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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"The boy's lying! He doesn't know what he's talking about!" the thief
"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
"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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story copyright by author 2007 all rights reserved