Fywel M. was our cantor and – since the community could not afford a rabbi – he also acted as rabbi. He ran Hebrew classes and prepared boys for their Bar Mitzvah. He delivered boring sermons that sent us all to sleep. Only his fine singing redeemed him. But even this singing provoked some criticism. He occasionally infiltrated opera tunes into religious hymns.
He did, indeed, have a vast repertoire of operatic tunes. As a young man he had sung in the choir of the Vienna opera. He had occasionally even had small walk-on parts, proudly sporting a crested helmet and a spear. But since he was tubby and hook-nosed they hid him in the rear rank, out of sight .
His Hebrew lessons were extremely boring but we found ways of diverting him. If we asked questions about life back in Galicia, he would be off reminiscing happily.
He told us that his father had been the Gabbe of their little stetl down there, somewhere between Poland and the Ukraine, still part of the Habsburg Empire at the time. A Gabbe is the head of his congregation. Fywel told us his father had accepted this post despite the fierce vocal opposition of his wife. She knew that such a post brought risks.
“I remember, one evening, sitting up late with my mother, wondering whether he’d come back… tonight or ever.”
There was a scandal hanging over our little stetl. It involved a hawker… a poor devil. Though a failure as a businessman, the man had spent his life studying the Talmud. This brought him great respect in the community. All were shocked when two uniformed K & K gendarmes came for him and frogmarched him through the busy fortnightly market within sight of the entire stetl. He was imprisoned in the nearest lockup to await trial. If convicted it would reflect badly on all the Jews of the community. Very badly.
What had he done? Used false weights to sell sauerkraut and fruit and vegetable. The police had confiscated his weights to await the court case.
“These Jews are all swindler,” they said.
Years earlier a similar case had provoked a minor pogrom.
The community appealed to the Gabbe, Fywel-the-elder. “Do something!”
But what? Fywel put some Thaler coins into his kaftan pockets and walked slowly to the police post. He well knew the gendarme on duty. In that small stetl everybody knew all the gendarmes. “You look thirsty, captain” he told the gendarme. (The man had not yet aspired to that rank) “Here’s a gold Thaler. A schnapps might do you good. “
The gendarme looked at him. “No, three Thaler!”
In the end they settled for two and the gendarme went off for his drink, leaving Fywel senior alone at the police station. Fywel knew where to find the confiscated false weights – on a shelf in the guardroom. He quickly slipped these into the pocket of his kaftan and substituted a set of good weights that he had hidden in his other pocket.
He rapidly made his way home, to be welcomed by his much-relieved wife and son. They remembered that others who done similar misdeeds had ended with lengthy terms behind bars.
Fywel senior, however, escaped that fate. It ensured his re-election as gabbe for many years to come.