What is better? Clearing the swamps in the Holy Land or serving the Czar for twenty-five years??

?I will never see my son again,? said the bereaved father.

?He is not your only child. You are also blessed with five daughters.?

?Daughters I never see,? continued Mendel's father.

?I have good news for you. Reb Berel.?

?Good news?? asked a surprised Reb Berel.

?I was going to wait for the proper time, but there is no time like the present, as my grandfather, Reb Feivish, of blessed memory, used to say.?

?Nu??

?You have a mazal toy coming to you,? beamed the Rebbe.

?A mazal tov??

?In fact, you have a trio of mazal tovs!?

Reb Berel was now utterly confused.

?What happens when you place a maiden in a bachelor's home? They fall in love.?

?You mean ... ??

?Three young bachelors will ask you for the hands of your daughters in marriage,? said the Rebbe, smiling.

?Three??

?One bachelor for one daughter. Rebbetzin Malka is making the arrangements.?

?Oy gevalt! How can I marry off three daughters when I don't have a kopeck to my name?? wailed the daughters' father.

?Don't worry,? said the Rebbe, as he was thinking of a new coat and suit for Rosh Hashana, ?God will provide.?

Reb Berel scratched his head the way he had often seen the Rebbe scratch his own head when the Rebbe was deep in thought.

?You see,? said the Rebbe triumphantly. ?It's all beshert!?

?But what about the dowry? The matchmaker's fees??

?Nu?? asked the Rebbe. ?What are you? A doctor? A lawyer, God forbid? You're a tailor, thank God!? said the Rebbe.

This time Reb Berel was really puzzled. What on earth did the Rebbe mean? But who was he to question the Master?

The Rebbe smiled. ?You look puzzled, my friend. Let me explain. Who needs, a doctor? A lawyer? Someone in trouble, God forbid. But a tailor? Every Chaim and Yankel needs a tailor. You're blessed with golden hands, Reb Berel. You'll make suits and coats for the grooms and their fathers and that will be their dowry.?

Reb Berel thought for a moment It was difficult for him to contradict the Master, but it had to be said.

?But what ...? He couldn't go on.

?But what, what?? asked the Rebbe.

?But what ...? He still couldn't go on.

??But what if, God forbid, they should get a divorce? What will they do with old suits and coats?? said the Master, reading Reb Berel's mind.

?How did you know?? asked a surprised Reb Berel.

?Do you take me for a fool? They'll keep their coats and suits.?

This time Reb Berel was even more surprised.

?For a son's wedding, you need new clothes, right? Why go to a stranger? They'll order from you. After all, you'll be family. And what do you do when you make something for family? You give a discount, But even with a discount you'll make a profit. After all, how else do Jews make parnassa ? how do they make a living? A little here, a little there, and your daughters will have their dowries.?

?That's good for the in-laws, but what about the matchmaker? She has to get paid. And then there's the Rebbe??

?Doesn't the matchmaker need a new dress? Doesn't the Rebbe need a new suit? After all, they can't go naked, God forbid!?

?But there are three weddings,? wailed the poor tailor. ?That means three dresses and three suits. I can't afford that!?

?Let's make a deal,? said the Rebbe. ?I know the matchmaker. After all, she's my Rebbetzin. I know the Rebbe. I am he. I'll talk to them. You'll make one dress and one suit, but you won't charge for them. Is it a deal??

Reb Berel wasn't used to such deals, but who was he to bargain with the Rebbe? It was like bargaining with the Almighty himself?

?It's a deal,? said the poor tailor.

The Rebbe couldn't wait to tell his wife. She had the pattern for her dress picked out All she needed now was a new hat and shoes.

?How can I thank you, Rebbe?? asked a grateful father.

?Don't thank me. Thank Shimon the Fool. This was all his doings,? said the Rebbe. It's one thing taking credit from one of the baalei batim ? one of the congregants. It's another matter taking credit from a fool.

And if you'll go to the tailor's house, you'll fund two soldiers standing guard outside. One is now called the grayer one and the other is called the fatter one. Each time they see Shimon the Fool pass by they stop? him.

?Good day, Reb Shimon. Is Purim coming soon?? asks the grayer one.

?When will you have another Purimshpiel?? asks the fatter one.

?Soon, soon,? says Shimon the Fool, as he pours them a glass of vodka. In his pocket he has a letter from Meir, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Shimon Talmudic Academy in Jerusalem. Of course only a few people know that Rabbi Shimon is Shimon the Fool and that Rabbi Meir is really the Jew Mendel, but that's another story.

Henri Zvi Deutsch lives in Wisconsin.

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