When speaking about his childhood and growing up in the holy city of Jerusalem, the famed Maggid, R’ Sholom Schwadron, zt”l, would always insist that he was a wild child. “I owe a great deal of thanks to my Rebbe, R’ Leib Chasman, zt”l, for he removed half of my wildness.” And when he was asked about the other half? R’ Sholom just smiled.
What lay beneath this early wildness? What was the nature of R’ Sholom’s personality during this period? We can learn some of the answers from a story his friends have preserved from their days in the Talmud Torah of Meah Shearim. R’ Sholom himself authenticated this tale and repeated it to one of his beloved grandsons. “The gabbai of the local chevrah kaddisha,” he recalled, “was a very tall man. He also had an unusual walk, which, together with his height, gave him an unusual and out-of-the-ordinary appearance.” The boys were playing in the Talmud Torah schoolyard one day when the gabbai climbed the stairs of the nearby Ohel Sarah Synagogue. Seeing him, young Sholom Schwadron began imitating the gabbai’s movements. His appreciative classmates doubled over with laughter at his antics. At first, the gabbai swallowed the insult in silence. As the laughter grew louder, however, he spun around and called out angrily, “Who is making fun of me?” Young Sholom was rendered mute, but his friends exploded in frightened cries. The man descended the stairs, walked toward them at a rapid pace, and entered the Talmud Torah schoolyard. At once, all the boys fled into the building.
“I was scared,” R’ Sholom recalled. “I still remember how I felt that day. He was a giant of a man, chasing me in fury.” To his friends’ credit, they did not tell on him. The gabbai searched the Talmud Torah for a while, then left, frustrated.
“I could have let myself forget that incident, but the man’s humiliation bothered me deeply. Regret gnawed at me all that day and night. A Jew had been hurt because of my wildness and callousness. The next morning I made a daring decision. I would find the gabbai and ask his forgiveness. The problem was I didn’t know where he lived.”
Young Sholom searched for the gabbai across the length and breadth of Meah Shearim. One day, he stepped inside a shul and glimpsed the man he sought, standing at his full height in the center of the room. Little Sholom fled in a panic. In both age and stature, Sholom was small. And the gabbai was huge! Sholom was afraid of his own idea. He was terrified at the notion of entering that shul again. What if the gabbai decided to “repay” him as he deserved? The boy’s heart pounded and his breath became short. More than anything, he longed to return to his cheder. He wished he could vanish from the spot and run back to school. But the regret that had filled his heart the preceding day held him firmly in place.
“I gathered my courage,” said R’ Sholom, with a wistful smile, “stepped back into the shul doorway, and stood looking inside. I lifted my head, cupped my hands around my mouth, and screamed out (in Yiddish), ‘I am the boy who laughed at you yesterday. Please forgive me!’ With that, I turned quickly and began to make my escape.’”
R’ Sholom smiled as he recalled the memorable event that helped shape his future growth. “Suddenly, the giant man spun around and came after me. He took giant steps. Before I could get far, he had caught me in a vise grip!”
Young Sholom trembled with fear. He tried to struggle, but the man’s grip was too strong for him. The gabbai, a good and honest man, held the boy’s arm and shook him vigorously. Then he lifted the boy almost to the ceiling, brought him close, and stared into his eyes. The little boy, feet dangling helplessly in the air, thought he saw his short life flash before his eyes! This was it! The end was near! And then ... the giant man gently kissed young Sholom on the forehead! His face transformed into a wide smile that lit up the room and he turned to the other congregants in the shul, saying in a ringing voice, “Look at this boy! Have you ever seen a boy ask for forgiveness?”
He set Sholom down on the floor and patted him on the head. Worn out from the mental and physical struggle, Sholom left the shul, chastened, but far lighter in spirit than when he had arrived. It was unconfirmed, but perhaps this giant gabbai removed the other half of young Sholom’s wildness, paving the way for him to become one of the leaders of the Jewish people in the coming generations.