Stone Soup via Vishnitz

Told by Rabbi Fred Davidow

Hershel Ostropolier had to live by his wits. Sometimes he made a good living; sometimes he didn't. For Hershel living well meant eating delicious and sumptuous meals but these were few and far between. Often Hershel would go days eating only scraps. He built up a ravenous appetite and he was known far and wide as a fresser. You should pardon the expression but he could eat like a chazir, a pig.

One day Hershel was trudging down the road to the shtetl, the town, of Vishnitz. In this shtetl he knew Shaiah the miller and he figured he could get a good meal from his old friend, or from Velvel the innkeeper, or from Avrum the butcher. And boy, was he hungry! He had eaten hardly anything for three days.

As Hershel got closer to Vishnitz, the coach of a wealthy man passed him by without slowing down a bit. But the coachman recognized Hershel. At the livery stable in town the coachman told the liveryman; the liveryman told the waterdrawer and the waterdrawer told the woodchopper and before you knew it, the whole shtetl was talking about the impending arrival of Hershel the fresser.

"Here comes Hershel! Here comes Hershel!" everyone was shouting. "We have little enough for ourselves. We don't need a big mouth like that. He's worse than the plague of locusts in Egypt." They hurried to hide their food.

Shaiah the miller pushed sacks of barley into the back room of his mill.

Velvel the innkeeper locked his cabbages and potatoes and carrots and onions in his pantry. Avrum the butcher took all his meat down into the cellar under his shop. The other townspeople hid all they had to eat and then they waited.

Hershel stopped first at the house of Shaiah the miller.

"Sholom aleichem, uncle. Could you spare a bit of food for an old friend who is so hungry?"

"Hershel, I've had no food for myself and my family for three days," Shaiah said sadly. "A drought has made for a poor harvest."

Hershel went to the inn. "Velvel, could you spare a bit of food? And have you some bed where I could sleep for the night?

Velvel said that all the food he had stocked up had been eaten by his lodgers and every bed was taken.

At the butcher shop of Avrum the answer was the same. No food.

And so it went through the shtetl. Not a soul had any food to give away. Good reasons were put forth. The food had been used up. There were old, frail parents to care for. Six children and a mother-in-law were too many mouths to feed. The townspeople stood in the street and wailed. They tried to look as hungry as they could.

Hershel, being really hungry, knew he had to think quickly before he fainted from exhaustion. He struck upon a plan.

He called out. "Chaveirim, friends, come near. I am a hungry man. I have asked you for food but you have no food. Well then, we'll have to make stone soup."

The townspeople stared at Hershel. Some thought he was meshuga, crazy. Maybe he had last been in Chelm. Others thought that stone soup was another name for matzah ball soup, because some of their bubbies made hard and heavy matzah balls that sank like stones in their stomachs. But maybe, just maybe, this was a new recipe that every baleboosteh, housewife, would want to learn to make.

"First we'll need a large iron pot," Hershel yelled.

Several shtarkers, strong guys, brought the largest pot they could find.

"That's none too large," said Hershel. "But it will do. And now, you waterdrawers, fill the pot with water. And you woodchoppers, put a stack of logs on top of some kindling, and let's have a fire."

It took many buckets to fill the pot. The fire was started and the pot was set to boil.

"And now, if you please," said Hershel, "three round, smooth stones."

The stones were brought and Hershel plopped them into the water. The people's eyes popped out.

"Any soup needs salt and pepper," said Hershel, as he began to stir.

Children ran to fetch salt and pepper.

"Stones like these generally make good soup. But oh, if there were cabbages and potatoes and carrots and onions, it would be much better."

Velvel thought he could contribute a little of these vegetables and sent his children off to the pantry with the key to fetch some cabbages, potatoes, carrots and onions.

Hershel cut up the vegetables. "If only we had a bit of meat, this soup would be good enough for a rich man's table. But no use asking for what you don't have."

"I think I could find some scraps of meat somewhere," said Avrum and he hurried to his shop and came back with a few pounds of flanken and some marrow bones.

Other townspeople saw what Velvel and Avrum had done and they went back to their homes and returned to the town square with their share of vegetables and beef to put into the pot of stone soup.

A rich man's soup - and all from a few stones. It seemed like magic!

"Ah," sighed Hershel, as he stirred the hearty broth. "If only we had a little barley, this soup would be fit for the czar himself. Indeed he asked for just such a soup at his last imperial banquet."

The townspeople looked at each other in astonishment. Hershel knew what the czar had eaten at the last imperial banquet.

"But - no use asking for what you don't have," Hershel sighed.

Shaiah the miller sent a servant back to the mill to fetch a sack of barley.

Hershel stirred the barley into the steaming broth.

At last the soup was ready. "All of you shall taste, but first a table must be set," said Hershel.

Long tables were placed in the town square, as if the whole mishpucheh were coming for seder. All around were lighted torches.

Such a soup! How good it smelled! Truly fit for a czar.

But then the townspeople asked themselves, "Would not such a soup require bread and wine?" Soon the tables were completely set and everyone sat down. Hamotzi and borei p'ri hagafen were said and then the essen began.

Never had there been such a feast in Vishnitz. Never had the townspeople tasted such soup. And fancy this! It was made from stones.

They ate and ate and drank a little. After a while the musicians got a fiddle and a clarinet and an accordion and played a few klezmer tunes. The people danced and sang into the night.

At last they were tired. Then Hershel asked, "Velvel, is there not a room at your inn where I could sleep?"

"Such a chochem, wise man, as you, Hershel, must have the best bed in the inn!" So Hershel slept on the most comfortable bed in Velvel's inn.

In the morning all the townspeople gathered in the square to wish Hershel well on his journey.

"Danken Gott, thank God, for what you have taught us," the townspeople said to Hershel. "We shall never go hungry, now that we know how to make soup from stones."

"Yavin meivin," said Hershel. "It's all in knowing how." And off he went down the road to the next shtetl.

This story is adapted from "Stone Soup" by Marcia Brown, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Shuster Children's Publishing Division, original copyright 1947, renewed by Marcia Brown, 1975, 36th printing.

About Rabbi Davidow:

"I've been seriously involved in storytelling for a little over ten years now, though my interest really started when my daughters Talya and Miriam, now grown, were very small children. I had read in a book entitled How to Father by Fitzhugh Dodson that it is important, in reading stories to children, for the parent to show interest in the story and to be very enthusiastic in reading it. I found myself using different voices for the characters of the story and using pitch and pacing and expressing emotions as called for in the story. I "hammed it up" and the audience - Talya and Miriam - loved it. So it was really through bedtime story-reading with my daughters that I discovered how much I truly love storytelling. Storytelling helps me to be a little extroverted. It was a discovery that I cherish, have nurtured, and now seek places where I can enjoy doing it. Story is now an essential part of my rabbinate - in the classroom and on the pulpit. I have told stories beyond the synagogue - at churches, libraries, bookstores, storytelling festivals - and have conducted workshops on sacred storytelling. I am a member of the Atlanta-based Southern Order of Storytellters and the National Storytelling Association, headquartered in Jonesborough, TN. I am the rabbi of Temple B'nai B'rith of Wilkes-Barre, PA."

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