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  Chapter 24 from
Tales For The Soul
A famous novelist retells classic stories with passion and spirit

By Yair Weinstock 


Other Available Chapters
6 


To Find An Honest Man

NO ONE COULD BLAME FELIX STRASSER FOR BEING distant from his Jewish heritage; he was a prime example of a tinok shenishbah (literally a “captured child,” i.e. one who had no opportunity to learn of his Jewish tradition). His parents, simple, pious people, died in his infancy, and his uncle, his mother’s brother, who was very far from observance, took him in and raised him as one of his own family. When Felix grew up, his uncle married him off to a woman from a partly assimilated Jewish family.

Felix spent his childhood years in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, in a typical village on the Marmush Plain. His memories revolved around endless days of work in the chicken coops and long hours milking cows in the barn. In that setting, no one noticed that Felix was blessed with an unusual flair for commerce. Only after his marriage, when he moved to a big city and broke away from his rural past, was Felix revealed as a gifted merchant who knew all there was to know about buying and selling. With the passing of time, Felix became an important businessman and his concerns flourished. When he felt sufficiently prosperous he opened a large textile and clothing store in the capital city of Bucharest.

His efforts met with great success and Felix could have lived in peace and tranquility, as his store became a nice source of steady and respectable income. But the rule that our Sages have told us -- “If he has one hundred he wants two hundred” -- was an apt description of this businessman. Felix would not be satisfied. He began to get involved in the manufacture of liquors, and he ultimately opened a factory.

The marvelous success of the Jew Felix was like a thorn in the side of his gentile competitors. They tried to impede his progress with all sorts of stratagems. More than one accused him of avoiding taxes, of selling stolen merchandise, of being in cahoots with smugglers.

In vain. Felix kept his hands clean. The police came to search his store several times, always leaving shamefaced. His businesses, it seemed, were above board and absolutely lawful.

* * *

“So we’ll sit here, with our arms folded, and watch the Jew eat up all of our profits?” Steve shouted angrily. “Fritz, we’ve got to do something!”

Fritz Genishovski, the brains of the two partners in the firm Genishovski and Bolack Textiles, looked at his partner, Steve Bolack, in gloomy silence. It had been a long while since he had felt as terrible as he did right now. The Jew, Strasser, had managed to show them all up. His large textile store stood across from theirs on the city’s main street, and in the short time since its opening, their profits had been cut in half!

“But you see, everything that we’ve tried hasn’t succeeded. This Jew is as kosher as gefilte fish. Whichever way you check, he’s pure olive oil,” Fritz said in bitter scorn.

“It can’t be! You’re going to give in? You, Fritz, who created our business with your own two hands? Has your brain dried out?” Bolack returned angrily.

The two partners sat lost in thought. “I’ve got it!” Fritz finally shouted joyously. “Strasser’s a spy!”

“Have you gone crazy, Genishovski? Strasser, a spy?”

“Absolutely,” Fritz answered happily. “When the police find the incriminating documents that we’ll hide deep in the drawers of his home there won’t be a doubt about it. Felix Strasser will be imprisoned for the crime of spying for Russia!”

“And where are you getting those documents? And if you get them, how will you sneak them into Strasser’s house? Good heavens, Fritz, you’ve gone mad!”

Genishovski chuckled and opened his briefcase. “With these,” he said, waving a wad of bills in front of Bolack’s astonished face. “These thousands can buy us the Mafia. And then they will do our work for us!”

The criminal organization did, indeed, do the work, with the care and efficiency for which the underworld is famous, leaving the partners open mouthed with admiration. Many incriminating documents were planted in Strasser’s home. To complete the case, they set up a meeting with several so-called businessmen. Soon, all of Bucharest was agog! The merchant Strasser had been caught red handed, meeting with enemy agents!

Felix’s case was set for trial. With the payment of a huge sum for bail, he was set free until the day of judgment.

* * *

How Felix had heard of the Rebbe, R’ Yosef Meir of Spinka, author of the Imrei Yosef, was a puzzle. In any case, when a Jew is in trouble he somehow manages to find the right address.

When he arrived in the middle of the week and asked to be taken to the holy Rebbe, many wondered. What did this “goy” have to do with the Rebbe? Several people followed him to the door and listened to the conversation from outside.

“I’m facing a serious trial,” Strasser poured out his heart. “They’ve framed me; there isn’t a grain of truth to their accusations. But because the charge is spying, and there isn’t a country in the world that isn’t very sensitive about traitors, my clean past won’t help me a bit. They’ve hired false witnesses, who will testify in court that I planned to sell state secrets to Russia. That is an absolute lie!”

There was silence in the room; the Rebbe, R’ Yosef Meir, didn’t say a word.

“They’ve told me that the Rebbe is a miracle worker. Please, make a miracle for me, that my innocence should be proved,” Felix beseeched. He placed his hand into a bulging briefcase and brought out a large bill.

The Rebbe stopped him. “Do you keep Shabbos? In your house, your business?”

“How can I keep Shabbos?” Felix asked, surprised. His voice didn’t hold a trace of either apology or confusion. “Most of my business is transacted on Shabbos. The Rumanian worker doesn’t think about tomorrow; on Saturday he gets paid, on Saturday he goes to shop and spend his money. My stores and pubs are standing room only on Saturdays. To close on Shabbos would be the death knell for the business.”

The door to the Rebbe’s room burst open. Several of the chassidim who had been listening to the conversation in the hallway raced into the room ready to do battle with this insolent man. A Jew stands before the Rebbe telling of his Shabbos desecration without a pang of conscience, and actually has the temerity to ask for wonders and miracles! The chassidim waited for a sign from their Rebbe; one flick of the wrist and Felix would have been hurled out without another word. But the Rebbe sat quietly in his chair, looked at the man and asked, “And do you keep a kosher home?”

“Why should I lie to the Rebbe?” the man answered honestly. “My family is too busy to spend time looking for kosher meat. I buy what I need in the meat market and that’s it.”

“And tefillin? Do you put them on? Do you sometimes pray?” the Rebbe continued his interrogation.

“Who has the time and patience for that?” Felix answered, half innocently, half-defiantly.

The Rebbe sank into silence; everyone waited for him to speak.

“Let’s do business,” the Imrei Yosef finally said. “If you promise me that you will begin to pray, I promise you that you will be found innocent!”

“No, no, Rebbe,” the merchant protested. “I can’t promise that! How will I find the time to pray every day?”

A tense moment of expectant silence followed. The chassidim were certain that the Rebbe’s patience would finally run out, and that he would order the burly businessman out of the room. Had such a thing ever been heard before? The Rebbe was offering him salvation on a silver platter; all he had to do was accept it -- and yet he refused!

But the Rebbe didn’t lose his composure. He gave the businessman a pitying look and in a tender voice said, “Do you know what? I will give you a pair of tefillin. Just put them on every day for a little while, for just a moment. If you promise me that, I promise that you will be found innocent.”

Felix did the reckoning out loud, without a trace of embarrassment: “Just for a minute, once a day -- Nu, it can be done! Rebbe! I promise!”

It was done. And the glowing face of the Rebbe, as he handed the bag with tallis and tefillin in it to the businessman, showed the boundless joy that only a mitzvah could bring.

Felix left for his home in Bucharest. And no one heard from him or knew of his fate.

* * *

A year passed.

Among those visiting the holy Rebbe’s court was a Jew wearing a cap on his head, a pair of tzitzis over his shirt. He entered the Rebbe’s room and left after a long while. Witnesses who stood nearby said that they had heard how the man had sobbed and begged the Rebbe for a means of repentance for his sins.

When the man left the room he sat down weakly on a bench and took a small volume out of his pocket. It was difficult, very difficult to recognize in the sensitive features of this Jew, who was reciting Tehillim so fervently, the visitor from the year before.

One of the chassidim, a particularly observant and curious one, gave him first one glance, then another, then stared at him again and again. Finally, he could not restrain himself.

“Tell me, aren’t you the merchant from Bucharest?”

The man nodded his head in assent.

The chassidim gathered around, a flock of chirping birds, to give Felix Strasser their hands.

“But I’m not Felix Strasser,” the man said.

“Who are you, then?”

“I’m not Felix,” the Jew repeated. “I’m Fishel. That was my Jewish name. Now that I’ve returned to being a Jew, what do I need a gentile name for?”

“What happened at the trial?” the men asked impatiently.

“I was found not guilty. The defense managed to break through the wall of lies, and proved that the charges were groundless.” And Felix told them of the entire affair, from beginning to its surprising conclusion, when, against all odds, he had been found not guilty.

“But how did you change so much?” one of the chassidim, more daring than the rest, asked.

“I owe it all to my uncle,” Felix said. Everyone looked around in wonder; who was this uncle, and how did he fit into this remarkable story?

“My uncle who raised me did not learn Torah or observe the mitzvos. But he taught me something very important: Never lie! My uncle rarely hit me, but woe to me if I was caught in an untruth: What a whipping I would get! Because of this, I always kept my word.

“I had made a promise to the Rebbe, and so I began to put on tefillin every day. I would wear them for just a minute or two and then remove them. But after a while I began to think: It’s one thing for a man who doesn’t put on tefillin, but now that I put on tefillin, isn’t it appropriate that I say a few words of gratitude and praise to my Creator, Who performed a miracle for me and saved me from the gallows?

“From that day on, I began to pray a little and speak with my Creator, a short but fervent prayer each day.

“But if I thought that was all, I was wrong. Again, my thoughts began to bother me: If I’m already davening, why shouldn’t I do it as a proper Jew? And so I began to pray three times a day, with a minyan.

“Then I began to be filled with distress every Shabbos: Here I was, praying three times a day, but still desecrating the Shabbos? From that day on, my businesses were shut on Shabbos.

“But I still hadn’t reached the end. Again, I did a reckoning: How strange, to keep Shabbos but eat nonkosher foods!

 
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