Tale 17 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston



Avrom sat in the corner of his-well, he thought of it as his-general store, his head drooping periodically to his chest. His face felt wooden from too little sleep and too much work. He was tired-very, very tired. Occasionally he lapsed into dreams:

Yankel stood at the bar, beaming broad-faced greetings to their patrons, confidently pouring out drinks. "And you, Sasha?" he joshed with one of the peasants. "Are you here to celebrate planting your potatoes?"

"I'm only here to celebrate clearing my fields. In a few weeks I'll come back and celebrate planting."

"Well, with such hard work and effort you'll soon become a prosperous elder in your village." Yankel loved the word "prosperous." It was round and fat and substantial and respectable, altogether satisfactory. He used it as often as he could. Avrom, at the end of the bar taking inventory, looked at one of their best customers and wondered about Yankel's judgment.

"You can do it just like I did. Look at this place. I built it myself-didn't have any help until I brought Avrom into the business," he nodded benevolently toward Avrom, who returned the smile in real gratitude, but who also remembered the hours Yankel's long-suffering wife had put in at the bar, and again wondered at Yankel's perceptions.

"A self-made man, that's what I am. And you can be too, Sasha. You can be too."

"So, the Jew tavern owner brags about how much money he makes off the mujhiks." Liovo, the Horodchuka sitting at a table near the door was drunk again. "Why don't you spread some of your ill-gotten gains around and give us poor Christians a free round."

"Liovo, I was talking to Sasha, not you, and I don't think you need another drink. Why don't you go home to your nice wife? She'll put you in bed and you'll feel better in the morning."

"Why don't you go home to my nice wife and see what kind of beating she gives you for showing up." A chuckle of appreciation rippled through the Horodchukas, the Tartar citizens of the town. The Jews knew enough to keep silent; the mujhiks, the peasants, didn't feel like commenting.

Yankel continued mildly. "Well, if you have a better place to sleep tonight, why don't you go there."

"How about if I stay at the house of your flunky over there." He pointed at Avrom and laughed. "His wife has a great behind." Avrom stood up from behind the bar enraged. This time Liovo laughed alone because during Liovo's speech, five or six large Jewish butchers who had been sitting at a corner table, had gotten up. When Liovo finished, Nieson Leib, the biggest of all, quietly went over and laid his big butcher hand on Liovo's shoulder.

"Do you really want to start up with the Jews? Think hard."

Liovo looked at him and actually seemed to think.

"Then be a good Christian and go home to sleep. I'm sure your wife and everyone here will be grateful."

Liovo looked at Nieson Leib and the other butchers, then at the table of Jewish teamsters who seemed extremely interested in his response. Eastern wall sitters they weren't. When he slowly got up and staggered out of the bar, everything became quiet again, although several Horodchukas picked up their hats and also left.

Bragging about good fortune brings such trouble; a Jew should know better. It not only tempts Christians; it tempts the evil eye. In Yankel's case the tsar himself decided to do something about the man's good fortune. Of course the tsar did something about the prosperity of all Jewish tavern owners at the same time, so one could argue that Yankel didn't cause it. But who knows? It wouldn't have hurt if Yankel had been a bit more careful.

Tsar Nicholas II, may his name be remembered for exactly what he was, said Jews earned their living by ruining the peasants. He said Jewish tavern owners plied their customers with vodka to make money, and that their greed came from the devil. Maybe he said that because he was a little too familiar with what comes from the devil. Who can tell?

He also said a lot of other unpleasant things, mostly versions of "I don't like the Jews and wish they'd go away." Then he announced that the Jews had to stop "exploiting" the poor peasants; Jews could no longer sell liquor. The tsar would sell liquor to the mujhiks instead. He monopolized the trade and licensed only Christians. With Nicholas II now in the liquor business, Avrom expected the sale of alcohol to soon become a holy sacrament in the Orthodox Church. But even if it did, it would be of no help to him or Yankel.

Shoshka was shaking Avrom's shoulder. "Wake up. Wake up. Church will be out in a few minutes and the peasants will be here to buy. I've asked Sara to come in today, too. We can't do it alone any more." Yankel's wife was standing behind the counter helping a woman pick out some cloth. Although her movements were slowed by arthritis, her words were nonetheless warm.

Times had grown hard after they sold the tavern, but Sara's Yankel still owned this small general store next to it. The peasants came on Sundays, went to church, bought some flour, some salt, a little cloth, and had a few drinks, sometimes more than a few drinks-as they always had. Only now, they paid a Horodchuka for the vodka instead of Yankel, and the livelihood of two families had come to depend on the general store. All the help had been let go; Yankel and Avrom ran the store alone, except when Yankel went on buying trips, like now. Then Avrom ran the store with only Shoshka's help, since Sara was old and ill. "But today I am helping because with young children, this is too much for you two," Sara whispered to Avrom as she passed in front of his slumped figure on the way to the cash register.

An hour later Yankel himself walked into the store and pushed his family out. "Shoo, shoo. I'll take care of things this afternoon. The lot of you look like you need sleep."

The next morning, however, Yankel felt he should be more "business-like," a word that stretches to cover amazing unkindnesses. "I had a great awakening in Kiev." Yankel was sputtering nervously; that was always a bad sign. Avrom wondered what kind of wild scheme had gotten into his head this time. Noticing Avrom's lack of enthusiasm, Yankel stopped and examined him up and down. "To tell the truth, I have only now realized the great strain I put you under by keeping you in this job. You look terrible. And one of the customers told me yesterday that you've been short-tempered lately. Is that true?"

"You mean Alte the Martyr? I told her she had to pay her bill. She's been on credit for two months now, and we have our own bills to pay.

"So it's true; you were rude to her."

"Yankel, be reasonable. Shoshka and I have been working without rest while you've been in Kiev. Maybe I was less tactful than I should have been, but she's the one who owes us money. Remember that."

"I'm sorry the last year has been so hard on you, but I can't have you driving away customers, especially old and loyal ones. At this point I need to concentrate on finding new ways to make money, not preventing you from losing the old ways."

"Come," Yankel had said ten years ago. "Come to me and be my Kaddish. I am now fifty with no children, no son to say prayers for me after my death. You, my cousin, are a hard-working, intelligent young man who needs a helping hand. Join me and in time I will make you my partner."

So Avrom had come. That was when the business had been prosperous, and there was more work than a single man could do. Yankel had indeed treated Avrom like a son. In exchange Avrom promised to take care of Yankel and his wife in their old age and say Kaddish after they died. That was when the business had prospered. At this point things were different.

Avrom brought himself back. "It will take time for us to find new ways to make money; we'll just have to hold on until then."

"I agree, but holding on will take even longer hours than you've been working, not to mention greater effort, and frankly I don't think you're up to the challenge. You simply don't have the energy or vision." Yankel was big on working long hours, as if long hours could replace common sense.

"I talked to several rich merchants in Kiev who transport salt and firewood between Minsk Gubernia and the Ukraine." Yankel eyes moved off into some future that only he could see. "If I did the same, I could build my business back to where it was, and eventually I would become even more prosperous." The words "I could" and "my business" were troubling.

"How do you plan to start?"

"Well first, I'm afraid, we both have to accept that you can no longer help me. I appreciate all the assistance you gave me here in David-Horodok, but you would have too much to learn about the outside world if I go into import/export, and it's obvious you're not up to it."

"But you can't run this store by yourself and be off in Kiev. And what about the partnership you promised?"

"I admit I may have mentioned a partnership." Yankel thought it extremely fair of him to admit his mistake so frankly. "But that always depended on our prospering. Have we prospered? You've helped me-I thanked you for that already-but you've made no lasting contribution, and lately you even offended our customers. Besides, I decided to sell the store." Avrom could hardly believe Yankel's last offhand remark. Yankel drifted off again.

"My uncle, Liebke the Butcher, was once in the shipping business on the Horin. He hit hard times too, but he gave up; he's been slaughtering meat for anyone he can ever since, and he's always been sorry. If he had stuck to it, he might have been somebody. I am determined not to have that happen to me; I am determined to leave a legacy behind in this world. Unfortunately, Avrom, you're not up to being part of it." Avrom was speechless; what had become of the last ten years?

"I appreciate what you've done; I really do. I couldn't have survived these past years without your help." Yankel flashed his most winning smile. "But I would be abusing you if I continued to let you work so hard. I understand perfectly why you are no longer able to do your job, but I'm afraid I'll have to let you go."

"You made a promise, Yankel. You gave me your word."

Yankel had had enough. "You know I either believe in someone or I don't, and frankly I've lost confidence in you. Worse, you've discouraged me so much that I don't know if I'll ever take a partner. Now please leave."

Avrom should have become wealthy and put Yankel out of business, because that would have been just. But nothing of the sort happened. When the tsar monopolized the liquor trade, he put 200,000 Jews out of work; for this many people to find a replacement livelihood was impossible. Yankel remained a very small merchant while Avrom took up peddling, and neither became wealthy. Shoshka contributed to the family income by sewing. Sara simply died. Avrom and Shoshka's greatest achievement was to encourage their children to leave for America.

Yankel never spoke to Avrom again because he felt so misunderstood. Avrom's failings had forced him to go back on a promise; what a terrible thing to have happened to him. Always gregarious, he spoke freely to half the town about it. Some people actually listened.

Avrom, of course, never spoke to Yankel again either. He had become wiser, learning what happens when you get in the way of a magnificent obsession, but it had not made him more forgiving. Although Avrom broke down for Sara, he never would say Kaddish for Yankel's soul, and neither, of course, did anyone else.



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