The Chassidic Rebbe and the Guinea Pig
Many stories of Chassidic Rebbes involve miracles. Mine involved guinea pigs.
As a child, my mother forbade me from having a dog. It’s not that she, a Chassidic woman and PhD in microbiology, was religiously pet-averse. On the contrary, she’d often quote the Talmud (Avodah Zara 3b), which attests that the Creator is an enthusiastic pisciculturist who plays daily with His pet fish.
Her reason was simple. Behind our modest home, nestled in the foothills surrounding U.C. Berkeley, was the community mikvah, a quaint redwood cottage housing the Jewish ritual bath used primarily by women. As the volunteer director, my mother didn’t want the spiritually serene “mikvah experience” to be spoiled by the barking rants of an overzealous pooch. So, in an effort to satiate my zoological curiosity, she allowed all other kinds of indoor pets. Salamanders from the backyard. Frogs from Boy Scout camp. Hamsters. Parakeets. Guinea pigs. Even a chicken named Fwedwika. Through encouraging me to be a caretaker for my little critters, my mother taught me the meaning of responsibility, reliability, and perhaps even love.
But the guinea pigs were proficient at producing exorbitant amounts of excrement and they had begun to breed. As soon as I began to smell like them, I was told I needed to figure out an “outdoor solution.” Our neighbor, a kind and skilled architect, fashioned an outdoor guinea pig hutch for me, adjacent to the flower garden in front of the mikvah. I presume my parents agreed to it for easy access to the self-perpetuating, 100% organic, guinea-pig fertilizer.
I was covered with guinea pig feces when I saw the entourage of Yiddish-speaking men coming my way.
One Friday afternoon, I was out cleaning the hutch in preparation for Shabbat. My T-shirt was splattered with guinea pig feces from my vigorous scrubbing. My hands were caked with a multicolored malodorous muck, from changing their newspaper bedding. But I loved it, because I loved seeing the guinea pigs squeal with excitement and purr with contentment when being let back into their freshly cleaned home. I was so engrossed in the task at hand that I didn’t hear the crowd speaking Yiddish until they were already upon me.
Me with the hutch, designed by Andy Grant
I looked up and saw an entourage of men walking down the path, headed toward the mikvah. At their center was a Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Hershel Yolles, who regularly visited the Bay Area. (Many Chassidim immerse in a mikvah daily, especially before Shabbat or Jewish holidays). Like a startled guinea pig, my head jerked from side to side looking for an escape route. But it was too late. The path to the mikvah snaked right by my location. I froze. I felt so embarrassed.
Oh no, what is the Rebbe going to say to me?
I may have only been in elementary school but I knew enough to know that there were more appropriate ways to prepare for Shabbat than being caught knee-deep in rodent excrement. And from an animal called a “pig” no less.
As Rabbi Yolles’ sharp eyes flitted in my direction, I felt the heat of shame flush onto my face. I wished the ground would just open and swallow me up. Please, Hashem, please, I thought, make them not notice me. Please make them walk straight by me. But the Samborer Rebbe, royal descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk and the Sanzer Rebbe, stopped right in front of me.
Rabbi Hershel Yolles, of blessed memory ©David Spieler
“Yingeleh (young boy), what is your name?” he asked.
I felt my face go red as I answered, “Levi. Levi Yitzchok Welton.”
“Ah,” he said as he stroked his pure, white beard. “You’re the son of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Welton?”
“Yes,” I muttered, desperately wanting the interrogation to be over. His followers stood in respectful silence but I could tell they were restless, confused as to why the Rebbe had stopped to converse with a child.
Then he asked the question I had been dreading, “And what are you doing here?” He pointed one of his fingers toward the guinea pig hutch. Fingers, I knew, which only touched the soft pages of the Torah or the tear-soaked lines of his siddur (prayer book). I felt mortified.
I felt overwhelmed with guilt. How often did Chassidic Rebbes make pilgrimages to Berkeley, California? I should be inside, studying Torah in preparation for Shabbat. Or helping my mother prepare the Shabbat candles. I wish he would have caught me in the midst of davening (praying) or something like that!
Mumbling and fumbling, I told him, "Um. These are my pet guinea pigs. I'm cleaning their hutch for Shabbos." My eyes locked onto the tips of my feces-covered sneakers as I awaited the beratement I was sure would ensue.
Instead, I heard him laugh.
I looked up. The California sun glinted off of his wrinkled face. His laugh was quiet, warm and musical. Then he leaned towards me, his eyes twinkling as they grasped my soul.
“Yingeleh, I can think of nothing more Godly than for you to take care of all your animals as you prepare for Shabbat.”
“Yingeleh,” he whispered, “Der Beshefer (The Creator) made the world in six days and on the seventh day, He rested. Almighty God took care of all His animals before He entered Shabbat. I can think of nothing more Godly than for you to take care of all your animals as you prepare for Shabbat.” He paused and said, “May Hakadosh Baruch Hu bless you to always be a loving caretaker of the beautiful creatures in His beautiful garden.”
I was shell shocked. No words came out of my mouth. The Rebbe smiled. Then, just as unexpectedly as he had appeared, he disappeared down the path with his entourage and into the mikvah. I ran into my house to proudly tell my mother and father what had happened.
As I grew up, I learned many stories of Chassidic Rebbes. Quite often, the tales recorded pop off the pages with more vivid authenticity than Broadway's award-winning all-Yiddish rendition of "Fiddler on the Roof." Many of those tales involve miracles of supernatural scale.
Mine involved guinea pigs. And that’s kosher enough for me.