by Rabbi Shawn Zell
Over half a century ago, the Zell home was introduced to its first oil painting. Unsurprisingly, given the Eastern European roots of my parents, the painting was a Shtetl scene of a Vasser Tregger or Water Carrier. The Vasser Tregger was the precursor of the Ice Man. The Ice Man was a feature of “once upon a time in America”, where a poverty-stricken individual, armed with metal tongs, earned pennies, shlepping blocks of ice to people’s apartments so that the food in the icebox would remain cold; The Vasser Tregger was a feature of “once upon a time in the shtetl”. Armed with two buckets, connected by a yoke to be worn around the neck, the Vasser Tregger would walk down to the well, lower the buckets into the well and fill the buckets with water. Staggering under the heavy burden, the Vasser Tregger would then trudge to various houses, thereby providing “home delivery” at a time and place, where indoor plumbing was still light-years away. Like the Ice Man, the Vasser Tregger earned mere kopecks. Therein, the similarity ended. The Ice Man delivered a commodity that preserved food; the Vasser Tregger delivered a commodity that preserved lives.
As human drama unfolded in the Torah, during the meeting between Judah and Joseph, the Midrash (Tanchumah VaYigash, Chapter V) introduces a profound saying: “The rope follows the bucket”. A most apt, but non-literal translation in the colloquial English usage would be: “every dog has its day”. It would be wonderful in romanticizing the shtetl, to believe that in Shtetl life, the Baal Agoleh (wagoner) and the Vasser Tregger were treated the same as the Rebbe and the Noggid (magnate). They were not. Quite the opposite! The Vasser Tregger and the Baal Agoleh were looked down upon and regarded as a necessary part of society, who were typically not the ones to be invited to a Shabbat or Festival meal. Sometimes, justice does prevail, even if it takes two or three generations. It is not unheard of for descendants of a Vasser Tregger to become influential individuals in contemporary America. Nochem the Vasser Tregger may have eked out a meager sustenance by pulling heavy ropes attached to water-filled buckets from the well. His namesake, Norm Trager, is a “go-to” New York power broker, who lives a lifestyle of the rich and famous, because of his ability to “pull strings”. “The rope follows the bucket”.
It was the prophet Isaiah (XL:15) who originated the well-known expression “a drop in the bucket”. That expression comes to life each year on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av. “Rest assured”, the prophet comforts us. “All the nations (that did you harm) are like a drop in the bucket, as far as G-d is concerned”. Long before the Vasser Trgger of the Shtetl, there were other Vasser Treggers in the history of our people. Although the Torah does not provide details, it is unfathomable for there not to have been Vasser Treggers during the years of our people’s enslavement in Egypt. In addition to those who were constructing the pyramids, and in addition to those who were those fabricating bricks, in all likelihood, there were Vasser Treggers as well, to provide water to sustain the lives of the Israelite slaves toiling under the hot Egyptian sun. But the Vasser Treggers of our people’s horrific experience in Egypt, along with the Vasser Treggers providing precious refreshments during other eras in history, where our people were forced to do slave labor, are also but a drop in the bucket when compared to the present. The Vasser Treggers of yore have been replaced by Wonder Workers currently working in Israel. This explains how Israel provides over 150 countries technological know-how concerning water desalination and preservation.
On Thursday, we usher in the Hebrew month of Shvat. Typically, Aquarius, the Water Bearer, the Zodiac symbol (and no, Judaism is not, nor has it ever been averse to Zodiac symbols) for Shvat, receives short shrift. For those who focus on Zodiac symbols, perhaps instead of merely regarding it as Aquarius, it could be seen as a Vasser Tregger. By doing so, it would spur us to learn more about the role of the Vasser Tregger in our people’s history. Thanks to my parents, the Vasser Tregger depicted in the oil painting hanging over the sofa in the living room in my childhood home, will remain alive in my memory for the rest of my life.