A Little-Known Story for Purim
I’ll bet that most of my readers have no idea that according to a little-known Hasidic rebbe, a popular American folk song is nothing less than an allegory of Jewish history.
It seems that during the mid-nineteenth century, an American musician of Jewish background who had traveled to the Ottoman Empire for a series of performances found himself stranded when a major gig fell through and his impresario went bankrupt. During his efforts to play and sing his way back to the United States, he passed through the Land of Israel, which was then under Turkish rule. There he met the fervently Zionist Ailurolover Rebbe, who had made aliya from Eastern Europe some years before together with his wife and children, a small circle of devoted followers, and his beloved cat, Geula.
On a bright, brisk day in March, the musician visited the Ailurolover Rebbe at his home and found him sharing a meal with his family and students. On hearing that it was the holiday of Purim and that the Ailurolover Rebbe loved animals, particularly cats, the musician offered to sing an American folk song that was popular at the time, a lighthearted tune appropriate to the day. He was totally unprepared for the Rebbe’s reaction.
It is said that on hearing the song “The Cat Came Back” (or, perhaps more accurately, its impromptu translation into Yiddish), the Ailurolover Rebbe was at first stunned into silence and then burst into tears.
“But of course!” he cried. “This holy niggun, this sacred melody, contains nothing less than the story of the Jewish people, rendered into a simple folk song so that it might be more easily transmitted to the next generation safe from the ears of those who would harm us. Listen!” And he asked the musician to sing the first several lines of the song for him once more.
Now old Mister Johnson had troubles of his own:
He had a little yellow cat who wouldn’t leave his home.
He tried and tried and tried and tried to give the cat away....
“Don’t you see?” the Ailurolover said, an unearthly light breaking over his face. “Mister Johnson, the cat’s master, is the Master of the Universe. The little cat is—who else?—the Jewish people. And why is the little cat yellow? It is a tikkun—a rectification—of the sin of the Golden Calf. You will remember that when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God, the Israelite men, thinking that he had abandoned them and disappeared, gave their gold jewelry to Aaron, telling him to make an idol out of it. But the faithful women refused to surrender their gold for such a base purpose, choosing to donate it instead for the construction of God’s Tabernacle later on. So the little cat in the song is yellow in order to remind us that God has given us the ability to choose whether we will use our gold—that is, our resources, our skills and abilities—for good or for evil. As it says in our sacred writings: ‘All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.’
“Now, what is happening in this little song? The master is trying to give his cat away. This is the Master of the Universe sending his beloved children, the Nation of Israel, into exile. Why? Because we sinned, we turned away from Him, and we deserved to be punished. Ah, so sad to send us away! So sad to send away the poor yellow cat!”
It is said that at this point the Ailurolover, overcome with emotion, paused to sip some water. As he did so, his cat, Geula (whom all the surviving writings about the Ailurolover describe as a male gray tabby shorthair), jumped onto his lap and lay down, purring loudly. As he always did when Geula jumped onto his lap during such gatherings, the Ailurolover began singing his Geula Niggun, his unique Melody of Redemption—which, unfortunately, has since been lost—with his students and companions. After its last notes had faded, he continued:
“And now listen to the secret of this sacred song from America. What does its refrain tell us, over and over? What is its message? The cat came back the very next day! No matter what happens to the little yellow cat, no matter what all the wicked people in the song try to do to it, it never dies! It always returns! And so it is with our people. We are the cat, my children, we are the cat! No matter what suffering may have been decreed for us, no matter how many Hamans rise up to destroy us, we never die! We always come back the very next day!”
And, gently swaying, the Ailurolover Rebbe concluded:
“And who gives us this wonderful ability to come back, my children? Who gives us the strength to survive the wicked boy in the boat—that is, the Egyptians—and the train that went off the track—that is, the Romans? Our Father, our Master! Though He banished us, He never abandoned us. He who sent us away will one day bring us back! Does it not say in our holy writings: ‘Though I turned away from you in a moment of anger, I will have mercy upon you with everlasting love’?”
It is said that at this point, the musician—who had been following the Rebbe’s discourse with the help of one of his students, who provided an ongoing translation into English—asked:
“But Rebbe, if the song is really a retelling of Jewish history, and if the Jewish nation always survives the attempts of all who would destroy it, then why doesn’t the song tell us at the end that the cat found a home where it was safe from danger?”
“Ah, my son, have we yet found a home?” the Rebbe answered sadly. “You ask about a great and secret thing: the final Redemption, for which we all wait and yearn, for which we pray every single day. And it will come, though we cannot know when.” As his students looked on in astonishment, the Rebbe poured a small amount of wine from his glass into the musician’s cup and signaled for him to drink. “My dear child, that verse shall yet be written in the Messianic Era. And who knows? Maybe you will be the one to write it.”
It is said that from that moment, the musician became a follower of the Ailurolover Rebbe and remained in the Land of Israel for the rest of his life, writing songs of such beauty that the birds would stop their singing in order to listen... when they were not busy being chased by Geula and his many descendants.
Here is the version of “The Cat Came Back” that our stranded musician probably played for the Ailurolover Rebbe that long-ago Purim. It’s not the same tune we know today.Happy Purim!