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The Old Man in the English Village

The Old Man in the English Village

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Yitzchak, a chassidic Jew from London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood, took frequent business trips to the countryside in northern England. No matter how far he traveled, he was particular to always return home in time for Shabbat—except for one Friday...

It was on a Friday morning in the 1950s or ’60s, when engine trouble forced Yitzchak off the road as he was returning home for Shabbat. In the service station waiting for his car to be repaired, he glanced at his watch frequently, wishing that the watch’s hands would move just a little bit slower and the mechanic’s hands would move just a little bit faster.

After several hours Yitzchak’s car was up and running, but it was clear that he would not have time to return to London for Shabbat.

With little time to spare, Yitzchak drove to the nearest village, checked into a local hotel and made inquiries about the closest synagogue. To his delight, there was an old synagogue in town.

The building had been constructed in grand style, but now it had a neglected appearance. As the sun sunk in the west, a handful of worshippers trickled into the building. They were mostly middle-aged men who seemed to have just a rudimentary Jewish education.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Yitzchak was approached by an elderly gentleman. Sporting a full beard and speaking a fluent Yiddish, the elderly man seemed strangely out of place in this forgotten hamlet.

“Would you be so kind as to be my Shabbat guest?” asked the older man with a sense of urgency in his voice. Upon hearing Yitzchak’s positive reply, the man broke into a broad grin.

As they walked home together in the chilly darkness, Yitzchak asked his host’s name and learned that it was Yaakov Frankinowitz, but that everyone knew him by the more familiar “Yankel.”

They walked in silence until they reached the old man’s home—a crumbling old house, with a faint light emanating through the grimy windows of one of the rooms.

As Yankel ascended the stairs to his home, he started wheezing and coughing incessantly. But the old man dismissed his younger guest’s concern. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said in Yiddish, “It’s just a bit of asthma. It happens to me all the time.”

As they entered the dining room, Yitzchak was surprised to see that the table was set for two. “How did he know that I would be coming?” he wondered.

As if he read Yitzchak’s thoughts, Yankel said: “I’m always ready for a guest to join me for Shabbat, and I set an extra setting just in case.”

The food was under-seasoned and overcooked, but the atmosphere at that Shabbat meal was outstanding. The conversation flowed easily as the two men discussed the finer points of the week’s Torah portion and sang traditional Shabbat tunes late into the night.

At one point, Yitzchak noticed his host’s well-worn but still-beautiful Chumash [Five Books of Moses] from which he was reading and translating the weekly Torah portion.

“Ah yes,” said the old man with delight. “It belonged to my grandfather, as did the siddur [prayer book] that I use in synagogue. It has endured decades of heavy use, but it’s still as good as new, if not better!”

Long after midnight had come and gone, Yitzchak excused himself and prepared for his walk back to his hotel.

“Please stay here,” urged the kind host. “It’s not often that I have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim [hospitality], so please do not deprive me of this honor.”

As Yitzchak lay on the lumpy mattress that smelled faintly of mold, he listened to his host coughing fitfully in the other room. The wind blew in freely through the cracked window panes, and he feared that it was too cold for his newfound friend.

The following morning was even colder, and Yitzchak begged Yankel to stay home, rather than walk the long way to and from synagogue. But the old man would hear none of it.

Between their long walks and even longer meals, the two men developed a deep and fast friendship. Yitzchak was inspired by Yankel’s sincere faith and determination to serve G‑d to the best of his ability.

Finally, during the third and final Shabbat meal, Yankel shared his story.

“I was born in Russia and still remember those terrible times—the pogroms, the hunger and the fear.

“When I was seven, we left for England and settled here. My parents passed away not long after, and my grandparents took me in. They were the pillars of the community, and it was due to their strength and inspiration that a synagogue was built here. Jewish life blossomed, and others came here as well.

“My grandparents were exceptionally generous, never sending away a poor man empty handed and always hosting travelers in their home. They never took a penny for their services, happy to provide fellow Jews with kosher food and a warm bed.

“The younger generation grew up and moved away, attracted by the opportunities that the bigger cities like Manchester and London offered them. Those who stayed tended to be less Jewishly involved, and I was somewhat alone here.

“Like everyone else, I considered leaving town, but my grandfather would hear none of it. He understood that without our family, the community would soon dissolve into nothingness, and so I stayed.

“The Jewish community continued to dwindle, and my wife and I wanted to move to a town where there would be other Jews like us, who valued Torah and mitzvah observance, but Grandfather was adamant. We were needed here.

“Before he passed away, Grandfather again asked me to remain here. ‘There will come a time,’ he told me, ‘that a Jewish traveler will come through town needing a place to eat. Then you will know why you are so needed here. Who would be there to serve them if not you?’

“And so I remained here for the Jewish traveler who may be in need of a kosher home,” the man concluded simply.

Yitzchak then understood that he was the guest for whom his host had waited for decades.

As the old man broke into another coughing fit, Yitzchak’s eyes glazed over with pitying tears.

After regaining his breath, the old man continued. “Please don’t feel bad for me. Your visit has given me so much pleasure; it has given meaning to all the years of waiting, proving my grandfather’s words to be true. The circle is now complete.”

They shook hands warmly before Yitzchak drove off into the night. Yitzchak promised that he’d return, claiming that he had more business in the area. The truth was that he wanted to come back with a gift for the old man who had taught him so much about patience and faith.

When he came back to the sleepy hamlet later that week, Yitzchak climbed the steps to Yankel’s old home and knocked on the door. Once, twice, three times—silence. Fearing the worst, he sped off to the synagogue, where he was informed that Mr. Frankinowitz had passed away on Sunday morning.

“He came to services as usual, started coughing, and then he was gone,” said the caretaker.

“Wait a minute,” continued the caretaker. “Are you the guest who was here on Shabbat? Mr. Frankinowitz left you something. I found it on his table when I went to his house to put his belongings in order.”

It was a neatly wrapped package with a note. Written in Yiddish, it expressed Yankel’s gratitude at being able to finally fulfill the mitzvah of hosting guests, and it stated that the enclosed Chumash and siddur were a token of his appreciation and an expression of his hope that Yitzchak would raise his children in the spirit of Torah and mitzvah observance.”

Upon learning that the old man left no relatives, Yitzchak took it upon himself to say kaddish for him.

And from then on, Yitzchak’s family adopted the peculiar custom of always setting an extra seat at the Shabbat table, ready to be used by anyone in need of a warm meal.

Adapted from Sichot Lanoar, Adar I, 5730

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Mark Pittsburgh March 28, 2017

My heart just broke. Service to G-d and others is a privilege. Reply

William Newcastle March 27, 2017

I live in one of those dying Northen communities and it's true we must stay for others in the community as well as for anyone who passes through town. Reply

shimon vadodara March 26, 2017

nice story nice story i like very much Reply

Avrohom Kaufma Monsey March 24, 2017

Just as the Baal Shem Tov said! A neshama wears and tears 70 or 80 years just to help another. Powerful story Reply

Jan Thompson Green Valley AZ March 22, 2017

What a beautiful story!! I loved every word! Reply

Mary Australua March 21, 2017

Thank you for this, it gave me so many mixed emotions. I look forward to these stories and wish I could read more , give me hope and encouragement. Reply

Rita Zelig West Palm Beach March 21, 2017

Mitzvot Isn't Always An Extra Seat At Shabbos Table I loved the spirit of the story. But I've now come to see that Mitzvot isn't always a seat at one's Shabbos table. It could and should be anything that connects a Jew more closely with his faith. Thank you Mr. Posner for showing me that my words to you were important. Your Mitzvot for myself and others, was in enlarging the print, so I am now finally able to enjoy this beautiful story of what it truly means to hold H*shem in ones heart, and to share and enlighten others through the joys of Torah stories/parabelles/fables. Reply

S U.K. March 21, 2017

Beautiful Faith that warms the heart, giving us the ability to see the beauty of patience, long suffering and sometimes loneliness, to experience sharing; hospitality, love and pass on to another generation much loved teachings of the Torah and prayer. Thank you. Reply

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