The Storyteller and his Daughter – Rachel Megibow

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In a small cottage in the shtetl of Moshny lived a man, Tevye, and his young daughter Rivkah. Tevye had a voice that could be heard throughout the town and he was not afraid to use it. He could be heard arguing in the square, which was not uncommon but his voice was always the loudest. Tevye had lived in the town since Rivkah was a baby when they had come fleeing a pogrom after their last shtetl was destroyed. Tevye always wore a suit and he kept them meticulously. Yet his dress was strange. He did not have the clothes of a scholar, his skin too dark for that. And yet he did not have the worn clothes of a man who labored. Rumor had gone through the town like feathers from a pillow that he was from the city where maybe he had been a student or even a lawyer. Meaner rumors said he had been a communist and a troublemaker. The men gossiped in the tavern that if they weren’t careful, he’d bring the Tsar down on them, G-d forbid! But Tevey set up his house with what was in his cart, some old blankets, more books than one would expect a man living in the shtetl to have, a collection of slightly worn suits, and of course, a doll that was slightly too old for Rivkah.

Yet in spite of his volume and strange dress, Tevye did not make trouble for the community. He and Rivkah kept the commandments. Tevye established himself as one who could help settle disputes. Such a memory he had, Tevye could remember what Malke Avni had for lunch three months ago. Tevye could cite a specific interpretation of halacha when two merchants couldn’t agree. Once, he famously quoted Dostoyevsky at the Constable! That had caused quite an uproar, many people had thought this time, for sure, Tevye would bring the evil eye upon them. Fortunately, it turned into just another good story and even the Constable appeared to be amused.  Before long, the Matchmaker had shown up to arrange a match for the widower. After all, he was personable and not unattractive and while he had a young child, Rivkah had a reputation for being a quiet and obedient child. She would no doubt be an easy stepdaughter and great help to her stepmother. But Tevye refused. He said again and again that he did not need a wife. The Rabbi reminded him of his obligation to be fruitful and multiply, that no man was exempt from that commandment. Tevye just shrugged his shoulders, placed his hat upon his bald head, and said “Nu, I have a daughter, I have multiplied. And with one daughter I will certainly have dowry enough to pay, what if I should have two daughters?”  his chuckle shook the bookshelves.

“But a son will carry on your name and legacy. Rivkah is a fine daughter but she-”

“Vey ist mir, I will be worrying about my daughter’s match soon enough and do not need the headache of worrying about my own.” with a polite bow, he bid the Rabbi good day and left a present of bread that Rivkah had made.

Rivkah adored her father, and he adored her. Tevye was convinced there was no girl as clever, no person so kind, that she was indeed a price above rubies, his daughter. Rivkah drank in his every word and saying like water, eager to learn from him. At night as the candles burned low, he would tell her of all the stories. Sometimes they were stories of The Patriarchs, The Matriarchs, of Solomon the Wise, or of King David.  Sometimes they were tales of witches with houses on chicken feet.

And sometimes they were stories of his life, of his boyhood in the big city to a well off family. His family and two sets of fine dishes and a house with three floors and a fine tin roof. She loved these stories the best and dreamed sometimes of venturing one day into a city like Kiev, so close and so far. She wanted to be a student like her father and his father and make a fine career for herself. At the age of five, she had announced she was going to open a school teaching Talmud to girls! Most mothers and fathers would have given her a sound swat and apologized to anyone who could hear that her child would say such a thing. Why it couldn’t have been, it must have been the evil eye or a dybbuk possessing her! Not Tevye. His eyes crinkled so that his great eyelids concealed their blue dazzle, a wide smile lifting every corner of his beard. He ruffled her gurls and picked her up to spin her around as much as his ailing back would let him. Rivkah’s giggle was a nigun bringing in a sense of rest and peace to the hearts of all.

“Shayna Punim, when you do, I hope you will permit an old man to sit at your table and listen to your lectures. I think maybe I could learn a thing or two.” he said putting her back down again. Rivkah put her hands on her hips and said

“I’ll think about it.” she paused “Yes!”

“Such a righteous judge. Like Devorah you are! Arise, Arise!” and he picked her up just one more time to carry her to their evening meal.

Her father was larger than life to her. He was smarter than Solomon the Wise, more Clever than Hershel of Ostropol, and funnier than the Fools of Chem. And Rivkah was her father’s daughter. She was clever and had discerned that where there was a father, there had to be a mother. She would ask her father to tell her about her mother once in a while. Tevye’s animated expression would turn ever so gently. The corners of his friendly mouth would droop just an inch. The light in his eyes more like fading embers than a roaring hearth. His voice sounded far and away, adrift in nostalgia and longing for someone he could no longer name. “I have told you before, Shayna Punim, that you were brought in by the Sabbath Bride! Queen Esther herself is your mother, and you are like her in that you are beautiful and wise, that you will stand up for what is right even when it means you may face great peril.”

“But Queen Esther lived long ago in Shushan!” Rivkah would protest “You can’t have a baby with someone who has been dead for so long.”

“Who knows what the Holy One can make happen? Nu, I am but a storyteller, who am I to know the business of The Holy One?”

“But Papa!” she said

“No buts!” he teased “My little scholar, tonight I will tell you about the famous disagreement between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai about lying!” He always distracted from stories of her mother. And who was Rivkah to know differently? She heard bits and pieces from the yentas in town, what their theories were. Her mother had probably died in childbirth, the sound of saliva on dirt. Her mother had been killed in a pogrom, poor Tevye. He had probably fled in the dead of night with his child to make it here. Rivkah always carried herself like she was the daughter of Queen Esther, with appropriate pride and bright eyes. And in that cottage, she grew in knowledge and stories as she grew in height and figure. It seemed that, for a time, all was well in the shtetl.

When Rivkah was 14 she was, as storytellers would say, the bloom of her youth. It would not be long before those matchmakers who had beset her father would be calling about her instead. Rivkah was not concerned, she spent as much time as she could learning from her father, pouring through his books in languages she had learned at his knee. Things in Moshny had remained the same for many years. The tensions that were bubbling and fermenting throughout the Empire had not yet fully spilled over to them yet. Occasionally people would leave, seeking a better life elsewhere or go live with distant family who had relocated to the city. Yet, the town was still filled with worries. Little by little, the worries of the world could no longer be locked away or kept from Moshny. With so few of them in the town, they thought they might go unnoticed. The drips of worry wore on everyone in the town, and Rivkah took her worried head to her father.

“Papa, how will we have to move again,” she asked as she cleaned the candlesticks.

“Oh no, Shayna Punim. They can’t make us move even if they try! We will be like Samson and bring the whole of the shtetl down around them.”

“But Papa, there are no pillars to make fall upon them, and as strong as you are, your hair is far too short to be Samson,” she said raising a concerned eyebrow. Tevye placed one hand to his heart, and another to his head in an attempt to swoon.

“My Heart! Such words from such a child! Why my hair has only fled to make room for my mind!”

“I am sure that is exactly the explanation,” she said and they both smiled. The room felt too small with the space the outside world was taking up in it.

“Shayna Punim, I know you worry. It is in your nature to worry.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “In my day, girls did not worry so much about having to be moved at a moment’s notice, they didn’t have to worry about their homes being set on fire. They had to worry about the dressmaker or if the baker’s son thought they were beautiful. It is a shanda that the daughter of Queen Esther and the Strange Storyteller Tevye should have to worry about such things.”

“I know, I should smile.” She looked down and attempted to turn the corners of her lips into a sunrise. Her father shook his head.

“Once there was a virtuous Rebbe who was imprisoned in The Tsar’s dungeons. He cried, and prayed but did not ask for it to be taken away. When his fellow prisoners asked why he cried and did not simply try and pretend he was somewhere else, the Rebbe responded ‘when the holy one sends you pain, you should feel it.’ I am a storyteller, Rivkah, it is not for me to know what the Holy One has designed.”

“Would it be better if we went back to Kiev? Then I could meet Bubbe and Zedde and taste the brisket from her kitchen every Friday night? Then I could meet Uncle Avrum and he would teach me to play violin. And then you could see a doctor for your cough!” she added.

“No!” her father suddenly vehement, his hands slamming thunderously on the desk. Rivkah’s expression was a mask of shock, Tevye looked down in shame. “I am sorry, Rivkah, there is nothing in Kiev for us. We have a life here now and if we should need to leave, we will go somewhere else. Have I ever told you about St. Petersburg?” and he was off on another story.

But the world did not stop, it never did. New rules and regulations struck the shtetl like a blizzard, burying the inhabitants in rules and hobbling the few savings they had. A meeting was called, should they leave or wait for the Tsar to throw them out. It was a meeting where every one person had three opinions. Tevye and Rivkah walked back to their cottage in a heavy, alien silence.

“Rivkah, I have something to give you.” her father said, “In case anything bad should happen.” Rivkah was not used to seeing her father so serious.

“But Papa-”

“This is important, Rivkah,” he said as they closed the door, locking it as best they could. From behind the bookshelf, her father produced a wooden box. It had a worn lid and looked no bigger than a cigar box, though Rivkah had never seen her father smoke. Sitting closely to the thinly glowing fire. Tevye opened the box and in his Papa’s voice, he whispered

“Rivkah, these are the treasures of our people that have been spread across the globe just as we have scattered like the seeds of the Holy One. This box has been in the keeping of our family for years. They are to help the Jews in times of great peril because the Holy One will never forsake his covenant with us. He has given us always the tools to help ourselves. Do you understand, Rivkah?” she nodded “Good. Look closely.”

Inside the box were four items, one looked like a lock of hair bound together in simple twine, a burlap cloth full of what seemed to be cloudy rubies, a large cloudy mirror with no backing, and a vial that appeared to have nothing in it. Rivkah was filled with questions, but she knew better than to interrupt her father when he was telling a story.

“You know that we are Levites, Rivkah, tenders of the temple of our people. These days we are the Storytellers and we as a people know that as long as our stories live that we will survive. Our family has carried these four powerful objects of some of our beloved stories to protect us in our hearts and our bodies. Should our people ever be in peril, we must throw these behind us and magical things will happen. First” he held up the lock of hair “This is hair from the famous Zlateh the Goat! Throw it behind you and haystacks as large as the mountains will obstruct their path. The second, are pomegranates, which I know you have never held but have heard of. These were from the first fruits that Queen Esther broke her fast after the miracle of Purim. Given that she is your mother” his eye twinkled “it is fitting that we carry this. Cast them behind you and great red spikes like the one that killed Haman the Agagite will appear and impale our enemies, filling our pockets with the wealth or weapons of those who would destroy us.” Rivkah nodded, not sure whether she believed her father or not. Nu, what could it hurt?

He took the empty vial ‘You think this is nothing, don’t you?”

“No Papa, if you have it in your magic box, then surely it must be something, is it the shouts that brought down the walls of Jericho?”

“Very clever” he ruffled her braids “and close! But no! It is closer than that! This is the inner scream of the Bal Shem Tov as he implored The Holy One for assistance. If you release it, it will make our enemies weep at their wickedness and stop in their tracks, begging for assistance.” Rivkah nodded again. “And last, but not least, this!” he held up the cloudy mirror, but in the light of dying embers, it looked more transparent than a mirror. “This is a scale of the great fish that swallowed King Solomon’s ring, only to return it to him. Throw this into the water and a great fish, bigger than the one who swallowed the ring, bigger than the one who swallowed Joah, will carry our people in its mouth to safer shores.”

“How will these find their way back to us, if they are thrown away so?”

“Shayna punim, who am I to know the will of the Holy One? Nu, I am a storyteller, simply. I carry the story as you will, someday. Hopefully, it will be a long time from now when I am old and in my bed with fat grandchildren to attend to me while my daughter is in a warm house with a husband who loves her.”

“I hope so too, Papa. It is very late and the fire has all but gone out. Let us go to bed and worry no more about what the Tsar” she spit three times “will do”

Rivkah lay awake wondering if they would attack that night, and they did not. An ambient fear seemed to choke the very heart of the shtetl. People smiled less, greeted each other less. Hands no longer flew in familiar arguments. Everyone seemed to disappear inside themselves, but none more so than Tevye the Storyteller. Rivkah set her mind to her work, thinking of the box and doing all that was required of her.

Two weeks since the night her father had shown her the box, the shtetl celebrated Shabbat as they did every Friday. Even the village schnorrer had a place at a table with candles and bread and the best feast that could be assembled in each household. Rivkah lit the Shabbos candles, covering her eyes and reciting the familiar blessing to welcome the Sabbath bride. Her father placed his large hands over her head and prayed, his voice deep and rich, with a quiver of tears behind it. “May the Lord Bless you and keep you, May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you his most precious gift” he kissed her forehead “peace.”  For a moment, from sundown to sundown, the shtetl forgot its worries and indeed was granted the precious gift of peace. Full bellied with the sweetness of Shabbat on their tongues, they all settled in for what felt like real rest.

But peace was not to be had. The horses of the men were quiet at first, cloaking their hatred at night. They would not have called it so, no, to them this was a noble, even holy act. To others, it was taking what was theirs from those strangers that lived among them. At the edge of the shtetl, they lit torches and loaded their rifles. And, as the night deepened, the horses began to gallop through the shtetl. Torches flew at rarely patched roofs. Windows cloudy with dust and dirt shattered like the sound of church bells. Each noise and sight encouraging the brutality of the mounted men. They ran down mothers fleeing with their children, cut down young boys whose earlocks were longer than their facial hair. They shot the butcher with his clever hands and clumsy feet. The shtetle had awoken to a nightmare.

Rivkah and her father ran from their house into the red and orange rain on thatched roofs and an alarm of angry shouts mixed with fearful cries. Sounds of women wailing silenced by the pound of a hoof. Tevye grabbed the box and handed it to Rivkah, who tucked it under her arm. Around the corner, a group of four men in police uniforms appeared. They raised their clubs, some still wet with the blood of their neighbors, to strike down the Storyteller and his daughter. Rivkah reached into the box and thinking quickly pulled the vial of the Baal Shem Tov and cast it onto the ground, shattering. The Jews of Moshny heard nothing, but the police fell to their knees grabbing ears and crying out prayers they had not uttered since they were children, their misdeeds writ plane before their eyes.

“The woods, We have to get to the river!” Tevye said. “Then we will use the box to save us all!” Rivkah nodded and they ran from their hut at the edge of town through the slaughter and holocaust, to their deliverance. They ran past the synagogue where they saw a group of men on horses beating the Rabbi and breaking open the tzedakah box open to take what little money was in it to line their purses. With a sickening crack, it was too late for the Rabbi. Rivkah was filled with rage and horror. She threw the pomegranate seeds as far as her arms would allow, they flew through the air as if The Holy One carried the seeds to their destination. Red wooden stakes burst through the earth like a sword thrust, mixing the screams of those evil men with the sound of a grogger to drown them out. Gold rained from their pockets and into the pockets of those fleeing past them. From the synagogue, in a hiding place, the Rabbi’s Son emerged carrying the small but beloved Torah scroll of Moshny on his back wrapped in the plainest of cloth. As they traveled, the Storyteller and his daughter amassed as many of the Jews of Moshny as they could.

They were almost to the woods that surrounded the shtetl, where the conflagration of the burning lives barely penetrated the encompassing night. Yet the fear of what lay behind them was greater than the fear of what lay before them. Surely the woods would part like the red sea for them. As they ran, they were joined by those who could, not nearly enough to account for everyone. No one dared look back lest they see the Tsar’s men bearing down on them like Pharaoh and lose their resolve. Rivkah and Tevye had almost reached the line of the woods along with the Tailor, the Rabbi’s son, the Milkman’s family, the Matchmaker, and a precious few others when a thunder of a rifle split the air. Tevye’s hand slipped from Rivkah’s grip, pulling her down with him. The acrid scent of blood filled Rivkah’s nose. She rose to pick up her father but the Rabbi’s son grabbed her hand and dragged her to her feet.

“Dayan Ha-Emet” he muttered under his breath. Rivkah stopped where she stood, planting her feet away from the boy’s movement. With tears and racing heart, she pulled the hair of Zlateh the Goat from the box and threw it past where her father lay. Instantly, hay rained from the sky, forming bales of it bigger than any house Rivkah had ever seen. The clatter of hooves and the sound of gunfire ceased. The remaining Jews of Moshny paused in their flight and turned. Before them, even in the darkness of the woods, they beheld the hay of their deliverance.

“The Holy One has delivered us to safety!” the rabbi’s son cried and he began to pray the Birkat Ha Gomel. Rivkah with the slow determination of an only child in mourning strode to her Papa’s body. His hat was still on his head, but his tzitzit were stained red with blood. With tears pouring silently from her eyes, Rivkah cut off the four corners and put them in her pocket, as was the custom. Frantically, she began digging into the unyielding earth, trying to bury him. She could not leave his soul in torment, unburied. She felt a presence behind her. She expected it was one of the others, come to carry her away. They surely did not have time for this, who knew how long the mountains of hay would last. Thin, white fingers reached into the earth next to her. The Rabbi’s son sat silently beside her, digging. And to her right, calloused hands of the Dairyman and his daughters began to dig. Even the Matchmaker, as delicate as she had always claimed to be, began to dig. This was not just burying Tevye, the Storyteller. The Community was burying all who would never, could never be buried. They could not give their loved ones the burial they needed, but they could do this mitzvah for Tevye on behalf of all of them. The community worked, for once, in silence. Muffled sniffles and minute gasps peppered the work, but none of them desisted.

He was not buried deeply, but his body was covered and returned to the earth from whence all men came. Covered in ash and dirt and blood, far from anything they had ever known, they held a funeral. In an unwavering voice, the Rabbi’s Son led them through familiar psalms and prayers were a familiar comfort in a moment their worlds were shattered. Saying Kaddish, they affirmed again the power of the Holy One, the mourning prayer that never mentioned death. Rivkah hugged the box to her chest

“The river,” she said “Our freedom is in the river. May it carry us somewhere better than here. May it be the will of the Holy One to carry us home”. The Matchmaker patted her shoulders and hugged Rivkah to her chest.

“Then let us press on, where our Storyteller guides us,” The Rabbi’s son said as once again, the Jews looked for deliverance at the water’s edge.

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