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The Goat of Berditchev (or Every Jew Must Have a Goat)

Walking under the tall black pines of the two-acre parcel he’d carved out for himself in what would soon become suburban America, the Berditchever got it into his head that what his young, newly-settled family needed was a milking goat, one little goat he could purchase for two twenties.

It would be just the thing, the Berditchever told himself, as it is said somewhere, Every Jew must have a goat.* And it would give him great pleasure to see his wife and young daughters working outside, squatting beside the goat, coaxing milk from it, then heaving the overflowing pitcher onto their shoulders and walking with it carefully, so as not to spill the bounty, toward home. How beautiful his young daughters would appear engaged in outdoor tasks. And they would come to treasure the goat, name her, feed her, tease her, scratch her ear. The Berditchever paused to muse over goat names. In a Yiddish-speaking household, he thought, a Yiddish name would suit. Yentl or Zlota or Khoze, perhaps Sheine. It would be best to let the children decide. If to name a thing is to know it, the Creator’s experience, then naming the goat would give the children the necessary feeling of ownership and they would feel responsible for the goat. The Berditchever continued walking and thinking, now with his hands behind his back, as became a man of his kind, a scholar, and as the idea of the little goat expanded in his head, the long slow strides toward which he tended came shorter and faster, in other words, he was impatient to get started. The goat would require a goat’s pen; it was common knowledge on every farm that to prevent mischief, a little goat requires a fence.

To keep the expense of the goat within the budget of two twenties, which is to say, to counter the argument that there were better ways to spend money which the Berditchever rebbetzin was sure to make since as a woman she couldn’t be expected to take the long view of life, that is to have vision, the Berditchever recruited the youngest of his children to gather wood for posts. He showed them the approximate thickness and length that would be needed for a sturdy fence and sent them to look for the material in the scraps left for waste at nearby construction sites. The task, the Berditchever told himself, would serve as a useful lesson in making do.

After walking the circumference of his property several times, the Berditchever determined that the paddock would be best set in the side yard, so that the kitchen door would open directly onto it and the rebbetzin and her daughters wouldn’t have to go far to milk the little goat, a prudent thought for these North American winters which tended toward the intemperate all year round. It was an autumn morning, the sun shone bright and the air was crisp, ideal weather for outdoor work. The Berditchever set about digging holes for the posts the children were gathering. Working in the sun, he quickly grew warm and he paused to remove his hat and caftan, which cooled him but also complicated the task at hand. Without his hat, the yarmulke on his head didn’t stay put, and the four-cornered tasseled garment that every chasid wore got in his way. These garments, the Berditchever mused with a smile, were clearly intended for life in the tent rather than the fields. He tossed the front of his four-cornered garment over his right shoulder, scarf-like, moved his yarmulke forward onto his forehead, where it was more likely to stay put, and continued working, inhaling and exhaling as he pounded, one long and hard strike followed by a shorter staccato one, as the gypsies on his father’s farm had taught him. The back of his white shirt was soon damp, he could smell his own sweat, this was good, this was nature, this was man at his best in nature, which is what the holy Ba’al Shem Tov understood and recommended, that is, to work, study, if possible, sleep outdoors alongside the trees and growing grass. To hear and smell the grass grow. Life in the outdoors was what the Berditchever remembered most fondly from his childhood in Romania, where his father kept sheep, his mother tended the chickens, and he, the eldest son, was expected to work alongside the hired hands. He remembered a particularly lonely week in the hills, when he was charged with tending the sheep for days on end, and he would see another human, his father usually, only once a day for an hour, when he arrived with a sack of bread and cheese and sat on the ground to review with his son the Talmudic passage he’d committed to memory. Though he was merely a boy of twelve, he was expected to keep up with his fellow classmates even when he wasn’t attending classes. The loneliness of this life, a solitude his children would never know since God had provided them with the blessing of always a sibling at hand, had given him strength.

The Berditchever straightened his back, breathed in and out, and looked out into the yard. Soon, very soon, give any goat worthy of its name a week, the yard would reek of goat. He inhaled the earthiness of newly-turned dirt and smiled in anticipation of the familiar barnyard smells, pungent cow manure freshly distributed in the fields to replenish the dark dirt with the nutrients that had come of it in the first place. From dust to dust, the natural world of which man is part and parcel being a cyclical thing.

At lunch, when the children came in with excessive appetites, their hair and hands dirty with leaves and debris, their mother demanded to know what was afoot. In answer, all together in chorus, the children began to sing about a goat, one little goat, that father would buy for two twenties. **

At this, the Berditchever rebbetzin muttered, she pinched one child, prodded the other to eat his spinach. Just what I need, a goat to tend, in addition to the eight mouths I’m already feeding. The man is a born fool, a shlimazel from the shtetl, who despite a goat-ridden, cow-infested boyhood, most amazingly continues to walk about with goat on the brain. You expect such ideas from a greenhorn newly sprung, not from a man who has already poxed and measled, a man who has brought into this flawed world six children, and not with ease, but with the complete Adam-and-Eve catalog of aches and pains. You would never know it, though, you wouldn’t believe that this man is father of six hungry mouths. Or that what he thinks we need is a goat. That simpleton, that stupifyingly, slow-motion mind, signature of the male race. I’ll show him a goat.

Outside, immersed in his task, the Berditchever was only beginning to hear and feel his stomach grumble. Physical labor, he told himself, gives a wonderful appetite, another mark of its virtue. Fifteen minutes later, when he stepped into the kitchen with a spring in his step, his brown face reddened by exertion and sun, and in his nose and mouth the distinct smell of his own sweat, in other words, he was quite pleased with himself, his rebbetzin’s greeting — an angry scowl and a wet washcloth tossed at his head — didn’t alert him immediately that something was amiss. He caught the wet cloth before it slapped to the floor and wiped his damp brow, as if it was for this that it had been intended. This further infuriated his rebbetzin. At the table, the youngest child looked up, afraid for him, but the Berditchever interpreted the child’s look as gratitude, placed his warm hand on its head, felt the twigs and leaves in its hair, and launched into his characteristic mode of smiling what-if talk, of what excellent, hard-working farmer’s offspring these children would have made if only they’d grown up as he had, in bucolic Timisoara with its dirt roads and donkeys, fragrant, lively Timisoara with its gypsies and ukeleles. He talked, oblivious that it was precisely this nonsensical nostalgia that drove his rebbetzin out of her rational mind, though he had been married to her for fourteen years

Fragrant Timisoara, she muttered, then shrieked. All that bucolic fragrance and dirt came with bucolic Jew baiters and Jew haters, with ignorant, anti-Semitic peasants, Romania’s special breed of idiot. And significantly its very own Stalin, also known as Ceaucescu.

The pitch of the rebbetzin’s voice startled the Berditchever out of his reverie. Shhha, shtil, he said. Calm yourself. What is it? What misfortune has occurred here?

You, his rebbetzin shouted. It is you who are my misfortune, you with your insane nostalgias for Romanian goats. Tell me, what do you think you’re doing out there? Who do you think will tend and milk the goat? Not I, and not my daughters. I wasn’t raised in a barnyard and I’m not about to raise my children in one. I warn you. You put one more post in the ground, and I and my daughters are on the next flight to Jerusalem.

The Berditchever threw up his hands. But what do you have against a goat, one little goat? What do you have against a barnyard? You admit you’ve never lived in one, how could you know you won’t like it? It would be good for the children, goat’s milk is healthier than cow’s milk. And summers a goat would keep the grass down. God willing, only great beneficence can come of a goat, as the townsmen of Kozodoievka once wrote:

We the undersigned, take oath and swear that with our own eyes we saw that the goat gave milk, may God grant that all Jewish goats should give so much! *

At the table, the two youngest could no longer sit still. They slipped off their chairs, stepped into the next room, formed a ring and chanted, One little goat, father will buy one little goat for two twenties. **

Hearing this the rebbetzin lost control. Months away from the Passover Seder, she seethed, there’s a re-enactment of the Passover story in my cracked home, and the children, the offspring of a father who must have been dropped on his head when he was an infant, act out his cracked ideas and sing and dance of a goat. She stepped into the hallway, slapped each child across the mouth, and the singing ceased. After which she stepped into her room and slammed the door shut behind her, and what had started as a promising, sunny warm morning, ended with the Berditchever’s wife, the mother of his children, behind slammed doors.

The Berditchever stood looking from one to the other of his children, his eldest daughter’s eyes were as always accusing, in his son’s face there was scorn. Even his third child, usually sympathetic to his ideas, frowned. He smiled at them and, with a warning that they be good children and keep very quiet so that their mother could get some rest, retired to his study.

In the kitchen, while the girls cleared the table, swept the floor, and washed up, a whispered trial ensued.

It’s true he’s cracked to think that mother would want to milk a goat, the eldest son remarked.

You’d think he’d know better, his sister agreed. I could have told him in advance what mother would say about a goat. You’d think he does these things merely to enrage her.

In truth, he has the right, the second son, who stood leaning against the refrigerator with his arms folded across his chest, said. If the man of the house wants a goat he should have a goat. Women aren’t made to rule.

Fool, his sister whispered. In this household woman rules. Father will never have a goat, not so long as Mother is alive.

Then she’s an obstacle and what the Torah says about obstacles is that they are Satan’s work and must be overcome, even if they arrive in the shape of a wife. Father will have to overcome mother.

Or else? His sister demanded.

If she overcomes him, then he will remain an unfulfilled man. He will die young and dissatisfied, having failed his task, the task of every chasid, to gather the shards and repair the vessel.

The fifth child removed her thumb from her mouth and interjected, Mother will keep on breaking the vessel anyway. She’ll smash it and create a hundred more cracks.

You’re right but in the end the number of cracks don’t matter, her brother said. What counts is that father continue to attempt repair. If enough Jews try, they’ll win out over all the conniving Eves and evil snakes.

You’re calling our mother conniving? His sister asked.

The second daughter said, How terrible could it possibly be to live without a goat seeing that no other father I know of has a goat?

You can’t know what will happen, the third son, only seven years old, pointed out. As the story goes:

The youth rolled up the note and placed it in the goat’s ear. He said to himself: when she arrives at Father’s house, father will pat her on the head and she will flick her ears. The note will fall out. Father will pick it up and read what is written on it….But when the goat returned to the old man, she did not flick her ears, and the note did not fall. ***

Here’s what will happen, the eldest son said: When mother gets to the gates of heaven, the angel will ask:

Angel: How did you aid your husband in his task?

Mother: We raised a family of six children, who are now raising their own families of children, who will give birth to another set of children.

Angel: How did you subvert your husband?

Mother: I said no to a goat.

Angel: Why not a goat?

Mother: We were living in America, where a Jew doesn’t require a goat.

Angel: Do you not know that as a rabbi needs a son, and as a son needs a rabbi, a Jew who wants a goat needs a goat?

Mother: In America, I tell you, even a Jew doesn’t need a goat.

Just then one of the younger children glanced out of the kitchen window and said, Look. The children interrupted the trial and looked. Outside their father was working again, though not at’s pen. He had begun to take apart the little shack that stood at the far end of the property and he was making piles of the various parts. Already, leaning against one of the pines, was a stack of doors, windows, and also beams, the heavy ones used to hold up a house. On their father’s face, the children saw a smile. When the two youngest were sent to inquire about what he was doing now, he placed a large sweaty palm on each of their little heads, which they hated and squirmed under, and explained:

Where this little useless shack now stands, soon, very soon, there will be a Berditchever yeshiva, God willing, an overcrowded structure bursting at the seams with students, scholars, and with the music of Torah emerging twenty-four hours a day.

But what will Mother say? the children asked.

Your mother, the Berditchever answered, will say what she will say but she will surely be pleased to hear the sound of Torah all day. She was right to say no to a goat because the Berditchever yeshiva will be what follows. As the great Talmudist R. Joshua bar Chanania understood: When a man attempts to hit a small nail into a wall and fails, his next nail is sure to be a finer, stronger, longer nail.

* * *|

Pearl Abraham is the author, most recently, of “The Seventh Beggar.”

* Sholom Aleichem, The Haunted Tailor

** Had Gadya, from the Passover Haggada

S.Y. Agnon, A Tale of a Goat


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