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Uncle Mendel

by Ben Richman

There was quite a crew of the Richman boys -- my father David; then Srulber, he was older (than my father); and Mendel, he was the oldest. I remember my uncle Mendel. This is a story that he told me. I believe it because everybody else said it's true. It's Mendel's story, alright!

He was of draft age. People suggested that he maim his hands so that his shooting finger wouldn't work; or to do some other maiming to disqualify himself. But he wouldn't do it. He was going to see if the couldn't get out of it some other way -- so he went to Y...

Since he was a very able secretary, he was made the camp's (or company's) secretary. The commanding officer had him do all recordings, all the happenings of the day, etc. etc. He would write out all the papers that were needed at the camp. Well, it went along all right for a few months. He didn't mind it; it wasn't so different from what he'd been used to. But, he got tired of this and one day he asked his commanding officer if he would give him a leave of absence. The CO laughed at him and said:

"You'll get a leave of absence when your term is over. And then you can go until the war; and then you'll have to show up again!"

"You mean I can't get a leave of absence?" Mendel asked.

"No, you cannot!" replied the CO.

And so Mendel decided to bide his time. He can't get a leave of absence, well, so he can't.

One fine day the CO left the camp and left Mendel in the office there -- alone. And Mendel said:

"Now is my time -- now I can write out any paper I want!" And he did.

He reported himself a leave of absence; and wrote a note to the CO telling him that he got a legal leave of absence! How did he get it?

Mendel went to the highest officer present in the office. That was a portrait of the Czar. He saluted smartly (he told me) and said:

"Your highness, I want a leave of absence."

And since the portrait didn't answer, and the Russians all knew that silence means assent, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

"Well, if the Czar wants to give me a leave of absence, who am I to refuse? And so I went and I wrote myself out my leave of absence and I stamped it. And now I'm going away and I'll come back when my leave of absence is up!"

Well, of course, his leave of absence never ended -- he never came back. And instead of traveling toward his home town, he went in the opposite direction. He went east and crossed over from Europe into central Asia; he went as far as Samarkand and that's where he stopped. He figured he was near enough to the border so that in case anything happened -- in case they were looking for him -- he could always get across to Persia or Afghanistan or some such place.

During his travels, he accepted the hospitality of all the nomadic peoples he met up with -- they were traveling around with their goats, their camels, their sheep.

Mendel's stories were always interesting, and sometimes most hilarious. He said:

"Well, you know how it is -- if you make it do. For instance, if you have no sugar for the coffee, you take a little salt. It's alright."

He told me of all the drinks that he drank while he was in these nomadic camps. The one that he liked the most was 'kumit', mare's milk. And he assured me that it was the most delicious drink he had ever tasted, especially the way the people of the nomadic tribes made it.

He was the one who told me also the story of the possiblilty that our forefathers (Sephardic Jews) never reached Spain; that they came up the Black Sea and settled just to the north of the Black Sea on the shores of the Sea of Asov. There were people among them who never practiced Judiasm. They were called Chozars and they formed an independent kingdom. There are a lot of stories about them, told by Maimonides -- and many others.

My Uncle Mendel told me that the Chozars lived for hundreds of years in that part of the land. They were very independent, and terrific fighters. If anybody so much as looked across their country, they would raid the cross-lookers!

Well, finally, when the Russians became a Czarist enterprise, they made war on the Chozars and conquered them and abolished their kingdom. And these Czars were Swedes -- Oleg was the second Czar.


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