Friday, February 13, 2009

More "Perls" of Wisdom from the Peanut-Woman

There were 2 comments posted on my earlier post, The Miracle of the Mahn. The first was from one of my most loyal criti... I mean, readers, who astutely observed that Rabi Shimon ben Yochai's statement is in line with his general hashkafa about the ideal commitment to learning. I already warned this fellow that if he keeps reading my blog, something may rub off...

The second comment was from a woman who was touched by the enclosed story (as I was) and even suggested that I publish more stories from this fascinating book. I actually am very eager to do just that. There is absolutely no problem to do it as long as the material is in the public domain. I am in the course of trying to find that out. I recently contacted the Jewish Publication Society to ask if they renewed the copyright in 1953. If they did not, the book is in public domain. If they did, it is protected until Dec. 31, 2020. To date, I have received no response from JPS.

Until I know what's what, I am wary of saving the stories to digital files and storing them on iPaper and so I do not want to serialize the entire book at this time. However, it's probably not a big deal to post another chapter into the blog as an "excerpt".

As such, I would like to post another installment of Perl the Peanut-Woman l'kavod Parshat Yisro - the parsha of Kabbalas HaTorah. As I wrote in the earlier post, the fascinating thing about this story is that it presents what is now the "chareidi" hashkafa of the "kollel" ideal as a mainstay Jewish tradition and ideal, something that is currently heralded by the non-chareidim as a 1950/60's "invention" by Rav Aharon Kotler ZT"L . Again, I want to point out that this story was published in 1925. It was undoubtedly written a bit earlier than that and the author, who is surely an adult in 1925, calls the book "a medley of childhood memories".

And this was a child's book in American Jewsih homes in 1925!!
Remember that Feldheim, Targum, and ArtScroll did not exist in those days and the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia was not exactly Agudas Yisrael!

A note of caution - this story does not merit a G rating!! Parental guidance is suggested. There is a very human side to this story which is what makes it so touching. Still, I am sure that some readers of my ilk may find it inappropriate and they should deal with it accordingly. The story aptly reflects the angst and travails of Jewish life at the turn of the 20th century akin to the starkly somber issues that are projected by Fiddler on the Roof and Bintel Brief. Jakie the Paper-boy is a complete orphan and it appears that the Rebbele in the story no longer has a wife. It seems that both of them look up to Perl the Peanut-woman for comfort and guidance.

I appreciate the story for its Torah message which makes it very appropriate for Parshas Yisro. Perhaps, other readers will appreciate the story for it's human message which makes it appropriate for - להבדיל בין הטמא לבין הטהור - Valentine's Day Y :-) which just happen to coincide this year.

Now, the story:


PERL the Peanut-Woman, sitting at her sack, tucked herself, as it were, into her thick shawl to keep out the sharp gusts of autumn wind that swept down the street and raised little whirls of dust and papers. The few leaves that still clung to the puny trees in the little Park opposite shivered with terror, but one by one, and without mercy, they were blown and swept away, shrivelled and helpless.

"Once they were smooth and green," thought Perl, "and drank happily of the juice of the earth and of the light of the sun, and now—woe to them! Even so is a human being. And I too am an old dried leaf, and the wind is blowing hard, and soon, soon—" And Perl was beset with gloomy thoughts that cheerless autumn day.

"And when the Great Wind blows me away," she asked herself, will I be taken straight to him, be his memory for a blessing, to my lamdan, for whom I toiled all the days of my prime that he might study the Law and earn a portion of the World to Come for himself and me?" And at this thought her natural cheerfulness revives. Her day will come then! Then will she laugh at all her enemies, at all those who make light of her past toil and sacrifice. Yes, now they laugh at her, here in America they laugh at her, for having supported a great scholar in the study of the Law. Theman, they say, should be the bread-winner. And who, pray, will study the Law? The woman, maybe? A topsy-turvy world! America is a topsy-turvy world!

She was shaken out of her revery by the appearance of the Rebbele.

"A good morning", said he, "We have already Ellul in the air."

“I", answered Perl sadly , "Have Ellul in my heart."

Ah, Perele ", replied the little man, "Why be sorrowful? Better listen to my troubles. I have a new trouble, Perele.”

"What are you a Jew for if not to have troubles?"

"But this one is brand new, and it's all over that orphan you took under your wing, that Jakele."

"A golden heart, Rebbele! You hear, The child has a golden heart."

"No matter what kind of heart he has, he has lost it, as they write in the novels". (For just as Jakie doted on Alger, the Rebbele, it seemed, liked to read those endless romances of love and intrigue that ran in the newspapers). Perl, however, could not understand.

"Lost his heart?" she repeated, "God is with you, Rebbele, what is in your mind?'

"Listen, listen," urged the Rebbele, "And maybe you'll be able to advise me, because, you know, Perele, I am a father and I have no right to close my eyes and say: `It's nothing, I don't see anything."

"But speak out! What do you see?"

"I see enough already! And to tell you the truth, I began seeing from the very first day. And maybe it's too late already. Maybe I should have spoken to you before, Perele.— Yes, yes, I am coming to the point! Children in America, Nu!

"So, as I was telling you, the first time he, your Jakie, came to my Cheder, I examined him and found he could barely read his prayers correctly. I was shocked.

" ‘A big boy like you, more than twelve years old', said I to him, `And can't read your prayers yet!'

" ‘I was too busy with the papers', says he, and lowers his eyes.

"Aha!' think I to myself, `You're ashamed!. That's a good sign.' and I say to him:
"'Jakie, it's not exactly nice for a big boy like you to be Raisele's pupil, but it can't be helped. You'll have to learn with her through Genesis, like all the others.'"

Here Perl interrupted the little teacher.

"Your Raisel ", she asked in surprise, "Teaches your pupils to translate the Bible also?"

"A question!" answered the little man proudly. "And a page of Talmud, do you think, she couldn't teach them?
Ah, you don't know my Raisele! She has the head of a Goen! A child with all good qualities. Without her I don't know how I could get along! You should have seen your Jakie taking his first lesson from my Raisele. He kept his eyes not on the page but under the table, and all the time his face was as red as a beet. And I look at him and think to myself: 'Good! My young man is ashamed. That means he'll learn well in order to graduate quickly from Raisele's class'. The others, the loifers, were not slow to size up the situation and began to tease him. But your Jakie seemed to find that a relief. He got up and picked out the biggest one and knocked him down. After that he seemed to feel better. He sat down again and was no more ashamed to look at the page and follow Raisele's pointer. But I noticed that now my Raisele's behavior seemed changed. It was her face that was now as red as a beet, she looked hard at the page and the pointer even trembled in her hand.

"But after that day everything seemed to be all-right. All the loifers now had respect for Jakie, more than for me, I confess, and the Cheder became a quiet place, a Paradise, I tell you. Only whenever Jakie came in, I noticed Raisele look up at him, and he looked at her, then both lowered their eyes, and both faces became like beets. `What should it mean?' I asked myself. `Why are they ashamed before one another?'

"One day as Jakie finished his lesson and rose to go out, I noticed he handed something to my Raisele on the sly. You see, I was suspicious and was watching them all the time. And I saw what it was he gave her. It was a package of chocolate. He put it swiftly into her hand and ran out leaving her with her face as red as fire.

"Several days later he comes to me with a petition. Whereas he is such a big boy, and whereas he is anxious to learn with me, would I allow him to come at night after supper and take an extra half hour or so with Raisele?

"And is Raisele willing to give you that extra time?' I asked in surprise.

"She is willing', he answered softly.

"What is there to do? A child wants to learn, shall I discourage him?

"But Raisele has her own work to do at that time. She has to clean up after supper, for example.'

"'I could help her do that', he says, and his face just beams.

"That same night he came and Raisele taught him. Before they sat down, however, he helped her with the dishes. She washed them and he dried them. I sat at the table over my newspaper, but I couldn't take my eyes off those children. Looking at those two, he with his black hair and lively little face, and she with her blond braids and those dreamy bashful eyes of hers, I found them even more interesting than Fefer's novel in the `Morning Journal.'

"When they sat down opposite me at the table and began the lesson, I was surprised to see what progress he had made in the two or three weeks. She was already reading with him the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis. I pretended to be absorbed in my newspaper novel, but I kept listening and spying on them all the time. He was translating with her the story of Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, who went to the land of Aram-Naharaim to find a wife for his master's son. You know the story, Perele: how Eliezer met Rebekah at the well and afterwards took her with him to be the wife of Isaac. I tell you, Perele, never did that story sound so beautiful in my ears as that night when those two children read it together, with their black and blond heads almost touching.

"They were nearing the end, but I continued to listen, only occasionally turning my newspaper in order to keep up the pretense of reading it. Raisele translated:
"`And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming.'

"I look furtively at my young man. His eyes are not even on the page. They are looking intently at Raisele, and her eyes are glued to the page and pointer.

She translated the last verse of the chapter:

" ‘And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted for his mother.'

"The chapter is finished. But Raisele still keeps her eyes glued to the page. She does not dare raise them. She knows Jakie's eyes are fixed on her. And gradually a red spot appears on her cheeks, and becomes deeper and spreads over her face and her ears.

"Raisele', I hear Jakie whisper. `I am an orphan, just like Isaac. I have no mother.'

" `ShSh—' whispers Raisele, still not daring to look at him.

"And I love you, Raisele', Jakie continues.

"I rose quickly from my seat, making my newspaper crackle. They both rose at the same moment and both looked at me with a frightened expression. But I turned and walked into the next room. Then I saw them look up at each other and smile, and Jakie said good-night and went home.

"Well, Perele, I lay awake a good part of the night thinking of those children and their foolishness and wondering what I ought to do. And this morning it suddenly occurred to me that since you have taken Jakie under your wing, I ought to tell you about it and find out what you think. Tell me, now, Perele, how do you like this business?"

Perl remained for some time absorbed in thought. In her heart there had crept in a warmth as of Spring, and the chili wind and falling leaves existed for her no more. Finally she said with a glow on her wrinkled and rugged face:
“Rebbele, it may be it is all ordained from above. Don't separate the children —that would be a sin. It may all be from above,—and there can be no harm. He has a heart of gold, Jakele, do you hear? And she, —you don't have to tell me; a diamond she is, and she has the head of a great lamdan. It's all ordained from above, all from above."

And after the Rebbele, who found Perl 's verdict in accord with his own secret and romantic notions, had left her, the Peanut-Woman wrapped her shawl closer around her old shoulders, and gave herself up to her reveries. And the spirit of him, her sainted scholar, returned to reign over her memories, now become indefinably tender and mellow despite the chill wind of autumn.

On a sudden, however, she was struck with the queerness of it all, and she murmured to herself:
" It's a topsy-turvy world, this America! There you have it! She—the female—is the great scholar, the lamdan, and he—the male, will be the provider. Nu, nu! What a world this America is!"

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