Alfred Harrell/Library of Congress
Alfred Harrell/Library of Congress
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A Hanukkah Tale From Old Russia

A mysterious czarist soldier tries to persuade his community he’s Jewish

by
Curt Leviant
December 16, 2020
Alfred Harrell/Library of Congress
Alfred Harrell/Library of Congress

This is the story my father, Ya’akov, told me. He had heard it from his grandfather, Chaim, who was a young man in the Russian shtetl when the event took place, during the mid-1800s.

Early one morning, one snowless winter’s day, end November, just before Hanukkah, a solidly built man—he seemed to be in his mid-30s—appeared in our shtetl, Kariukovke. He wore a khaki-colored greatcoat, a peasant’s hat with earflaps, and he had a knapsack on his back. It was obviously an army uniform but it lacked any insignias or markings. He spoke a rough-edged Yiddish with an equally rough Russian accent.

People noticed him when they came out of shul. But since he wore a uniform people hesitated to approach him, their reticence to have contact with the czarist authority ingrained in them. But he didn’t look like an official at all. In fact, he looked like a lost soul. To the first groups of Jews he met, he said he had just finished his obligatory 25 years of service in the czar’s army and he was returning home. He said his name was Dovid.

Judging by the way he spoke, people looked at him skeptically.

“Are you a Jew?”

He laughed bitterly. “What? You think I’m a goy? In the army they sure didn’t treat me like a goy. Ikh bin a Yid,” he added in Yiddish. “I am a Jew.”

But people weren’t convinced. Out of range of his hearing, they murmured that he was a Russki trying to get money before Hanukkah, or perhaps find lodging in the old-age home, which always welcomed Jewish travelers.

“Why did you come to Kariukovke?”

“Where else should I go? This is where I was born, where my family lived, and it is from here the czar’s abductors took me to the army. I was not yet 13.”

It was true, I thought. Years ago, the abductors, “snatchers,” khappers they were called in Yiddish, were active, taking even little children. But Kariukovke had suffered a rare pogrom about a dozen years back and many Jews left the shtetl. Other Jews, fleeing incidents in their villages, sought refuge in Kariukovke. Jews evidently put into practice the old Hebrew expression: Change your place, change your luck. In any case, no one in town remembered such an abduction from 25 years ago. Indeed, throughout the years some youngsters left of their own accord to try their luck in America.

“Take me to my father Motl’s house.”

“Motl who? There are and there were lots of Motls here.”

“Motl the carpenter.”

I saw the men looking at one another. One of them, the oldest of the group, a man in his 70s, nodded his head slowly.

“There actually were three by that name. But none are alive.”

“None? Not one? My father dead?”

“We had a pogrom here about 12 years ago, which you obviously didn’t know about. And people die just like that too.”

The newcomer, who said his name was Dovid, covered his face with his hands and began sobbing like a baby.

“And what’s your mother’s name?”

“Rivke.”

“Do you know how many Rivkes we have here?”

“But married to Motl the carpenter?”

The men looked at one another and shrugged.

“What’s your family name?”

“We hardly ever used our family name,” Dovid said. “They called my father Motl the carpenter and I was Motl’s son. And in the army they didn’t use last names. They always called me Motl Yid.”

“Wait a minute,” the older man said. “Now I remember. There was a Rivke married to a Motl the carpenter. I think the family name was Shatsky.”

“Dovid, was your family name Shatsky?” I asked.

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean, maybe. How can a man forget his family name?”

“Like I said, they never called you by your family name. Anyway, do we use family names here in the shtetl? You’re called by your first name and what line of work you do. Like Motl shneider, the tailor. And Avrom shuster, the shoemaker. And if you’ve been in the czar’s army for 25 years, and your childhood and youth and many of your precious grown-up years are wasted, you forget a lot of things. It’s a miracle I remember what I remember.”

All the people around me stared at him. He looked like a goy but spoke Yiddish. He threw in lots of Russian words, and at times it seemed he was translating from Russian into Yiddish. Had you heard him from a distance his language would not have sounded Yiddish. His speech had the rhythms and cadences of Russian. And it should be said that speaking Yiddish did not automatically identify a person as a Jew. We had a number of goyim in town who worked for Jews who spoke Yiddish fluently.

The ex-soldier, Dovid, claimed that he had spoken only Russian for 25 years. That was probably why the Slavic overwhelmed his Yiddish.

Then someone in our group took out a little siddur and showed it to Dovid.

“Can you read?”

“I haven’t looked at a siddur in 25 years. I forgot how to read.”

“How can a Jew forget to read?”

Dovid came up to the man and looked him in the face. The man, apparently frightened, backed off.

“Have you ever been in the czar’s army for 25 years? Anything, everything, is possible ... But I still remember the Shma Yisroel. That they couldn’t wipe away from me. I said it to myself every night. Every night. I didn’t miss a night.” And he brought the palm of his right hand to his eyes, covered them, and recited the Shma fervently.

What Jew didn’t know his family name? What Jew can’t read from the siddur. What Jew has the gruff look of a goy?

But even this did not persuade the group of grown-ups near me. I heard them saying that they had known Russkies who could imitate those words and that gesture too.

But why should a Russian want to pass himself off as a Jew in a land where there was lots of anti-Semitism, both popular and official? The answer is that the Jewish community was known for caring for its own.

The man who claimed to be Dovid was no doubt hoping for a bed in the poorhouse or in the old-age home, or a place in someone’s house until he found a job. He was still a young man and would likely find work as a carpenter.

Ikh bin a Yid,” he kept saying, at times declaring it forthrightly, at times in a tone of complaint. “They snatched me away when I was only 12, a year before my bar mitzvah, and forced me into the army. They wanted to break me, all the anti-Semites, but they didn’t. They couldn’t make me a Christian. I’m still a Jew. Ikh bin a Yid.”

The men speaking to him exchanged glances. He was sounding more and more like a Jew. But what Jew didn’t know his family name? What Jew can’t read from the siddur. What Jew has the gruff look of a goy? And what Jew speaks Yiddish like it comes out of the mouth of a muzhik, a peasant?

Because of the turmoil that Kariukovke had experienced, and because Dovid’s parents were no longer alive, there was no one who could remember his kidnapping into the czar’s army.

“I was looking for my father’s little house before I met you,” Dovid told us, “but I couldn’t find it. The town has changed.”

“We’ve had turmoil here,” one of the men near me said. “Pogroms. Fires. New construction ordered by the authorities.”

Dovid looked down. “I thought I would be able to return to my parents’ house.”

We didn’t know what to say. I felt sorry for the man. Should I invite him to stay with our family?

Meanwhile, Dovid stood there silently, shifting his weight from one leg to another.

One of the men near me ran into a house and came out with a glass of water for Dovid, which he drank eagerly.

“Are you hungry?” another man asked.

Dovid shook his head. Then he said in an upbeat voice, “Is Avrom the teacher still alive?”

We looked at him, bewildered. How did he know the old teacher?

“Why do you ask?”

“Is he alive?”

“Yes, he’s very old.”

“I know. He wasn’t young years ago. Where is he?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Why don’t you answer me? Stop asking me why. Where does he live?”

“In the old-age home.”

“Is he well?”

“For a man in his late 80s, maybe 90s, he is quite well and alert.”

“Take me to him. I want to see him.”

We all walked through the quiet streets to the two-story community old-age home. Inside a few residents sat in the living room.

We walked up to Reb Avrom’s room, knocked on the door, and opened it. Reb Avrom was sitting at his table, studying a text. He was no doubt surprised to see so many people, including one who looked like a soldier. Avrom was a short, thin man, with a wispy white beard and a black yarmulke on his head. He looked calmly at all of us, but stared intently at the ex-soldier.

As soon as Dovid saw the old man he ran up to him and cried out, his voice choking, “Rebbe, it’s me, your student, Dovid. Do you remember me?”

Avrom rose, and with an agility that belied his years, he gave us that heartfelt broad smile that was an ingrained part of his personality.

“Dovid. Dovid.” Avrom shook his head, a sort of rocking motion that did not quite indicate yes or no.

“Rebbe, you were my teacher. I was 12 years old. Studying with you. It was a few days before Hanukkah, just like right now, when the czar’s men came in suddenly and snatched me away.”

“How many years ago?”

“Twenty-five.”

Now Reb Avrom was nodding. “Yes. It sounds familiar. A long time ago.”

“Twenty-five years, Rebbe,” Dovid said with a tear in his voice. “Twenty-five long years with them. They tried, but they couldn’t break me. Ikh bin a Yid. Ikh bin geblibn a Yid. I remained a Jew.”

Reb Avrom clapped his hands and cried out, “They burst in. I pleaded with them. He’s an only child, I said. It’s against the czar’s law to take an only child. But they didn’t listen. They didn’t care. They got paid for snatching. I remember It was a cold day. A few days before Hanukkah.”

And Dovid added: “I asked the soldiers, let me at least say goodbye to my father and mother. But they didn’t. They didn’t let me.” Here Dovid’s voice broke. “They took me away.”

Now the ex-soldier’s eyes widened and a glow spread over his dusky face as if he was having a revelation. He looked at Reb Avrom’s face as though he wanted to absorb its essence.

“Rebbe, we were studying the laws of Hanukkah when they barged in.”

Reb Avrom interrupted. “Yes, yes. That’s what I was going over with you. From Joseph Caro’s the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Law.”

“You were reading what happens if a person doesn’t have enough money to buy both Shabbes candles and Hanukkah candles.”

Reb Avrom began in a singsong voice, reciting in Hebrew. “It’s from Chapter 678 from the Shulchan Aruch. If one has insufficient means to purchase both Hanukkah candles and Shabbes candles ...”

Dovid closed his eyes and continued chanting in Hebrew with his rebbe. Now both their voices rang out and, as if in a rehearsed duet, their two voices joined in song:

“... that person should purchase Shabbes candles because they bring about peace in one’s household.”

Then the teacher fell silent and the czar’s soldier continued chanting alone, remembering the words of the Shulchan Aruch:

“But If one already owns Shabbes candles but only has enough money to either purchase wine for the Shabbes kiddush or Hanukkah candles, then one should purchase Hanukkah candles since it involves showing off the miracle of Hanukkah.”

With tears in his eyes, Reb Avrom came up to Dovid, embraced him and kissed both his cheeks. The tears of both men intermingled.

“That’s what we were studying when they came ... And you remembered every word. After 25 years”

“Dear Rebbe. I always thought of you. You were like a second father to me.”

And Dovid bent down and kissed his rebbe’s cheek.

Borukh ha-bo, tayerer Yid. Welcome, dear Jew. Welcome home. And a freylekhen Hanuka. A happy Hanukkah to you.”

I looked around. Every man’s face was wet; yet every man was smiling. Now all of us also embraced Dovid. And now we all vied as to who would be the first to welcome him and stay with us throughout Hanukkah until he settled in.

And with the return of a Jew to our shtetl after 25 years, it was indeed a freylekhen Hanukkah in Kariukovke.

Curt Leviant’s most recent two novels are Kafka’s Son and Katz or Cats, or How Jesus Became My Rival in Love.

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