Rabbi Narrishkeit Goes to Plotsk
By Mark J Hoolihan
Another tale from the life of the legendary Rabbi Narrishkeit, known throughout the land for his strong left hook, unending devotion to the Torah and almost pathological hatred of gefilte fish.
Trouble had come to the tiny shtetl of Tesdudelt. The tax bill had come for the year and it was 500 rubles, ten times what it had been the year before. The people of Tsedudelt were poor in the best of times. In those days a destitute person was called a luftmensch, one who seems to live on air. The people of Tsedudelt would have considered living on air a luxury. In a land known for its poverty, the worst that could befall a person was to have his neighbors say, "He's poor all right, Tsedudelt poor." Lately times had become so hard that the town schnorrer, Motl had taken to part time work in other shtetls, schnorring off their schnorrers when he could. Yet the people of Tesdudelts were still good honest people living happy lives in their friendly little shtetl. Well not really, but that is the kind of thing people like to say about a life of poverty, people who've never lived a life of poverty that is.
The townspeople gathered to discuss the problem:
"What shall we do, there is no money in town, and we've only come up with 35 rubles."
"Surely they will send the Cossacks to destroy us"
"It will be the end of everything"
"We should go to America"
"Feh! If we had money for boat tickets, we'd have money for taxes and maybe a chicken on Sunday."
"Perhaps Bassia could sell a goose or two?"
"Two whom will she sell these geese to, dumkop?"
"We must ask the Rabbi"
"Before noon? The last person to disturb him before noon was hit so hard they felt the blow in hotzeplotz."
Now the good people of Tsedudelt loved their rabbi, and respected him as a man of learning and a man of the Torah. But they also had just a little bit of fear of him. No one claimed to actually have seen the Rabbi hit anyone, and he was always a friend to his people, but there were stories. So the townspeople waited until the appointed hour and sent a delegation to speak with the Rabbi.
After they had explained the situation, Rabbi Narrishkeit sat quietly for some time. No one spoke. Then the Rabbi got up and went over to his bookshelves and took out a book and began to look through it. No one knew what he looked at when he did this, for few in the shtetl of Tsedudelt could read anything other than a few Hebrew words they learned in cheder, but he always looked in at least one of his many books before dealing with a problem. And if they did not understand it, the people of Tsedudelt certainly respected him for it.
Finally the Rabbi spoke, "There is nothing for it, I will go to Plotsk and speak to the officials, give me the 35 rubles, I will leave tomorrow." The townspeople gasped at this. The people of the Pale had long ago given up trying to plead their case to the government; it never worked and often led to troops being quartered in their town. Yet Rabbi Narrishkeit was a man of courage as well as wisdom, and if he said it could be done, there was no point in arguing with him. Not that anyone in Tsedudelt ever argued with Rabbi Narrishkeit.
The next day Rabbi Narrishkeit packed his bag for his journey. As always he carried his traveling sack, with his Tellis and Tefillin, some hard rolls and a bottle. Often he took with him a bottle of the finest vimorozik from Kasrilevke, but today he took a bottle of slivovitz. Putting on his coat and Shtreimel, he stopped in the kitchen and grabbed a pinch of horseradish, which he put in this pocket. No one knew why he did this, and the people of Tsedudelt never questioned Rabbi Narrishkeit.
Rabbi Narrishkeit left Tsedudelt, walking many miles to reach the train station. Here he bought a ticket and waited for the train to Plotsk. When the train came he boarded the second class compartment and took an empty seat by the window. Before long the conductor came along and pulled him from his seat.
The conductor screamed at Rabbi Narrishkeit, "How dare you sit in the second class compartment Jew! Did you think to spy on good Christians, to work your magic on them? I should throw you off this train for your insolence." Rabbi Narrishkeit felt his left hand forming into a fist but managed to calm himself, as he had great business to attend to in Plotsk. "Your worship, I did not mean any harm, I am but a poor old Jew who has made a mistake, please show leniency." The conductor dragged Rabbi Narrishkeit through the train, "I'll show you leniency, the leniency of my boot! If I hear one more word out of you, Jew, I will throw you and all the other stinking Jews off this train!" Rabbi Narrishkeit again felt his left hand forming a fist, but he bowed his head and slowly took a seat on the floor of the third class compartment.
When he reached Plotsk, Rabbi Narrishkeit made his way to the great building where his Excellency had an office. Here he was told to wait, as his Excellency, the high government official Nekulturnov, had much business to attend to. He waited all afternoon, and the only person going in and out of the great office was the secretary carrying in a fresh bottle of slivovitz.
Finally Rabbi Narrishkeit was led in to see his Excellency. "Your Excellency, I have come from the poor shtetl of Tsedudelt. There appears to have been an error. In previous years the taxes were always 50 rubles, and they were always paid, no matter what hardship this imposed on the people. Certainly the 500 rubles we are to pay must be the result of some tiny error by a hard working clerk somewhere."
His Excellency looked at Rabbi Narrishkeit like a shochet sizing up a fresh chicken, and screamed at him, "You lying dirty Jew, are you trying to trick me? You accuse his majesty the Tsar's government of making a mistake? I know how deceitful Jews are; I know how much money you all have. You swim in riches while good Christians starve because of you. You little worm from a backward shtetl, you dare to trick me? You may control the world, but you cannot control me!"
At that point he hit Rabbi Narrishkeit on the head, knocking his yarmulke clean off. Rabbi Narrishkeit, who was known for his restraint (While actually he wasn't known for his restraint at all, but he liked to think he was.) began to talk back to his excellency, at first in a calm voice, "Yes, your Excellency, we do control the world, and all its money, that is why we live in such poor shtetls, so we can laugh at how we have fooled the goyim. Life is one big laugh for us, laughing at the foolish goyim who don't realize how wealthy and powerful we all are. I myself know many wealthy Jews, or at least I read about one, seems there's this Rothschild person in France who does quite well. I myself am but a poor simple Jew from the shtetl, yet I rode here in my own private train, with golden wheels and a horde of docile Christian servants. After this meeting I intend to go back to my mansion and have caviar for dinner."
At this his Excellency became most annoyed and threw his bottle against the wall, then he stood up and advanced on Rabbi Narrishkeit, screaming, "You dirty Jew I" Smite! Rabbi Narrishkeit's famous left hook found its mark on his Excellency's head and his Excellency fell over his desk. Rabbi Narrishkeit then reached in his bag, took out the bottle of slivovitz and poured half of if over his Excellency, placing the bottle alongside him.
When the secretary and the clerk came rushing in to see what the commotion was, they saw his Excellency slumped over his desk, a half empty bottle of slivovitz next to him, and Rabbi Narrishkeit sitting quietly in his chair, possibly looking frightened, although no one could ever recall seeing Rabbi Narrishkeit looking frightened.
"What is going on here!" shouted the secretary. "Your worship, I do not know what happened." Said Rabbi Narrishkeit "His Excellency kept drinking and shouting at me accusing me and all Jews of running the world and then he lost his balance and fell over the desk. He claimed I was attacking him, along with all Jews everywhere."
The secretary looked at Rabbi Narrishkeit, then at his Excellency, and made a decision. "You dirty Jew" he said "If you ever tell anyone that his Excellency was drunk and made a fool of himself, you will find yourself in the darkest corner of Siberia, and your shtetl will be home to a regiment of Cossacks, do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, your worship" replied Rabbi Narrishkeit "I would never want to make trouble, I only came here to pay the 25 rubles of taxes which Tsedudelt owes every year. We always do our duty." "Fine, fine, pay the taxes, get a receipt from the clerk for 25 rubles on your way out, and remember, not a word of this to anyone."
So Rabbi Narrishkeit paid 25 rubles for the taxes of Tsedudelt, and got an official government receipt attesting that he had paid in full. He then made his way to the train station, and was quietly enjoying his ride home when the same conductor he'd met on the way out came along.
"You dirty, impudent Jew!" he screamed "You dare come on my train again, and in the second class compartment no less! That's it, I will have your hide, Jew!" and began to grab Rabbi Narrishkeit by the collar. Rabbi Narrishkeit felt his left hand forming a fist, but bowed his head and began to Smite! His famous left hook found its mark and the conductor fell onto the floor unconscious. The people in the compartment were shocked, but none wanted trouble with this obviously dangerous Jew, who possibly ran the world as well. Finally one man dared to ask him "Won't you get in trouble when he wakes up mister Jew?"
"Oh no" Said Rabbi Narrishkeit "I have protectors in high places. My shtetl of hotzeplotz is looked after by a high official, his Excellency Nekulturnov. He is a great friend of the Jews and any Jew from hotzeplotz can do whatever we want in Russia without ever going to jail. We torment Christians throughout the land, it's great fun."
The archives of the Imperial government show that every year after that, the shtetl of Tsedudelt paid its 25 rubles in taxes and there was never any trouble. Some weeks later his Excellency, the high official Nekulturnov, was removed from office, for reasons that were never disclosed. And for several years Jews throughout the land laughed quietly at bands of soldiers and cartographers who went from shtetl to shtetl, looking for a place called hotzeplotz.
And on the train ride home, Rabbi Narrishkeit ate one of his rolls and contemplated all he had done that day. He thought that his words and actions were perhaps not strictly in line with the teachings of the Torah. And he felt guilty about this. At least for the amount of time it took him to finish his roll that is.
from the January 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine