Dawn, half an hour before sunrise, it was grey, cold, damp and windy. The dirt road out of the shtetl was a black bean soup of mud with more than a few dollops of slush here and there. Worse for Rebbe Moshe Krugman, however, was that he was on his way to speak with Yitzhak Kugelkop.
The rebbe knocked on the door, and waited. Two skinny goats in a small corral at the front of the house pulled bark off a leafless tree, but he couldn’t see the barn from here, nor could he hear anything coming from back there. If that had always been the case, the rest of the villagers probably would have been none the wiser, and the rebbe would now be spending time in study, rather than out on this miserable mission.
He stood in the cold for…. how long? Well, too long. He knocked again, nursing the thought that Yitzhak Kugelkop might not be home, and he could leave.
“Rebbe Krugman! What brings you to my humble little farm?” The rebbe’s prayer hadn’t been answered.
“Yitzhak, I’m going to come out with it straight. And don’t interrupt me with your foolishness as you usually do. An hour ago at least two dozen of our shul’s most respected men started banging on my door. Banging so loud I feared it was the police. And why? Why Yitzhak? Let me tell you why. All because of you, Yitzhak! All of them, they say they heard it. They say you have a pig, Yitzhak Kugelkop.”
A slight smile added a few creases to the old farmer’s wrinkled face.
“So I have, Rebbe, so I have.”
The rebbe’s heart sunk. Just from being here with Kugelkop so far he knew he would soon be so hypertensive that blood would probably start squirting out his ears. Nevertheless, he decided to continue to play it straight, although another part of him wished he’d carried that walking stick with him so he could beat Yitzhak to a bloody mess without saying another word.
“Yitzhak, why do you have a pig? Have you stopped being a Jew? Have you converted?” The rebbe felt a little glimmer of hope. If Kugelkop had converted, not only could he walk away now, but the next time Yitzhak did something outrageous it would be Father Babinsky’s problem.
“Of course not Moshe! Perish the thought! Why my dear, kind mother, halava sholem, why she would come back just to die here a second time at the very thought. And not to mention my dear, devout father, halava sholem for him, too. The very thought. And what about all my kin in France, and even New York City, too…”
At this point, loud oinking issued from the barn in back of the house. As that shut Kugelkop up, it almost seemed like a gift from above.
“Yitzhak, it’s true you have a pig! Why do you have a pig, Yitzhak?! Answer me that!”
“Out of thanks to God, Rebbe. Out of thanks to Almighty God Himself!”
Moshe Krugman felt gas building in his gut.
“Yitzhak, remember when you were arrested last summer for fiddling on your roof? ‘For God’ you said then, too.”
“I was practicing the great Felix Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, Rebbe, which only God Himself could have inspired. I hum the orchestra parts.”
“Yitzhak, your neighbors called the police when you started playing Hava Nagila over and over at three in the morning. The police found you drunk and naked up there on your roof.”
“I was just loosening up. You got to do that every so often. You’d know that if you were a musician, Moshe.”
“And what about when you gave Saul Liskowitz’s son that shofar that made quacking sounds like a duck. Embarrassed the poor kid in front of the whole congregation on Rosh Hashanah, no less.”
“Moshe! Moshe! You know that was just a mechanical malfunction. A straw from the barn got stuck in the mouthpiece.”
“Yitzhak, I saw that ‘straw’. It had been whittled, wound with thread, and glued. It was a double-reed, Yitzhak.”
“Well, Moshe, the shofar sounded too much like a cow passing gas before. I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
“Yitzhak, you also made that shofar out of a goat’s horn. It’s supposed to be from a ram, Yitzhak, a ram, for God’s sake.”
“It was from my favorite, poor old Billy-Boy. I wasn’t going to dishonor him by throwing anything away.”
“Yitzhak, Saul argued with me for days afterward to revive the punishment of stoning, and he’s your cousin!
And what about when you served Iggy Cohen those ‘blintzes’ you made out of bleached rawhide and Limburger cheese? His knife broke trying to cut them, and the flying blade nearly hit old Mrs. Schwartz in the eye.”
“That was supposed to be a joke, Moshe, you know that. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“Well, Yitzhak, is this, this pig, supposed to be some kind of joke, too? Is it Yitzhak? Cause if it is, we’re all sick of your jokes, Yitzhak, everyone in this little, otherwise peaceful shtetl. This time you’ve gone too far. A filthy, stinking pig. You should be run out of here on a rail.”
“Moshe, calm down, please. No, this is no joke. This pig of mine, he is a most worthy animal, even in the eyes of God—especially in the eyes of God. Now just calm down, and I’ll prove it to you. Come, come with me to the barn.”
The farm’s one horse, a skinny old roan mare, stood outside the closed barn door, munching on a small loaf of hay next to an old rickety wagon that seemed most fitting to the beast. Yitzhak shooed the horse to keep it out as he opened the barn door and ushered Rebbe Krugman over to the only stall—a nice clean one that used to be the home of the horse.
“Well, there he is, Rebbe, my Bayla.”
It was the biggest pig the rebbe had ever seen. A real monster. A good four feet at the shoulder, and at least seven feet long. Under its translucent white bristles was skin as pink as Moshe Krugman’s nearly frostbitten nose. The pig stared right back at him with squinty red eyes.
“Isn’t he beautiful!” purred Yitzhak, “That’s why I named him ‘Bayla.’”
“Yitzhak, it’s a filthy, unclean, stinking pig! What kind of Jew are you? Did you never go to cheder? This is unbelievable, revolting, even below you, Yitzhak Kugelkop!”
The pig snorted at the rebbe and turned its back. Yitzhak drew himself up.
“Moshe, Bayla is not unclean! And he certainly does not smell bad. You insult him, and you insult me, both unjustly.
“Look over there. See those four big buckets and that brush? Every single day I fill those buckets with clean water I heat over my fireplace, put some laundry soap in one, then come out here and scrub him all over. Then I rinse him off three times, after which I take a big Turkish towel, the same one my uncle sent me all the way from Turkey itself, and dry him off. Then just a drop of cologne behind the neck.
Every day at sunrise, Moshe I do this. I was just getting ready to come out here for today’s bath when you knocked.
“Oh, but you bet, Bayla, he’s sure angry now, and not just because you’ve delayed his bath. You, Moshe, you called him unclean. When was the last time you had a bath, Moshe?” Yitzhak sniffed in Rebbe Krugman’s general direction. Over his shoulder, so did Bayla, before edging as far away as he could.
“And I’m even teaching him to use a chamber pot.” Yitzhak pointed to a large piece of pottery in the corner of the stall.
“You know damn well what ‘unclean’ means, Yitzhak!”
“Oh, you mean unclean to eat. Well I’m certainly never going to eat Bayla! That would be a horrid offense, and certainly a grave sin against God, too. A double sin.
You need to hear how I happened to meet Bayla, Rebbe, and how I came to have the great honor of sharing my home and what wealth I have with this truly wonderful fellow. Look at these nice potatoes I give him. And he eats them with such good manners, too…
OK, but I was about to tell you how we met. I’m an old man, forgive me. Ok, here goes:
It was the afternoon before last Sabbath when it happened. I had hitched my horse and wagon and took some hay over to sell to a valued customer of mine. It took longer than I thought, and I hurried to get home before sunset. But, I did a very foolish thing. Even though I know as well as anyone that there are sometimes robbers along the path back through the woods, I took it. I was soon set upon by three of them. They took all my money, my coat, and my horse and wagon.
It was a good ten miles from here. You remember how cold it was that night. I prayed for God’s deliverance, but feared in my heart I’d be dead before midnight. Finally, after wandering aimlessly for an hour, I lay down next to a tree and went to sleep, expecting to meet the angels soon.
But then I felt the nudge of a warm, soft nose. I looked up, and there was this pig. He pushed under me with his nose again and again, and finally I realized he was offering me a ride. I got on his back, pressed my cold body down against his warm bristles, and said “Giddy up!”. I rode him bareback all the way home. This pig was sent by God in answer to my prayers, Rebbe, as sure as we are both standing here.”
“Yitzhak, you are a liar. I saw your horse and wagon outside. Further, you are wearing the one and only coat you have had for years. And two days ago I saw you spend a good amount of money on four bottles of wine.”
“It is all thanks to this remarkable pig, Moshe. The horse, OK, she came back on her own the next evening. Not much of a horse, so the robbers probably just let her go. But as soon as she did come back, this magnificent pig, Bayla, he goes over and just as clear as anything started talking to her, in a fine horse accent, too. Well, sir, Bayla, he then comes over to me and gets me on his back again, and off we go.
In about two miles he slows down and starts to tip-toe. There they were, the very same robbers, sitting around a campfire having just finished a big meal. My cart was there, and my coat was hanging on a limb warming by the fire. I picked up a big strong stick, gave Bayla a little kick—not hard, of course, just a friendly ‘Tally Ho!’ as the English say– and we sallied down upon those villains like Joshua upon a company of Philistines. They all ran off screaming into the woods. I recovered my coat and then hitched Bayla to the wagon for home, but unfortunately I did not recover my money.”
“You expect me to believe such a ridiculous story?!” spat the rebbe. “So then, Yitzhak, where did you get the money you spent on that wine?”
“Another blessing from God, Rebbe. Of course I bemoaned my now money-less state, especially with winter coming on. And God, he heard, and provided. On our way back from the woods, Bayla, even while pulling my wagon, why he starts sniffing at certain oak trees. Well, if Bayla, while still pulling my cart, mind you, doesn’t dig up at each tree he picked at least five kilograms of truffles! Not black truffles , mind you, but the white ones, almost like gold. Must have dug up fifty kilos in all—and all while still pulling my cart.
When we got home, I unhitched him for a well-earned rest, but then Bayla he signals me right away that he is still full of energy, so I then ride him all the way to Krakow. There I sell all those truffles in an hour and ride him back here, all before lunchtime. God and Bayla have made me a rich man, Moshe.”
“Yitzhak, the only thing more unclean than that pig is you! You expect me to swallow this manure pile of filthy, stinking lies you just spewed?“
“But it’s God’s truth, Moshe!
“God, He provided, and I accept all His bounty with highest gratitude. Bayla and my new riches, they both came from God. I am blessed. Why? I don’t know. Why did God choose to give such blessings to Abraham? But He did. About Jacob I admit I am even more confused; but, Joseph, Yosef, now him I understand. What a mensch that Yosef! But I digress. Who am I–or even you, Rebbe–to question what God decides to do?
“It is the one and only God, He who has been so wonderful to me personally, HE forbids me eating this pig! I, I obey. But I do more to honor this gift. Yitzhak Kugelkop may be many things, but an ingrate he is not. Having done me such good–in the service of God Almighty, mind you—my Bayla is family. Like the son I never had.
Why, Bayla he has even already become a good Jew. And like a good Jew, he certainly agrees we should never, ever eat pork! Now sheep, on the other hand… You know we always talk about sheep like they are so special to Jews. Why even your wife, Rebbe Krugman, her name is Rachel–it means ‘ewe’ in Hebrew.”
“I’m warning you, Yitzhak, you don’t make any jokes about my wife!”
“Sorry. Yes, I am truly sorry, Moshe, if you ever, ever thought I would stoop so low. I am not Greek, you know that.
But real sheep, we kill and eat them, even their babies. If sheep were so beloved of God, he’d not let us do that. He’d have us treat them like I do Bayla, like family.
I tell you again, Bayla he’s a good Jew. Look, he even let me circumcise him. See for yourself.”
The rebbe had to admit that the pig had been altered.
“But you know I’m not so experienced at being a mohel. That’s why I bought all that wine, to help Bayla with the pain. Just like a baby boy, only he’s bigger.
I tell you now, too, that this is also a very learned Jew, Moshe. He has studied and already learned most of the Torah by heart, though I hope you’d forgive him, as he speaks Hebrew with quite an accent, worse than my relatives in France…but, maybe with time…sorry, I digress…
“And every morning, why he does the whole holy Shacharit, before anything else. Before doing anything else I tell you—well other than his bath.
Here the rebbe finally smiled—a hard, sardonic, self-satisfied smile. Now he finally had this intolerable wise guy.
“OK, Yitzhak, you say the pig here is a learned and devout Jew who goes through the whole Shacharit service right here every morning.”
“Yes I do, Rebbe.”
“Ha! Yitzhak, you are proven a liar now! Some learned Jew. Doesn’t even know you need a minyan of ten good, religious men for even starting the Shacharit! Even you, Yitzhak, you walk to the temple to give us ten men for worship every morning. Besides you, whom does this pig have here for a minyan, a couple of goats, and a mare? A mare, Yitzhak!”
“Well, Rebbe, I guess you finally got me. I’ll have to send him to Hebrew school.”