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The Real Jew

by Annette Labovitz & Eugene Labovitz

From the day of the revelation on Sinai, it was an accepted fact that Jews lived according to the mitzvos of the Torah. But Mendele Sokolover was not satisfied with the mere observance of mitzvos. He was searching for more than that. He was searching for what he called a "real Jew."

Mendele Sokolover had grown up and had been educated in Kotzk, where he learned what a real Jew was capable of doing. He spent at his formative years trying to find such a person. He traveled around the Pale of Settlement, from shtetl to shtetl. The people he met were fragmented; something was missing. True, he found Jews who were observant of every detail of halachah (Jewish law); he found Jews who studied day and night; he found Jews who were dedicated to mitzvos; he found Jews who devoted their lives to acts of kindness. But somehow, none of these Jews measured up to his image of a real Jew. They did not portray what he knew a real Jew was capable of doing.

One day, he found Moshele, a poor, illiterate, downtrodden water carrier. This is the story that Mendele Sokolover told about Moshele the water carrier, the real Jew.

I was passing a dilapidated hut one night. As I peered into the window. I noticed a lone man clutching a worn volume of Psalms. He seemed to be praying fervently. I stood outside the window for a long time, watching. I did not want to intrude. He never raised his eyes from the pages: his lips never ceased moving.

I returned many nights and found the same scene each time. One night, I hesitantly knocked on the door. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to find out if he had that special quality, that spark of holiness for which I was searching.

He opened the door. I asked him his name. He told me, "My name is Moshele the water carrier."

I tried to draw him into conversation, but he shook his head from side to side. I asked him how he was and he answered, "Good, thank God."

I wanted to get close to him. I tried , but I could not get him to say more than, "Good, thank God."

Many years passed, and I became the rebbe of Sokolov, the shtetl where Moshele the water carrier lived.

One night, as I walked, I saw that Moshele was not reciting Psalms, as he usually did. There was a party in his dilapidated hut. The shtetl's shoemakers, tailors, and water carriers were dancing around Moshele. It seemed to me as if the Divine Presence radiated from his face.

I wanted to know why everybody was celebrating, so I walked in. Moshele was the first one to notice me.

"Rebbe," he asked, "what are you doing here?"

"I was walking by," I said, "and I saw that you were having a party. I wanted to find out why everybody was celebrating." At first, Moshele refused to answer my question, but I persisted. Finally, he began.

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This is my story, rebbe. I was orphaned at a very young age. I remember neither my father nor my mother. I grew up on the streets of this shtetl. I had very little education. There was an old man who took a liking to me, and he taught me how to recite Psalms. I married a most beautiful girl, but she is not beautiful anymore. We had seven children. They were born angels, but we can't bear to hear them crying anymore. It is impossibly difficult to eke out a living as a water carrier. Most of the time we go to sleep hungry. Since I can't sleep when I am hungry, I spend the night reciting Psalms, the only prayers I know.

A week ago, I ran to the shul in the middle of the night. I could not bear to hear my wife and children crying anymore. I stood before the Holy Ark and I pleaded from the depths of my soul: "Master of the Universe! I can't stand to see my wife and children suffering so much anymore. Please help me. Give me enough money to ease their pain."

I did not know if the Almighty heard my prayer.

Two days ago, I was delivering water to my usual customers. I carried two buckets attached to a yoke across my shoulders. From the weight, my shoulders were stooped, and my eyes gazed at the ground. As I passed the shul, I noticed one thousand rubles lying on the ground. I picked up the money and lifted my head in thanksgiving. "You do listen to prayers, Almighty, don't You!" I exclaimed gratefully.

I vowed to keep my good fortune a secret for two days. I returned home after I finished my deliveries. My wife appeared to be as beautiful as she was on the day I married her. My children seemed to be angels again. I was bursting with joy.

That evening, I returned to the shul for the evening prayer service. As I approached the entrance to the shul, I found Channale, the widow of one of the water carriers, standing in front of the shul, crying bitterly.

She was crying because she lost the one thousand rubles the water carriers collected for her when her husband died. I didn't go into the shul to pray. I ran to the other side of the street, and I began screaming at God.

"Why did You have to give me Channale's rubles?" I demanded. "Couldn't You find one thousand rubles someplace else for me? What kind of compassionate God are You anyway? I don't want to have anything to do with You anymore."

I ran home sullenly. I hated the whole world. I was angry at God. I lay on my bed for a whole day. I cried and I cursed. I ranted and I raged. I was heartbroken and distraught.

Suddenly, I was in touch with my soul.

"What happened to you?" my soul asked. "All your life you prayed. Why did you stop praying now?"

I swear, Rebbe. I heard my soul talk to me. It said, "The soul that stood on Mount Sinai, the soul that swore we will do and we will listen ... this soul is capable of keeping the widow's money?" My soul continued talking to me. "Return the money to Channale," it said.

I ran out of my hut and searched the entire shtetl, trying to find Channale. I found her, sitting at a broken-down table in her dilapidated gut. She was still crying. I put the money on the table. She looked up and smiled weakly. She could not believe that I had found her money. She could not believe that anyone would return one thousand rubles. Gradually, her smile returned to her face. It was like the smile of Heaven. I felt so good at that moment. I knew that my life would never change. I knew that my children would always wear used clothing. I knew that there would never be enough food on our table. But I knew how good it felt to be a Jew. My friends are making a party in my honor. They are celebrating how good it feels to listen to God's voice.

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Rebbe Mendele Sokolover joined the shoemakers, the tailors, and the water carriers in their celebration. He knew he had found a real Jew. He told the story of Moshele the water carrier, the real Jew, each year on his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. Copyright © 1990. All rights reserved. To order: The Jason Aronson Home Page

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