The Holy Billy Goat

Simcha Prawda

Translated by Chana Pollack and Myra Mniewski

Among other things, Czyzewo was blessed with goats and billy-goats. Day and night the goats used to roam the shtetl's streets and alleys, chewing their cuds and leaving tokens of their visits.

Each goat procured its food in its own way. One grabbed a little grass off an unhitched wagon, another noshed from a sack of potatoes on a peasant's cart. Another took the opportunity to stick its head into a mare's feedbag when the mare was taking a break from eating to shake off some flies. The goat continued to munch away until the mare flared its nostrils in a loud snort frightening the goat who ran away offended. There were goats that staved off hunger with a handful of cabbage or even an apple. In a pinch, a roll from Malka the baker would also do.

That is how every goat procured its little bit of food, with no dearth of fear and often actually accompanied by the crack of a whip or hard stick over its brittle bones. That is why, when it came to milking, every goat knew who its owner was and only the owner had the right to some of its rich milk. It was never arbitrary.

Amidst the herd of Czyzewo goats, a “bokher” that freely roamed. He had a lengthy, dignified little beard and pious eyes that were overshadowed by his broad overhanging ears. He would turn his bushy head this way and that as he strolled the streets, bleating in his hoarse little voice, “Meh, meh, meh!” This was an indication for all to make way; the city's he-goat was coming through! Respect for the city's holy billy-goat! And people actually honored him and made way; no one wanted to get caught in his pointy horns.
The only one in town, who not only didn't honor as befit the shtetl's one and only billy-goat, but instead scornfully doled out heaping portions of blows, was Reb Itzl Kayles (his wife's name was Kayle). He was the goat's rightful owner, who according to Jewish law, was supposed to be allowed to roam freely because he was a first-born male.

As soon as the little goat arrived into the world, Reb Itzl Kayles had already calculated how many pots of milk this little goat would produce when it grew up to become a goat. With great joy he tied a red ribbon around the beautiful little goat's forehead which was marked with two adorable little patches. This served as an amulet against the evil eye. Reb Itzl was never stingy about giving the little goat milk to drink. No worries, it would, God willing, return a lot more than that.

And that's how things went along calmly and undisturbed, until. . . One fine day, Reb Itzl noticed that the young goat was beginning to sprout a little beard, that was growing longer with each passing day and…that it was actually a he-goat and that he had been fattening up a freeloader who was sponging off him. From that day on, Reb Itzl began to decrease the goat's food ration, until one fine morning, he stopped feeding him altogether and in a huff banished him from the shed where he slept.

So the billy-goat, nebekh,had to wander through the shtetl alone in search of its daily sustenance. But the day came when the billy-goat grew lonesome for his former owner, Reb Itzl. As it happened that day turned out to be the day that Reb Itzl forgot to lock his granary where sacks of wheat and flour were stored. The billy-goat leisurely strolled in and with great pleasure began sating his hunger. He buried his head and beard in a sack of barley, ate a while, tried a bit of wheat from another sack and washed it down with some buckwheat from a third sack. But when he was working on dessert, slurping from a bag of wheat-flour, an unwelcome Reb Itzl showed up at the door and without even saying hello, threw a weight he just happened to be holding in his hand at the goat. Luckily, he missed him. Confused and embarrassed because he was caught stealing red-handed, the billy-goat let out a heart wrenching “mehhhhhh!”

In his language this meant, “Why are you beating and berating me? Is it my fault God created me without an udder and I cannot give milk? Am I supposed to go hungry?” But Itzl Kayles had no intention of suppressing his anger and didn't stop beating and cursing his poor bokher for breaking into the granary without his knowledge and stuffing himself on all the goodies.

At a certain moment, the billy-goat froze in its tracks, as if he might have found a way to flee his undeserving master, but he didn't. Instead he sneezed loudly. Reb Itzel spat right in his face and chased the thief into the street, giving him one for the road with a stick across his emaciated back.
A few days later, after the aforementioned incident, Itzel suddenly noticed an eruption of warts on his face. It was the talk of the town that this was Itzel Kayles' punishment for torturing and spitting in the face of his holy bokher. From then on he received a new name, no longer Itzel Kayles, he was now called Reb Itzel the Wart.

After this incident with Itzel, every one was very careful not to lay a hand on the holy bokher. He, the holy bokher, roamed the shtetl freely paying visits to grocery stores, produce stands, even visiting bakeries to snack on some baked goods. The billy-goat's first visit, after his unfriendly reception at Itzl's, was at the grocery store of Reb Itzl's neighbor, Reb Dovid Sara Etes (his wife's name was Sara Ete.) With his little beard, he rummaged in a sack of oats, “and he saw that it was good.” Realizing its true taste he dug his chin deeper into the oats and had a go at it. From Sara Ete's store, he went for a walk around the marketplace, grabbed a lick of farina at Mendel Liev's and saw that this too was not bad. He then honored the widow Sara Rachel with a visit, to satisfy his taste for some ground chickpeas followed by some sour pickles from the barrel at the entrance.

The townsfolk, nebekh, watched the antics of the holy first-born and, suppressed their anger, pursed their lips and remained silent. One may not disturb the bokher. No one dared throw anything at the billy-goat or hit him, because, God forbid, he might become afflicted as punishment for one of the worst sins, not a trivial matter. The bokher, according to Jewish law, is free to do his want, and our holy bokher indeed behaved as though unbridled.

When Yutke, Yoske Nisl's wife, saw the he-goat approaching her grocery store knowing how he freely roamed through the shops, mercilessly gorging and swilling, she was enraged. Knowing that she begrudged her own children a little farina to cook up for themselves how could she let this glutton feast free of charge? Even if he is a holy bokher was she obligated to let him gorge? Isn't it enough that he depletes everyone else's stores and no one does anything about it? Where is the judge and where is justice? No! She would not be silent!

She grabbed a rolling pin and determined, ran out into the marketplace, straight over to the billy-goat. The goat reared up on its hind legs, pointed his goatee in her face and let out a drawn out “mehehehhhh,” baring his pointy horns. All of which meant the following in goat language: “Yutke, Yutke, who do you think you are going up against with that rolling pin? Against the “holy billy-goat”? Against Itzl's bokher, his only-son? I'll impale you on my horns and show you who's boss! Show some respect for the holy bokher!!!”
Only then did Yutke realize her mistake. She was not dealing with just any he-goat, but with the shtetl's esteemed he-goat, who, according to the law, should not be harmed. God may punish her, heaven forbid, as he did Itzl Kayles, may the merciful one protect us.
She spat three times saying, “May only my enemies suffer so.”

The holy goat again strode daintily around from shop to shop, from trough to trough on an eating spree from the nicest and best and no one disturbed him. We kheyder boys who enjoyed catching billy-goats in order to ride them would make a game of chasing them until they collapsed with the rider on their backs, having no more strength to stand back up. But Reb Itzl”s holy first-born was treated with great respect and love. We were afraid of him, caring for him as if he were our own eyes. We fed and protected him for we were scared we would wind up like Itzl Kayles, God forbid, with a face full of warts. Along with the fear we also pitied him and felt badly that Itzl had abandoned him. Indeed every boy tried to oblige the holy-billy goat, one with a piece of bread, another with a potato or beet that was taken out of the house behind their mother's back. But, as we later learned our kindness turned out to be too good.
It happened on an ordinary Wednesday. We wanted to prepare a festive meal for the holy-billy goat and brought all sorts of treats. Everyone strived to bring the most that they could and we gave it all to the billy-goat. He inhaled everything with gusto, apparently very hungry. Suddenly, he let out a resounding lament, the sound of which carried through the shtetl. People ran from all over to see what was happening. A horrific scene—the holy billy-goat is lying in a pool of filth thrashing in anguish from side to side. He raises himself up on his forelegs digging them into the earth, kicking, and ramming his horns into Mendel Liev's stone floor. In great agony he falls down, tries to get up again but cannot, groans loudly and remains on the floor stiff.

His holy soul ascended!


A quorum of Jews raised the holy goat, carried him into the hekdesh, washed him and wrapped him in a white sheet. The whole shtetl took part in the funeral. He was carried to the cemetery and every one of the assembled asked forgiveness of the goat, in case someone, God forbid, had caused him pain when he was alive. Everyone felt s/he had a part in the death of the holy-billy goat. But we boys felt clean of sin.