Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk and the Wise Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk was a man of moderate wealth, and he had enough money to hire a servant to drive his horse and buggy to Pichniev. The servant was a very poor man, who dressed only in rags, his feet wrapped with burlap because he had traded his shoes for food during a moment of destitution. He was hungry, and the rabbi noticed that he had nothing to eat for the long journey. Most wagon drivers would sing or hum a tune to pass the time, but this wagon driver was quiet, a sad look on his face.

When they pulled over to give the old horse a rest, the rabbi shared his bread and jam with the servant. The servant began to weep. “Thank you for your kindness,” the servant said, “It has been so long since I have been treated with dignity.”

The rabbi thought for a moment and then said: “I have an idea!”

The rabbi took off his fine coat and hat and gave it to the servant. Then he took off his shoes and gave them to the servant. When the servant removed his rags, the rabbi donned the rags, even wrapping his feet. “Let’s switch places” said the rabbi.

The rabbi of pinsk drove the wagon into Pichniev. When he got to Pichniev he announced that the great rabbi of Pinsk had arrived to provide counsel to the Jewish community.

The townspeople greeted the servant, who they all thought was the rabbi, with a feast. The servant had soup, fish, and even chicken, something he hadn’t eaten for years. He even had a nice piece of rugelach.

Then the townspeople began to tell the servant about a very difficult dispute in the town. One man began to argue that he was right because of a particular Talmudic passage, the other man said that he was right because of a passage in another section of the Talmud – it was a bitter argument and it divided the entire town.

The servant stroked his chin and closed his eyes. Then he said:

“My friends, the questions that you ask, they have been asked before in other towns. You may think that they are complicated, but actually they are very easily understood. In fact, I believe that even a lowly wagon driver could answer these questions for you!”

At that point, the rabbi, disguised as the wagon driver, walked in and began to answer the questions of the townspeople.

In the morning, the servant and the rabbi left Pichneiv and switched clothing. But now, the servant began to sing as he drove the wagon.

Adapted by Rabbi Daniel Brenner

Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Holy Ark

Author’s note: Top Ten Jewish Folktales is a writing project that I’ve been working on to retell my favorite classic Jewish folktales.Enjoy!

The Holy Ark

One Shabbat, Rabbi Levi saw a poor and hungry man weeping in the back row of the synagogue.

That afternoon, the Rabbi had lunch with a very rich man. They drank, and then the rich man said: “Rabbi, I have to be honest. I buy many things but I use them and am not satisfied. I feel empty. What should I do? “ The Rabbi said: “You should learn to give. Each Friday morning, come to the synagogue and put two challahs, a bottle of wine, and a kugel into the holy ark as a way of saying thank you to God for your abundant wealth.

Later that day the poor man spoke with the rabbi. “Rabbi, he said, “I can not feed my family. So I am very angry. All day I walk the streets upset.” “You should learn to open your heart,” the Rabbi said, “come on Friday afternoon to the synagogue. Speak to God with all your heart. Then open the ark, and God will give you all that you need.”

The next Friday, the rich man placed two challahs, a bottle of wine, and a kugel into the ark. He felt good giving in this way. The poor man prayed before the ark, opened it, and found the food. He was delighted.

This went on for many years. Then one morning, the rich man did not come. The poor man came, prayed, opened the ark and found nothing. His family would go hungry. He turned around to leave the synagogue, when in came the rich man, carrying two challahs, a bottle of wine and a kugel. “What are you doing with that food?” the poor man asked. “I’m putting it in the ark” the rich man said. The poor man looked confused.

“Don’t be upset,” the rich man said, “the Rabbi told me to do this.”

The poor man looked at the food and then said: “Upset? How can I be upset? God usually leaves food for my family in the ark, but today, I’m getting it hand delivered by a messenger!”

The rich man handed him the food and wine with a smile.

Explaining Reconstructionism – Chelm Style

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Chelm’s rabbi, Reb Dovid, was not a tall man. To reach the top row of his bookshelf, he had to stand on a crate, and on top of the crate he had to put another crate. One morning, as he was deep into his studies, he went reaching for a book on the top shelf to look up a word in his dictionary, and “Crash!” He flew off the crates and landed head first on the carpet! He was knocked out cold. He lay on the floor for nearly a minute. “Where am I?” he said as he got back on his feet. He didn’t recognize his own library. “Honey, what happened?” his wife, running in from the porch, called out. He looked at her up and down. “Who are you?” he said. The rabbi went into the cupboard and made a sandwich. He put a nice piece of cheese right on top of a piece of salami. The great Rabbi had forgotten the laws of keeping kosher. He took a bite without saying the brucha. He’d forgotten everything about his precious religion.

The town council met. “What are we going to do?” people shouted. The Mayor stood and spoke: “The rabbi remembers nothing! He is the only one who knows the laws and the stories that explain them–So we cannot continue with the religion of Judaism. We will have to create a new religion. Let us have a contest between the two smartest people in Chelm. They will create a new religion, and we will have a discussion and vote on it. I appoint Lev, the water carrier, and Shayna the dressmaker to bring us new religions by the next full moon!

As the moon grew from a tiny sliver to a bright, glowing light Lev the water carrier and Shayna the dressmaker thought about what the new religion would be based on. Who would they pray to? What would be the holidays? What would be the sacred places?

The full moon came and they were called to the town hall. The mayor rose, and announced: “Present us with our choice of religions!”

Lev began:

“We all need water to live. We must drink water, our bodies contain water, we use water to take a bath. So we should acknowledge the greatness of water. Every morning when we wake up, we should have a sacred holy act of taking a bath. Three times a day we shall drink a glass of water and say “Praised be water, the source of life”. Every time that it rains there should be a holiday. We will have a special ceremony when a child learns how to swim—then they will be called an adult. Any couple wishing to get married will simply take a bath together. The holiest place of all will be the ocean, which we will all visit every summer!”

The crowd applauded with delight. What a wonderful religion! Then Shayna got up and spoke:

“Why pray to water? Water can be muddy and yucky. It could have bugs in it. The ocean water smells like dead fish! Would you want to pray to something like that? We should pray to things that are beautiful and protect us. So I ask — what makes us beautiful? What protects us? The answer is simple–clothing. Look at all the colors–the reds, and blues and yellows and greens. When we get dressed in the morning we should say “Thank you shirt for making the world look nice!” We should say “Thank you sweater for keeping me warm, thank you belt for holding up my pants, thank you shoes for protecting my feet.” Clothes are very special objects—look how we care for them and fold them and admire them. In the clothes religion, every year we will have a shopping holiday, when everyone will purchase a new outfit of clothing. We will have another holiday when people exchange gifts of clothing. And we will celebrate with a costume ball. When a person learns to sew, they will be called an adult. When a couple wants to be married, they will purchase matching outfits. The holiest place of all will be the pasture where the sheep graze, because that is where the wool comes from to make clothes!”

The people of Chelm began to argue? “Water or clothes? What is more important? Without water we’d only have juice or milk to drink!” they said, “Without clothes we’d be running around naked like animals!” They discussed the issue for hours and hours. The debate went on, and more questions arose, and the people could not make a decision. Finally, the Mayor arose to speak.

“Citizens of Chelm,” he said, “ I have come to a decision, we can not decide between water and clothing, but we can all agree that we like to come together and have a discussion. Therefore we will have a new religion called the discussion religion. Each full moon we will have a community discussion night. Everyday at breakfast people should discuss a matter of importance with their family members. When a child can lead a discussion, they will be called an adult, when a couple would like to be married, they should discuss it. The holy place will be any place you have a conversation!”

The people applauded. They took a vote and everyone voted ‘yes’ for the discussion religion.

Just then the rabbi ran in, waving matzahs in his hands. “What is going on Rabbi?”

“I just got my memory back! I remember our religion!” he said, “ Tonight is Passover we must eat Matzah, and drink wine and eat horseradish, and charoset!

The Mayor delcared: “But Rabbi, we have already voted on a new religion! We cannot reverse our vote! It is against the by-laws of Chelm!”

The Rabbi thought, scratched his head, and then he declared: “I have a solution to the problem. Let us put the two religions together, we will have a discussion of Judaism, and we’ll have it at my house at the seder table!”

And so they all went to the Rabbi’s house for Passover and thus reconstructionism was born in Chelm.

The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache

I will be reading my latest short story, The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache, on Saturday, May 18th at B’nai Keshet 99 South Fullerton, Montclair NJ @ 8PM. The reading will be part of a literary salon that will include playwrights, songwriters, a dancer, poets, and apparently my beloved. Anyways – If you are interested in The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache then come on down to Montclair!

Oy Vey! The Rabbi is Gay! A Children’s Tale for All the Conservative Synagogue Educators Who Might Need a Little Extra Help Next Week

A few years ago, I was fortunate to work closely with a Conservative Rabbi, Benay Lappe, who spent her years at JTS in the closet. I learned about the enormous pain that she went through as she had to hide her identity. She chose JTS beacuse she wanted to learn talmud, to be in an environment that cared about Jewish law, and to be part of a movement that valued tradition. I am sure that there are others like Lappe, in the Conservative movement and in Orthodoxy who are struggling to be practicing Jews and to be both psychologically honest and mentally healthy regarding their sexuality. In part, I wrote this story with them in mind. I hope that you enjoy it.

P.S. Thanks to Jewbiquitous, the Jewish Robot and BloggingBaby for blogging about this piece.


A story for children by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Last year, on Rosh Hashannah, our synagogue got a new rabbi.
“He’s better than the old rabbi,” Sarah Spitzer said to Bill Steinberg, ” He’s got a beautiful voice and he remembers everybody’s name!” Everyone was happy with the new rabbi.
Everyone except Mr. Birnbaum. Mr. Birnbaum always sat in the back row so that he could talk to his friends during services. He didn’t have anyone to talk to at home. His wife had died many years ago. But when he went to synagogue, he had many friends.
“I heard that the new Rabbi is not married” Mr. Birnbaum whispered to his friends Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg, “Don’t you think that a rabbi needs a wife?”
“He’s so handsome, ” Sarah whispered back, ” I wonder if he’s dating anyone? I should give him my niece Karen’s phone number. Don’t you think so, Bill? ” “Oy! I think that you two should try to stay out of other people’s business”, Bill replied.
But Mr. Birnbaum was curious. ” Is he divorced? Does he have a girlfriend?” Mr. Birnbaum was suspicious. So he came up with a plan.
That night, he called Sarah Spitzer. Together they drove to the Rabbi’s new house. But they did not go into the driveway or ring the Rabbi’s doorbell. Instead, they parked around the corner from the Rabbi’s house, behind some bushes. Then Mr. Birnbaum and Sarah Spitzer crouched down low so that no one would see them.
From the car, they spied into the Rabbi’s house. They did not see the Rabbi. What they saw was a tall man, lying on a green sofa, reading a book.
“Who is that tall man?” Mr. Birnbaum asked Sarah. “And why is he in the Rabbi’s house?”
“Shhh! Keep quiet,” Sarah said, “the Rabbi’s car just pulled into the driveway!” Mr. Birnbaum and Sarah Spitzer watched through the window as the Rabbi walked into his new house.
The tall man got up. He put down his book and gave the Rabbi a long hug and a kiss. A long kiss.
“Oy vey!” Mr. Birnbaum exclaimed, “the Rabbi is gay!’
“Well, I guess I won’t be giving him my niece Karen’s phone number!” Sarah joked.
“This is not a time for jokes,” Mr. Birnbaum said, “This is serious! I don’t want our synagogue to have a gay rabbi. This is a family congregation!”
“Why didn’t he tell us that he is gay?” Sarah asked. Mr. Birnbaum was upset. “I don’t know.” He said, “I’m going to call the board members right now!”
The next night, the board members had a secret meeting to discuss what they would do. Mr. Birnbaum suggested that they should fire the new rabbi and get someone who isn’t gay. Bill Steinberg said “There is nothing wrong with being gay, he’s a great Rabbi.” Sarah Spitzer said: “I’m not sure what we should do.”

Soon everyone in the congregation heard the rumor that the Rabbi was gay. The Rabbi noticed that people were not as friendly to him as they were before. Sarah Spitzer used to stop by his office to drink coffee and tell jokes. But now the office was quiet. The Rabbi asked Bill Steinberg what was wrong. Bill said “there are many rumors going around about your private life.”
The Rabbi was upset. He spent many nights worrying about what he should do about the rumors.
The next week in synagogue, the Rabbi said, “I have a special announcement to make.”
The congregation was dead quiet. “What will he say about the rumors?” they thought.
“I want everyone to know that I am a gay Jew,” the Rabbi said, “and that I am proud to be gay. When I first came here, I was afraid to tell everyone because I thought that you would not understand. I know that it can be hard to welcome someone who is different into your community. But in this community everyone should have a place, every type of person and every kind of family. I feel that it is time for you to meet my partner, Michael.”
The crowd turned as a tall man stood up and said “Shabbat Shalom” to everyone. No one moved. Many people felt uncomfortable. Then Sarah Spitzer stood up and said “Shabbat Shalom!” to Michael. Michael smiled and everyone in the congregation came up to him, wishing him “Shabbat Shalom!”
Everyone except Mr. Birnbaum. Mr. Birnbaum marched out of the synagogue.
Sarah followed him out. “Why are you leaving?” she asked Mr. Birnbaum, “I think that the Rabbi was brave to say what he said.”
“Sarah,” Mr. Birnbaum said, “this synagogue is changing too fast for me. I’m leaving!”
Weeks passed. Mr. Birnbaum never came back to the synagogue. Instead of talking with his friends in the back row, he stayed at home and looked through his old photo albums. One album he looked through again and again. It was from his wedding. It was a small wedding. Mr. Birnbaum’s parents refused to attend. They did not want him to marry Mrs. Birnbaum because she wasn’t from America. She was born in Egypt. But Mr. Birnbaum was in love. He married her and they were very happy together.
Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg missed seeing Mr. Birnbaum in synagogue. His seat in the back row was empty. They spoke about him when they drank coffee with the Rabbi and his partner, Michael. “Someone should try to talk to Mr. Birnbaum,” Sarah Spitzer told the Rabbi.
But who would try to talk to Mr. Birnbaum?
The Rabbi decided that he would try. He drove to Mr. Birnbaum’s house.
He rang the doorbell. Mr. Birnbaum opened the door just a crack to see who it was.
“Hello, Mr. Birnbaum!” the Rabbi said. But Mr. Birnbaum shut the door. The Rabbi rang the doorbell again. “Mr. Birnbaum, I want to talk to you! ” the Rabbi exclaimed, “I know that you are still upset!”
This time Mr. Birnbaum opened the door. He waved his finger in the rabbi’s face. “I don’t want to talk.” Mr. Birnbaum said. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you people!” “Why?” the Rabbi asked. “A man should be with a woman! Isn’t that the way that God meant it to be? How could you, a rabbi, live with a man?”
“I believe that God wants people to be with the people that they love,” the Rabbi said, ” and I love Michael. I was all alone before I met him. But Michael changed my life and I love him with all my heart and he loves me. That is what God wants.”
Mr. Birnbaum turned his head and closed the door. He sat down in his chair and looked through his photo albums. As he looked through the pictures, he thought about some of the words that the Rabbi had said– “God wants people to be with the people that they love.” Mr. Birnbaum thought about his wife. He had once said those exact words to her. He said them on their wedding day.
The next week at services, as the Rabbi sang “Oseh Shalom,” he looked out to the back row of the synagogue.
Just then, Mr. Birnbaum walked in the door. He found his old seat, sat down and whispered “hello” to Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg.
As soon as the the service was over, Mr. Birnbaum walked up to the Rabbi.
He looked into the Rabbi’s eyes. “Shabbat Shalom!” he said. They shook hands.
This made the Rabbi very happy.