Last Laugh: Stories From Religious Traditions

Well sir, the past two Januarys I’ve just had to tell you about all the extraordinary tale-tellin’ I’d heard the previous falls at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. And I’m a-goin’ to do the same thing right now, too. This time, though, I’ve got a new wrinkle to add . . . namely, that you no longer have to jist read about this annual storytellers’ shindig. Now, you kin listen to it, too! You see, the folks at the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling–NAPPS, fer short–have jist cut a two-record set featuring twenty of the festival’s best tales and tellers. Now I cain’t describe all the wide variety of stories on this pair of discs. But I kin share a couple of the shorter tales with you. Still, remember as you read, that lookin’ at these stories compared to hearin’ professional tellers perform them . . . well, it’s like readin’ about a twenty-course feast compared to eatin’ it! Pleasant DeSpain told the first one, “Old Joe and the Carpenter” (copyright ©1979 by Pleasant DeSpain).

Old Joe lived way out in the countryside, and he had one good neighbor. They’d been friends all their lives long. It seemed that they had grown old together. And now that their spouses were dead and buried and their children raised and living lives of their own in other places, all they had left were their farms . . . and each other.

But for the first time in their long relationship, they’d had an argument. And it was a silly argument. It was over a stray calf that neither one really needed. It seemed as though the calf was found on Joe’s neighbor’s land, and so he claimed it as his own. But Old Joe said, “No, no, now that calf has the same markings as my favorite cow, and I recognize it as being mine.”

Well, they were both a bit stubborn, so the upshot of it was they just stopped talking to each other. That happened about a week before, and it seemed that a dark cloud had settled over Old Joe . . . until there came a knock on his door.

He wasn’t expecting anybody that morning, and as he opened the door, he saw standing before him a young man who had a box of wooden tools on his shoulder. He had a kind voice and rather dark, deep eyes, and he said, “I’m just a carpenter, and I’m looking for a bit of work. Maybe you’d have some small jobs here and there that I can help with.”

Old Joe wasn’t the kind of fellow to take someone on just right off, so he brought him on into the kitchen and sat him down and gave him some stew that he had on the back of the stove. There was some homemade bread (it was baked fresh early that morning), some fresh churned butter, and homemade jam. While they were sitting and eating and talking, Joe decided that he liked this young fellow, and he said, “I do have a job for you. Look right there through my kitchen window. See that farm over there across the way? That’s my neighbor’s place. And you see that crick running right down there between our property lines? That crick, it wasn’t there last week. My neighbor did that to spite me, dadburn it. He took his plow up there with a tractor, and he just dug a big old furrow from the upper pond, and then he flooded it.

“Well, I want you to do one better. Since he wants us divided that way, you go out there and build me a fence–a big, tall fence–so I won’t even have to see his place no more. Goldurn him anyhow!”

And the carpenter said, “Well, if you have the lumber and the nails, I got my tools, and I’ll be able to do a job that you’ll like.”

Joe had to go on to town to get some supplies, so he hitched up the wagon and showed the carpenter where everything was in the barn . . . and that carpenter, well, he carried everything he needed down to the crick side and he started to work.

And, oh, his work, it went smooth and fast. He did his measuring and his sawing and his nailing . . . and it was about sunset when Old Joe returned and the carpenter had finished his work. And when Old Joe pulled up in that wagon, his eyes opened wide and his mouth fell open . . . because there wasn’t a fence there at all.

It was a bridge, going from one side of the crick to the other! It had handrails and all–a fine piece of work–and his neighbor was just starting to cross the other side of that bridge with his hand stuck out, and he was saying, “Joe, you’re quite a fellow to build this bridge. I’da never been able to do that. I’m so glad we’re going to be friends again!”

And Joe, he put his arms around his neighbor and he said, “Oh, that calf is yours. I’ve known it all the time. I just want to be your friend, too.”

About that time, the carpenter started putting his tools in the box and then hoisted it up onto his shoulder, and he started to walk away. And Joe said, “No, now wait, come on back, young fellow. I want you to stay on. I got lots of projects for you.”

The carpenter just smiled and said, “I’d like to stay on, Joe, but you see, I can’t. I got more bridges to build.”

So he walked on, and there ends my tale.

Diane Wolkstein says she first heard this next story in synagogue, appropriately enough on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s called “The Seer of Lublin’s Shirt” (copyright © 1982 by Diane Wolkstein).

It was Rosh Hashanah, and Moishele, who was just a poor man, but a good man, came into the synagogue. And the Seer of Lublin looked over at him and said, “Moishele, you’re so bedraggled. You’re a wreck!”

And he looked and, indeed, it was true. He had a shirt, and one side was red and the other side was blue, and then there was a little green and some patches . . . and it was just put together from all the shirts he’d ever worn and stitched. That’s all he had on. And on top of that, it was all holes.

So the Seer of Lublin said, “Let me give you my shirt.” And he took it off and gave it to him.

Moishele started walking down the road, feeling wonderful, wearing the Holy Seer of Lublin’s shirt. As he walked down the road, he met the drunkard in the town. And the drunkard said, “What’s happened? Why do you look so wonderful?”

He said, “The Seer of Lublin gave me his shirt.”

“Ohh, it’s soon beautiful,” said the drunkard.

And Moishele, who had the kindest heart in the world, said, “Do you want it?” and just gave it to him.

As soon as the drunkard got the shirt, he took it into the tavern, and he said, “Look what I have! The Holy Seer of Lublin’s shirt! What am I bid for it?”

And the people were amazed. But you know, there’s powers in the shirt of a holy man. And the bartender, who knew the drunkard well, said, “A year’s supply of drinks!”

“Sold!” he said.

Then the bartender, who knew the value of the shirt, took it to the market the next day and said, “Any woman who cannot conceive has only to put on this shirt and she will bear children.” Can you imagine the price he got?

Soon the word came back to the Seer of Lublin of what had happened to his shirt. And when he saw Moishele the next day, he could hardly look at him. And Moishele felt so terrible that the Seer of Lublin should think that he had sold his shirt for a profit, that he just left the town and he went to sit in the cemetery.

As he was sitting there, a man came and said, “What’s happened? Has someone died?”

And Moishele said, “Maybe it’s my honor.”

The man said, “Tell me,” and he told him. And the man said, “Let me tell you a story. Sometimes from helping others, good comes, but you just don’t know.

“In my town, there was a thief, and he was a real thief. Everyone in the town had something missing, and it was always he who took it. He was such a good thief, he really got rich. And he got so rich, he decided to give up being a thief and bought a house and sent his children to school. Then he sent his children to the synagogue. Then, once he became a really good Jew, he couldn’t steal anymore. Then he lost all his money! It was a dreadful position. And he started to beg. And the people said, `What! You who stole our things want begging money from us? Forget it!’

“Nobody would give him any money. He got poorer and poorer and poorer, but he refused to steal. The richest man in the town was walking by and saw this man who was once a thief sitting on his steps, looking miserable. Not only did he look miserable, he looked hungry. And that night the richest man in the town sent him money to eat. And every sabbath since then he sent him money to eat . . . all his life.

“And after many, many years, it happened that the richest man in the town and the thief both died on the same day. The funeral parlor was filled with the friends of the richest man in the town. As for the thief, there were just a few of his old students who were there.

“But when the richest man in the town got up to heaven, and they had the scales of justice, it turned out he had so many sins there wasn’t a chance in the world he could ever get into paradise.

“Just that moment, there was a breeze. Suddenly, he was pushed in! There he was in paradise! He asked, ‘How did it happen?’ They said, ‘Your friend, the thief, stole your sins.'”

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