Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Rabbi From Pinsk

Note: This is an adaptation of a classic tale that I wrote for a friend's son's bar mitzvah...it is one of my favorite tales. 

The Rabbi of Pinsk and the Wise Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk was a man of moderate wealth, so he had enough money to hire a servant to drive his horse and buggy to Pichniev. The servant was a very poor man, who dressed only in rags, his feet wrapped with burlap because he had traded his shoes for food during a moment of destitution. The servant was hungry, and the rabbi noticed that he had nothing to eat for the long journey. Most wagon drivers would sing or hum a tune to pass the time, but this wagon driver was quiet, a sad look on his face.

When they pulled over to give the old horse a rest, the rabbi shared his bread and jam with the servant. The servant began to weep. “Thank you for your kindness,” the servant said, “It has been so long since I have been treated with dignity.”

The rabbi thought for a moment and then said: “I have an idea!”

The rabbi took off his fine coat and hat and gave it to the servant. Then he took off his shoes and gave them to the servant. When the servant removed his rags, the rabbi donned the rags, even wrapping his feet. “Let’s switch places” said the rabbi.

The rabbi of Pinsk drove the wagon into Pichniev. When he got to Pichniev he announced that the great rabbi of Pinsk had arrived to provide counsel to the Jewish community.

The townspeople greeted the servant, who they all thought was the rabbi, with a feast. The servant had soup, fish, and even chicken, something he hadn’t eaten for years.  He even had a nice piece of rugelach.

Then the townspeople began to tell the servant about a very difficult dispute in the town. One man began to argue that he was right because of a particular Talmudic passage, the other man said that he was right because of a passage in another section of the Talmud – it was a bitter argument and it divided the entire town.

The servant stroked his chin and closed his eyes. Then he said:

“My friends, the questions that you ask, they have been asked before in other towns. You may think that they are complicated, but actually they are very easily understood. In fact, I believe that even a lowly wagon driver could answer these questions for you!”

At that point, the rabbi, disguised as the wagon driver, walked in and began to answer the questions of the townspeople. They liked the answers so much that they invited him to join in the feast. 

In the morning, the servant and the rabbi left Pichneiv and switched clothing. But now, the servant began to sing as he drove the wagon.


A Poem for Yom HaShoah

For Helen

The child of survivors spoke of the softness
Breaking forth from the bark,
Pushing its way from the cold comatose tree,
How it sprung,
green, then white,
climaxing in stunning pinks and purples.

As we carpooled to work she pointed
to the trees that lined the road,
“this is my floral escape tunnel,”
she said, as she put her foot on the gas.

Momma's Groove

I met Juan Miguel Avila in 1987 because he had a T- shirt that said “I learned how to play guitar in just five minutes!” We were college students looking for extra beer money so we started playing on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin for loose change. I’d sing about my love of various Wisconsin cheeses and he’d play flamenco style behind me and we’d rake in twenty bucks in quarters and dimes. We loved playing the streets and the occasional open mike night, but in 1990, we decided it was time to start a real band.

We teamed up with Chad Grochowski (bass) who had an attic we could practice in and a 4-track. We roped in Steve Wilks (guitar) and Dennis Golden (drums), began writing songs, and did the house party circuit under the name Mamma’s Groove.  Donovan Hart (sax) joined in for some of our shows. We played our own tunes, all of which were in the funk/rock genre and a few covers, like The Jeffersons TV show theme song, a Robert Johnson tune, and Hendrix’s “Fire.” Eventually we landed gigs at Club deWash, The Willy Bear, and other local bars. I guess that our height was in 1991 when we performed at the Mifflin Street Block Party.  Juan and I even did a dance routine.

We once sent a tape to a contest that was promoting safe sex. Our song “Put it On When You Get It On, Don’t Do a Thing Without a Thing on Your Thing” had the lyric: “If you’re with you lover getting ready to squirm, don’t forget to roll a rubber down your worm.” Real classy stuff.

I was taking a course in video production, so I did this mockumentary of sorts about Mamma’s Groove. (Let’s just say that I was a wee bit influenced by having seen Spinal Tap like fifty times.) This was back when you had these massive machines that could lift something from one VHS tape and layer it onto another one. All I remember is that it had something to do with magnets and it took hours just to get a few seconds spliced. Looking back, I am wondering why on God’s green earth I chose to perform wearing goggles and a long Hawaiian robe I borrowed from Chad's BMW motorcycle obsessed roommate called a “muumuu.” I am not proud of the costume choice…but hey, it was 1991. (Although I am not sure how saying it was 1991 explains anything.) In the movie you’ll see a brief cameo of the street musician Art Paul Schlosser, a Madison legend, singing “I See a Watch.” People around Madison say that he dropped too much acid in the 60s. He was on America’s Got Talent as a novelty act in 2010 as “Buddy Holly Cheesehead.”

I still have some of the tapes we made on Chad’s 4-track –working on digitizing them now. Getting ready for the 25th reunion I guess.  


Calling all Massachusetts Rabbis!

Hello, rabbis of the commonwealth. If you are one of the fine rabbis of the State of Massachusetts then I hope that you will join me next week in Newton! Here are the details. 


Drake is Jewish

The fact that Drake is Jewish is only part of the reason that he released what has now been dubbed a controversial "re-bar mitzvah" video. Or at least that is what I argue in my latest scribble for Huffington Post. The commentary was also featured in Vibe Magazine....that's right, ye olde reb blog is redefining hip hop!

Here's the video for those that missed it...


Deep Dish Jewish Learning

This week I was in Chicago (O.K. truth be told, Suburban Chicago) at the iCenter www.icenter.org to visit their "ideas incubator." This is a forum where educators from every sector - camp, day school, Federation, JCC sports, synagogue life - learn from one another and from outside folks who focus on a particular issue in education. Great idea and great execution - and their well-designed website is worth a visit.