essays tzaddik stories

the tzaddik sells his daughter

Jerusalem, 1961

The tzaddik, as we know, was a great collector of Judaica: manuscripts, ceremonial artifacts, and ancient pieces of junk. For him, every single fragment was precious and worthy of preserving. Each broken piece of something had matching pieces yet to be discovered. Every object had a story that had to be uncovered.

If the Holy One, Blessed Be He created the world by separating all its parts — light from dark, and earth from sky … — it was the tzaddik’s job to put it all back together again. But you already knew this.

He took Malkah with him on many of his adventures. Up the Motherlode, looking for cemeteries (he collected cemeteries, but only if they were Jewish). They drove up and down the mountains searching out each and every single one. The tzaddik would then find a donor who would help purchase the rundown little plot of land and broken stones, and bring it back into a state of preservation. He taught Malkah to decipher the gravestones when she was about eight or nine.

But in Jerusalem, treasures were boundless. Either that, or they were fakes. He always seemed to know the difference. He would wander through the tiny streets (of west Jerusalem — the city was divided at that time) until he turned at last in through an open door. He’d find a grungy little stall, and look through absolutely everything with equal deliberation.

Every thing has a story.

And he was a great storyteller once he figured out the tale. The other thing that gave him pleasure, was giving away the pieces of junk. Once he unearthed the secret of an object, the next step was to find its home. There was always someone — or some institution — whose story it was. It was for them to preserve the thing and keep it safe.

He always assumed that once each object had found its rightful place in the world, that it would be honored. That others would treasure it as he did.

He was the most unmaterialistic materialist the world had ever seen. Of course. A lamed-vavnik, putting the universe of separation back in order, one piece at a time.

So. They turned down a cobbled alley, and there was this dirty little stall. And sitting in the dirty little stall was a dirty little man. An old and toothless man, wearing what looked to Malkah like rags inside the ragged stall. The shop was dark before her eyes adjusted. It only had one lightbulb hanging down.

There was a mournful horn playing in the distance, from somewhere further down the cobbled lane. It pervaded the very marrow of the stone walls all around.

Can you hear that sound?

The dirty, old shopkeeper was sitting cross-legged upon more piled up rags upon the cold stone floor. A woven blanket maybe. It was too dark to see. The tzaddik and his daughter sat cross-legged on the other side. There didn’t seem to be much more room in the shop than that. Most of the light streamed in from the outside, and so they sat as near the doorway as they could. The shuttered doors of the shop were painted that blue — you know. Evil eye blue. The blue of protection.

The tzaddik’s eyes were filled with equanimity. But Malkah knew he wasn’t walking out of that shop without the crumbling manuscript now in his hand. The shopkeeper knew the same. He got up and disappeared into the darkness of the back of the shop.

The tzaddik didn’t lift his head from deciphering the text below, even when the shopkeeper returned with the steamy little glasses of burning hot tea. The tiny glasses were old; the painted floral decoration mostly faded.

The shopkeeper eyed Malkah hungrily and with a wave of his hand insisted that she drink. She took a tiny burble and was struck by a syrupy jolt. Her body shuddered. There was nowhere to spit it out and she was forced to swallow.

The hours passed. More rounds of tea. The horn began another mournful tune. The haggling went on for hours. The grubby shopkeeper kept glancing at the tzaddik’s daughter.

“I have a son,” he said at last.

“Mazal tov!” proclaimed the tzaddik. “A blessing on your house.”

“He and your daughter would make a pretty pair.”

The tzaddik turned to another page in the crumbling folio sheets. He grunted.

“You could take my son with you,” the old man said. “To Amrika.”

“He could use an education,” said the tzaddik.

“An education, yes!” the shopkeeper said, and started wrapping up the manuscript in newspaper, and tying it with brown twine.

A filthy boy just Malkah’s age stepped into the shop, as if by magic. He had dark vacant eyes, huge teeth and sunken cheeks. His clothes were as tattered as his father’s.

“An education,” repeated the tzaddik.

“A shittach,” said the shopkeeper.

The boy giggled, but with lack of comprehension. He cleared the teapot and the little glasses and off he ran. Malkah noticed that he was barefooted. As if he’d never worn a pair of shoes.

The tzaddik rose. The shopkeeper rose, kissed the tzaddik’s right hand, and thrust the newspaper wrapped packet into the tzaddik’s left. Malkah rose. The shopkeeper patted her on the head.

“An education,” he repeated, looking the tzaddik in the eyes. The tzaddik grunted.

When they had left, Malkah was fuming. She had just turned thirteen.

“That’s how it’s done,” the tzaddik said.

And he tucked the treasure under his arm and they walked on down the cobbled lane. Another piece of the cosmic puzzle was returning to its rightful home.

You could hear the horn finishing off its last five notes. Triumphal affirmations, finding their strength and hitting their stride.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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