The Yemen cobbler’s son

“I am sorry Master, but pi is equal to 3.141 not 2.5.”

Master Greenberg stretched himself as high as he can and looked down at the little twerp who dared to interfere in the morning’s math lesson. All the other children had their eyes downcast, copying furiously into their notebooks the sums from the blackboard. Their teacher liked to rub out what he written down within a couple of minutes. He felt that it not only encouraged their memory capacities but also kept the class quiet.

“Oh, is that so David HHHHamadi!. And where would a Yemen boy learn what pi is equal to ? It is not as if your house is overflowing with books, now is it? Children yes, but not books. I doubt that either your mother or father can read,or has even held a book in their hands… “

“My father often holds and reads from the Torah.”

“And where in the Torah does it say that pi is 2.5,hmmm?”

“Pi equals 3.141. And It is not written in the Torah. I have worked it out myself. One merely has to divide the circle’s circumference by its diameter. Or you can use Archimedes’s method of…”

Yonatan, David’s younger brother who shares a bench with him in their small classroom, let out a soft sigh. How come his brother always has to argue with their teacher? Anyone with eyes in their head can see the red blotches creeping up on their teacher’s face from underneath his stiff collar.

He sticks his finger up in the air: “Umm, teacher, may I have permission to speak?”

Master Greenberg looked down at the younger brother sitting next to his nemesis. They look like copies of each other. Both of them have dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes and those primitive extra-long pyots, or shimonmin as they call it. Most of the Yemenites of Tra’ab street have learned by now to dress like Westerns but the Hamadi children, male and female are all dressed in a striped jallabyaa and go barefoot. At bit ironic if you know that their mother is a seamstress and the father is a cobbler..!

The schoolmaster allows himself a small smirk and then answered the younger brother.

“Yes, Yonatan what is it?”

“Teacher, Rabbi Teitelbaum has asked if we could leave a bit earlier today to prepare for our Torah readings. Moshe,Yossi and I have our bar mitzvahs soon and the rabbi is really busy lately because of those people who died from malaria. He said that David could help us go over our portions but only if it is okay with you.”

Master Greenberg was at a sudden loss for words and for a minute there was silence in the class.

“This is true Moshe and Yossi?” 
The two boys quickly nodded their heads, they were just as anxious as Yonatan to leave the tense atmosphere in the schoolhouse. 
“Have you taken your notes?”

Another quick nod from all three. The schoolmaster prided himself on his secularity but he still knew better than to go against the wishes of the unofficial leader of the town.

“Go then. Take that insolent brother of yours and go and practice to read your ‘holy book’. The rest of us ‘uneducated heathens’ will just try and continue our studies.”

“You don’t always have to save me from Master you know” said David as soon as they stepped out into the bright late morning sun. The schoolhouse with its thick walls and high windows was an oasis of coolness in the hot Israeli summer and the four boys had to shield their eyes against the glare.

“I wasn’t protecting you from Master, I was trying to protect the Master from you” replied Yonathan.

David gave a little smile. “You really shouldn’t. The man is an idiot”

“He is also the only teacher that we have.”

“Yes,” added Moshe, “and just how important is it to know if pi is equal to two or three circles? He taught us all to write and read and do our sums. That is enough, no? Nobody needs to teach me that I’d rather eat two instead of three of my mum’s famous apple pies!”

David said nothing but rolled his eyes at Yonathan who in return grabbed his older brother by the shoulder and pushed him along. “Come on guys, let’s go for a swim first. The Torah says that there is no end to books and too much study will make you tired! Besides, it is too hot to even think.”

— — — -

“Tell Master tomorrow that I am not coming to back to school.” David said to Yonathan later that evening as they were getting ready for bed.”

“But what will you do instead?”

David shrugged. “Help Ima and Abba. That idiot has nothing to teach me anymore.”

Yonathan secretly agreed with his brother but was still apprehensive about their teacher’s reaction.

“He is just going to torture one of the other kids you know. And none of us is really smart enough to stand up to him.”

“Well, it is a good thing then that you are still going to school. But you are going to have to realise that you cannot always save everyone, Yonathan. Now go and sleep, you will need all of your wits tomorrow for the idiot.”

— — — -

Much to Yonathan’s surprise, Master Greenberg’s attitude towards the other students seemed to improve in the absence of David. He allowed the students a bit more time to copy his precious notes from the blackboard and even started to loosen the top shirt button underneath his tie.

One day he taught the older children about pi again. They had to figure it out by themselves by measuring the circumference and the radius of various circles. The teacher frowned down at Yonathan when Esther, the most clever girl in the school now, concluded that pi = 3.141. Yonathan however kept himself busy with measuring the various circles and made sure not to look up for the entire lesson.

On the other hand, things a home were not going very well. David immediately started to look at his mother’s accounts and insisted that her clients pay their entire bill before she starts sewing on a new dress or shirt for them. Slowly less and less women stopped by for a cup of tea or to look at the new fabrics that came from Haifa. And hardly anybody dropped in anymore with a button that needed be sewn back or any other small piece of mending that Sima was always willing to do free of charge. They only visited the house on Tra’’ab street when they were in dire need of a new piece of clothing.

“He doesn’t understand.” explained Sima to Yonathan. “Nobody is really rich here in Zichron. They pay me a little bit and a little bit here. Sometimes they bring me a few bottles of olive oil, or some fruit of a basket of vegetables for the things that I do for them..

“I fix the clothes of Shabazi’s family without taking one lirah. Nothing! And does Shabazi ask me for money when he cuts your hair? Or your father’s hair? Or the hair of your brothers?
He doesn’t take one lira form me, I tell you! That brother of yours only knows black and white. But that is not the right way. This is not how people work.”

Finally Sima forbade David to ever bother her or her clients again and so the oldest son moved to their father’s cobbler’s shop in the backyard. Yosef didn’t allow David to talk to his clients or look at the accounts but was happy for the help with fixing old shoes or cutting the leather and stitching the new ones. .

The cobbler was even more happy when David showed him a better and less wasteful way to cut the leather for the new shoes. David could also take one look at the feet of the Aharonson’s family or those of their important visitors and then come home and draw the exact same pattern for his father.

This talent of his amazed the residents of the entire Tra’ab street. As soon as they heard that some important official or guest had visited Zichron, they would make sure to go and pop in at the cobbler’s to see the design that David made of their footwear. But of course, the residents of the moshava weren’t interested in buying shoes made from these fancy designs. Most of them were field workers and they only needed sturdy shoes that could last as long as possible.

David started to spend less time at home and more and more at the synagogue. Rabbi Teitelbaum was very impressed that he would spend so much time with the bar mitzvah boys and how he insisted that each and everyone should be able to read the Torah flawlessly. He was however less happy with the fact that David acted exactly the same with the grown-ups.

Every time after the men took out the Torah from the cupboard and took turns to read from it David was just waiting to correct their pronunciation. The hardworking men of Zichron did not have endless time to study the difficult and ancient Hebrew that most of the Torah was written in. The 15 year-old cobbler’s son who didn’t even study in a proper yeshiva and who corrected them in a strong Yemenite accent was just too much. Nearly every day Rabbi Teitelbaum had to listen to somebody else complain about David’s behaviour in the synagogue.

Finally he called his parents, Yosef and Sima, and the younger brother Yonathan for a talk. They met in his small office near the synagogue. The office was packed with books on overflowing shelves, even half obscuring a small window. The only person, apart from the rabbi, who have read the books was of course David.

The rabbi gestured the parents to two rickety chairs in front of his desk as he settled behind it. Yonathan had no choice but to lean up against the closed door, the one place in the office that was not covered with books.

“You have to help me, I do not want to forbid David from praying but he cannot continue bothering everyone in the synagogue.” started Rabbi Teitelbaum.

“It is because that child of ours only see in black and white, Rabbi. He is very clever but he is not like us regular people.” replied Sima. “He has been like this since he was small.”

“He will never stop correcting everyone, don’t even bother asking him”, added Yonathan. “ For him right is right and wrong is wrong. The only way to get him to stop is to remove him from the synagogue.”

“We need to find that boy a job.” said Yosef. “A good job where he can use that straight-lined brain of is.”

“Yeah , joked Yonathan “Maybe he can go and design extra-round car wheels…or maybe…straight telephone poles!”

Sima looked crossly at Yonathan, “Don’t laugh at your brother. He cannot help being seeing the world the way that he does..”

Yonathan, a bit stung from his mother’s reprimand replied, “Maybe he should go and do your accounts again Ima, he has always been very good with numbers.”

Sima glared but did not reply.

“People, people..we are trying to help David, not fight with each other. We need to find him a job where they will be glad that he is so particular about getting things just right.” said the rabbi.

“And where he can use his good head for numbers.”, said Yonathan a bit sarcastically.

“And maybe even design things.” suggested Yosef.

Yonathan kept the thought ‘Yeah, like shoes that nobody wears or anything else with straight lines and round circles’ to himself because of his mother’s previous scolding but the idea of David designing straight lines persisted.

“Maybe he can work with a building crew? They really need someone to teach them how to build a straight wall.” he tried gently. The little town of Zichron Yaakov was undergoing a growth spurt but the hastily build buildings were notorious for their skew angles.

He caught the look that Sima and Yosef looked at each other. His parents had repeatedly told him and his siblings from a young age that they should study hard so that they would not end up working with their hands too. They especially had high hopes for the clever Yonathan but his difficult way with people has slowly eroded that dream.

“I promised Sima that our children would not have to work with their hands in Eretz Israel. We work hard so that they can do well in school and study with you Rabbi.”

Rabbi Teitelbaum nodded. The Haredi family (boys and girls) were indeed always in the synagogue on Shabbatot and holidays. And once he overheard that Master Greenberg sneered that maybe the family should hire a private tutor instead of sending their brood to school for him to babysit.

“You do not have to tell me Yosef. I know your family..and David. David is like a son to me. I remember that he was only four years when he started to read. Didn’t he spent most of his life here in this very room, reading every nearly single book here..?

If we lived in a city, or even a larger town he could join a yeshiva and be a talmid haham.”

“But we don’t live in a city, we live in a small town on a rocky hilltop near a malaria-infested swamp.” blurted Yonathan irritably.”Is it really so bad to work with your hands, Ima and Abba? You have fed and clothed the six us of with your handwork.”

For a few seconds nobody said anything and his words hung silently in the air, as trapped by the surrounding books. Then Sima looked up straight into her second child eye’s, “Yonathan is right. We are make an honest living with our hands and so will our first born. And who knows, maybe the building bricks won’t mind David telling them to lay in a straight line!”

The rabbi and Yosef let out a small forced laugh but Yonathan just answered his mother’s unspoken question with a small nod. He understood. David will be allowed to become a builder but that means that it will be up to him now to do the Haredi name proud.

“Good” said the rabbi,” that is settled then. I will talk to Simon and David.”

— — — -

Simon the builder was more than surprised when Rabbi Teitelbaum told him that David will be joining his building crew. He knew the cobbler’s son as the little Yemen boy who always had his nose in a book and copied the shoe designs of the Aharonsohn’s guests but one did not argue with the unofficial leader of the town.

He showed the teenager how to build a brick wall and then left him to go and check on the progress of his other workers. He figured that David would get tired after an hour or so working in the hot sun. Much to his surprise David was still building when he checked in on him after two hours. The section that David worked on had the straightest walls that Simon has ever seen in his entire life as a builder.

“How did you get the walls so straight, David?” he asked

“What do you mean Simon? The bricks are straight and I lay them straight, therefor the wall that they form is also straight. This is very simple actually.”

“No, actually it is not that simple. If I bring some of the other guys over, do you think you can teach them?”

“Sure, if they want to learn, I will teach them..but tomorrow. want to finish this section first.”

Simon bushy eyebrows raised when he heard this. This was definitely not how he thought the day would turn out.

“You have an hour for your lunch break. I presume you will go parents’ house for lunch?”

David just nodded.

“Maybe get yourself a hat while you are there, you are quite pale for a Yemen. We clock off at 5pm.”

“The sun does not go down until 8..” David said as he scraped off the cement from another laid brick, I can carry on building.”

“You should take it easy, it is just your first day. And besides, the neighhours complain about the noise if we work late. We finish at 5 pm on the dot.”

David just nodded and concentrated on the wall in front of him.

— — — -

Even though building straight walls came so naturally to David, he struggled to convey his linear sense to the other builders. Eventually however he got all of them to build their walls as straight as his. He got the idea one evening when he was eating his supper at the kitchen table while his mother kept him company.

As always, Sima’s hands were never still. She was stitching two pieces of material together while she frowned at her son.

“My goodness, David!” she remarked, “you are really hungry these these.”

He looked up from his plate to give her one of his rare smiles. “What can I say Ima, all that fresh air in the good warm sun is giving me even more of an appetite for your wonderful food.”

“Hmmph!’ she continued, “and just look at how dark your skin is now! And I really do not know why you have to dress like the other workers?!. The Hamadi’s have always happy in their jalabyas, just like our fathers and grandfathers before us.”

“Yes, but now we live in Eretz Israel and it is 1938 Ima. We are living in modern times. I am thinking of also cutting my simonim off.”


“Don’t worry, I won’t do it. Just because of you. Why are you hand stitching those two pieces together? Aren’t you using the Singer anymore?”

“Of course I am still using the Singer David. It is just with this new fashion of tighter bodices, the sewing has to be perfect. The thread of the hand stitching helps me to guide the machine exactly where the stitching should be.”

David slowly placed his dishes in the kitchen, a thoughtful look on his face. Suddenly he turned back to the table and smiled quietly to his mother.

“You have showed me the way Ima. The other builders can use string to lay the bricks straight.” He straightend up and stepped towards the back door.

“Even working with your hands, you are still the genius in this family. And I do not know how you are going to use the string with your building friends but I am telling you better not TOUCH your simonim !!!”

She flung her words to David as he stepped outside but he was is such a hurry to get to Simon the builder that he did not even hear his mother’s words.

At first Simon thought David was nuts when he told them that a piece of string would help the builders build straight walls. However, once he saw David’s plan in action and of course all the straight walls, he made him this foreman. David was put in charge of the three building crews and slowly started to give more and more architectural advice.

The people of Zichron remembered how he used to copy the shoe designs of the dignitaries and started to seek out his advice for how they should have their houses build. They loved his idea rounded porches and soon all nearly rich households of HaMayasdim street had one of these porches. And when the Kohn’s wanted a perfect semi-circle porch on the first floor, David showed Simon how it can be done using pi.

Even though he enjoyed making the designs, David’s favourite part was the execution of them. Most of the time he could be found at a building site, up on a ladder with a trowel laying bricks as straight as soldiers. He was burned nut-brown by the sun but his face now sometimes had a small smile on it.

He was laying bricks again that day of the earthquake. Both he and Simon were up on ladders when they felt the first tremors.

“Who the hell is shaking my ladder!” cried Simon.

“It is an earthquake Simon, go down, get out now!” yelled David. “It is the tectonic plates”

The two men managed to get off the ladders and rushed the other two men working on house into the street. David was the last one out as the house shook again, this time much more violent and aggresively. Just as he stepped out of the front door, one of his simonim got in the frame. As he turned back to loosen his hair, the entire half-built house came crashing down on him.

— — — -

David didn’t die that day. Simon and the other two men rushed back in and dug him out from the rubble as fast as they could. His head was the only part that got injured and he layed in a coma for two months in the little hospital in Zichron. The doctor and nurse thought that he would not survive the move to the larger hospital in Haifa. His dark skin slowly lost the sharp contrast against the white bedsheets and the large bandage around his head as he got paler and paler each day.

And then, on the first day of Nizan, when Master Greenberg opened up the cool school house again after the unbearably heat of the summer, David woke up from his coma.

The first thing that he saw was his mother slumped in a chair in the corner of the bedroom. She, his father Yosef and brother Yonathan took turns to sit by him, never leaving him alone for one second.


“David, David my son! You came back to us!”

David recovered from his coma but he was never the same again . He went back to working for Simon again but did not help the people design their houses anymore. He thought that the string method for building straight walls was sheer genius and once asked Simon who taught it to him.

Simon just shook his head sadly and said: “You do not know him David.”

One time Yonathan, wondering if his real brother is still somewhere deep inside David, asked him what he thought of pi.

David looked at him for a long minute and then said, “I think I used to know, but I just do not remember anymore. I know though that Mrs. Kuperman makes the best apple pies in the entire Zichron. Let’s go and see if she has any and then ask Moshe and Yossi if they want to go for a swim with us. You need some sun you know, all that studying is making you too pale.”