Imagine, every single one of them up to Mr. Big himself takes bribes. Don’t be shocked now – he accepts them too, if he gets an offer. What’s that? You don’t believe me? You’re all laughing, eh? Well, have fun…. Ready now? Now gather ’round me, brother Jews, and listen to a story that happened to my grandfather, may he rest in peace, during the good old days when Czar Nich was boss. Why’re you nudging me? What’re you scared of? You think these peasants sitting here know what we’re jabbering about? They won’t understand a word, blast them. I won’t be obvious and, where necessary, I’ll throw in some Hebrew. Just pay close attention and don’t interrupt me.
This happened during the reign of our present Mr. Big’s grandfather, after whom he’s named. Our fathers and grandfathers couldn’t forget that old Mr. Big for all the fine and dandy things he let loose against us. In short, their whole life hung on a thread. We existed just by the grace of little Mr. Big, or Buttons, as we called him, who ruled every shtetl. This Buttons liked to have his palms greased, and loved gefilte fish and whiskey. So long as this went on, the Jews breathed free and easy.
Then our Buttons kicked the bucket and was followed by a new Buttons, a Haman, a rat. He just couldn’t be greased! Not even with big money. He wouldn’t go for gefilte fish. He didn’t drink. He was as clean as a whistle! He gave summonses and fines. Didn’t let Jews do business or let Jewish teachers teach. If he saw a young woman, he’d rip off her marriage wig; a young man, he’d snip off an earlock.
“That’s what Mr. Big does, too,” he used to say. This made the Jews seethe with anger. After pondering how to get rid of such a Haman, the devil take him, they went to my grandfather. “Reb Anshel, save the town! Tell us what to do.”
My grandfather listened and said he would go and see his rebbe. “We’ll do whatever he suggests.” Grandfather Anshel then got into his carriage one hot summer day and told the rebbe the whole story. “It’s horrible. We have a man whose hands are clean.”
A minute later, the rebbe called out: “May you be inscribed for a year of health.” This astounded my grandfather. It was summer and Rosh Hashanah was a long way off.
“Listen, Anshel. Tell your shtetl I’ve wished them a good year. When the big fair comes, buy a pair of horses. The best money can buy. Full-blooded roans, completely spotless. Then hitch them to a fine carriage and drive them to that city where Mr. Big makes his home. It starts with the letter P. Drive around the palace, like a lord who’s out for a pleasure ride. If anyone asks you to buy them, say you’re not a horse-dealer…. Now, Anshel,” the rebbe concluded, “go home and may God grant you success.”
When the big fair came, my grandfather bought a pair of spotless full-blooded roans from a gypsy, who asked for a fortune. But this was a matter of life and death. The town had to be saved. The Jews had pawned everything they had. My grandfather bought the horses, hitched them to a carriage and left immediately. He and the horses arrived in P about a month before Rosh Hashanah.
To make a long story short, as he drove around the palace one day, he saw the Buttons approaching. He stopped my grandfather and inspected the horses from all angles, like one who understood horseflesh.
“Listen here, you, how much do you want for these horses?”
Exactly what the rebbe said would happen. Reb Anshel’s heart leaped a bit, and he answered as he was commanded, “I’m not a horse-dealer.”
The Buttons looked angrily at him. “How do you come to such fine horses?”
This time, grandfather was quiet. He didn’t know what to say, because the rebbe hadn’t mentioned a question of that sort.
Infuriated now, the Buttons said, “Perhaps you’ve stolen them, huh?”
At this, grandfather’s heart sank; he couldn’t say a word. Finally, God inspired him with: “Sir! These horses are mine. I bought them from a gypsy at a fair. I have witnesses. A whole town full of Jews.”
“So you have witnesses, huh?” the Buttons said. “I know your sort of witnesses…. You know, the Czar likes your horses.”
“What’s the drawback?” said grandfather. “If he likes the horses, then my horses can be his horses.”
Don’t ask how Reb Anshel hit upon an idea like that. If it’s fated, God gives you bright ideas. Well, they took the horses’ reins, and led them right into the courtyard and showed them to Mr. Big himself. As soon as he saw the horses, he couldn’t leave them. Some sort of mystic power was in those animals. He fell in love with them at first sight and showed them off to his entire court.
Meanwhile, Grandfather Anshel was watching silently. He recognized Mr. Big immediately from his pictures. But it didn’t faze him at all. He was just a man, like the rest of them. Then Mr. Big approached grandfather. And, as soon as he looked at grandfather, a chill ran through his bones. And, when he spoke with his lion’s voice, grandfather’s heart froze.
“How much do you want for those horses?” Mr. Big asked Anshel.
Grandfather could hardly speak. His mouth was dry, and he felt his voice shaking: “I don’t sell horses. But if His Majesty has taken a liking to the horses, let the horses be led into His Majesty’s stables. That’s where they belong.”
When Mr. Big moved closer to Reb Anshel and continued talking to him, my grandfather practically turned into a heap of bones.
“Listen here. Perhaps you want some special favor. If you do, tell me right now with no bluffs, tricks, flim-flam, or long-winded Jewish commentary. For if you do, it’ll cost you dearly.”
Well, my dear friends, what went through Grandfather Anshel’s mind at that time? But, since Reb Anshel was a brave man, he plucked up his courage and told Mr. Big:
“Your Majesty! King! I swear I’m not the sort who likes to bluff or trick anyone. I don’t ask a thing of His Majesty. But I would consider it an honor if I could be worthy of having my horses in His Majesty’s stables and if His Majesty would ride them.”
Naturally, Mr. Big was moved by these words. Now, he spoke softly. His manner changed. He was a new man. Then the Czar left the courtyard and headed for the palace – with grandfather Anshel trailing behind him. It didn’t faze him a bit, but his knees shook and his heart ticked like a grandfather clock. Can you imagine – being in the Czar’s palace! Wherever you looked, only silver and gold.
Then Mr. Big sat down and asked grandfather to have a seat too. He offered grandfather a cigar. In the meantime, she came in – the Czarina herself, draped in satin and silk and covered with diamonds. She was as beautiful as the Queen of Sheba. Seeing a Jew in the king’s company, comfortable and smoking a cigar, she naturally became very angry and looked very sternly at him, as if to say: What’s this Jew doing here?
But, by now, Grandfather Anshel had become high and mighty. He continued smoking and didn’t even glance at her. But she kept looking daggers his way, which Mr. Big ignored.
“Dushinka, how about some tea?” he told the Czarina cheerfully.
She remained silent.
The Czar repeated: “Dushinka. Tea!”
Again, she remained silent.
Now the Czar didn’t delay, but stamped his foot and roared at the top of his voice: “Dushinka! Tea!”
The window panes shook. It was nothing to sneeze at. Treason, you know…. In a flash, a boiling samovar and boiled eggs were ordered, for the Czar knew that a pious Jew would not touch anything but boiled eggs. The Czar asked him to eat and drink and make himself at home. By and by, he asked grandfather in friendly fashion how he earned his living, and how the Jews of his region were doing. At this, Grandfather thought: Now’s the time to bring up the subject. Well, he told Mr. Big everything – and Reb Anshel had just the tongue for it.
“Here’s the whole story, Your Majesty. Your Jews have no complaints. But if His Majesty is in a good mood, I shall tell you the whole truth. The Jews live by grace of the Buttons. If he’s just a regular Buttons, it’s fine and dandy. But if, God forbid, he isn’t, then there’s trouble. Not long ago, a new Buttons came into our shtetl – clean as a whistle! And because of that, we’re at the end of our rope! There’s no one like him in Your Majesty’s entire realm. That a Buttons be incorruptible is something unheard of. It’s the 11th plague!”
Mr. Big looked at him and said: “I haven’t got the faintest notion what you’re talking about. What do you mean by ‘clean as a whistle?’ And what do you mean by a ‘Buttons’?”
“Because, just as Jews know they must pray every morning, they also know that an official must take and a Jew must give. Like in our holy books. We always kept giving – for sacrifices, for the Temple, here, there.”
“By clean as a whistle,” Grandfather said, “I mean a man whose palms won’t be greased. By Buttons, I mean a little Mr. Big whom you appoint to watch over every little town. Well, Buttons watches those towns and in a few years becomes very rich. Who from? The Jews, of course. They’ve gotten used to it. Because, just as Jews know they must pray every morning, they also know that an official must take and a Jew must give. Like in our holy books. We always kept giving – for sacrifices, for the Temple, here, there. You’ve been so kind to your servant until now, so please hear him out.
“I want you to know, Your Majesty, that your whole kingdom, from east to west, from north to south, is filled with takers. The only ones whose palms you can’t grease are cripples who have no hands. And even someone with no hands will tell you to slap it down on the table. There’s nothing wrong with that either. You have to live and let live. The Bible tells us to get along with our neighbor. So our commentator, Rashi, says – but if his dog barks, muzzle him.”
Why are you men looking at me? Strange, right, that a Jew should talk this way to a king? Well, take it or leave it. I wasn’t there – that any child will understand. But this is the story that my father – may he rest in peace, heard from his father. And I assure you that neither my father nor my grandfather Anshel were liars.
After that, my grandfather said goodbye to the Czar and went straight to the rebbe, reporting back on his trip.
Now listen to this. On Rosh Hashanah night, when the Jews were leaving the synagogues and wishing each other gut yontef, a year of peace and good health – a rumor flashed through town that our Buttons, our Haman, may he shrivel up, had been fired, and in his place the authorities up-on-high had sent a new little Mr. Big, a man clever and wise, good and kind – in short, a jewel of a gentile, a regular Buttons. He took. He was a taker! But he had one flaw. He had a mighty dry palm. It had to be greased good and heavy.
But the upshot was that the Jews had a happy Rosh Hashanah and an even happier Sukkot. Don’t even ask about Simchas Torah! Even the new Buttons himself had a few drops and danced with the Jews. Be well and have a happy new year.
Curt Leviant is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels. His latest book is Zix Zexy Ztories.