It was the day of Hoshanah Rabbah, and I was at home with my family preparing for the last days of Yom Tov. A man named Shalom Goldberg was on his way over, having tracked me down as the owner of a painting created by his father, the artist Chaim Goldberg. The younger Goldberg was en route from Upstate New York to Florida, and would make a stop at my house on his way.
To fully appreciate what happened next, one needs a little background on the artist.
There was a small shtetel in Poland called Kazimierz. In the 1930s, Kazimierz had a very small Jewish community, and among them was a righteous Jew named Shalom Goldberg. He and his wife shared their two-room house – really more of a hut – with their eight daughters and one son, Chaim. One room was the parents’ bedroom, and the other room was an all-purpose space that served as the children’s bedroom, the kitchen and a shoe repair shop, where Shalom earned his parnassah.
One day, a secularized Jew named Sol Steinberg was traveling through the town as part of his research on shtetel life. His interest, as an enlightened soul, was that of a historian, for he felt that he was recording the last throes of a dying way of life. Soon, he was sure, the Jewish people would abandon their superstitions and join the modern world.
Sol was walking through the streets of Kazimierz when he suddenly felt a sharp object through the sole of his shoe. He asked the townspeople if they had a shoemaker in town and they told him to go to the home of Shalom Goldberg. The shoemaker greeted him graciously and invited him to sit down and wait while the repair was made.
Sol looked around the simple home and noticed that its walls were adorned with some striking artwork. Small, intricately executed paintings and drawings portrayed moving scenes of a shul, a woman lighting Shabbos candles and other depictions of Jewish life.
“Who made these beautiful paintings? They are absolutely stunning!” Sol asked Shalom.
“Oh, these drawings were made by my son Chaim,” Shalom stated matter-of-factly.
“How old is your son?” Sol inquired.
“My son is eleven years old,” the father answered.
“What? An eleven-year-old boy made these beautiful paintings? He must be a genius. I must meet your son!” Sol insisted.
Shalom explained that Chaim was out working at his job as a house painter. He invited Sol to wait for his son to return home, and in his passion to meet the young artist, Sol gladly agreed to stay put.
When Chaim came home later that day, Sol was there to greet him.
“Did you really make those paintings yourself?” Sol asked the boy.
Chaim confirmed that he was the artist.
“These are some of the most impressive paintings I have ever seen,” he told Chaim. “Let me see what else you’ve done.” When Chaim was finished showing Sol his work, the older man was nearly bursting with a passion to save him from obscurity.
“A boy with your talent doesn’t belong in Kazimierz,” he insisted. “I want you to come with me to Vienna, and there you can join an art school and cultivate your talent. Your art will light up the world. You will become famous and wealthy. Come with me, for your own good and for the good of your people.”
Chaim dismissed the idea instantly. His family counted on the money he earned painting houses. He could never leave them in poverty while he went to seek his fortunes in Vienna. But Sol took his argument to Shalom, explaining that his son’s talents should not be wasted. “He will have tremendous opportunities to make a wonderful living as an artist and give himself and his family a better life,” Sol argued.
Shalom, in his simplicity, did not understand what the enlightenment was about. He did not realize what it would mean to Chaim’s spiritual life if Sol took him to Vienna. In his unselfish fatherly heart, he just wanted to give his son the opportunity for a better life. He agreed to send Chaim off with Sol, who brought him straight to one of Vienna’s best art academies and marched him into the headmaster’s office.
“Who do we have here?” the headmaster asked haughtily as he stared down at the young boy in tattered clothing. “I don’t think this is the place for him.”
Sol responded. “You have here a boy of enormous, unusual talent,” he declared. “You do not want to pass up such a student.”
“Well, then, let me see what he can do.” The headmaster handed Chaim a chunk of plaster and told him to make something out of it. Chaim’s deft hands worked the material until a small, lovely statue of a young girl emerged.
“Buy him some clothing and bring him back tomorrow to begin classes,” the headmaster told Sol. Thus began Chaim’s formal art education.
Meanwhile, Sol continued his quest to promote Chaim’s career. He gathered Chaim’s paintings and brought them to Paris, where he showed them to one of the era’s foremost artists, Marc Chagall. (Many people today are acquainted with Chagall as the creator of the 12 stained glass windows which depict each of the twelve shevatim. His works, mostly of Jewish themes, are internationally recognized and prized.)
The instant Chagall saw Chaim’s paintings, he knew he was viewing the work of an artistic genius. When he found out that the artist was only a child, he was even more convinced that a new prodigy had been discovered.
“I will buy 52 of this boy’s paintings right now,” said Chagall. “Certainly he will be famous one day, and I want to own his work.”
Chaim stayed in the school in Vienna for a few years, and then the war broke out. He was eventually captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia, where he met his wife. He remained there for the duration of the war, and when peace returned, he resumed his passion. Chaim Goldberg’s fame did indeed spread, as his mentor had predicted. His stunning depictions of shtetel life, drawn from his memories of youth, hang in the most prestigious museums and galleries in the world.
Now, to resume the story…
Shalom Goldberg, the son of Chaim, arrived at our house shortly before our Hoshanah Rabbah meal. I invited him in and we spoke for the next half hour about his father and himself. Then I asked him, “By the way, where is your wife? You said you were traveling with her to Florida.”
“She’s in the car waiting for me,” he replied.
“It’s hot outside,” I told him. “Please invite her in for a cold drink.”
“No, no, she’s fine. Anyway, she only drinks Diet Cherry Doctor Pepper.”
“Unbelievable. That happens to be my favorite drink, too,” I told him. “I’ve got a fridge full of it. Please invite her in.”
He went to his car and returned with his wife. Sitting at the table over our cold sodas, we began to talk about various subjects. Then I brought up the fact that today is Hoshanah Rabbah, and I explained to him that it is an important day that shares certain themes with Yom Kippur.
“It also happens to be the last day we can shake the lulav,” I added. “Hey, would you like to do it? I have a lulav and esrog right here that you can use.”
“Rabbi, I don’t know anything about a lulav and esrog,” he said, as if this disqualified him for the mitzvah. “I go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that’s pretty much it for Judaism, but you know what? We’re here anyway, so why not?”
I guided him through the bracha and the mitzvah, noticing that both he and his wife seemed touched by their contact with this piece of their ancient heritage. So I took the next logical step.
“You know, luckily you also happened to show up right before our Hoshanah Rabbah meal. You must be hungry, so why don’t you stay? We have pastrami and corn beef on kosher rye, with pickles and mustard – the whole deal. You’ll love it!”
Shalom looked a little uncomfortable and started making moves to leave, but his wife spoke up. “You know, that really sounds good. I think we’ll stay.”
They sat down with us and we had a very enjoyable lunch together. After the meal, I offered to take Shalom to the home of one of my neighbors, who was a great art-lover and had an impressive collection. That visit lasted several hours, and by the time we got back to my house, Shemini Atzeres was just a few hours away.
I described the oncoming Yom Tov celebration to Shalom and his wife and invited them to stay for the meal. Challah, gefilte fish, chicken soup with kreplach, sweet and sour chicken – it sounded too tempting to pass up, and so they accepted my invitation.
Our table was packed with guests that night, and Shalom and his wife were enjoying every minute of it. We sang songs, and I made sure to include some that Shalom would know. He began to sing along, his face aglow with happiness. As a prelude to Simchas Torah, we got up and began to dance around the table. Shalom shouted to me, in wonder and delight, “You know, rabbi, the shtetel isn’t dead!”
“Right!” I replied. “It just moved to Monsey!”
I let the meal move along slowly, with plenty of conversation and singing, in part because I was hoping to finish so late that Shalom and his wife would agree to stay the night. When we finally finished our coffee and cake, it was already 11:30 p.m.
“Oh, my, look at how late it is,” said Shalom as he checked his watch. “We really have to hit the road!”
“Can I run something by you?” I asked. “I have a clean, empty bedroom that you are welcome to use for the night if you would like.”
“Thank you very much, rabbi,” he answered, “but we are on our way to Florida and we have a long trip ahead of us. I think we had better get going.”
“Sure, but you’re going to have to stop somewhere to sleep anyway. Why pay $80 for a motel room a couple of hours from now when you can have a free place to stay right now?”
Shalom’s wife saw my point. “We might as well save ourselves the $80,” she told her husband. And so they stayed.
The next morning, we made a minyan in my home. I didn’t wake up Shalom for davening, as I didn’t want to disturb him. But when we reached Yizkor, I assumed that Shalom would probably want to participate. I knocked on his door and told him that we would be praying Yizkor shortly.
“Maybe you would like to say it in memory of your father,” I suggested.
“I would love to come join you,” he said. “I just need a few minutes to get ready.”
Soon Shalom came into the room where we were davening. He approached me and said in a half-whisper, “Rabbi, I don’t have a tallis.” I quickly got him one of the many extras I keep on hand. He wrapped himself up in it and he began to sway back and forth to the sounds of others’ tefillos and those of his own heart. I left the room for Yizkor, as is the tradition for those who are blessed with two living parents.
A few minutes later, Yizkor was over and Shalom emerged from the room. I saw that his eyes were glistening with the remnants of tears as he strode purposefully to where I was standing and wrapped me in a warm hug.
“Rabbi, I can’t explain it, but I just feel that my father wanted me to be here today,” he said. “He wanted me to feel what life in the shtetel was all about, what I was missing all these years. I feel that my father was the one who guided me to your home to send me this message.”
“You have no idea how right you are,” I told him. “Come with me for a minute.”
I brought him to the spot where his father’s painting was hanging.
“Take a good look at the scene in the picture,” I urged. “Do you realize that this is a painting of Simchas Torah in Kazimierz? That is the one painting of your father that we own. He was sending you the clearest message that you could ever imagine!”
I pointed out the details of the scene in Kazimierz. The men were dancing around the bimah with their small children riding their backs or borne in their arms. The excited children waved flags and the women looked upon the scene from a balcony. The warmth and joy, the sense of community, the love of family and of Torah literally leapt off the canvas into the viewer’s heart.
“You see what the enlightenment did to people, Shalom? It pulled them away from all of this and filled them up with doubts, so that in the end, all they have of this beautiful heritage are paintings of the old days. They think that the happiness in those paintings no longer exists, but it does. It’s alive in America right now for people who still live their lives with the Torah.”
Shalom was overjoyed at his discovery of the “living shtetEl.” He promised me that he would return to my home soon and continue his journey to reclaim a world that he had thought was in the past, but was in reality the key to his future.
The story of Chaim Goldberg is a story of the choices made when we reach a crossroad in life. Rav Ephraim Wachsman told a powerful story on the same theme a few years ago when he spoke to a large group of boys in camp.
Expounding on the statement in Pirkei Avos of “Kol Yisroel yeish lohem cheiek l’Olam Haba – Every person in Klal Yisroel has a portion in the World to Come,” he said that beyond the simple meaning, the verse teaches that “Every person in Klal Yisroel has a portion (cheilek) that no one else in the world has or will ever have for the rest of eternity.”
He explained his thoughts with a parable:
There was a poor farmer boy whose father put him to work caring for his cattle and sheep. Each morning, the boy would milk the cows and take the animals out to the fields to graze. As he sat high in the mountains keeping a watchful eye on his flock, he would pass the time by singing beautiful songs.
One day, a passerby on the road overheard the boy’s singing. Entranced by the beauty of his voice, he climbed to the spot where the boy was sitting and greeted him. “My child,” he said, “what are you doing here on this farm? You have such a wonderful voice! You could be making millions of dollars and delighting the world with such a special voice!”
The boy was clearly flattered, but he could not believe that his talent was at all extraordinary. Nevertheless, the man persisted with his visions for the boy’s future. “Let’s go talk to your father about this,” he suggested.
The boy and the man left the fields and found the boy’s father. The man explained that he was certain that this boy could become a great singer whose voice would inspire the world.
“This isn’t for us,” the father said firmly. “He’s got a nice voice, but so what? I’m a farmer, my father was a farmer, and his father was a farmer. Now my son has learned to be a farmer. He belongs here with me.”
The man insisted that such talent couldn’t be wasted. “You don’t have to believe me,” he told the father. “I have a friend who is one of the greatest names in music. Come with me to see him and we will let him judge your son’s talent.”
After some cajoling, the father agreed. They brought the boy to the musician, who asked the boy to sing his favorite song. For a few minutes, the room filled with the sweetest, most melodious sounds the musician had ever heard. Then the song came to an end.
“My boy, you have the most beautiful voice I have ever heard in my entire life! I have heard hundreds of singers, but none with a voice equal to yours. Not only that, but I believe there has never been a boy with such a voice, and I don’t believe there ever will be another like you. You are going to be very rich and famous one day.”
The father, who until now had remained silent, cried out, “Enough! I have heard enough of this talk about singing. Come son, we are leaving.”
“But sir, don’t you realize what a talent you have here?” the musician pleaded. “You are not just depriving him. You are depriving the world!”
“I have made up my mind. My grandfather was a farmer, my father was a farmer, and I am a farmer. My son is a farmer and that is what he will remain.”
A few years ago, the great mashgiach from Eretz Yisroel, Rav Don Segal, visited America and addressed a group of high school boys who were struggling with their Yiddishkeit. He spoke encouragingly to them, telling them that they each had the potential to become great in the world of Torah if they made the effort to do so. To illustrate his point, he related a short story about Rav Aharon Kotler.
Years ago, on a visit to Eretz Yisroel, Rav Aharon gave shiurim in various locations around the country. One day, he went to a kibbutz to give a shiur. Among those in the shiur was a young boy who lived on the kibbutz. At one point, this boy raised his hand to ask Rav Aharon a question. Rav Aharon responded, “That is a very good question.” Turning to the little boy, he asked, “Do you go to yeshiva?”
The young boy told him that he did not attend yeshiva.
“A boy who asks such good questions belongs in a yeshiva,” Rav Aharon said.
Rav Aharon’s words motivated this little boy to insist that his parents send him to yeshiva to learn Torah.
“Do you know who that young boy on the kibbutz was?” Rav Segal asked the high school boys he was addressing. “That boy was me. Rav Aharon saw that I had great potential, and the truth is, we all have great potential. We just have to make the effort to tap into that potential and then we can achieve great things in life.”
Each of us has greatness inside. Our neshamos are sent into this world with the talents and skills they need to create our own masterpiece of Torah and mitzvos. The tragedy is when, like the singer, we do not seek the opportunity to develop the gifts Hashem has given us. For if we don’t do it, who will?
Reprinted from Rabbi Pruzansky’s latest book, “With All Your Heart,” published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. Rabbi Pruzansky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.