The Tale of The Hunched Old Man
Written by Zachary Brenner
Illustrated by Annelise Asch
For five years, Isaac had roamed the land of Eastern Europe, going from village to village and entering households each Friday morning to accompany the local residents for Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest. However, for Isaac, Shabbat was not merely a day of rest. It was a day to rejuvenate the soul— and his soul, in particular, craved love and community. Like many Jews of his neighborhood in Poland, Isaac found community to be among the greatest attractions to Judaism—he often remembered the weekly, village-wide feasts with his closest friends, greatest foes, and interesting individuals in between.
This particular Friday would mark the anniversary of the beginning of his travels, which began as a search for the perfect chicken soup recipe, then unpredictably expanded to Isaac searching for more and more community to surround himself with. After havdalah each Saturday night, he would take out his quill and parchment and write to the new friends he spent Shabbat with. He would recite Torah verses they discussed, remind these friends of the stories he had shared with them, and most importantly, he would ask for the chicken soup recipe. He always wanted that chicken soup recipe. The return address he left was his father’s house in Poland, and Isaac often dreamt of how great it would be to return home to see hundreds of letters waiting for him, and his family anxious to ask him about who he met and where he went.
Isaac often felt guilty, however. Although his family had encouraged his travels, Isaac knew that the chores and work to be done in his village were no small tasks. Hopefully, when Isaac returned, he would be able to do all the work so his brothers, sisters, and friends could travel like he did.
On this particular Friday morning, Isaac sat atop a grassy hill and watched the cloudy sunrise. The clouds obstructed the unpleasantness of the sudden brightness that the Sun introduces once rising enough over a nearby mountain. Isaac took a long breath in, accepting the simultaneous coolness and freshness of the morning air—one of his favorite pre-Shabbat rituals. The air seamlessly moved through his lungs and back out of his mouth. He took another inhale, only this time the freshness was elevated to a level he hadn’t smelled since his days in Poland as a young boy—something floral. He opened his eyes and turned his head—and he saw him. An older man, hunched over, carrying a basket of mustard flowers. The bright yellow tint replaced the brightness the sun was meant to provide, yet Isaac could not take his eyes off the flowers. Flowers like he hadn’t seen in years—the flowers of his younger years in Poland playing in the fields with his siblings.
Isaac walked toward the man who hadn’t noticed him sitting there. Careful not to startle him, he gently tapped the hunched man’s shoulder. Shocked, and a bit confused, the man looked up at Isaac and in the next couple seconds, suddenly blurted out, “You’re Isaac… Mayer’s son…”
Isaac did not know this man. He had never seen him before.
“How do you know my name, sir?” Isaac inquired.
“We are both from the same place in Poland… I haven’t seen you in years.”
“That’s not possible… I’ve never seen you before. I know everyone in my village.”
“I’ve been around. I’m not sure how we’ve not crossed paths.”
They both sat on the hill together— the man recovering from fatigue, and Isaac curious how he could have never met this man before. They talked about things of mutual interest: such as what makes a great kneydl and how to properly build a stable roof. They discussed things of mutual regret: both had left their families in pursuit of higher dreams. The hunched man, in pursuit of the perfect, secluded area to build a home where his wife and he could reside until the end and Isaac, in pursuit of greater community. They exchanged jokes and laughed together. Isaac found himself laughing more than he usually did.
For the first time in years, Isaac felt as if he could remain right where he was: talking and joking with the hunched old man. He could not remember the last time he felt this way about any particular person.
When the sun was high and Isaac had to begin his journey to the nearby village for Shabbat, he did not want to go anymore. His vision for this Shabbat was sitting with the hunched old man, looking for the perfect place to build his new home. A new home that, for Isaac, was less happy and more melancholy, for this man would no longer live in the village that Isaac would soon be returning to. How could he have overlooked such a pleasurable human being that lived possibly a few doors down from him? His pursuit for something greater, for the perfect community — and his obsession with returning home to find stacks of letters — seemed far less grand and attractive at this point in time. Instead, he felt a stronger sense of regret than he ever had: where had the years gone, and why had this friendship not flourished to anything profound or possibly everlasting?
Isaac turned to the man and offered his help to bring the flowers with them.
“But what about Shabbat?” the old man asked.
Isaac looked ahead to the village he was meant to journey to: the locals walked around their homes with various cooking supplies and siddurim. He smiled as he saw a young girl grab onto an older woman’s leg.
“I’d be happy to spend this Shabbat with you.”