Although everyone called him Chaim the locksmith, he was actually what we here in America call a plumber. He repaired water pipes, especially clogged toilet lines, a frequent problem in our street.
Chaim was a man of middling height, strong and broad-shouldered, with a face brown as bronze and a beard to match. His clothes seemed to be dusted with rust. Although he was still young, his face had the lines and wrinkles of a laboring man who does not spare himself. Summer and winter he wore a short jacket and high boots. He always carried pipes, hammers, files, pliers, and odd pieces of iron. Even his voice had a metallic twang. On Sabbath, Chaim the locksmith prayed in our apartment and ate the Third Sabbath Meal with us. Sometimes, while drinking a tumbler of brandy, he would shake my hand. His hand was hard as iron.
Aside from fixing toilets, Chaim was summoned wherever there was trouble: a fire, a collapsed ceiling, a stuck door, a broken oven. He was the only one who didn't mind getting smeared
with ashes and soot. He burdened himself with other onerous tasks as well. In addition to being part of the group that prayed in our apartment, Chaim belonged to the Sleepover Volunteers, whose members would spend nights with the sick. After a hard day's work, Chaim was sent to care for people suffering from typhus or delirium who needed the help of a strong man. God had blessed Chaim with strength, and with it he served God. When people begged Chaim not to exhaust himself, he would shrug his shoulders and reply, “If you're given broad shoulders, you must bear the burden.”
Chaim the locksmith had a few daughters; his youngest child was a boy about nine or ten years older than I, named Zanvel. Chaim's love for his only son was boundless. I never heard him speak of anything but the boy: Zanvel can already read syllables, Zanvel has just started the Five Books of Moses, Zanvel has begun studying Gemara. Chaim had already decided that Zanvel must be a scholar and become a rabbi. Whenever Chaim visited us he would say, “My Zanvele will be a rabbi.”
“God willing,” Father replied.
“I just want to live to see one thingâmy Zanvele deciding rabbinic questions.”
This wasn't merely a wish; it was the only hope on which Chaim the locksmith's efforts were focused. He sent Zanvel to study with the best teachers; early on, he dressed him in Hasidic clothing. Chaim paid a young Hasid to watch over him, study with him, and discuss Torah and Hasidic rebbes with him. Zanvel displayed a love of learning; yet with his fair skin, blue eyes, and blond sidecurls, he resembled his mother, not his
father. With his thin, high-pitched voice, it was hard to believe that he was Chaim's son.
Chaim brought Zanvel to Father for an oral examination each Sabbath. Mother would offer him fruit, and as Zanvel sat with us, wearing a cap and a belted satin gaberdine, Father would discuss Hasidic matters with him. A bit farther away sat the locksmith, his face shining with an otherworldly joy. His bronzed face seemed to melt with pleasure, and the eyes beneath his bushy brows were filled with light. Perhaps such was the happiness of the Jews at Mount Sinai when God revealed Himself amid fire.
When Chaim's wife complained that he paid scant attention to his daughters, he would defend himself by saying, Don't I love the girls? He loved them more than his own life. But after all, girls cannot study Torah. They run around in the courtyard and are interested only in clothing, trifles, and nonsense. How could Chaim compare the joy the girls gave him with that of Zanvel? Zanvel sat over a Talmud and his little voice echoed throughout the courtyard. In the study house respectable Jews came and discussed a bit of Gemara with him. One hundred years from now Zanvel would recite the Kaddish after Chaim's death. And what's more, Zanvel was weak and gentle, a silken lad. The girls resembled him, Chaim.
Indeed, it was true. The girls had brown faces, thick braids, high chests. They sang plaintive songs about the
and about various love affairs. On Sabbaths they cracked pumpkin seeds at the gate of the apartment house and secretly went to the movies. So how could they be compared to little Zanvel?
Just yesterday Zanvel was a cheder ladâand now he was already on the threshold of young adulthood. He studied Torah
with my father and attended Talmud lectures given by some head of a yeshiva. He was awarded a nickel-plated watch for his mastery of fifty pages of Talmud. This was the time when yeshiva students strayed from the straight and narrow path, reading newspapers and perusing forbidden secular books. In our house we feared for Zanvel. Everyone knew that if Zanvel stumbled, the heart of that strong Jew, Chaim the locksmith, would burst like an overfilled balloon. Chaim would have been able to withstand any blow, except a tragedy involving Zanvel.
But, thank God, Zanvel did not go down the crooked path. He craved studying, swayed during prayers, and in time also went to see a Hasidic rebbe. One day, Chaim the locksmith came to us and declared, “My Zanvel is in Gur â¦ at the rebbe's court.”
And he humbly bent his head as if silently wondering, Why am I worthy of such joy? Do I deserve it? It's unbelievable â¦ incredible!
When the First World War began and Zanvel had to report to the draft board, it was a catastrophe for Chaim the locksmith. If Zanvel was sent to the barracks and to the front, all his plans would be ruined. Chaim wandered around distraught, his face no longer brown but black as a chimney sweep's. Some suggested that Zanvel should injure himself just enough to make him unfit for military service. But Chaim couldn't bear the idea that Zanvel would somehow be disfigured. In his mind Zanvel was like a Temple sacrifice which had to be absolutely without blemish.
After a while Chaim the locksmith decided to place Zanvel in hiding instead. He found a garret where Zanvel sat and studied for days on end. He did not set foot on the street, lest he be
asked for identity papers. Chaim the locksmith himself watched out for an inspector who might enter the courtyard. Chaim was careful, his wife was careful, his daughters were careful. The entire courtyard was on the alert. In the meantime, Zanvel sat surrounded by books and studied. He drank tea, swayed, hummed some melody, and ate the food his mother brought him.
Then Warsaw was beset by inflation and Chaim the locksmith had little work. The poor people of the neighborhood could no longer afford to have their toilets fixed. But Chaim's meager income provided soups and grits and fresh little rolls for his little Zanvel. For under no circumstances should a young man sitting in a prisonlike setting and studying Torah suffer any want.
When the Germans entered Warsaw, Zanvel no longer had to hide from the gentile authorities. He was free to come and go as he pleased, and Chaim the locksmith made a banquet. By now Zanvel had a little blond beard; he had straightened up, developed a long neck, sunken cheeks, and a pointy Adam's apple, which bobbed up and down his throat. He already spoke with a rabbinic intonation. Many pious Jews and religious functionaries gathered at the banquetâwhich ruined Chaim the locksmith. He had no income of his own, and he had to sell, pawn, and deprive himself and his daughters of their last bite of food. At this banquet Zanvel delivered a quibbling, hair-splitting discourse and debated some recondite Talmudic points with the scholars present. Chaim the locksmith laughed and cried.
Chaim began to look bad. First of all, he didn't have enough to eat. Second, his daughters, who had started down a slippery
slope, caused him anguish. And finally, the fear that something might happen to Zanvel finished him off. Chaim coughed and his back bent over as if under a heavy burden. He was urged to see a doctor, to get some fresh air in the countryside. But Chaim the locksmith just laughed.
“What else should I do? Eat marzipan candy?”
A match was soon arranged for Zanvel; the bride-to-be was a rabbi's daughter. The bride's family was usually responsible for the dowry, but when a rabbi agrees to a match with a locksmith, he wants to be paid. Chaim had no money but promised a dowry, so when the Germans began building a railroad nearby and he heard they needed locksmiths, mechanics, and metal workers, Chaim the locksmith went off to work for the Germans.
His wife came to us crying that Chaim was killing himself. He labored outside in the freezing cold, in snowstorms and downpours. Workers were dropping like flies. Chaim was doing the work of three men. When he managed to come home for a day, his appearance frightened his family. He was no longer brown or blackâbut yellow. White hairs threaded his beard. His voice was hoarse and he coughed like a consumptive.
My father warned Chaim that it is forbidden to sacrifice oneself for the sake of some dowry or prestigious lineage, and that one's life and well-being take precedence over everything else. Father took a volume of the
Code of Law
from a bookshelf and showed Chaim that when a pregnant woman is about to give birth, everyone is permitted to violate the Sabbath for her, even though one person would suffice. Such is the value that the Torah places on a human life. But Chaim the locksmith answered, “Rabbi, the devil won't take me.”
Zanvel became engaged, and the party cost plenty of German marks. Once Zanvel married, Chaim again spent a fortune. Then came the good news: Zanvel had been offered a rabbinic position in a small shtetl.
That would be the last time Chaim visited our apartment. He came in, positioned himself in the doorway, and began to sing like someone in a Purim costume: “Mazel tov! Zanvel is a rabbi!” he called out, and then began to cry. He seized Father's hand and kissed it.
“Zanvel may be a rabbi, but you're killing yourself,” Mother said ominously.
Chaim gave out a sickly laugh. “How can it hurt? My Zanvel is a rabbi.” Chaim attempted a little dance, but his feet were swollen and he managed only one small hop before he had to sit down.
After this, Chaim the locksmith took to his bed and was prepared to die. The man had overworked himself, taxed his strength beyond measure. To those who paid him a sick call he declared, “I just barely managed to raise him â¦ now I'm ready â¦”
The son came to visit his father, and the courtyard grew black with people. Zanvel had long sidecurls and wore a long black rabbinic coat, a silk jacket, shoes and socks. As Zanvel sat down beside his father, Chaim the locksmith gave him the smile of a mortally ill man and asked, “Zanvele, you'll say Kaddish for me?”
“Father, you'll get well.”
“Why should I get well? I've accomplished all that I wanted to do.” And then Chaim the locksmith cracked a locksmith joke: “What more can I do? Fix a few more toilets?”
Chaim the locksmith died and was given a big funeral. The son eulogized his father at the gravesite. Following the wagon were rabbis, synagogue trustees, respectable Jews. But my father was angry at Chaim. He maintained that one should not sacrifice himself even for the sake of Torah.
“A low-class man remains a low-class man,” Father said bitterly. For days on end he walked about upset. Then one morning he remarked, “I think I saw Chaim the locksmith. He was shining like the sun.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He told me where he lives in the Garden of Eden.”
Father whispered the secret into Mother's ear. Mother turned white. It was hard to believe that Chaim the locksmith could achieve such heights. But on the other hand, he had given his life for the sake of the Torah. Hadn't Rabbi Akiva done the same?