Kee Tavo: The Lament of the Shammes:
New York City, 1890
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
“But if you do not harken to the voice of the LORD your God to observe and perform all the commandments which I command you this day, then shall all of these curses come upon you and take effect: cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. …The Lord will make disease cling to you, until He has utterly wiped you out from the land you are to possess….”
--Deut. 28:15-16, 21, The “List of Curses”
My name is Chaim ben Lazar Negnewitsky. I am thirty-three years old. Five years ago, I came to America from my small village, outside Lvov, Poland. I left behind my dear wife, Chava-Baylah, who was pregnant. We already had three children: our son, Moshe-Aaron, who was seven, and two girls: Chana-Gitel and Masha Esther, five and three. We all cried when I left, but I promised to send another schiffskarte, ship’s tickets, as soon as I earned enough money in the New World. I will never forget how my Chava-Baylah embraced me, as I was leaving, while the little ones clung to my legs.
When I arrived in New York City—it was wonderful to view the Statue of Liberty, though I was feeling seasick from the rough waters that morning—I sought out my Uncle Meyer on Rivington Street, who let me sleep in his apartment for a week. His wife and children were not happy about this.
“Will you rent a pushcart and sell sundries on Orchard Street?” Uncle Meyer asked me at breakfast the next morning, “Or would you rather work at a sewing machine in a shop? I have a friend—”
“If you please, Uncle,” I answered him, “I am used to the open air, and working with my hands. I would like to rent a wagon, and look into buying a horse on credit. I want to start a moving company.”
Uncle Meyer looked dubious, but he smiled and agreed to help me.
Alas, things went wrong from the start. The wagon sprang a wheel—it had been improperly mounted—and almost tipped over, nearly spilling me onto the hard pavement, had I not grabbed onto the seat. As for the horse, he was a sickly nag, named Ferdl. I tried to fatten him up on oats rather than grain, but his innards were sickly. One day, I was moving a load of furniture—a sofa and two chairs, along with two straw-filled mattresses—and was hoping for a good profit by day’s end. Ferdl was loping along, with me carefully guiding him between the streetcars and the pushcarts, when his right-front-hoof turned sideways on a loose cobblestone. I heard a loud crack! and my horse was lame.
So I was out of business. Desperate to send for my dearest Chava-Baylah—it had been nearly a year, and she had given birth to another girl. We had named her after her mother, Yocheved, and my late sister, Rivka. My daughter would be walking and talking by the time I saw her, if ever. And what about my other three children? I needed another job, quickly.
I never thought I would ever become a shammes, the sexton-caretaker of a shul, but I was desperate. This shul, the Bais Medrash HaMefursom, is the largest in the neighborhood—and we have no lack of shuls. Others were founded by members of the same chevra-society: the Young Men of Poinevitch, or Nashelsk, or Podolska. Only in my shul do people from all over the Old Country gather, and our rabbi is the great and learned Rabbi Jacob Joseph himself, Chief Rabbi of New York City. I have been to one of his Talmud lectures, and he is both gentle and wise.
Shmuel Asher, the temple president, interviewed me himself. He is a rich jeweler, and is the first Jew I have met who wears a gold watch and fob, even during the week. When I answered the ad in Der Forvertz, our newspaper, he said no words of welcome, but looked me up and down. My only suit was shiny and torn, even though I had brushed it carefully and tried to remove some of the more obvious stains. My only pair of shoes were down-at-heel, and scuffed; I had brought them from Europe.
Reb Shmuel sniffed as he looked me up and down.
“You can read?” he asked. His diamond pinky ring sparkled in the yellow light filtering through the tall stained-glass windows. My stomach growled: one small cup of black coffee did not go far towards stifling my hunger, and my head felt dizzy in the Bais Medrash, the chapel. It smelled like body odor, old books, cigarettes, and snuff.
“Yes, Reb Shmuel,” I answered, “in Yiddish and Hebrew, and I am learning English at night at P.S. 110.”
“Hm—now, you know what you will have to do—” said Mr. Asher (I was never to call him Reb Shmuel, as he hastened to tell me), and he described my picking up prayerbooks after a service, counting and recording the pennies in the pushka-charity box, cleaning up candlewax, and so forth. “When you put out the Shabbos afternoon shala-sheedis, the snack between mincha and ma’ariv, the afternoon and evening services, you can join in the meal—that will be enough challah bread and arbess (chickpeas) to hold you through the evening, I’ll wager—consider that your Shabbos bonus—a free meal!”
Slim pickings for me, I thought, but smiled and nodded at the temple president. I needed this job. As he rose to leave, so did I.
“Oh, and one more thing—” Reb Shmuel said, “this Shabbos is the ‘Blessings and Curses’ portion, in Kee Tavo. You will, of course, as the shammess, come up to receive the curses.”
“Must I—?” I hesitated. This was definitely a kinnehora, an evil eye, and I did not want any catastrophe to befall my young family, far away in Europe, where I could not help or protect them.
“Of course,” said Reb Shmuel, brusquely, “Who else should take the curses portion, me? Ha! Good day.” And my interview was over.
Now I am uncertain how to proceed. Yes, I do need this job, but not necessarily if it involves voluntarily having curses rained down upon my innocent head by the Torah reader. I am greatly nervous about how this list of curses may affect my family, and have been reading Tehillim, Psalms, all this Friday afternoon to fend off any evil demons or occurrences, God forbid a thousand times.
But I am still nervous, and Shabbos is fast approaching. Should I keep this job, or quit immediately?
What shall I do?