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Reb Yankle

Reb Yankle

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Not always does man live all his days. Life may end some time before death. And for Reb Yankle, life ended when he left cheder. Since then, it has been a long moment where things just happen.

At nine his mother dies. He is sent away from friends to live with an aunt. Aunt Rose's home is secular, and Yankle never gets Chanukah gelt again. Three years in the Red Army. The War. The untimely death of an only son. The recent death of his wife. Monthly pensions and daily soup.

Yankle is the first Jew I discover in the big shul in Kharkov. On Shabbat I sit next to the grumpy, unhappy, old Reb Yankle. G‑d cherishes the poor and the blind, and when I dangle my feet near his shoes, I know why.

Yankle never cries. At least I don't call it crying. His eyes fill with water; then he bites his bottom lip.

Yiddish. I love his Yiddish. Ber, Chaimke, Hershel: he counts childhood friends with his fingers. Then he bites his lip. He's the only one left.

Politics or current events, Yankel is uninterested. Disgusted by it all, he grunts, "Ahh!" and waves his hand.


Winter steals all the leaves; the puddles turn to ice. And on Shabbat, Yankle's seat is empty. Yossi and I decide to visit him at home. That's when I get to know an old man called Yankle.

Cluttered. The one room he lives in looks older than he. The small wooden room is like a cage, locking my world out. Yossi and I sit on the bed covered with newspapers; he sits on his own. The doctor and the weather told him to stay indoors. Reb Yankle needs a favor; he needs bread.

Yossi and I spend a lot of time over at his place. The type of bread we bring is always the wrong one. He says, "Aahh!" and waves his hand. It's not what he dreams of, but it'll do. He doesn't beg with his hands; he begs with his eyes. And that's how you meet Reb Yankle; you look him in the eyes.

Yankle likes repeating the same stories from his shtetl as if nothing else has happened. We sit together and speak. Mostly we just sit because he wants us to be there. I suppose every twenty-year-old should have an eighty-eight-year-old friend.

Today, Yankle starts madly looking for something. Yossi helps him lift his mattress. He pushes rubbish back and forth; the dust is becoming unbearable. Yossi tells him to sit and promises to find what turns out to be a velvet tefillin bag. And he does.

Yankle's eyes want to touch them. His left arm moves towards me. He wants to wear them. Standing motionless, he is communicating with heaven. They talk for awhile. Suddenly he shouts, "Pintele Yid!" pointing to his chest, like a general displaying his rank.

Yossi hut genumen di tefillin (Yossi took the tefillin). After blessing us with long life, the sage returns to his bed. Reb Yankle then closes his holy eyes. The sun sets knowingly outside.

Naturally, I had always feared coming to his apartment and finding him dead. After all, he spoke of himself as already dead and having no reason to live.

I started sweating.

Then, with a genuine smile, all our fears of life fall away. Reb Yankle had found what he was looking for. For the first time he was happy. I had witnessed the resurrection of the dead.

From Chicken Kiev, by Shmuel Marcus (to purchase the book click here)
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Lisa Huntsman lubbock, Texas August 12, 2011

Reb Yankle Thanks for writing such a warm short story. Reply

Bill Parker, CO/USA July 21, 2010

So Real You painted a portrait. A wonderful story. Reply

C.M. South America October 22, 2009

Chills Chills, I've got.
So much to learn here.
Your writing style here is beyond excellent. Reply

simon bedak Wagga Wagga, Australia July 31, 2009

Reb Yankle Thank you, beautifully conveyed. The depth of compassion in your descriptions Shmuel are a credit to you. Reply

dl December 18, 2008

To life! Very beautifully put. Reply

michael b ny November 24, 2007

perspective you help put things in perspective Reply

Anonymous São Paulo, Brazil March 14, 2005

Reb Yankle I will start today with a group to study the Weekly Parashah. After Rashi's Comments on the first chapter of Vaykra, having read at first the first 4 chapters, I read the beautiful story of Reb Yankle: I was deeply moved by the spirituality, tenderness and beauty of the account. I thank you so much for allowing me to share this wisdom and religiosity. I got the feeling that I also wish to spend daily time with my aged friends, all of them over 80!...There is a great transcendance involved in Shabbat and in caring for our aged loved ones. Thank you so much for all this website, comments and soulful stories.
God bless you all! Shalom! Reply

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