The Ne’er-Do-Well and the Heretic


At this point, I’d like to tell in some depth about one of the guests who came to drink tea at my grandfather’s house: a ne’er-do-well named Shmuel-Yoyne. He could never support himself. Since he had no place in this world, he wanted to ensure that he would have one in the world to come.

Shmuel-Yoyne was tall and sported a short, chestnut-colored beard. He wore a small, round black hat with a small visor made of the same fabric (this was a Polish-Jewish hat, which Jews called “the exile hat”), a long coat with a slit in the back, a white shirt with a soft collar and a black necktie and boots with tall, flexible boots. He was always clean and neat. He had ten children, and three had died. Three sons and four daughters remained. His father-in-law supported them by paying the rent, food, clothing, and even tuition for the children.

Shmuel-Yoyne positioned himself somewhere between Hasidim and their opponents. He never attended the court of a Hasidic Rebbe. Each day, he studied a page of Talmud and also believed fervently in the Tanya [1]. He owned no furniture except a bookcase housing complete sets of the Talmud, the Mishnah, copies of the Pentateuch, Hoklekh [2], and other books, which were bound in handsome brown leather with his name etched in gold.

Smiling proudly, Shmuel-Yoyne regularly recounted his dreams as follows: “God will help me live in Warsaw, where I’ll be a great businessman or a big-time factory owner. I’ll live in a tall brick building on the penthouse floor, only reachable by an elevator. There’ll be a plaque with my name on the door, and a doorbell that a servant will answer. I’ll also have a telephone.”

The people he told his dreams to nodded sincerely and wished him the best. But behind his back, they mocked him.

Since his dream of becoming a great businessman or factory owner in Warsaw came to nothing, he at least wanted to become a factory owner in the shtetl. So this is what happened. Somewhere not far from the shtetl, a tool factory’s machinery was put up for sale. No one wanted to buy it, but Shmuel-Yoyne saw an opportunity to become a factory owner. He somehow scraped together a small sum, made the down payment, and bought the factory. The rest he paid on an installment plan with his father-in-law’s money. The father-in-law wanted Shmuel-Yoyne to become financially independent at last. All the while, Shmuel-Yoyne continued spinning his fantasies: “I’ve become a factory owner. I now own a factory and, with God’s help, I’ll be a rich man. My factory will be humming day and night. I’ll ship my tools out to the whole country and abroad, too. I’ll build a brick building with every imaginable creature comfort. With my wife and kids, I’ll live a life of bourgeois comfort and wealth. My door will always be open to poor folks. Those who are hungry will leave stuffed and with a donation to boot. I’ll support poor widows and orphans, and I’ll finance the weddings of brides who have no money.”

When the carts loaded with the machines arrived in the shtetl and the drivers were ready to unload it all, Shmuel-Yoyne realized he needed a spot to build the factory. A crowd gathered and started laughing and cracking jokes about “Shmuel-Yoyne the Factory Owner.” He was ashamed to meet their gaze; he felt utterly desolate. Then a well-to-do Pole who knew how to work with machines came along. He owned a two-story townhouse, storage facilities, a garden, and a field. When he realized what was happening, he said to Shmuel-Yoyne, “Shmulku, I’ll buy the machines from you for four hundred zlotys, and I’ll save you from your troubles.”

Shmuel-Yoyne thought to himself: the factory will cost me two thousand zlotys, but it’s my father-in-law’s money, not mine. Four hundred zlotys is no small change for me. I can’t abandon the machines out here under the stars. What if thieves come? If it rains, they’ll get rusty. In that case, maybe the gentile is truly my redeemer, no less than an angel sent from the heavens. But maybe he’d be willing to add a little something to sweeten the deal.

So he answered, “Panye knows that the factory will cost me a lot, a lot more. If you would add a couple hundred zlotys, you’ll be getting a real bargain—a steal!”

The Pole answered as follows: “It’s not worth more than four hundred to me. If you want to take it, it’s yours. If not, well then, do widzenia.” And he turned to go.

Shmuel-Yoyne called out after him, and the two sealed the deal. The drivers unloaded the machines from the wagons into the Pole’s sheds. And the Pole became the factory owner, while Shmuel-Yoyne paid off a few of his debts with the money. The rest of it he spent on food, and in the end, he remained a pauper.

Once Shmuel-Yoyne came home beaming, practically jumping for joy. “My dear father-in-law,” he said, “Soon I’ll be a rich and powerful man. Every man has his day. It looks like God Master of the Universe has remembered me. He’s sent me a fortune, really a goldmine. I’ve purchased a mine with steel behind Bliżyn. I’ll dig it up and sell it by the kilo to the steelworks. Dear Father-in-law, I’ll be rich. I’ve bought it for a pittance, and I’ll unload it and make tens of thousands of zlotys.”

His father-in-law calmly heard Shmuel-Yoyne out, all the while stroking his distinguished, expansive beard, and with a hint of a smile, answered, “I’d like to see your good fortune with my own eyes, my dear Shmuel-Yoyne.”

Shmuel-Yoyne hired peasants, who dug and hammered with picks, shovels, hammers, and steel crowbars for two weeks but were unable to dislodge the piece of steel, which was deeply buried in the ground. They couldn’t even chop off the smallest fragment. They advised him to bring in an engineer, which Shmuel-Yoyne proceeded to do. The engineer worked with the peasants for a couple of days but was unable to obtain any results. Shmuel-Yoyne invested several hundred zlotys and became even more impoverished, with ballooning debts.

People said that this piece of steel must have fallen from the heavens after the six days of creation.

*          *          *

Shmuel-Yoyne realized that he had no luck in this world and wanted to ensure his place in the next. So he decided to become a mohel, because by performing the ritual on Jewish infants he figured he would surely earn a place in the world to come. This world was a false one, serving as a corridor to the world of truth, where one dwelled eternally with Moses, Aaron the High Priest, the Patriarchs, and the righteous men of all ages. So he took it upon himself to study how to become a mohel. Of course, his father-in-law continued to support him.

When the old mohel died, he became the only one in town who could perform the ritual. But the pregnant women and the new mothers were afraid of giving their children to him to circumcise. They brought a mohel from a neighboring shtetl–from Przysucha or Szydłowiec. Only the poor people who couldn’t afford to pay for the mohel’s expenses would bring their children to Shmuel-Yoyne. (In performing the circumcision, the mohel didn’t demand direct payment because if someone required payment for the performance of a mitzvah, then the mitzvah would be rendered null and void.) Several years went by and not a single child was harmed in his hands. Shmuel-Yoyne was recognized as someone with a light touch, and he became the official mohel in the shtetl and the surrounding area. But it never occurred to him that he ought to be paid for his work. He toiled only for the world to come, and he, along with his wife and children, became bloated from malnourishment.

Shmuel-Yoyne was so stringent in his adherence to the laws of kashrut that, despite his hunger, he never allowed himself more than honey cake and liquor at a circumcision celebration. But to ensure that his failure to partake in the feast didn’t embarrass the baby’s family, he arranged with one of his children to arrive at a pre-arranged time and deliver the pretext that a prominent businessman was waiting for him.

When Shmuel-Yoyne did feel comfortable with the level of kashrut, he brought reshinke home to his children. Reshinke was distributed at a circumcision ceremony. It was a baked good requiring the blessing for wheat and grain products, rather than the one for bread. Put another way, a pastry rather than plain bread. Reshinke was an unfermented dough: a low, round, cake baked from wheat flour and eggs and sugar with raisins and sweet almonds. A Star of David was braided inside, and in the Star of David was the word “Congratulations!” After the feast, the ritual mohel took the reshinke and cut the rounded part with the “Congratulations!” that was in the Star of David. This was then given to the mother, who ate the required portion and divided the rest into smaller pieces, which were then distributed to the women who fought over them since they were considered a good omen that would lead to a circumcision in their own family.

After cutting the middle, a large bagel remained. People threw themselves at the reshinke, tore it into small pieces, and stuffed it into their mouths, since it was, after all, a good omen for circumcision. But Reb Shmuel-Yoyne the mohel had become so adept that he veritably grabbed the reshinke to his chest, and divided into pieces and distributed to everyone the minimum required amount. The mohel left a spare portion for himself that he took home to his children, who, like all children, loved reshinke.

My primary school teacher went to every wedding and circumcision. There, he recited the prayers for divine intervention (on behalf the ailing or those otherwise needy), and this supplemented his livelihood. When he returned to school, he pulled out of his red kerchief a small piece of reshinke for each child, which we devoured with gusto. As children, our craving for reshinke was never quite satisfied.

*          *          *

A poor tailor—a heretic—who had a wife and two children, lived in the shtetl. When he was completely out of bread, he came to the mohel and said, “Reb Shmuel-Yoyne, every Jew has a place in the world to come. I too have performed many good deeds in my lifetime. I’d like to sell you my portion of the world to come for ten zlotys.”

Reb Shmuel-Yoyne exclaimed in agitation, crying out in a strained voice, “My enemies are crazy! What are you going on about? You have nothing in this world except hunger, tribulations, and suffering. And now you don’t want anything in the world to come? Imagine sitting in the Garden of Eden with Moses, with the Patriarch Abraham, King David, King Solomon, the wisest man of all, Rabbi Akiva and all of the saints! Eating and drinking like a king and studying the Torah with Moses himself . . .”

“I don’t believe in any of those things,” the tailor interrupted him, “I want to have paradise in this world. For ten zlotys I’ll have paradise for a few days in my own home.”

“You’re going to regret this.”

“No, I won’t. There is no world to come. Hell and paradise are in this world. I don’t put any stock in this nonsense.”

They continued to bicker for a good while. Finally, Reb Shmuel-Yoyne drew up a deed of sale and then summoned two witnesses. All four of them signed the document, and Shmuel-Yoyne paid him the ten zlotys.

Several weeks later, when the tailor didn’t have anything at all to eat, he returned and said, “Reb Shmuel-Yoyne, I came to you to sell the commandments I fulfilled. For a good many years, I prayed and put on phylacteries in my youth. I also gave charity and did many other good deeds in my day. I’ll sell them all to you on the cheap—just ten zlotys.”

Since Reb Shmuel-Yoyne now knew that the tailor was a heretic, he drew up another deed of sale and called in two witnesses. All four of them signed the document, and he paid him ten zlotys.

When the tailor had the money in hand, he said, “You see, Reb Shmuel-Yoyne, I’ll now get to have paradise for a few days at home on account of my sins just as I did for my good deeds,” and he burst into laughter.

A few weeks later, the tailor returned in a good mood and said in a tone suggesting he was the bearer of good tidings, “Reb Shmuel-Yoyne, I’m going to make you happy. Before, you were my customer, but now, I’ll be your customer . . .”

Reb Shmuel-Yoyne was shocked, “What? You’re coming to me with regrets?”

“God forbid! I’d like to buy all of your sins so that you’ll reach the next world with just good deeds. But you’ll have to give me ten zlotys.”

By now, Reb Shmuel-Yoyne knew the drill. He drew up another deed of sale and called in two witnesses. The four of them signed the document, and he gave the tailor another ten zlotys. When the tailor had the money in hand, he said, “You see, Reb Shmuel-Yoyne, because of your sins, I’ll get to spend a few days in paradise on earth,” and once again burst into laughter.

*          *          *

Shmuel-Yoyne believed that drinking tea from the Sabbath oven was a mitzvah and a contributing factor in gaining entrée into the world to come. Since he felt comfortable in Reb Nosn Kogen’s home, Shmuel-Yoyne came there every Sabbath morning and after the post-cholent nap to drink tea with lemon. Shmuel-Yoyne drank one glass after another and all the while spun yarns of his improved fortunes, which were all complete fabrications. He perspired, becoming red as he spoke.

Those who prayed with the second minyan drank tea. At my grandfather’s house, they actually stood in line for tea from the Sabbath oven. On Sabbath mornings, my father sat with his brothers-in-law (my grandfather had choice sons-in-law) at the kitchen table next to the Sabbath oven. They drank one glass of tea after another, speaking words of Torah, singing the melodies of their rebbes. Neighbors would stand beneath the window, eavesdropping with pleasure and envy. When the sons-in-law saw that the “fresers” were coming home from the prayer service of the first minyan, they went to the prayer house for the service of the second minyan.



[1] The classic philosophical work by Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812), the founder of Habad Hasidism.

[2] Bryks presumably is referring to Hok le-Yisroel, a popular daily reader containing excerpts from Tanakh, Talmud, and Zohar, among other sources. The ending “lekh” suggests these may have been pocket copies. My thanks to Rabbi Yisrael Meyerowitz for confirming my presumption.


Rachmil Bryks

Born and raised in Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland in 1912, Rachmil Bryks was a prolific and highly acclaimed Yiddish poet and writer. The son of Orthodox parents, he received a traditional and secular education. His book of poems Yung grin mai (Young Green May) appeared in 1939 to great acclaim. At the outbreak of World War II, Bryks was in the industrial city of Łódź working as a hatmaker and housepainter. Most of his family perished in the liquidation of the Skarżysko ghetto. He was interned in a series of prison camps and then in the Łódź Ghetto from 1940-1944. In August 1944, Bryks was transferred to Auschwitz and later to Wattestadt, Ravensbruck, and Werbelin. The Yiddish press reviewed Bryks’ work extensively, and Nobel laureates S.Y. Agnon and Isaac Bashevis Singer as well as numerous other writers, including B.J. Bialostotzky, A. Mukdoni, and Aaron Zeitlin, championed it. His fictional works translated by S. Morris Engel appeared in English as A Cat in the Ghetto and Kiddush Hashem. In addition to English, Bryks’ work has been translated into languages such as Hebrew, German, Italian, and Swedish. Bryks married Hinde Irene Wolf in 1946, and they had two daughters, Myriam Serla and Bella. Rachmil Bryks died in New York in 1974.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub ( is the author of Prodigal Children in the House of G-d: Stories (2018) and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish Songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. With Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Hamilton Stone Review, Jewrotica, Marathon Literary Review, Oyster River Pages, Second Hand Stories Podcast, and Verdad Magazine.

Copyright (c) Estate of Rachmil Bryks. Published with the permission of the Author's daughter, Bella Bryks-Klein. English translation copyright (c) Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, 2019.