For The Sin Committed Running To Do Evil;
From the Confession Prayer on the Day of Atonement

    

     After three years apprenticeship filled with hardship and struggle, my 16 year-old brother finally became a qualified baker. Soon after, he found a job in a small bakery in Rzeszow, a big commercial city in our region, 30 kilometers from our birthplace Strzyzow.

     During my childhood I was smitten with a wanderlust nerve by which I was constantly bugged. In fact, I grew into adulthood with the wanderlust bug that is still in me to this day. I always dreamed about going places and exploring new horizons.

     The first time that I began materializing my wanderlust was when I was eight-years-old. I decided to visit my brother in the big city.

     It happened on one summertime day during the longest days of the year. It was a warm Sabbath afternoon when the entire shtetl was having their afternoon nap, including my father. My wanderlust bug overtook my logical thinking. On that afternoon I decided that it would be a good time to travel to the big city and visit my brother.

     While writing this story I reminisced my youthful sins. I began my adventure by helping myself to my father's wallet when he was deeply immersed in his dreams. I knew where he put his wallet away for the Sabbath. Taking the money out from my father's wallet was my first transgression after which many more followed. I wondered, why didn't the money burn my fingers? It is well known that according to the Jewish laws, touching money on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden. A surprising atheistic thought for an eight-year-old, wouldn't you say? The next transgression was traveling by train to see my brother.

     The train to the big city passed our shtetl thrice daily. In the morning, midday, and in the evening. In summertime, the evening train passed our city before the end of the Sabbath.

     In the days when this episode occurred, everyone, especially in a little place like ours, strictly observed the Sabbath. One could seldom find a Jewish soul riding a train on the Sabbath and holidays unless for a medical emergency.

     Nonchalantly I went to the train station, bought a ticket and boarded the train to Rzeszow. I was thinking that by the time the train arrived in the big city the Sabbath would be over.

     My cousin Hersh was a skinny little boy, and taller than I was. We were the same age. He was my trusted confidant and only he knew about my train trip. I made him promise that he would not tell my father about my devilish plan. He was with me at the station when I boarded the train, looking at me with envious eyes. Needless to say, my adventure was poorly planned and foolish indeed.

     On the train, the conductor mocked me with anti-Semitic remarks, which did not bother me because we were used to living in a mocking atmosphere. After a while the conductor realized that I was traveling solo. He began asking where I was going and with whom. I lied and told him that my brother would be waiting for me in Rzeszow at the station.

     When I arrived in Rzeszow I was stunned. It was the first time in my life that I had seen such a huge station with so many passengers and trains coming and going. The platforms were brightly lit with electrical lights which was also a first for me. We did not have electricity in our town. When I stepped off the train and went into the waiting room, I suddenly realized that I did not have my brother's address. All what I remembered was the name of my brother's employer, Mr. Shteinmetz. There were many bakeries in that city, and many people with the same name.

     I felt lost. What does a little boy do when he is lost? He cries. So did I.

     Luckily, there were a few Jewish young men at the station and one young man saw me standing in a corner crying. I wore the round, velvet hasidic cap with curled ear-locks on both sides of my face. They came over to ask me why I was crying. Instead of responding I broke out in such a crying spasm that I couldn't talk. They told me to relax and to stop crying.

     Sobbingly I told that I was looking for my brother who works in a bakery, and the employer's name is Shteinmetz. The young men looked at each other and no one seemed to know any baker by that name. I found out later that it was a very small, unknown bakery located in a basement. The young men discussed among themselves what to do with the little boy. They were determined not to me leave in the station. Subsequently, one young man recalled that not far from the station was a little candy store, and the owner's name was Shteinmetz.

     With the thought that one Shteinmetz might know another Shteinmetz, a baker, they decided to take me there. After I was taken to the candy store they told the storeowner my tragic story. The owner's wife, a red-faced heavy set woman, began to interrogate me asking where I came from, and what was my father's name. Hearing that my father's name was Yankel Langsam, she began screaming:

     Oy vey! I know your father, and I knew your stepmother, may she rest in peace. She lived in the same building before she married your father.

     Obviously, knowing my father, she knew where my brother was working. The woman immediately summoned her teenage daughter and told her to take me to my brother. The girl took my hand and off we went to see my brother. In my childish mind, the girl seemed to be a beauty, and her hand was so warm that it gave me a pleasant feeling, that lingers in my mind to this day.

     On the way to the bakery, my eyes were popping out, not knowing where to look first. I was overwhelmed with the sights of the big city, especially the showcases and window displays. I was sure that this was the biggest city in the world, though there were only fifty thousand people living in that city.

     When we arrived in the bakery, my brother was standing bent over a big vat filled with dough. His face was powdered with flour, and so were his clothes. When he saw me enter the basement, he met me with a smile and approached me to kiss my cheeks without being able to shake my hand because they were plastered with dough. He soon realized that I came alone except for the girl that brought me to him. He glanced at the clock on the wall and immediately realized that I left Strzyzow before the end of the Sabbath.

     "Does father know where you are?" With my eyes down to the floor I shamefacedly answered, "No."

     Even though he loved me very much, he became angry and said: "Is this another one of your shticks? Don't you think that it is time for you to grow up and stop causing aggravation to our father? Don't you realize how hard it is for him to take care of you?" From his questions it occurred to me that my father had complained that he could not control my behavior, having to bring me up without a mother. My father was never home, he was peddling in the villages to eke out a living.

     Then my brother continued his reproach. "Do you at least realize what Father is going through right now, not knowing your whereabouts?"

     I solemnly swear that after he ended his painful questioning, I was so ashamed that I wished that the earth would open and swallow me forever. I honestly regretted my thoughtless adventure, but it was too late. What is done is done.

     And, if my brother's scolding was not enough, there was this lady, the baker's wife who was standing nearby, she was rubbing it in by telling me:

     "Do you know the punishment for desecrating the Sabbath? Was this a proper behavior of a nice little Jewish boy who wears a hasidic cap and curly ear-locks? I had no answer to her questions. I stood there and said nothing. In addition, I was hungry and sleepy. Consequently, my brother had to wash up, get dressed and take me to his place where he was living. He fed me and put me to bed. Instead of bidding me goodnight he said:

     "If you would have written me a note, letting me know that you want to come to see me, I would have gladly sent you the money for a ticket." How did he know that I took my father's money without permission, I wondered? "Then you could have spent a few days and seen the city lights at night, and the showcases during daytime. But…" he said angrily: "Since you acted so irresponsibly, I am sending you home tomorrow morning."

     Next thing I knew, he woke me up at daybreak, took me to the train station and handed me over to a friend of his, Samuel Schreiber. Mr. Schreiber was returning home after spending the Sabbath with his favorite Rabbi. My brother told him about me and asked him to watch me on the train and hand me over to my father who would surely be waiting for the train's arrival.

     Back at home in Strzyzow, on that unfortunate Sabbath afternoon, my father had wakened up from his nap, went to the synagogue as usual, and did not suspect anything. He expected to find me there with the other kids, and after the service to take me home for the customary Sabbath third meal. When he did not see me at the services he began asking the boys if anybody saw me. No one seemed to know anything. My father began to worry. He searched in all my favorite places but there was no sign of me.

     The day was coming to an end, and the darkness moved in after the sun disappeared behind the horizon. He went to Aunt Tova to interrogate my cousin Hersh. My father knew that he was my confidant and a silent partner to all my mischievous deeds. Even though Hersh was sworn to secrecy, when my father threatened him with a spanking he broke down and told my father that I had left by train to see my brother in Rzeszow. My father regretted that he had not thought to ask Hersh about my whereabouts sooner.

     Hersh was a much better behaved child than I was. He studied better in cheyder and was more obedient to his widowed mother. The truth was-I was a bad influence on him.

     Hersh told my father that he was at the station and saw me board the train. My father, hearing the story, felt the sky fell upon his head. Most dreadful thoughts came to his mind. He was thinking: "An eight-year-old child, at night in a big city, God knows what could happen to him."

     This feeling that my father experienced I understood only when I became a father myself. This episode took place in 1929, when inter-city communication barely existed during daytime. The few private telephone subscribers were connected to the local post office that closed at six o'clock

     My father spent a sleepless night, and in the early morning he went to the train station to meet the train from Rzeszow. The trains going to and from Rzeszow met in Strzyzow. My father waited to see if the morning train would bring me back; if not he was ready to board the train to Rzeszow.

     In the meantime, the hero of the story sat in train, pale faced with sleepy eyes looking out the window, which I loved to do whenever I traveled by train. I always admired the beautiful countryside, the green meadows, the rivers and brooks. The plowed fields intermingled with green stripes of growing agricultural products. They looked like chessboards. In Poland the land was divided into little parcels among the poor peasants who hardly eked out a living. The big landowners were much more prosperous.

     This time however, my thoughts were somewhere else; they were in Strzyzow, where I would soon meet the scourge of my father who would probably be waiting for me with the belt in his hand. I knew that this time I would not escape scot-free without punishment for committing several cardinal sins. I had desecrated the Sabbath; I had taken money from his valet and had caused him so much aggravation. My chaperon, Mr. Schreiber, a devoted Hasid noticed my sad face filled with fear and agony.

     "Don't be afraid," Mr. Schreiber said. "Fathers are merciful and forgiving. As soon as the train reaches the station and you see your father, approach him tenderly, grab his hand and plant a hot kiss. Such action will soften his heart."

     As soon as the train reached the station and we disembarked I followed Mr. Schreiber's advice and kissed my father's hands. He stood there in silence. He couldn't talk. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I was convinced that since I'd seen him yesterday a few gray hairs were added to his beard. To this day I've never forgiven myself for causing the addition of the gray hairs. He sighed deeply; he lifted his eyes heavenward, expressing thanks to God for returning me safely. My chaperon conveyed my brother's message in a whisper, which probably was a plea to go easy with me.

     "Let's go home," my father said. "Yesterday's supper is still waiting for you."

     When we got home, the table was still covered with the Sabbath tablecloth, the candlesticks were still on the table, and his prayer shawl was unfolded. Things that he used to do on Saturday nights. The bed showed no sign of being slept in it. After breakfast, my father said to me: "This time I will not punish you for your despicable behavior, but beware. If you do something again, your punishment will double. Then I will repay you for your trip to Rzeszow."

     What can I say? It did not take too long to commit another transgression that sparked my father's ire: My father of blessed memory had inherited a fine leather bound set of the Bible that he forbade me to touch. Well, I did not heed his command and took one book with me to school to show to my friends. It didn't take long and a page was torn in the book. Then my father kept his promise and paid off what he owed me. I received a spanking for the torn page and for my trip to see my brother.

     It was a punishment that I remembered for a long time. However, deep inside I knew that he loved me, but was forced to do it. I could see in his face that he regretted causing me pain.

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