ONCE UPON A TIME A SCHOLAR RESIDED IN A TOWN AND HIS PHONE RANG
A New Talmud-inspired poem
by Eugene Ostashevsky
Once upon a time there was a scholar who resided in a town without a court of justice that imposes flagellation and decrees penalties. So what happened? His phone rang.
“Hello, caller,” said the scholar. “I represent a charity fund collected by two and distributed by three,” said the caller. “And you are invited to help us with the overhead.”
“It’s a great opportunity, thank you,” said the scholar. “Thank you,” said the caller. “Can you call somebody else?” said the scholar. “I am calling somebody else,” said the caller. “I meant something else,” said the scholar.
“Scholar, scholar, give us a dollar,” optimistically said the caller. “What kind of a scholar are you?” opportunistically said the caller. “I’m a scholar of the Kabbalah,” offered the scholar. “I haven’t a cent.” “You haven’t a cent? I am a call-center operator in Bangalo—” started the caller as the scholar
hung up. It was already too late. He had lost his inclination for scholarship. So he took a walk to the Synagogue
but he mistook his way, which can be read materially, meaning “he got lost,” or spiritually, meaning “he got lost in thought,” or if not in thought then in some vague yearning of a nature that eludes even the yearner himself, and wound up at the public baths, the women’s section.
The women’s section harbored no women. Instead it harbored—rub-a-dub-dub!—two men in a tub, who do you think they be? The circumciser, the surgeon, the notary, the slaughterer, and the schoolhamster. No, that’s five! No, listen.
In towns without a court of justice that imposes flagellation and decrees penalties, division of labor cannot develop, and everyone as a result must needs multitask. Wherefore productivity in such towns falters, for the habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Wherefore
the tub held a total of two persons but five professions. Now, as there are as many as ten ways of dividing a set of five elements into two sets of three and two, provided that the order or elements be irrelevant, we must inquire.
Was the circumciser the same person as the surgeon, who was the same person as the notary, while the slaughterer was the same as the schoolhamster? Or was the surgeon the same as the notary and the slaughterer, while the circumciser was the same as the schoolhamster? Or was the notary the same as the schoolhamster while the surgeon was the same as the slaughterer and the circumciser? An inquiry apparently irresoluble as its objects show no signs of professional affiliation by virtue of being naked and moreover soaped up!
One of the bathers starts singing a song. He has a pleasant voice, somewhat low. Shall we hearken unto it?
Oh the half-fish hasn’t ever
seen a dentist in his life,
people call me Messy Moishe
cause I’m less fork and more knife.
On a blue and barmy Sunday
you go sailing with your Dad.
He may promise “No blood for Mohel!”
Scarlet billows slowly spread.
Ach the half-fish never flosses
its impressive overbite.
Where is Moish the kosher butcher?
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight?
Oy the half-fish swallows sturgeon
for it likes its caviar fresh,
I also moonlight as a surgeon
when I need the extra cash.
It stands to reason that the other gentleman combined the functions of the notary and the schoolhamster.
I left for the Synagogue and came to the public bath,
said the scholar.
I left for the Synagogue and come to the public bath,
said the scholar,
What a convenience! What a convenience!
“Yes, what a quality of being convenient, generally: i.e. of being suitable or well-adapted to the performance of some action or to the satisfying of requirements,” said Mighty Mohel. “Never mind that pedant,” said the schoolhamster. “He thinks a word is explained if replaced by its definition.”
“Wait,” said Mighty Mohel. “I replaced it with a definition. I narrowed its meaning. I said something.” “Bah,” pooh-poohed the schoolhamster. “We all say something.”
“I could have replaced it with another definition,” said Mighty Mohel, “I could have made it a waterloo. Even a public bath is a convenience.”
“Where do you think quibbling can get you?” asked the scholar. “Get a load of that kibitzer,” said the schoolhamster. “He likes to think that we think that he thinks that we think that we want him to tell us how to speak English.”
“I don’t see how that kind of reflexivity can get you anywhere,” said the scholar. “If your eyes are bothering you,” said Mighty Mohel, “you might consider a pineapple.”