Reb Asher the Dairyman: Will We Hear Him This Year?

For various reasons I recently found myself reading Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s In My Father’s Court recently. I just love his depiction of the old world and his story telling. Each of the stories helps to paint a different aspect of Singer’s early life growing up the son of a Hassidic Rebbe and Rebeitzen. His family had moved from the country into Warsaw. In the stories we see Singer himself exploring the world beyond his own.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

There is one story there I can not get out of my mind. The title of the story Reb Asher the Dairyman already had me thinking I could reconnect with Shalom Aleichem‘s Tevye. But this is a different story. Reb Asher was tall, broad, strong, with a black beard, large eyes, and “the voice of a lion”. He volunteered in Singer’s Father’s makeshift High Holiday minyan as the Hazzan. Singer also tells how Reb Asher takes him under his wing to bring him to the train to see more of the outside world. It is clear that Reb Asher is a friend of the family.

There we read:

One year, at the close of the Day of Atonement, this same Asher, our friend and benefactor, saved our very lives. It happened in this manner. After the day-long fast, we had eaten the repast. Later a number of Jews gathered in our house to dance and rejoice. My father had already put up the first beam of the Sukkah. Late that night we had at last fallen asleep. Since benches and pews has been set up in the bedroom, and the entire house was in disorder, each of us slept wherever he could find a spot. But one thing we has forgotten- to extinguish the candles that were still burning on some of the pews. Late that night Asher had to drive to the railroad station to pick up milk. He passed our house and noticed that it was unusually bright. This was not the glow of candles, or of a lamp, but rather the glare of a great fire. Asher realized that our house must be burning. He rang the bell at the gate, but janitor did not rush to open it. He too was asleep. Then Asher set to ringing the bell and beating on the door with such furor that at las the Gentile awoke and opened the gate. Asher raced up the stairs and knocked on our door, but no one answered. Then Asher the mighty hurled his broad shoulders against the door and forced it open. Bursting into the house, he found the entire family asleep while all around, benches, prayer stands, prayer books, and holiday prayer books were aflame. He began to call our in his booming cantorial voice and finally roused us, and then he tore off our quilts and set to smothering the conflagration.

In My Father’s Court (166-167)

In some way we see Singer depicting Asher reliving the Midrash of Avram discovering God when stopping to investigate a castle that is has it’s lights on and/or is engulfed in fire. But in another way this story from the old world seems prescient in describing our moment in history today. Just like the Singer family we have fallen asleep and the world is burning. Be it global warming and its forest fires, political fervor, raging racism, or this evolving Covid-19 plague, our reality feels like it burning to the ground. How do we deal with trauma? How might we address the underlying root causes?

As we prepare for Yom Kippur I pause to think about the voice of the Hazan. Will I allow myself to get lost in the nostalgia? Will his voice lull us to sleep with a false sense of comfort? Or, will the booming “voice of the lion” wake us? We will only be saved when we face the issues burning all around us. As we prepare to stand in God’s Court during Yom Kippur we should all be blessed to be saved by our friend Reb Asher on his way to the railroad station to pick up the milk.

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