The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 
Issue Twenty-Three

Four Short Prose Pieces by Ian Seed
More from Pieces for Small Orchestra by Norman Lock
Dinosaur Evolution by Sharon Wahl
The Rabbi's Magic Wagon by Harry White
Finding Kafka in Prague (first version) by The Cafe Irreal


irreal (re)views


The Rabbi's Magic Wagon
by Harry White

thief, an evil man, a stupid man, comes rushing into the House of the Lord where righteous men have gathered for morning prayer. It is known that he has harmed several Jewish women, but the authorities will do nothing. This time he has killed a shopkeeper, one of the goyim, and taken all his money, and he dashes off to the synagogue because he believes the police will not look for him there. He plans to hide in the temple till nightfall when he will make his escape over the mountains under the cover of darkness.

But when the thief enters the synagogue through the side door, he is surprised to discover twelve bearded men staring at him with black books sitting in their hands. On a hot and humid day each and every man is wearing a suit that is also black, in a place the thief thought would surely be empty this early in the morning.

"Damn these people," he mutters to himself. "What are they doing here? Why haven't they gone off to work?"

Then spotting a young boy among the bearded men, the thief waves his pistol and says out loud, "I want him. Everyone step back. I'm taking that one with me."

"What good is a Jewish hostage?"

The thief's eyes dart back and forth, but he cannot see from whose lips the words are coming.

"The police do not care," the voice says. "They will shoot you anyway."

"All right," the thief shouts, as if answering a stranger hidden in the rafters high above them. "All right, then. We stay right here till nightfall. Everyone. We all stay here."

"If we all stay here what will happen when we do not return from our prayers? Will those who come searching for us," the voice says, "will they have to stay till nightfall as well? And what about those who come looking for the ones who came looking for us? What happens when they also do not return?"

The thief grows ever more confused with each question he does not know how to answer, coming from a voice he cannot see. Worse yet, the insistent, invisible voice will not stop questioning him. "And what will happen," it says, "when the police begin to wonder where all the Jews have disappeared to when the seamstresses and tailors and grocers do not show up for work? What will happen then when the officers ride this way to find everyone of us here, harboring a criminal in our house of worship? Can you tell us what happens then?"

"Shut up! Shut up already!" the thief cries out. "Not another word!"

At this moment a man steps out from among the others. He too is dressed in the same black suit. "You ask me to be quiet, but do you know who has been speaking to you?" the man says. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"And why should I care who any of you are?" the thief answers back, thrusting his pistol at the face of the speaker he can now clearly see.

"You should care very much. For, you see, I am Rabbi Schoenbrun. And it may interest you to know that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, has granted to me, Rabbi Schoenbrun, many gifts and powers that few men are ever privileged to possess."

"Like what? Like maybe a pistol that can shoot a man's eyes out of their sockets with one bullet to his forehead."

"No, nothing like that, but in truth many other things that are better and more powerful than a mere pistol. Give me a moment and perhaps I may help you out. But of course, only if it is all right for me to talk?"

"Go on. But stay where you are."

"Well, then, as you wish. I will stand right here and tell you how when the floods came pouring down from the mountains, I lifted this temple, the very building in which we are now standing, eight feet off the ground and held it there till the waters returned to their rivers."

The thief laughs, and yet, as everyone can see, he does not move or speak. So the rabbi proceeds: "Before that, when the drought covered the land during one terribly long summer, I harvested grapes in the winter months so that there would be enough wine when the Passover season arrived? And when Mrs. Teitelbaum became terribly sick, I stared down the Angel of Death, held him at bay for six days and nights so that the good woman, now of beloved memory, could attend her granddaughter's wedding before she passed on? These are the things that I have done and, unfortunately, you, being a stranger, an intruder in this place, know nothing of it."

"No, not at all, I don't believe that . . ."

"But," the rabbi exclaims, before the thief can utter another word. "But," he says, raising his finger above his head for emphasis, "perhaps you have heard of Tarkov."


"Yes, Tarkov. Perhaps you have heard how I defeated one of the living dead that had risen above the ground. How I made the roosters crow day and night till the evil one grew so confused that he shriveled in his coffin without the blood of fresh victims to revive him."

"Tarkov!" the thief cries out. "Tarkov?"

"Yes, Tarkov. For, I am, as I've already told you, Rabbi Schoenbrun."

"Schoenbrun? Tarkov?" the thief keeps repeating.

"Yes. It does appear that you do know something after all."

"Tarkov. Yes, I know that place?"

"That is good. However, let us not be too hasty, for I don't need to remind you, do I, that this is not Tarkov and those were other circumstances? Crowing cocks would be useless for solving the problem before us. I could of course lift the shul again, so high this time that no one but the birds could enter. That could be accomplished with some effort on my part, but who then, we must ask ourselves, who could get out? Raising the temple is not really what we need at this time. It would be of no help. So we have to put our heads together and think of something else. You understand what I am saying, don't you?"

The thief nods his head as if to say, "I think so," yet he is not sure what is really happening. His eyes keep searching the faces of the other men as if wanting one of them to step forward with some clearer explanation of what this strange man is telling him.

"Now listen very carefully. Very carefully," the rabbi says almost in a whisper, waving his hand before the eyes of the thief who has been staring at the other men. "Unless you can come up with a better idea, this, I believe, is what needs to be done in this situation. Are you listening?"

The thief nods again in the same slow, uncertain manner

"Go there, to that door. The one that leads into the woods."

The thief raises his hand to point.

"Yes that one. Behind it is my wagon. It is a gift from God that I mean to give to you. A magic wagon, an invisible vehicle that you can sit in while leaving town and no one will ever see you. And when . . ."

The thief does not let the rabbi finish. As if awakened from a trance, he suddenly turns and walks with large full steps to the back door, grabs the bolt, pushes it left, then right, yanks open the door and stands in the doorway for several moments gazing out into the empty woods. Utter silence falls upon the synagogue. And then, it takes some time, but the thief standing in the open doorway, suddenly cries out, "I don't see anything. What is this? I don't see any wagon."

"Of course you don't see a wagon. What did I tell you? Can't you remember anything I tell you? If you saw a wagon, then . . ." But the thief has turned round again, run back into the synagogue and is pointing the gun right at the eyes of Rabbi Schoenbrun. "Do you really think you can play tricks with me."

"Tricks? What tricks?" says Rabbi Schoenbrun. "There are no tricks here." And tapping the point of the gun with his middle finger, the rabbi says, very sternly now, "This much however is quite certain. This I know for sure. If you harm me or anyone else in this holy place, you will never be able to leave. Ever! Now take your gun away from my face and watch. Keep still and watch."

With these words the rabbi takes two steps back and plants his feet in the center aisle, eight benches from the entrance at the rear and eight benches from the ark in the front. He closes his eyes, stamps his left foot five times on the floor, claps his hands together five times and mumbles some words the thief cannot make out. Then the rabbi opens his eyes, and like one transformed, he smiles at the thief and extends his arm, palm upwards toward the back door. Outside the doorway there now stands a horse, a large brown horse harnessed to an old gray wagon.

The thief stares at the horse and wagon. He looks back at the black-suited men for a sign of some kind. One of them appears to be smiling, but when the thief looks more intently at the man, his smile seems to evaporate without a sound into his thick beard. Another man shrugs his shoulders ever so slightly, as if to say, "Don't look at me. I don't understand what is happening either." All the while, the other men stand quietly, unmoving, unrevealing, so that when the thief looks round again, he cannot find the man who seemed to smile or which one it was who appeared to shrug his shoulders. "These damn Jews. They all look the same," he grumbles to himself.

"We must hurry," the rabbi says, interrupting the thief's amazement by abruptly but gently taking him by the arm. "They will soon come looking for us, our friends and our families, and then the police will begin to wonder. If you do not leave now it will be too late. The police will come, and it will be too late for you, for all of us. Come. Come and I will help you into the wagon."

Once they have passed into the open air, Rabbi Schoenbrun calls back to Rebecca's son. "Samuel," he says. "The drive over the mountains will be long and the day a warm and thirsty one. Fetch the two pails by the well, fill them with water and bring them for our man here."

Guiding the thief by his free arm, the rabbi reminds him that the wagon is very old. "A magic wagon to be sure, but magic or no, it makes a lot of noise if you drive it too fast. I am afraid that there is no magic for that. So drive it carefully or else someone might hear the sound of the wagon leaving town."

Samuel arrives from round back with two full pails splashing with cool refreshing water. The rabbi takes the pails of water and places them on the wagon's floorboards, but just then, as the thief is setting himself down on the wagon bench and taking the reins up in one hand, he points his pistol at the rabbi one more time and says, "I'm not the fool you think I am. If anyone even looks in my direction, I will turn this buggy right round, come back here and kill everyone of you people I can. I will not care if the police find me here. I will not leave again till I have killed all of you that I can."

"Be quiet. Not so loud. You must learn to be quiet and everything will be all right, for you, for all of us. Just remember, as you drive, you will of course be able to see your horse and your wagon, and some of the things you pass on the road, they will begin to appear unclear as they near the wagon, but do not be alarmed and do not worry, they will be clear enough so that you, sitting inside the wagon, can see where to go. But absolutely no one outside of the wagon will be able to see you or your horse or your wagon."

The rabbi now tells Samuel to hurry back inside the synagogue, close the door and have the men go to the center of the building, where he had stood moments before, and not to utter a sound. Samuel does as he is told, and as he closes the door behind him, the synagogue turns gray and colorless, like when the clouds come rolling down from the mountain tops. All the men, standing still as the wooden pillars beside them, can hear the sound of hands clapping, six times this time, and then they hear nothing else for several minutes. Each moment passes in slow, fearful silence. Then the door opens, sunlight flashes across the temple floor, and but a few steps behind the beam of light walks Rabbi Shoenbrun. He closes and bolts the door. "Thank God, he is gone from us," he announces, and without thinking takes up his tallis and wipes the sweat from his face and forehead.

"But gone from us, free to rob and kill others elsewhere? Is that where he is going, rabbi?" It is Samuel's uncle Avrum who speaks.

"Avrum, Avrum, as always, you worry too much. The thief will be found and he will be stopped. The police will discover him on the road, and they will bring him back to town before the sun sets, and then his evil days will be at an end. For you see, there is magic in the water too. You will see. There is magic in the water."

On the road that is about to ascend into the mountains, the blacksmith's boy later that day notices a man beside the road. The boy remembers that there is a murderer on the loose and he runs to tell his father what he has seen a strange man passing water behind an old birch tree by the side of the road.

The blacksmith tells his son to ride one of the horses he has just shod into town and bring the police back with him. Then he hurries to tell his wife and daughter to go quickly into the house. The blacksmith closes the door from the outside, making sure his wife has bolted it from the inside. He sits down on a fat tree stump that stands before the door of his house, and with two heavy hammers, one in each hand, the blacksmith waits quietly for the police to arrive. And sure enough, it is as the boy discovered, and as the rabbi foretold: the police find the murderer they have been hunting for staggering along the road. When they come upon him, he is screaming out of his mind. "The Jew. It's him. He did it. The Jew stole my wagon," he cries. "Go find the Jew. Arrest him. He's the one you're looking for. The filthy Jew, he killed the shopkeeper and stole my wagon so he could escape in my wagon. My wagon, the gray one, with the brown horse. Find it."

The police search up and down the road eager to arrest another maybe even, as this man claims, some filthy Jew who is the real murderer. But however far the men ride and however long they look, they can find no horse or wagon on the road and not a single Jew anywhere in sight. Even so the captain, a very scrupulous man, feels something is not right. How, he wonders, did the murderer manage to get this far out of town on foot? He wants a fuller explanation and insists on questioning the blacksmith's son to find out exactly what the lad saw on the road.

"I swear, captain, when I saw that man by the tree, captain sir, he was alone, all by himself. There was no horse, and there wasn't any wagon."

"The boy's lying! He doesn't know what he's talking about!" the thief cries out.

"Shut your mouth," the captain shouts, and drives his elbow so hard into the jaw of the thief that he collapses at the policeman's feet. Then turning to the blacksmith, who is standing with his arm round his son's shoulder, the captain says, "Your boy here is a very clever lad a real hero. We must give credit where credit is due. He will surely be rewarded for his quick thinking. I know important people in the village. As a matter of fact, the priest is a good friend of mine, and I am sure we can arrange some honor for your son for helping us in the capture our man. Something, most likely, during Sunday services in the weeks to come."

Then pulling the blacksmith aside, the captain whispers to him, "This thief and murderer is bad enough, but do I need to tell you? don't mention that business about a Jew. I don't want people panicking." The blacksmith nods in agreement. Then before the police depart with their prisoner, congratulations and handshakes are shared all around, with the boy for his alertness and the police for their swift and successful response. The blacksmith's wife kisses her son on the top of his head as the police, waving good-bye, escort the thief down the road that leads back into town.

It is nighttime now. The men who stood in the temple early that morning have finished their evening prayers, and they are sitting at table enjoying the evening meal the rabbi's wife has prepared especially for them.

"So, rabbi," Avrum finally asks. "So where is the wagon now?"

"Who knows?" the rabbi replies, wiping from his beard the juice from the two grapes he has just swallowed. "Right now only the horse knows. But I'm not going to worry. You see, Samson knows the way home, and he should bring it back before daylight comes. At least he better if he wants to eat from the fine stack of hay I have waiting for him. But also because if he doesn't, we will have a very difficult time trying to find the wagon. If you don't keep a tight rein on him, Samson tends to wander wherever he pleases, and the last time he wandered off and didn't come back, I spent a week searching up and down for him and the wagon, clapping my hands till they swelled to the size of winter mittens. And, God forbid, we have enough to worry about and don't want that to happen again."

"Certainly not," says Avrum. "But tell us, rabbi, when you went looking for the wagon, that wasn't the time you went to Tarkov, was it?"

"Tarkov? No, I don't think so. But to tell you the truth, right now, I can't really recall."

"Were you ever in Tarkov?"

"Of course I was in Tarkov. What are you talking about? Avrum, once again, I have to say, I do not appreciate what you are insinuating." And placing another grape in his mouth, the rabbi raises the bowl, smiles happily, and says, "Now does anyone want anymore grapes before they all disappear?"

Harry White lives and teaches in Chicago where he rides his own magic vehicle that starts in the winter, does not burn gasoline, and doesn't pollute the air. It's a bicycle. He rides it year round on the streets passed cars stalled in traffic and on the Sabbath passed the synagogue. His The Best of the Besht: Being a Collection of Newly Discovered Tales Regarding the Baal Shem Tov appeared in Issue 12 of The Cafe Irreal.

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