by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich
TRANSLATED FROM THE YIDDISH OF
BY HANNAH BERMAN
NEW YORK ALFRED · A · KNOPF MCMXXII
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.
Published January, 1922
Set up and printed by the Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N. Y.
Paper furnished by W. F. Etherington &Co., New York, N. Y. Bound by the
H. Wolff Estate, New York, N. Y.
MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
A Page from the
“Song of Songs”
Passover in a
A Lost “L'Ag
from “The Song
A Pity for the
The Dead Citron
Boaz the Teacher
On the Fiddle
A Page from the Song of Songs
Busie is a name; it is the short for Esther-Liba: Libusa: Busie. She
is a year older than I, perhaps two years. And both of us together are
no more than twenty years old. Now, if you please, sit down and think
it out for yourself. How old am I, and how old is she? But, it is no
matter. I will rather tell you her history in a few words.
My older brother, Benny, lived in a village. He had a mill. He could
shoot with a gun, ride on a horse, and swim like a devil. One summer he
was bathing in the river, and was drowned. Of him they said the proverb
had been invented: All good swimmers are drowned. He left after him
the mill, two horses, a young widow, and one child. The mill was
neglected; the horses were sold; the young widow married again, and
went away, somewhere, far; and the child was brought to us.
The child was Busie.
* * *
That my father loves Busie as if she were his own child; and that my
mother frets over her as if she were an only daughter, is readily
understood. They look upon her as their comfort in their great sorrow.
And I? Why is it that when I come from cheder, and do not find
Busie I cannot eat? And when Busie comes in, there shines a light in
every corner. When Busie talks to me, I drop my eyes. And when she
laughs at me I weep. And when she....
* * *
I waited long for the dear good Feast of Passover. I would be free
then. I would play with Busie in nuts, run about in the open, go down
the hill to the river, and show her the ducks in the water. When I tell
her, she does not believe me. She laughs. She never believes me. That
is, she says nothing, but she laughs. And I hate to be laughed at. She
does not believe that I can climb to the highest tree, if I like. She
does not believe that I can shoot, if I have anything to shoot with.
When the Passover comesthe dear good Passoverand we can go out into
the free, open air, away from my father and mother, I shall show her
such tricks that she will go wild.
* * *
The dear good Passover has come.
They dress us both in kingly clothes. Everything we wear shines and
sparkles and glitters. I look at Busie, and I think of the Song of
Songs that I learnt for the Passover, verse by verse:
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast
doves' eyes within thy locks; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that
appear from mount Gilead.
Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which come
up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely;
thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.
Tell me, please, why is it that when one looks at Busie one is
reminded of the Song of Songs? And when one reads the Song of
Songs, Busie rises to one's mind?
* * *
A beautiful Passover eve, bright and warm.
Shall we go? asks Busie. And I am all afire. My mother does not
spare the nuts. She fills our pockets. But she makes us promise that we
will not crack a single one before the Seder. We may play with
them as much as we like. We run off. The nuts rattle as we go. It is
beautiful and fine out of doors. The sun is already high in the
heavens, and is looking down on the other side of the town. Everything
is broad and comfortable and soft and free, around and about. In
places, on the hill the other side of the synagogue, one sees a little
blade of grass, fresh and green and living. Screaming and fluttering
their wings, there fly past us, over our heads, a swarm of young
swallows. And again I am reminded of the Song of Songs I learnt at
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds
is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
I feel curiously light. I imagine I have wings, and can rise up and
* * *
A curious noise comes from the town, a roaring, a rushing, a tumult.
In a moment the face of the world is changed for me. Our farm is a
courtyard, our house is a palace. I am a prince, Busie a princess. The
logs of wood that lie at our door are the cedars and firs of the Song
of Songs. The cat that is warming herself in the sun near the door is
a roe, or a young hart; and the hill on the other side of the synagogue
is the mountain of Lebanon. The women and the girls who are washing and
scrubbing and making everything clean for the Passover are the
daughters of Jerusalem.
Everything, everything is from the Song of Songs.
I walk about with my hands in my pockets. The nuts shake and rattle.
Busie walks beside me, step by step. I cannot go slowly. I am carried
along. I want to fly, to soar through the air like an eagle. I let
myself go. Busie follows me. I jump from one log of wood to the other.
Busie jumps after me. I am up; she is up. I am down; she is down. Who
will tire first? How long is this to last? asks Busie. And I answer
her in the words of the Song of Songs: 'Until the day break, and the
shadows flee away.' Ba! Ba! Ba! You are tired, and I am not.
* * *
I am glad that Busie does not know what I know. And I am sorry for
her. My heart aches for her. I imagine she is sorrowful. That is her
nature. She is glad and joyous, and suddenly she sits down in a corner
and weeps silently. My mother comforts her, and my father showers
kisses on her. But, it is useless. Busie weeps until she is exhausted.
For whom? For her father who died so young? Or for her mother who
married again and went off without a good-bye? Ah, her mother! When one
speaks of her mother to her, she turns all colours. She does not
believe in her mother. She does not say an unkind word of her, but she
does not believe in her. Of that I am sure. I cannot bear to see Busie
weeping. I sit down beside her, and try to distract her thoughts from
* * *
I keep my hands in my pockets, rattle my nuts, and say to her:
Guess what I can do if I like.
What can you do?
If I like, all your nuts will belong to me.
Will you win them off me?
We shall not even begin to play.
Then you will take them from me?
No, they will come to me of themselves.
She lifts her beautiful blue eyes to meher beautiful, blue, Song
of Songs eyes. I say to her:
You think I am jesting. Little fool, I know certain magic words.
She opens her eyes still wider. I feel big. I explain myself to her,
like a great man, a hero:
We boys know everything. There is a boy at school. Sheika the blind
one, we call him. He is blind of one eye. He knows everything in the
world, even 'Kaballa.' Do you know what 'Kaballa' is?
No. How am I to know?
I am in the seventh heaven because I can give her a lecture on
'Kaballa,' little fool, is a thing that is useful. By means
of 'Kaballa' I can make myself invisible to you, whilst I can
see you. By means of 'Kaballa' I can draw wine from a stone, and
gold from a wall. By means of 'Kaballa' I can manage that we two
shall rise up into the clouds, and even higher than the clouds.
* * *
To rise up in the air with Busie, by means of Kaballa, into
the clouds, and higher than the clouds, and fly with her far, far over
the oceanthat was one of my best dreams. There, on the other side of
the ocean, live the dwarfs who are descended from the giants of King
David's time. The dwarfs who are, in reality, good-natured folks. They
live on sweets and the milk of almonds, and play all day on little
flutes, and dance all together in a ring, romping about. They are
afraid of nothing, and are fond of strangers. When a man comes to them
from our world, they give him plenty to eat and drink, dress him in the
finest garments, and load him with gold and silver ornaments. Before he
leaves, they fill his pockets with diamonds and rubies which are to be
found in their streets like mud in ours.
Like mud in the streets? Well! said Busie to me when I had told
her all about the dwarfs.
Do you not believe it?
Do you believe it?
Where did you hear it?
Where? At school.
Ah! At school.
The sun sank lower and lower, tinting the sky with red gold. The
gold was reflected in Busie's eyes. They were bathed in gold.
* * *
I want very much to surprise Busie with Sheika's tricks which I can
imitate by means of Kaballa. But they do not surprise her. On
the contrary, I think they amuse her. Why else does she show me her
pearl-white teeth? I am a little annoyed, and I say to her:
Maybe you do not believe me?
Maybe you think I am boasting? Or that I am inventing lies out of
my own head?
Busie laughs louder. Oh, in that case, I must show her. I know how.
I say to her:
The thing is that you do not know what 'Kaballa' means. If
you knew what 'Kaballa' was you would not laugh. By means of '
Kaballa,' if I like, I can bring your mother here. Yes, yes! And if
you beg hard of me, I will bring her this very night, riding on a
All at once she stops laughing. A cloud settles on her beautiful
face. And I imagine that the sun has disappeared. No more sun, no more
day! I am afraid I went a little too far. I had no right to pain
herto speak of her mother. I am sorry for the whole thing. I must
wipe it out. I must ask her forgiveness. I creep close to her. She
turns away from me. I try to take her hand. I wish to say to her in the
words of the Song of Songs: 'Return, return, O Shulamite!' Busie!
Suddenly a voice called from the house:
I am Shemak. My mother is calling me to go to the synagogue with
* * *
To go to the synagogue with one's father on the Passover eveis
there in the world a greater pleasure than that? What is it worth to be
dressed in new clothes from head to foot, and to show off before one's
friends? Then the prayers themselvesthe first Festival evening prayer
and blessing. Ah, how many luxuries has the good God prepared for his
My mother has no time.
I am coming. I am coming in a minute. I only want to say a word to
Busieno more than a word.
I confess to Busie that I told her lies. One cannot make people fly
by means of Kaballa. One may fly one's self. And I will show
her, after the Festival, how I can fly. I will rise from this same spot
on the logs, before her eyes, and in a moment reach the other side of
the clouds. From there, I will turn a little to the right. You see,
there all things end, and one comes upon the shore of the frozen ocean.
* * *
Busie listens attentively. The sun is sending down its last rays,
and kissing the earth.
What is the frozen sea? asks Busie.
You don't know what the frozen sea is? It is a sea whose waters are
thick as liver and salt as brine. No ships can ride on it. When people
fall into it, they can never get out again.
Busie looks at me with big eyes.
Why should you go there?
Am I going, little fool? I fly over it like an eagle. In a few
minutes I shall be over the dry land and at the twelve mountains that
spit fire. At the twelfth hill, at the very top, I shall come down and
walk seven miles, until I come to a thick forest. I shall go in and out
of the trees, until I come to a little stream. I shall swim across the
water, and count seven times seven. A little old man with a long beard
appears before me, and says to me: 'What is your request?' I answer:
'Bring me the queen's daughter.'
What queen's daughter? asks Busie. And I imagine she is
The queen's daughter is the princess who was snatched away from
under the wedding canopy and bewitched, and put into a palace of
crystal seven years ago.
What has that to do with you?
What do you mean by asking what it has to do with me? I must go and
set her free.
You must set her free?
You need not fly so far. Take my advice, you need not.
* * *
Busie takes hold of my hand, and I feel her little white hand is
cold. I look into her eyes, and I see in them the reflection of the red
gold sun that is bidding farewell to the daythe first, bright, warm
Passover day. The day dies by degrees. The sun goes out like a candle.
The noises of the day are hushed. There is hardly a living soul in the
street. In the little windows shine the lights of the festival candles
that have just been lit. A curious, a holy stillness wraps us round,
Busie and myself. We feel that our lives are fast merging in the solemn
stillness of the festive evening.
* * *
My mother calls me for the third time to go with my father to the
synagogue. Do I not know myself that I must go to prayers? I will sit
here another minuteone minute, no more. Busie hears my mother calling
me. She tears her hand from mine, gets up, and drives me off.
Shemak, you are calledyou. Go, go! It is time. Go, go!
I get up to go. The day is dead. The sun is extinguished. Its gold
beams have turned to blood. A little wind blowsa soft, cold wind.
Busie tells me to go. I throw a last glance at her. She is not the same
Busie. In my eyes she is different, on this bewitching evening. The
enchanted princess runs in my head. But Busie does not leave me time to
think. She drives me off. I go. I turn round to look at the enchanted
princess who is completely merged into the beautiful Passover evening.
I stand like one bewitched. She points to me to go. And I imagine I
hear her saying to me, in the words of the Song of Songs:
Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young
hart upon the mountains of spices.
Passover in a Village
Let winds blow. Let storms rage. Let the world turn upside down. The
old oak, which has been standing since the creation of the world, and
whose roots reach to God-knows-wherewhat does he care for winds? What
are storms to him?
The old tree is not a symbolit is a living being, a man whose name
is Nachman Veribivker of Veribivka. He is a tall Jew, broad-shouldered,
a giant. The townspeople are envious of his strength, and make fun of
him. Peace be unto you. How is a Jew in health? Nachman knows he is
being made fun of. He bends his shoulders so as to look more Jewish.
But, it is useless. He is too big.
Nachman has lived in the village a long time. Our 'Lachman,' the
peasants call him. They look upon him as a good man, with brains. They
like to have a chat with him. They follow his advice. What are we to
do about bread? Lachman has an almanack, and he knows whether bread
will be cheap or dear this year. He goes to the town, and so knows what
is doing in the world.
It would be hard to imagine Veribivka without Nachman. Not only was
his father, Feitel, born in Veribivka, but his grandfather, Arya. He
was a clever Jew, and a wit. He used to say that the village was called
Veribivka because Arya Veribivker lived in it, because, before
Veribivka was Veribivka, he, Arya Veribivker was already Arya
Veribivker. That's what his grandfather used to say. The Jews of those
And do you think Arya Veribivker said this for no reason? Arya was
not an ordinary man who made jokes without reason. He meant that the
catastrophes of his day were Jewish tragedies. At that time they
already talked of driving the Jews out of villages. And not only talked
but drove them out. All the Jews were driven out, excepting Arya
Veribivker. It may be that even the governor of the district could do
nothing, because Arya Veribivker proved that according to the law, he
could not be driven out. The Jews of those times!
* * *
Certainly, if one has inherited such a privilege, and is
independent, one can laugh at the whole world. What did our Nachman
Veribivker care about uprisings, the limitations of the Pale, of
Circulars? What did Nachman care about the wicked Gentile Kuratchka and
the papers that he brought from the court? Kuratchka was a short
peasant with short fingers. He wore a smock and high boots, and a
silver chain and a watch like a gentleman. He was a clerk of the court.
And he read all the papers which abused and vilified the Jews.
Personally, Kuratchka was not a bad sort. He was a neighbour of
Nachman and pretended to be a friend. When Kuratchka had the toothache,
Nachman gave him a lotion. When Kuratchka's wife was brought to bed of
a child, Nachman's wife nursed her. But for some time, the devil knows
why, Kuratchka had been reading the anti-Semitic papers, and he was an
altered man. Esau began to speak in him. He was always bringing home
news of new governors, new circulars from the minister, and new edicts
against Jews. Each time, Nachman's heart was torn. But, he did not let
the Gentile know of it. He listened to him with a smile, and held out
the palm of his hand, as if to say, When hair grows here.
Let governors change. Let ministers write circulars. What concern is
it of Nachman Veribivker of Veribivka?
Nachman lived comfortably. That is, not as comfortably as his
grandfather Arya had lived. Those were different times. One might
almost say that the whole of Veribivka belonged to Arya. He had the
inn, the store, a mill, a granary. He made money with spoons and
plates, as they say. But, that was long ago. Today, all these things
are gone. No more inn; no more store; no more granary. The question is
why, in that case, does Nachman live in the village? Where then should
he live? In the earth? Just let him sell his house, and he will be
Nachman Veribivker no more. He will be a dependent, a stranger. As it
is, he has at least a corner of his own, a house to live in, and a
garden. His wife and daughters cultivate the garden. And if the Lord
helps them, they have greens for the summer, and potatoes for the whole
winter, until long after the Passover. But, one cannot live on potatoes
alone. It is said that one wants bread with potatoes. And when there's
no bread, a Jew takes his stick, and goes through the village in search
of business. He never comes home empty-handed. What the Lord destines,
he buyssome old iron, a bundle of rags, an old sack, or else a hide.
The hide is stretched and dried, and is taken to the town, to
Abraham-Elijah the tanner. And on all these one either earns or loses
Abraham-Elijah the tanner, a man with a bluish nose and fingers as
black as ink, laughs at Nachman, because he is so coarsened through
living with Gentiles that he even speaks like them.
* * *
Yes, coarsened. Nachman feels it himself. He grows coarser each
year. Oh, if his grandfather Reb Aryapeace be unto him!could see
his grandson. He had been a practical man, but had also been a scholar.
He knew whole passages of the Psalms and the prayers off by heart. The
Jews of those times! And what does he, Nachman, know? He can only just
say his prayers. It's well he knows that much. His children will know
even less. When he looks at his children, how they grow to the ceiling,
broad and tall like himself, and can neither read nor write, his heart
grows heavy. More than all, his heart aches for his youngest child, who
is called Feitel, after his father. He was a clever child, this Feitel.
He was smaller in build, more refined, more Jewish than the others. And
he had brains. He was shown the Hebrew alphabet once, in a prayer-book,
and he never again confused one letter with the other. Such a fine
child to grow up in a village amongst calves and pigs! He plays with
Kuratchka's son, Fedoka. He rides on the one stick with him. They both
chase the one cat. They both dig the same hole. They do together
everything children can do. Nachman is sorry to see his child playing
with the Gentile child. It withers him, as if he were a tree that had
been stricken by lightning.
* * *
Fedoka is a smart little boy. He has a pleasant face and a dimpled
chin, and flaxen hair. He loves Feitel, and Feitel does not dislike
him. All the winter each child slept on his father's stove. They went
to the window and longed for one another. They seldom met. But now the
long angry winter is over. The black earth throws off her cold white
mantle. The sun shines; and the wind blows. A little blade of grass
peeps out. At the foot of the hill the little river murmurs. The calf
inhales the soft air through distended nostrils. The cock closes one
eye, and is lost in meditation. Everything around and about has come to
life again. Everything rejoices. It is the Passover eve. Neither Feitel
nor Fedoka can be kept indoors. They rush out into God's world which
has opened up for them both. They take each other's hands, and fly down
the hill that smiles at themCome here, children! They leap towards
the sun that greets them and calls them: Come, children! When they
are tired of running, they sit down on God's earth that knows no Jew
and no Gentile, but whispers invitingly: Children, come to me, to me.
* * *
They have much to tell each other, not having met throughout the
whole winter. Feitel boasts that he knows the whole Hebrew alphabet.
Fedoka boasts that he has a whip. Feitel boasts that it is the eve of
Passover. They have matzos for the whole festival and wine.
Do you remember, Fedoka, I gave you a 'matzo' last year? '
Matzo,' repeats Fedoka. A smile overspreads his pleasant face. It
seems he remembers the taste of the matzo. Would you like to
have some 'matzo' now, fresh 'matzo'? Is it necessary to
ask such a question? Then come with me, says Feitel, pointing up the
hill which smiled to them invitingly. They climbed the hill. They gazed
at the warm sun through their fingers. They threw themselves on the
damp earth which smelled so fresh. Feitel drew out from under his
blouse a whole fresh, white matzo, covered with holes on both
sides. Fedoka licked his fingers in advance. Feitel broke the matzo
in halves, and gave one half to his friend. What do you say to the '
matzo,' Fedoka? What could Fedoka say when his mouth was stuffed
with matzo that crackled between his teeth, and melted under
his tongue like snow? One minute, and there was no more matzo.
All gone? Fedoka threw his grey eyes at Feitel's blouse as a cat
looks at butter. Want more? asked Feitel, looking at Fedoka through
his sharp black eyes. What a question! Then wait a while, said
Feitel. Next year you'll get more. They both laughed at the joke. And
without a word, as if they had already arranged it, they threw
themselves on the ground, and rolled down the hill like balls, quickly,
* * *
At the bottom of the hill they stood up, and looked at the murmuring
river that ran away to the left. They turned to the right, going
further and further over the broad fields that were not yet green in
all places, but showed signs of being green soonthat did not yet
smell of grass, but would smell of grass soon. They walked and walked
in silence bewitched by the loveliness of the earth, under the bright,
smiling sun. They did not walk, but swam. They did not swim, but flew.
They flew like birds that sweep in the soft air of the lovely world
which the Lord has created for all living things. Hush! They are at the
windmill which belongs to the village elder. Once it belonged to
Nachman Veribivker. Now it belongs to the village elder whose name is
Opanasa cunning Gentile with one ear-ring, who owns a samovar. Opanas is a rich Epicurean. Along with the mill he has a storethe
same store which once belonged to Nachman Veribivker. He took both the
mill and the store from the Jew by cunning.
The mill went round in its season, but this day it was still. There
was no wind. A curious Passover eve without winds. That the mill was
not working was so much the better for Feitel and Fedoka. They could
see the mill itself. And there was much to see in the mill. But to them
the mill was not so interesting as the sails, and the wheel which turns
them whichever way the wind blows. They sat down near the mill, and
talked. It was one of those conversations which have no beginning and
no end. Feitel told stories of the town to which his father had once
taken him. He was at the fair. He saw shops. Not a single shop as in
Veribivka, but a lot of shops. And in the evening his father took him
to the synagogue. His father had Yahrzeit after his father.
That means after my grandfather, explained Feitel. Do you
understand, or do you not?
Fedoka might have understood, but he was not listening. He
interrupted with a story that had nothing to do with what Feitel was
talking about. He told Feitel that last year he saw a bird's nest in a
high tree. He tried to reach it, but could not. He tried to knock it
down with a stick, but could not. He threw stones at the nest, until he
brought down two tiny, bleeding fledglings.
You killed them? asked Feitel, fearfully, and made a wry face.
Little ones, replied Fedoka.
But, they were dead?
Without feathers, yellow beaks, little fat bellies.
But killed, but killed!
* * *
It was rather late when Feitel and Fedoka saw by the sun in the
heavens that it was time to go home. Feitel had forgotten that it was
the Passover eve. He remembered then that his mother had to wash him,
and dress him in his new trousers. He jumped up and flew home, Fedoka
after him. They both flew home, gladly and joyfully. And in order that
one should not be home before the other, they held hands, flying like
arrows from bows. When they got to the village, this was the scene
which confronted them:
Nachman Veribivker's house was surrounded by peasants, men and
women, boys and girls. The clerk, Kuratchka, and Opanas the village
elder and his wife, and the magistrate and the policemanall were
there, talking and shouting together. Nachman and his wife were in the
middle of the crowd, arguing and waving their hands. Nachman was bent
low and was wiping the perspiration from his face with both hands. By
his side stood his older children, gloomy and downcast. Suddenly, the
whole picture changed. Some one pointed to the two children. The whole
crowd, including the village elder and the magistrate, the policeman
and the clerk, stood still, like petrified. Only Nachman looked at the
people, straightened out his back, and laughed. His wife threw out her
hands and began to weep.
The village elder and the clerk and the magistrate and their wives
pounced on the children.
Where were you, you so-and-so?
Where were we? We were down by the mill.
* * *
The two friends, Feitel as well as Fedoka, got punished without
Feitel's father flogged him with his cap. A boy should know. What
should a boy know? Out of pity his mother took him from his father's
hands. She gave him a few smacks on her own account, and at once washed
him and dressed him in his new trousersthe only new garment he had
for the Passover. She sighed. Why? Afterwards, he heard his father
saying to his mother: May the Lord help us to get over this Festival
in peace. The Passover ought to have gone before it came. Feitel could
not understand why the Passover should have gone before it came. He
worried himself about this. He did not understand why his father had
flogged him, and his mother smacked him. He did not understand what
sort of a Passover eve it was this day in the world.
* * *
If Feitel's Jewish brains could not solve the problems, certainly
Fedoka's peasant brains could not. First of all his mother took hold of
him by the flaxen hair, and pulled it. Then she gave him a few good
smacks in the face. These he accepted like a philosopher. He was used
to them. And he heard his mother talking with the peasants. They told
curious tales of a child that the Jews of the town had enticed on the
Passover eve, hidden in a cellar a day and a night, and were about to
make away with, when his cries were heard by passers-by. They rescued
him. He had marks on his bodyfour marks, placed like a cross.
A cunning peasant-woman with a red face told this tale. And the
other women shook their shawl-covered heads, and crossed themselves.
Fedoka could not understand why the women looked at him when they were
talking. And what had the tale to do with him and Feitel? Why had his
mother pulled his flaxen hair and boxed his ears? He did not care about
these. He was used to them. He only wanted to know why he had had such
a good share that day.
* * *
Well? Feitel heard his father remark to his mother immediately
after the Festival. His face was shining as if the greatest good
fortune had befallen him. Well? You fretted yourself to death. You
were afraid. A woman remains a woman. Our Passover and their Easter
have gone, and nothing.
Thank God, replied his mother. And Feitel could not understand
what his mother had feared. And why were they glad that the Passover
was gone? Would it not have been better if the Passover had been longer
Feitel met Fedoka outside the door. He could not contain himself,
but told him everythinghow they had prayed, and how they had eaten.
Oh, how they had eaten! He told him how nice all the Passover dishes
were, and how sweet the wine. Fedoka listened attentively, and cast his
eyes on Feitel's blouse. He was still thinking of matzo.
Suddenly there was a scream, and a cry in a high-pitched soprano:
It was his mother calling him in for supper. But Fedoka did not
hurry. He thought she would not pull his hair now. First of all, he had
not been at the mill. Secondly, it was after the Passover. After the
Passover there was no need to be afraid of the Jews. He stretched
himself on the grass, on his stomach, propping up his white head with
his hands. Opposite him lay Feitel, his black head propped up by his
hands. The sky is blue. The sun is warm. The little wind fans one and
plays with one's hair. The little calf stands close by. The cock is
also near, with his wives. The two heads, the black and the white, are
close together. The children talk and talk and talk, and cannot finish
* * *
Nachman Veribivker is not at home. Early in the morning he took his
stick, and let himself go over the village, in search of business. He
stopped at every farm, bade the Gentiles good-morning, calling each one
by name, and talked with them on every subject in the world. But he
avoided all reference to the Passover incident, and never even hinted
at his fears of the Passover. Before going away, he said: Perhaps,
friend, you have something you would like to sell? Nothing,
'Lachman,' nothing. Old iron, rags, an old sack, or a hide? Do not
be offended, 'Lachman,' there is nothing. Bad times! Bad times? You
drank everything, maybe. Such a festival! Who drank? What drank? Bad
The Gentile sighed. Nachman also sighed. They talked of different
things. Nachman would not have the other know that he came only on
business. He left that Gentile, and went to another, to a third, until
he came upon something. He would not return home empty-handed.
Nachman Veribivker, loaded and perspiring, tramped home, thinking
only of one problemhow much he was going to gain or lose that day. He
has forgotten the Passover eve incident. He has forgotten the fears of
the Passover. The clerk, Kuratchka, and his governors and circulars
have gone clean out of the Jew's head.
Let winds blow. Let storms rage. Let the world turn upside down. The
old oak which has been standing since the creation of the world, and
whose roots reach to God-knows-wherewhat does he care for winds? What
are storms to him?
Elijah the Prophet
It is not good to be an only son, to be fretted over by father and
motherto be the only one left out of seven. Don't stand here. Don't
go there. Don't drink that. Don't eat the other. Cover up your throat.
Hide your hands. Ah, it is not goodnot good at all to be an only son,
and a rich man's son into the bargain. My father is a money changer. He
goes about amongst the shopkeepers with a bag of money, changing copper
for silver, and silver for copper. That is why his fingers are always
black, and his nails broken. He works very hard. Each day, when he
comes home, he is tired and broken down. I have no feet, he complains
to mother. I have no feet, not even the sign of a foot. No feet? It
may be. But for that again he has a fine business. That's what the
people say. And they envy us that we have a good business. Mother is
satisfied. So am I. We shall have a Passover this year, may all the
children of Israel have the like, Father in Heaven!
That's what my mother said, thanking God for the good Passover. And
I also was thankful. But shall we ever live to see itthis same
Passover has come at lastthe dear sweet Passover. I was dressed as
befitted the son of a man of wealthlike a young prince. But what was
the consequence? I was not allowed to play, or run about, lest I caught
cold. I must not play with poor children. I was a wealthy man's boy.
Such nice clothes, and I had no one to show off before. I had a
pocketful of nuts, and no one to play with.
It is not good to be an only child, and fretted overthe only one
left out of seven, and a wealthy man's son into the bargain.
My father put on his best clothes, and went off to the synagogue.
Said my mother to me: Do you know what? Lie down and have a sleep. You
will then be able to sit up at the 'Seder' and ask the 'four
questions'! Was I mad? Would I go asleep before the Seder?
Remember, you must not sleep at the 'Seder.' If you do,
Elijah the Prophet will come with a bag on his shoulders. On the two
first nights of Passover, Elijah the Prophet goes about looking for
those who have fallen asleep at the 'Seder,' and takes them away
in his bag. ... Ha! Ha! Will I fall asleep at the Seder? I?
Not even if it were to last the whole night through, or even to broad
daylight. What happened last year, mother? Last year you fell
asleep, soon after the first blessing. Why did Elijah the Prophet not
come then with his bag? Then you were very small, now you are big.
Tonight you must ask father the 'four questions.' Tonight you must say
with father'Slaves were we.' Tonight, you must eat with us fish and
soup and 'Matzo'-balls. Hush, here is father, back from the
Thank God, father made the blessing over wine. I, too. Father drank
the cup full of wine. So did I, a cup full, to the very dregs. See, to
the dregs, said mother to father. To me she said: A full cup of wine!
You will drop off to sleep. Ha! Ha! Will I fall asleep? Not even if we
are to sit up all the night, or even to broad daylight. Well, said my
father, how are you going to ask the 'four questions'? How will you
recite 'Haggadah'? How will you sing with me'Slaves were we'?
My mother never took her eyes off me. She smiled and said: You will
fall asleepfast asleep. Oh, mother, mother, if you had eighteen
heads, you would surely fall asleep, if some one sat opposite you, and
sang in your ears: 'Fall asleep, fall asleep'!
Of course I fell asleep.
I fell asleep, and dreamt that my father was already saying: Pour
out thy wrath. My mother herself got up from the table, and went to
open the door to welcome Elijah the Prophet. It would be a fine thing
if Elijah the Prophet did come, as my mother had said, with a bag on
his shoulders, and if he said to me: Come, boy. And who else would be
to blame for this but my mother, with her fall asleep, fall asleep.
And as I was thinking these thoughts, I heard the creaking of the door.
My father stood up and cried: Blessed art thou who comest in the name
of the Eternal. I looked towards the door. Yes, it was he. He came in
so slowly and so softly that one scarcely heard him. He was a handsome
man, Elijah the Prophetan old man with a long grizzled beard reaching
to his knees. His face was yellow and wrinkled, but it was handsome and
kindly without end. And his eyes! Oh, what eyes! Kind, soft, joyous,
loving, faithful eyes. He was bent in two, and leaned on a big, big
stick. He had a bag on his shoulders. And silently, softly, he came
straight to me.
Now, little boy, get into my bag, and come. So said to me the old
man, but in a kind voice, and softly and sweetly.
I asked him: Where to? And he replied: You will see later. I did
not want to go, and he said to me again: Come. And I began to argue
with him. How can I go with you when I am a wealthy man's son? Said
he to me: And as a wealthy man's son, of what great value are you?
Said I: I am the only child of my father and mother. Said he: To me
you are not an only child! Said I: I am fretted over. If they find
that I am gone, they will not get over it, they will die, especially my
mother. He looked at me, the old man did, very kindly, and he said to
me, softly and sweetly as before: If you do not want to die, then come
with me. Say good-bye to your father and mother, and come. But, how
can I come when I am an only child, the only one left alive out of
Then he said to me more sternly: For the last time, little boy.
Choose one of the two. Either you say good-bye to your father and
mother, and come with me, or you remain here, but fast asleep for ever
Having said these words, he stepped back from me a little, and was
turning to the door. What was to be done? To go with the old man,
God-knows-where, and get lost, would mean the death of my father and
mother. I am an only child, the only one left alive out of seven. To
remain here, and fall asleep for ever and everthat would mean that I
myself must die....
I stretched out my hand to him, and with tears in my eyes I said:
Elijah the Prophet, dear, kind, loving, darling Elijah, give me one
minute to think. He turned towards me his handsome, yellow, wrinkled
old face with its grizzled beard reaching to his knees, and looked at
me with his beautiful, kind, loving, faithful eyes, and he said to me
with a smile: I will give you one minute to decide, my childbut, no
more than one minute.
* * *
I ask you. What should I have decided to do in that one minute, so
as to save myself from going with the old man, and also to save myself
from falling asleep for ever? Well, who can guess?
Sit down, and I will tell you a story about nuts.
About nuts? About nuts?
Just because it's war-time. Because your heart is heavy, I want to
distract your thoughts from the war. In any case, when you crack a nut,
you find a kernel.
* * *
His name was Getzel, but they called him Goyetzel. Whoever had God
in his heart made fun of Getzel, ridiculed him. He was considered a bit
of a fool. Amongst us schoolboys he was looked upon as a young man. He
was a clumsily built fellow, had extremely coarse hands, and thick
lips. He had a voice that seemed to come from an empty barrel. He wore
wide trousers and big top-boots, like a bear. His head was as big as a
kneading trough. This head of his, Reb Yankel used to say, was
stuffed with hay or feathers. The Rebbe frequently reminded
Getzel of his great size and awkwardness. Goyetzel, Coarse being,
Bullock's skin, and other such nicknames were bestowed on him by the
teacher. And he never seemed to care a rap about them. He hid in a
corner, puffed out his cheeks, and bleated like a calf. You must know
that Getzel was fond of eating. Food was dearer to him than anything
else. He was a mere stomach. The master called him a glutton, but
Getzel didn't care about that either. The minute he saw food, he thrust
it into his mouth, and chewed and chewed vigorously. He had sent to
him, to the Cheder, the best of everything. This great clumsy
fool was, along with everything else, his wealthy mother's darlingher
only child. And she took the greatest care of him. Day and night, she
stuffed him like a goose, and was always wailing that her child ate
He ought to have the evil eye averted from him, our teacher used
to say, behind Getzel's back, of course.
To the devil with his mother, the teacher's wife used to add, in
such a voice, and making such a grimace over her words that it was
impossible to keep from laughing. In Polosya they keep such children
in swaddling clothes. May he suffer instead of my old bones!
May I live longer than his head, the teacher put in, after her,
and pulled Getzel's cap down over his ears.
The whole Cheder laughed. Getzel sat silent. He was sulky,
but kept silent. It was hard to get him into a temper. But, when he did
get into a temper, he was terrible. Even an angry bear could not be
fiercer than he. He used to dance with passion, and bite his own big
hands with his strong white teeth. If he gave one a blow, one felt
itone enjoyed it. This the boys knew very well. They had tasted his
blows, and they were terribly afraid of him. They did not want to have
anything to do with him. You know that Jewish children have a lot of
respect for beatings. And in order to protect themselves against
Getzel, all the ten boys had to keep unitedten against one. And that
was how it came about that there were two parties at Reb
Yankel's Cheder. On the one side, all the pupils; on the
other, Getzel. The boys kept their wits about them; Getzel his fists.
The boys worked at their lessons; Getzel ate continually.
* * *
It came to pass that on a holiday the boys got together to play
nuts. Playing nuts is a game like any other, neither better than tops,
nor worse than cards. The game is played in various ways. There are
holes and bank and caps. But every game finishes up in the same
way. One boy loses, another wins. And, as always, he who wins is a
clever fellow, a smart fellow, a good fellow. And he who loses is a
good-for-nothing, a fool and a ne'er-do-well; just as it happens in the
big cities, at the clubs, where people sit playing cards night and day.
The ten boys got together in the Cheder to play nuts. They
turned over a bench, placed a row of nuts on the floor, and began
rolling other nuts downwards. Whoever knocked the most nuts out of the
row won the whole lot. Suddenly the door opened, and Getzel came in,
his pockets loaded with nuts, as usual.
Welcome art thoua Jew! cried one of the boys.
If you speak of the Messiah, put in a second.
Vive Haman! cried a third.
And Rashi says, 'The devil brought him here.' cried a fourth.
What are you playing? Bank? Then I'll play too, said Getzel, to
which he got an immediate reply:
No, with a little cap.
Just for that.
Then I won't let you play.
He didn't hesitate a moment, but scattered the nuts about the floor
with his bear's paws. The boys got angry. The cheek of the rascal!
Boys, why don't you do something? asked one.
What shall we do? asked a second.
Lets break his bones for him, suggested a third.
All right. Try it on, cried Getzel. He turned up his sleeves,
ready for work.
And there took place a battle, a fight between the two parties. On
the one side was the whole Cheder, on the other Getzel.
Ten is not one. It was true they felt what Getzel's fists tasted
like. Bruises and marks around the eyes were the portion of the ten.
But for that, again, they gave him a good taste of the world with their
sharp nails and their teeth, and every other thing they could. From the
front and from the back and from all sides, he got blows and kicks and
pulls and thumps and bites and scratches. Well, ten is not one. They
overcame him. Getzel had to get himself off, disappear. And now begins
the real story of the nuts.
* * *
After he left the Cheder, bruised and scratched and torn
and bleeding, Getzel stood thinking for a while. He clapped his hands
on his pockets, and there was heard the rattling of nuts.
You don't want to play nuts with me, then may the Angel of Death
play with you. I want you for ten thousand sacrifices. I can manage. We
two will play by ourselves.
That was what Getzel said to himself. The next minute he was off
like the wind. He stopped in the middle of the road to say aloud, as if
there was some one with him:
Where to? Where, for instance, shall we go, Getzel? And at once he
answered himself: There, far outside the town, on the other side of
the mill. There we shall be alone, the two of us. No one will disturb
us. Let any one attempt to disturb us, and we will break bones, and
make an end.
Talking with himself, Getzel felt that he was not alone. He was not
one but two; and he felt as strong as two. Let the boys dare to come
near him, and he would break them to atoms. He would reduce them to a
dust-heap. He enjoyed listening to his own words, and did not stop
talking to himself, as if he really had some one beside him.
Listen to me. How far are we going to go? he asked himself. And he
answered himself almost in a strange voice:
Well, it all depends on you.
Perhaps we ought to sit down here and play nuts. Well? What do you
It's all the same to me.
Getzel sat down on the ground, far beyond the town, behind the mill,
took out the nuts, counted them, divided them in two equal parts, put
one lot in his right-hand pocket, and the other in his left. He took
off his cap, and threw into it a few nuts from his right-hand pocket.
He said to himself:
They imagine I can't get on without them. Listen, Getzel, what game
are we playing?
I don't know. Whatever game you like.
Then let us play 'odd or even.'
I'm quite willing.
He shook his cap.
Now, guess. Odd or even? Well, speak out, he said to himself. He
dug his elbow into his own ribs, and said to himself:
Even did you say? Who'll thrash you? You have lost. Hand over three
He took three nuts from his left-hand pocket, and put them into the
right. Again he shook the cap, and again he asked:
Odd or even this time?
Did you say odd? May you suffer for ever! Hand them over here. You
have lost four nuts.
He changed four nuts from his left-hand pocket to the right, shook
the cap and said again:
Well, maybe you'll guess right now. Odd or even?
Even did you say? May your bones rot! You rascal, hand out here
Isn't it enough that I lose. Why do you curse me?
Whose fault is it that you are a fool and that you guess as a blind
man guesses a hole? Well, say againodd or even? This time you must be
Even? May you live long! Hand out seven nuts, you fool, and guess
again. Odd or even?
Again even. May you be my father! Good-for-nothing, hand over five
more nuts, and guess again. Maybe you will guess right for once. Odd or
even? Why are you silenteh?
I have no more nuts.
It's a lie, you have!
As I am a Jew, I haven't.
Just look in your pocket, like this.
There isn't even a sign of one.
None? Lost all the nuts? Well, what good has it done you? Aren't
you a fool?
Enough! You have won all my nuts, and now you torment me.
It's good, it's all right. You wanted to win all my nuts, and I
have won yours.
Goyetzel was well satisfied that Getzel had lost, whilst he,
Goyetzel had won. He felt it was doing him good to win. He felt equal
to winning all the nuts in the whole world. Where are they now, the '
Cheder' boys? I would have got my own back from them. I would not
have left them the smallest nut, not even for a cure. They would have
died here on the ground in front of me.
Getzel grew angry, fierce. He closed his fists, clenched his teeth,
and spoke to himself, just as if there was some one beside him.
Well, try now. Now that I am not by myself. Now that there are two
of us. Well, Getzel, why are you sitting there like a bridegroom? Let's
play nuts another little while.
Nuts? Where have I nuts? Didn't I tell you I haven't a single one?
Ah, I forgot that you have no more nuts. Do you know what I would
advise you, Getzel?
Have you any money?
I have. Well, what of that?
Buy nuts from me.
What do you mean by saying I should buy nuts off you?
Fool! Don't you know what buying means? Give me money, and I'll
give you nuts. Eh?
Well, I agree to that.
He took from his purse a silver coin, bargained about the price,
counted a score of nuts from the right-hand pocket to the left, and the
play began all over again.
An experienced card-player, the story goes, half an hour before his
death called his sonalso a gamblerto his bedside, and said to him:
My child, I am going from this world. We shall never meet again. I
know you play cards. You have my nature. You may play as much as you
like, only take care not to play yourself out.
These words are almost a law. There is nothing worse in the world
than playing yourself out. Experienced people say it deprives a man
even of his last shirt. It drives a man to desperate acts. And one
cannot hope to rise at the Resurrection after that. So people say. And
so it happened with our young man. He worked so long, shaking his cap,
odd or even, taking from one pocket and putting into the other, until
his left-hand pocket hadn't a single nut in it.
Well, why don't you play?
I have nothing to play with.
Again you have no nuts, good-for-nothing!
You say I am a good-for-nothing. And I say you are a cheat.
If you call me a cheat again, I will give you a clout in the jaw.
Let the Lord put it into your head.
Getzel sat quiet for a few minutes, scraping the ground with his
fingers, digging a hole, and muttering a song under his breath. Then he
Dirty thing, let us play nuts.
Where have I nuts?
Haven't you money? I will sell you another ten.
Money? Where have I money?
No money and no nuts? Oh, I can't stand it. Ha! ha! ha!
The laugh echoed over the whole field, and re-echoed in the distant
wood. Getzel was convulsed with laughter.
What are you laughing at, you Goyetzel you? he asked himself. And
he answered himself in a different voice:
I am laughing at you, good-for-nothing. Isn't it enough that you
lost all my nuts on me? Why did you want to go and lose my money as
well? Such a lot of money. You fool of fools! Oh, I can't get over it.
Ha! ha! ha!
You yourself brought me to it. You wicked one of wicked ones! You
scamp! You rascal!
Fool of the night! If I were to tell you to cut off your nose, must
you do it? You idiot! You animal with the horse's face, you! Ha! ha!
Be quiet, at any rate, you Goyetzel, you. And let me not see your
And he turned away from himself, sat sulky for a few minutes,
scraping the earth with his fingers. He covered the hole he had made,
as he sang a little song under his breath.
Do you know what I will tell you, Getzel? he said to himself a few
minutes later. Let us forgive one another. Let us be friends. The Lord
helped me. It was my luck to win so many nutsmay no evil eye harm
them! Why should we not enjoy ourselves? Let's crack a few nuts. I
should think they are not bad! Well, what do you say, Getzel?
Yes, I also think they ought not to be bad, he answered himself.
He thrust a nut into his mouth, a second, a third. Each time, he banged
his teeth with his fists. The nut was cracked. He took out a fat
kernel, cleaned it round, threw it back in his mouth, and chewed it
pleasurably with his strong white teeth. He crunched them as a horse
crunches oats. He said to himself:
Would you also like the kernel of a nut, Getzel? Speak out. Do not
That was how he answered himself. He stretched out his left hand,
but only smacked it with his right.
Will you have a plague?
Let it be a plague.
Then have two.
And he did not cease from cracking the nuts, and crunching them like
a horse. It was not enough that he sat eating and gave none to the
other, but he said to him:
Listen, Getzel, to what I will ask you. How, for example, do you
feel while I am eating and you are only looking on?
How do I feel? May you have such a year!
Ah, I see you've got a temper. Here is a kernel for you.
And Getzel's right hand gave the left a kernel. The right turned
upside down. The left hand smacked the right. The left hand smacked the
right cheek. Then the right hand smacked the left cheek twice. The left
hand caught hold of the right lapel of his coat, and the right hand at
once tore off the left lapel, from top to bottom. The left hand pulled
the right earlock. The right hand gave the left ear a terrible bang.
Let go of my earlock, Getzel. Take my advice, and let go of my
Then you'll have no earlock, Getzel.
Then you, Goyetzel, will have no ear.
* * *
For several minutes our Getzel rolled on the ground. Now he lay
right side up, and now he lay left side up. He held his pocketful of
nuts with both hands.... One minute Goyetzel was victorious. The next
it was Getzel, until he got up from the ground covered with dirt, like
a pig. He was torn to pieces, had a bleeding ear, and a torn earlock.
He took all the nuts from his pocket, and threw them into the mud of
the river, far away, behind the mill. He muttered angrily:
That's right. It's a good deed.
Neither younor me.
A Lost L'Ag Beomer
Our teacher, Reb Nissel the small oneso called on account
of his sizeallowed himself to be led by the nose by his assistants.
Whatever they wanted they got. When the first assistant said the
children were to be sent home early that day, he sent them home early.
The second assistant said that the boys would turn the world upside
down, and ought to be kept at school, and he kept them at school. He
could never decide anything for himself. That was why his assistants
controlled the school, and not he. At other schools the assistants
teach the children to wash their hands and say the blessing. At our
school, the assistants would not do this for us, nor fetch us our
meals, nor take us to school on their shoulders. No, they liked to go
for our meals. They ate them themselves on the road. We did not dare to
tell the master of this. The assistants kept us in fear and trembling.
If a boy whispered a word of their doings to the teacher, he would be
flogged, his skin would be cut. Once, a daring boy told the master
something; and the assistant beat him so terribly that he was laid up
in bed for months. He warned the boys never to tell the master
anything, no matter what the assistants did.
This period of our schooldays might be called the Tyranny of the
* * *
And it came to pass that we were under the yoke of the assistants.
One year, we had a cold L'ag Beomer. It was a cold, wet May,
such as we sometimes had in our town, Mazapevka. The sun barely showed
itself. A sharp wind blew, brought us clouds, tore open our coats, and
threw us off our feet. It was not pleasant out of doors.
Just then the assistants took it into their heads to take us for a
walk outside the town, so that we might play at wars, with swords and
pop-guns and bows and arrows.
It is an old custom amongst Jewish children, to become war-like on
the L'ag Beomer. They arm themselves from head to foot with
wooden swords, pop-guns and bows and arrows. They take food with them,
and go off to wage war. Jewish children who are the whole year round
closed up in small Chedorim, oppressed by fears of the master,
and trembling under the whips of the assistants, when L'ag Beomer
comes round, and they may go out into the open, armed from head to
foot, imagine that they are giants who can overcome the strongest foe
and reduce the world to ruins. All at once they grow brave. They step
forward eagerly, singing songs that are a curious mixture of Yiddish
One, two, three, four!
Learn the 'Torah,'
Believe in miracles,
Are not afraid.
Hear, O Israel! Nothing matters.
We are not afraid of any one,
And we carried out the old custom. We took down our swords of last
year from the attic, and we made bows from the hoops of old wine
barrels. Pop-guns the assistants provided us with, for money, of
coursefine guns with which one could shoot flies if they only stood
still long enough. In a word, we had all the Jewish weapons to frighten
tiny infants to death. And we provided ourselves with food in good
earnest, each boy as much as the Lord had blessed him with, and his
mother would give him, out of her generosity. We arrived at Cheder
armed from head to foot, and our pockets bulging out with good
thingsrolls, cakes, boiled eggs, goose-fat, cherry-wine, fruit,
fowls, livers, tea and sugar, and preserves and jam, and also many
groschens in money. Each boy tried to show off by bringing the best
and the largest quantity. And we wished to please the assistants. They
praised us, and said we were very good boys. They took our food and put
it into their bags. They placed us in rows, like soldiers, and
Jewish children, take hands, and march across the bridge, straight
for Mezritzer fields. There you will meet the sea-cats, and do battle
Hurrah for the sea-cats! we shouted in one voice. We took hands
and went forward, like giants, strong and courageous.
* * *
We called the Free School boys sea-cats because they were short
little children in the A B C class. They appeared to us Chumash
boys like flies, ants. We imagined that with one blowphew! we would
make an end of them. We were certain that when they saw us, how we were
armed from head to foot with swords and bows and arrows and pop-guns,
they would surely fly away. It was no trifle to encounter such giants.
You play with Chumash boys, warriors with long legs!
We had never fought the sea-cats before. But we had every reason to
believe, we were convinced, we would conquer these squirrels with a
glance, destroy them, make an end of them. Along with giving them a
good licking, we would take spoil from them, that is to say, their
food, and let them go hungry.
We were so full of our own courage, and so enthusiastic about the
brave deeds we were going to do that we pushed each other forward,
clapped each other on the shoulder. Then, too, the assistants urged us
Why do you crawl like insects? they asked us. They themselves
stopped frequently, opened the bags, and tasted our food and
cherry-wine, which they praised highly.
Excellent cherry-wine, they said, passing round the bottles, and
letting the liquid gurgle down their throats. Splendid liquor. The
best I ever tasted.
That was what the assistants said. They actually licked their
fingers. They remained in the distance, but indicated with their hands
that we must go forward, forward.
We went on and on, over the wide Mezritzer field, though the wind
blew stronger and stronger. The sky grew black with clouds, and a cold,
thick rain beat into our faces. Our hands were blue with the cold. Our
boots squelched in the mud. We had long given up singing songs. We were
tired and hungry, very hungry. We decided to sit down and rest, and
have something to eat.
Where are the assistants? Where is the foodwhere is it?
The boys began to murmur against the assistants.
It is a dirty trick to take all our food from us, and our
cherry-wine and our few 'groschens,' and to leave us here in the
desert, cold and hungry. May the devil take them!
May a bad end come to the assistants!
May the cholera strike down all the assistants in the world!
May they be the sacrifices for our tiniest nails!
Hush. Let there be silence. Here come our foes, our enemies.
Little squirrels with big sticks.
The sea-catsthe sea-cats!
Hurrah for the sea-cats!
The moment we saw them, we rushed towards them, like fierce starving
wolves. We were ready to tear them to pieces. But there happened to us
a misfortune, a great misfortune which no one could possibly have
If it is not destined, neither wisdom nor strength nor smartness are
of any avail. Listen to what can happen.
* * *
The sea-cats, though they were small, short little squirrels, were
evidently no fools. Before going to do battle on the broad Mezritzer
field, they had prepared themselves well at home, gone through their
drill. Afterwards, they fed up. They also took with them warm clothing
and rubber goloshes. They were armed from head to foot no worse than we
were, with swords and pop-guns and bows and arrows. They would not wait
until we had taken the offensive. They attacked us first, and began to
break our bones. And how, do you think? From all sides at once, and so
suddenly that we had no time to look about us. Before we realized it,
they were upon us. They were not alone, but had their assistants to
urge them on and encourage them.
Pay out the 'Chumash' boys. Beat them, the boys with the
Naturally we were not silent either. We stood up against the
squirrels, like giants, beat them with our swords, aimed our arrows at
them, and shot at them with our pop-guns. But, alas! our swords were
dull as wood; and before we could set our bows, they had thrashed us. I
say nothing of the guns. What can you do with a pop-gun if the foe will
not wait until you have taken aim at him? They rushed forward and
knocked the guns out of our hands. What could we do?
We had to throw away our weapons, our swords and pop-guns and bows
and arrows, and fight as the Lord has ordained. That is to say, we
fought with our fists. But we were hungry and tired and cold, and
fought without a plan, because our assistants had remained behind. They
let us fight whilst they ate our food and drank our cherry-winethe
devil take them! And they, the little squirrels, well-fed and
well-clad, had crept upon us from three sides at once, each moment
growing stronger and stronger. They rained down on us blows and thumps
and digs. The same blows that we had reckoned on giving them they gave
us. And their assistants went in front of them, and never ceased from
urging them on.
Pay back the 'Chumash' boys. Beat them, beat them, the boys
with the long legs.
Who was the first to turn his back on the enemy? It would be hard to
say. I only know we ran quickly, helter-skelter, back home, back to
Mazapevka. And they, the little squirrelsmay they burn!ran after
us, shouting and yelling and laughing at us, right on top of us.
Hurrah! 'Chumash' boys! Hurrah! Big boys!
* * *
We arrived home exhausted, ragged, bruised, beaten. And we giants
imagined that our parents would pity us, give us cakes because of the
blows we got. But it turned out we were mistaken. No one thought of us.
We thanked God we were so fortunate as to escape without beatings from
our parents for our torn clothes and twisted boots. But next morning we
got a good whipping from our teacher, Nissel the small one, for the
bruises we had on our foreheads and the blue marks around our eyes. It
is shameful to tell itwe were each whipped in the true style. This
was a mere addition, as if we had not had enough.
We were not sorry for anything but that the assistants gave us
another share. When a father or a mother beats one, it is out of
kindness. When a teacher beats one it is because he is a teacher. And
what is his rod for, anyway? But the assistants! Our curses upon them!
As if it were not enough that they had eaten all our food, and drunk
our cherry-winemay they suffer for it, Father of the Universe!as if
it were not enough that they had left us to fight alone, in the middle
of the field, but when they were whipping us they held our feet, so
that we might not kick either.
* * *
And that was how our holiday ended up. It was a dark, dreary, lost
Is he still snoring?
And how snoring!
May he perish!
Wake him up. Wake him up.
Get up, my little bird.
Open your little eyes.
I barely managed to open my eyes, raise my head, and look about me.
I saw a whole crowd of rascals, my school-fellows. The window was open,
and along with their sparkling eyes I saw the first rays of the bright,
warm early morning sun. I looked about me, on all sides.
Just see how he looks.
Like a sinner.
Did you not recognize us?
Have you forgotten that it is 'L'ag Beomer' today?
The words darted through all my limbs like a flash of lightning. I
was carried out of bed by them. In the twinkling of an eye, I was
dressed. I went in search of my mother, who was busy with the breakfast
and the younger children.
Mother, today is 'L'ag Beomer.'
A good 'Yom-tov' to you. What do you want?
I want something for the party.
What am I to give you? My troubles? Or my aches?
So said my mother to me. Nevertheless, she was ready to give me
something towards the party. We bargained about it. I wanted a lot. She
would only give a little. I wanted two eggs. Said she: A suffering in
the bones! I began to grow angry. She gave me two smacks. I began to
cry. She gave me an apple to quieten me. I wanted an orange. Said she:
Greedy boy, what will you want next? And my friends on the other side
of the window were kicking up a row.
Will you ever come out, or not?
The day is flying!
Like the wind.
After much arguing, I got round my mother. I snatched up my
breakfast and my share of the party, and flew out of the house, fresh,
lively, joyful, to my waiting comrades. All together we flew down the
hill to the Cheder.
* * *
The Cheder was full of noise and tumult and shouting that
reached to the sky. A score of throats shouted at the one time. The
table was covered with delicacies. We had never had such a party as we
were going to have that L'ag Beomer. We had wine and brandy,
for which we had to thank Berrel Yossel, the wine-merchant's son. He
had brought a bottle of brandy and two bottles of wine made by Yossel
himself. His father had given him the brandy, but the wine he had taken
What do you mean by saying he took it himself?
Don't you understand, peasant's head? He took it from the shelf
when no one was looking.
Gracious me! That means he stole?
Fool of the night! Well, what then?
What do you mean? Then he is a thief?
For the sake of the party, fool.
Is it a good deed to steal for that?
Certainly. What do you say to the wise one of the 'Four
Where is it written?
He wants us to tell him where it is written?
Tell him it is written in the Book of Jests.
In the chapter called 'And he took.'
Beginning with the words 'Bim-bom.'
Ha! ha! ha!
Hush, children, Mazeppa comes.
All at once there was silence. We were sitting around the table
quiet as lambs, like angels, golden children who could not count two,
and whose souls were innocent.
* * *
Mazeppa was the teacher's name. That is to say, his real name was
Baruch-Moshe. He had come to our town from Mazapevka not long before,
and the people called him the Mazapevkar. We boys shortened his name to
Mazeppa. And when pupils crown their teacher with such a lovely name,
he must be worthy of it. Let me introduce him.
He is small, thin, dried-up, hideously ugly. He hasn't even the
signs of a moustache or beard or eyebrows. Not because he shaved. God
forbid, but simply because they would not grow. But for that again he
had a pair of lips and a nose. Oh, what a nose! It was curved like a
ram's horn. And he had a voice like a bull. He growled like a lion.
Where did such a creature get such a terrible roar? And where did he
get so much strength? When he took hold of you by the hand with his
cold, bony fingers, you saw the next world. When he boxed your ears,
you felt the smart for three days on end. He hated arguing. For the
least thing, guilty or not guilty, he had one sentence: Lie down.
'Rebbe,' Yossel-Yakov-Yossels thumped me.
'Rebbe,' it's a lie. He first kicked me in the side.
'Rebbe,' Chayim-Berrel Lippes put out his tongue at me.
'Rebbe,' it's a lie of lies. He made a noise at me.
And you had to lie down. Nothing would avail you. Even Elya the red
one, who is already Bar-mitzvah, and is engaged to be married,
and wears a silver watchdo you think he is never flogged? Oh yes! And
how? Elya says he will be avenged for the floggings he gets. Some day
or other he will pay back the Rebbe in such a way that his
children's children will remember it. That's what Elya says after each
flogging. And we echo his words.
Amen! May it be so! From your mouth into God's ears!
* * *
We said our prayers with the teacher, as usual. (He never let us
pray by ourselves because he thought we might skip more than half the
prayers.) Mazeppa said to us in his lion's roar:
Now, children, wash your hands and sit down to the party. After
grace I will let you go for a walk.
We used to hold our L'ag Beomer party outside the town, in
the open air, on the bare earth, under God's sky. We used to throw
crumbs of bread to the birds. Let them also know that it is L'ag
Beomer in the world. But one does not argue with Mazeppa. When he
told one to sit down, one sat down, lest he might tell one to lie down.
Eat in peace, he said to us, after we had pronounced the blessing.
Come and eat with us, we replied out of politeness.
Eat in health, he said. I do not wish to eat yet. But, if you
like, I will make a blessing over the wine. What have you in that
bottle? Brandy? he asked, and stretched out his long, dried-up hand
with its bony fingers to the bottle of brandy. He poured out a
glassful, tasted it, and made such a grimace that we must have been
stronger than iron to control ourselves from exploding with laughter.
Whose is this terrible thing? he asked, taking another drop. It's
not a bad brandy. He filled a third glass and drank our health.
Long life to you, children. May God grant that we be alive next
year, andand.... Haven't you anything to bite? Well, in honour of '
L'ag Beomer' I will wash my hands and eat with you.
What is wrong with our teacher? He's not the same Mazeppa. He is in
good humour, and talkative. His cheeks are shining; his nose is red;
and his eyes are sparkling. He eats and laughs and points to the bottle
What sort of wine have you there? Passover wine? (He tasted it and
pursed up his lips.) P-s-ss! The best wine in the world. (He drank
more.) It's a long time since I tasted such wine. (To Yossel the
wine-merchant's son, with a laugh.) The devil take your father's
cellar. I saw there barrels upon barrels. And of the finest raisins.
Ha! ha! To your health, children. May the Lord help you to be honest,
pious Jews, and may youmay you open the second bottle. Take glasses
and drink to long life. May God grant thatthat (He licked his
lips. His eyes were closing.) All good to the children of Israel.
* * *
Having eaten and said grace, Mazeppa turned to us, his tongue
failing him as he spoke:
Then we have carried out the duty of eating together on 'L'ag
Beomer.' Well, and what next, eh?
Now we will go for the walk.
For the walk, eh? Excellent. Where do we go?
To the black forest.
Ha? To the black forest? Excellent. I go with you. It is good to
walk in a forest, very healthy, because a forest.... Well, I will
explain to you what a forest is.
We went off with our teacher, beyond the town. We were not
altogether comfortable having him with us. But, shah! The teacher
walked in the middle, waving his hands and explaining to us what a
The nature of the forest, you must know, is as the Lord has created
it. It is full of trees. On the trees are branches; and the branches
are covered with leaves that give out a pleasant, pungent odour.
As he spoke, he sniffed the air that was not yet either pleasant or
Well, why are you silent? he asked. Say something nice. Sing a
song. Well, I was also a boy once, and mischievous like you. I also had
a teacher. Ha! ha!
That Mazeppa had once been a mischievous boy and had had a teacher
we could not believe. It was curious. Mazeppa playful? We exchanged
glances, and giggled softly. We tried to imagine Mazeppa playful and
having a teacher. And did his teacher also? We were afraid to think
of such a thing. But Elya stopped to ask a question:
'Rebbe,' did your teacher also flog you as you flog us?
What? And what sort of floggings? Ha! ha!
We looked at the teacher and at each other. We understood one
another. We laughed with him, until we were far from the town, in the
broad fields, close to the forest.
* * *
The fields were beautifula Garden of Eden. Green, fragrant grass,
white boughs, yellow flowers, green flies, and above us the blue sky
that stretched away endlessly. Facing us was the forest in holiday
attire. In the trees the birds hopped, twittering, from branch to
branch. They were welcoming us on the dear day of L'ag Beomer.
We sought shelter from the burning rays of the sun under a thick tree.
We sat down on the ground in a row, the Rebbe in the middle.
He was worn out. He threw himself on the ground, full-length, his
face upwards. His eyes were closing. He could hardly manage to speak.
You are dear, golden children.... Jewish children.... Saints.... I
love you, and you love me.... Oh yes, you l-love me?
Like a pain in the eyes, replied Elya.
Well, I know you l-love me, went on the teacher.
May the Lord love you as we do, said Elya.
We were frightened, and whispered to Elya:
The Lord be with you!
Fools! he said with a laugh. What are you afraid of? Don't you
see he is drunk?
What? queried the teacher, one of whose eyes was already closed.
What are you saying? Saints? Of course.... The guardian of Israel.
Hal! Hal! Hal! Rrrssss!
And our teacher fell fast asleep. The snores burst from his nose
like the blasts from a ram's horn, sounding far into the forest. We sat
around him, and our hearts grew heavy.
Is this our teacher? Is this he whose glances we fear? Is this
* * *
Children, said Elya to us, why are we sitting like lumps of
stone? Let us think of a punishment for Mazeppa.
A great fear fell upon us.
Fools, what are you afraid of? he went on. He is now like a dead
body, a corpse.
We trembled still more. Elya went on:
Now we may do with him what we like. He flogged us the whole
winter, as if we were sheep. Let us take revenge of him this once, at
What would you do to him?
Nothing. I will only frighten him.
How will you frighten him?
You shall soon see. And he got up from the ground. He went over to
the teacher, took off his leather strap and said to us:
See, we will fasten him to the tree with his own belt in such a way
that he will not be able to free himself. Then one of us will go over
to him and shout in his ear: 'Rebbe,' murderers!
What will happen?
Nothing. We will run away, and he will shout, 'Hear, O Israel!'
How long will he shout?
Until he gets used to it.
Without another word, Elya tied the Rebbe to the tree by
the hands. We stood looking on, and a shudder passed over our bodies.
Is this our teacher? Is this he whose glances we fear? Is this
Why do you stand there like clay images? said Elya to us. The
Lord has performed a miracle. Mazeppa has fallen into our hands. Let us
dance for joy.
We took hands and danced around the sleeping Mazeppa like savages.
We danced and leaped and sang like lunatics.
We stopped. Elya bent over the sleeping teacher and shouted into his
ear in a voice to waken the dead:
Help, 'Rebbe'! Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!
* * *
We flew off together, like arrows from bows. We were afraid to stop
a moment. We were even afraid to look around us. A great dread fell
upon us, even upon Elya, although he never ceased from shouting at us:
Donkeys, fools, animals! Why do you run?
Why do you run?
When you run I run too.
We got into the town full of excitement, and still shouting:
When the people saw us running, they ran after us. Seeing them
running another crowd ran after them.
Why are you running?
How are we to know? Others run, and we run too.
After some time, one of our boys stopped. And seeing him, we also
stopped, but still shouted:
Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!
Where? Where? Where?
There, in the black forest, murderers beset us. They bound our
teacher to a tree, and God knows if he is still alive.
* * *
If you envy us because we are free, because we do not go to
Cheder (the Rebbe is lying ill), it is for nothingfor
nothing. No one knows whom the shoe pinchesno one. No one knows who
the real murderers are. We rarely see one another. When we meet, the
first words are: How is the teacher? (He is no more Mazeppa.) And
when we pray, we ask God to save the teacher. We weep in silence: Oh,
Father of the Universe! Father of the Universe! And Elya? Don't ask
about him. May the devil take himthat same Elya!
* * *
When the Rebbe recovered (he was ill six weeks, in the
height of fever, and babbled constantly of murderers) and we went back
to Cheder, we hardly recognized him, so greatly had he
changed. What had become of his lion's roar? He had put away his strap,
and there was no more Lie down, and no more Mazeppa. On his face
there was to be seen a gentle melancholy. A feeling of regret stole
into our hearts. And Mazeppa suddenly grew dear to us, dear to our
souls. Oh, if he had only scolded us! But it was as if nothing had
happened. Suddenly, he stopped us in the middle of the lesson, and
asked us to tell him again the story of that L'ag Beomer day,
and of the murderers in the forest. We did not hesitate, but told him
again and again the story we knew off by hearthow murderers had come
upon us in the forest, how they fell upon him, tied him to the tree,
and were going to kill him with a knife, and how we rushed excitedly
into the town, and by our shouting and clamours saved him.
The Rebbe listened to us with closed eyes. Then he sighed,
and asked us suddenly:
Are you quite sure they were murderers?
What else were they?
And the teacher's eyes sought the distance. And we imagined that a
curiously cunning smile was hovering around his thick lips.
Three Little Heads
If my pen were an artist's brush, or at the very least a
photographic camera, I would create for you, my friend, a picture, for
a present in honour of Shevuous, of a rare group of three
pretty little heads, of three poor naked, barefoot Jewish children. All
three little heads are black, and have curly hair. The eyes are big and
shiny and burning. They gaze out in wonder, and seem to be always
asking of the world the one question: Wherefore? You look at them, and
marvel at them, and feel guilty towards them, just as if you were
really responsible for themfor the existence of three little
superfluous mortals in the world.
The three pretty little heads are of two brothers and a little
sister, Abramtzig, Moshetzig, and Dvairke. They were brought up by
their father in the true Russian style, petted and spoiled. Their
father was Peisa the box-maker. And if he had not been afraid of his
wife, Pessa, and if he had not been such a terribly poor man, he would
have changed his Jewish name of Peisa into the Russian name of Petya.
But, since he was a little afraid of his wife, Pessa, and since he was
extremely poormay it remain far from us!he kept to his own name of
Peisa the box-maker, until the good time comes, when everything will be
different, as Bebel says, as Karl Marx says, and as all the good and
wise people saywhen everything, everything will be different. But
until the good and happy time comes, one must get up at the dawn of
day, and work far into the night, cutting out pieces of cardboard and
pasting boxes and covers of books. Peisa the box-maker stands at his
work all day long. He sings as he works, old and new songs, Jewish and
non-Jewish, mostly gay-sorrowful songs, in a gay-sorrowful voice.
Will you ever give up singing those Gentile songs? Such a man! And
how he loves the Gentiles. Since we have come to this big town, he has
almost become a Gentile.
All three children, Abramtzig, Moshetzig, and Dvairke, were born and
brought up in the same placebetween the wall and the stove. They
always saw before them the same people and the same things: the gay
father who cut cardboards, pasted boxes, and sang songs, and the
careworn, hollow-cheeked mother who cooked and baked, and rushed about,
and was never finished her work. They were always at work, both of
themthe mother at the stove, and the father at the cardboards. What
were all the boxes for? Who wanted so many boxes? Is the whole world
full of boxes? That was what the three little heads wanted to know. And
they waited until their father had a great pile of boxes ready, when he
would take them on his head and in his armsthousands of themto the
market. He came back without the boxes, but with money for the mother,
and with cakes and buns for the children. He was a good fathersuch a
good father. He was gold. The mother was also gold, but she was cross.
One got a smack from her sometimes, a dig in the ribs, or a twist of an
ear. She does not like to have the house untidy. She does not allow the
children to play fathers and mothers. She forbids Abramtzig to pick
up the pieces of cardboard that have fallen to the floor, and Moshetzig
to steal the paste from his father, and Dvairke to make bread of sand
and water. The mother expects her children to sit still and keep quiet.
It seems she does not know that young heads will think, and young souls
are eager and restless. They want to go. Where? Out of doors, to the
light. To the windowto the window.
* * *
There was only one window, and all three heads were stuck against
it. What did they see out of it? A wall. A high, big, grey, wet wall.
It was always and ever wet, even in summer. Does the sun ever come
here? Surely the sun comes here sometimes, that is to say, not the sun
itself, but its reflection. Then there is a holiday. The three
beautiful heads press against the little window. They look upwards,
very high, and see a narrow blue stripe, like a long blue ribbon.
Do you see, children? says Abramtzig. He knows. He goes to
Cheder. He is learning Kometz Aleph. The Cheder
is not far away, in the next house, that is to say, in the next room.
Ah, what stories Abramtzig tells about the Cheder! He tells
how he saw with his own eyesmay he see all that is good!a big
building, with windows from top to bottom. Abramtzig swears that he
sawmay he see all that is good!a chimneya high chimney from which
there came out smoke. Abramtzig tells that he saw with his own
eyesmay he see all that is good!a machine that sewed without hands.
Abramtzig tells that he saw with his own eyesmay he see all that is
good!a car that went along without horses. And many more wonderful
things Abramtzig tells from the Cheder. And he swears, just as
his mother swearsthat he may see all that is good. And Moshetzig and
Dvairke listen to him and sigh. They envy Abramtzig because he knows
For instance, Abramtzig knows that a tree grows. It is true he never
saw a tree growing. There are no trees in the streetnone. But he
knowshe heard it at Chederthat fruit grows on a tree, for
which reason one makes the blessingWho hast created the fruit of the
tree. Abramtzig knowswhat does he not know?that potatoes and
cucumbers and onions and garlic grow on the ground. And that's why one
says the blessing over themWho hast created the fruit of the
ground. Abramtzig knows everything. Only he does not know how and by
what means things grow, because, like the other children, he never saw
them. There is no field in their street, no garden, no tree, no
grassnothingnothing. There are big buildings in their street, grey
walls and high chimneys that belch out smoke. Each building has a lot
of windows, thousands and thousands of windows, and machines that go
without hands. And in the streets there are cars that go without
horses. And beyond these, nothingnothing.
Even a little bird is seldom seen here. Sometimes an odd sparrow
strays ingrey as the grey walls. He picks, picks at the stones. He
spreads out his wings and flies away. Fowls? The children sometimes see
the quarter of one with a long, pale leg. How many legs has a fowl?
Four, just like a horse, explains Abramtzig. And surely he knows
everything. Sometimes their mother brings home from the market a little
head with glassy eyes that are covered with a white film. It's dead,
says Abramtzig, and all three children look at each other out of great
black eyes; and they sigh.
Born and brought up in the big city, in the huge building, in the
congestion, loneliness and poverty, not one of the three children ever
saw a living creature, neither a fowl, nor a cow, nor any other animal,
excepting the cat. They have a cat of their owna big, live cat, as
grey as the high damp grey wall. The cat is their only play-toy. They
play with it for hours on end. They put a shawl on her, call her the
wedding guest, and laugh and laugh without an end. When their mother
sees them, she presents themone with a smack, a second with a dig in
the ribs, and the third with a twist of the ear. The children go off to
their hiding-place behind the stove. The eldest, Abramtzig, tells a
story, and the other two, Moshetzig and Dvairke, listen to him. He says
their mother is right. They ought not to play with the cat, because a
cat is a wicked animal. Abramtzig knows everything. There is nothing in
the world that he does not know.
* * *
Abramtzig knows everything. He knows there is a land far away called
America. In America they have a lot of relatives and friends. In that
same America the Jews are well-off and happymay no evil eye rest on
them! Next year, if God wills it, they will go off to Americawhen
they get tickets. Without tickets no one can go to America, because
there is a sea. And on the sea there is a storm that shakes one to the
very soul. Abramtzig knows everything.
He even knows what goes on in the other world. For instance, he
knows that in the other world there is a Garden of Eden, for Jews, of
course. In the Garden of Eden there are trees with the finest fruits,
and rivers of oil. Diamonds and rubies are to be found there in the
streets. Stoop down and pick them up and fill your pockets. And there
good Jews study the Holy Law day and night, and enjoy the holiness.
That is what Abramtzig tells. And Moshetzig's and Dvairke's eyes are
burning. They envy their brother because he knows everything. He knows
everything, even to what goes on in the heavens. Abramtzig swears that
twice a year, on the nights of Hashono Rabo and Shevuous, the sky opens. It is true he himself never saw the sky opening,
because there is no sky near them. But his comrades saw it. They
sworemay they see all that is good!And they would not swear to a
lie. How can one swear to a lie? It's a pity they have no sky in their
street, only a long, narrow blue stripe, like a long, narrow blue
ribbon. What can one see in such a tiny scrap of sky, beyond a few
stars and the reflection of the moon? In order to prove to his little
sister and brother that the sky opens, Abramtzig goes over to his
mother, and pulls her by the skirt.
Mother, is it true that in the very middle of 'Shevuous'
night the sky opens?
I will open your head for you.
When he got no satisfaction from his mother, Abramtzig waited for
his father, who had gone off to the market with a treasure of boxes.
Children, guess what present father will bring us from the market,
said Abramtzig. And the children tried to guess what their father would
bring them from the market. They counted on their fingers everything
that was in the marketeverything that an eye could see, and a heart
desirecakes and buns and sweets. But no one guessed aright. And I am
afraid you will not guess aright either. Peisa the box-maker brought
from the market this time neither cakes, nor buns nor sweets. He
brought the children grasscurious, long, sweet-smelling grass.
And all three children gathered around their father.
Father, what is itthat?
It is grass.
What is grass?
It is a bunch of greens for 'Shevuous.' Jews need grass for
Where do they get it, father?
Where do they get it? H'm! They buy it. They buy it in the market,
said their father. And he strewed the green, sweet-smelling grass over
the freshly-swept floor. And he was delighted; it was green and smelt
sweet. He said to the mother gaily, as is his way:
Pessa, good 'Yom-tov' to you!
Good luck! A new thing! The young devils will now have something to
make a mess with, replied the mother, crossly, as is her way. And she
gave one of the children a smack, the second a dig in the ribs, and the
third a twist of the ear. She is never satisfied, always cross, and
always sour, exactly the opposite of father.
The three pretty heads looked at the mother, and at the father, and
at one another. The moment their parents turned away, they threw
themselves on the floor, and put their faces to the sweet-smelling
grass. They kissed itthe green grass that Jews need for Shevuous
and which is sold at the market.
Everything is to be found at the market, even greens. The father
buys everything. Jews want everything, even greenseven greens.
Greens for Shevuous
On the eve of Shevuous, I induced my motherpeace be unto
her!to let me go off outside the town, by myself, to gather greens
for the Festival.
And my mother let me go off alone to gather the greens for the
Festival. May she have a bright Paradise for that!
A real pleasure is a pleasure that one enjoys by one's self, without
a companion, and without a single argument. I was alone, free as a
bird, in the big cultivated field. Above me was the whole of the blue
cap called the sky. For me alone shone the beautiful queen of the
day, the sun. For my sake there came together, here in the big field,
all the singers and warblers and dancers. For my sake there was spread
before me the row of tall sunflowers, and the delicate growths were
scattered all over the field by a benevolent nature. No one bothered
me. No one prevented me from doing what I liked. No one saw me but God.
And I could do what I liked. If I liked I might sing. If I liked I
might shout and scream at the top of my voice. If I liked I might make
a horn with my hands, and blow out a melody. If I liked I might roll on
the green grass just as I was, curling myself up like a hedgehog. Who
was there to give me orders? And whom would I pay heed to? I was
freeI was free.
The day was so warm, the sun so beautiful, the sky so clear, the
field so green, the grass so fresh, my heart so gay, and my soul so
joyful that I forgot completely I was a stranger in the field and had
merely come out to cut green boughs for Shevuous. I imagined I
was a prince, and the whole field that my eyes rested on, and
everything in the field, and even the blue sky above itall were mine.
I owned everything, and could do what I liked with itI, and no one
else. And like an overlord who had complete control of everything, I
longed to show my power, my strength, my authorityall that I could
and would do.
* * *
First of all I was displeased with the tall giants with the yellow
hatsthe sunflowers. Suddenly they appeared to me as my enemies. And
all the other plants with and without stalks, the beans and beanstalks,
were enemies too. They were the Philistines that had settled on my
ground. Who had sent for them? And those thick green plants lying on
the ground, with huge green headsthe cabbages, what are they doing
here? They will only get drunk and bring a misfortune upon me. Let them
go into the earth. I do not want them. Angry thoughts and fierce
instincts awoke within me. A curious feeling of vengefulness took
possession of me. I began to avenge myself of my enemies. And what a
vengeance it was!
I had with me all the tools I would need for cutting the green
boughs for the Festivalpocket-knife with two blades, and a sworda
wooden sword, but a sharp one.
This sword had remained with me after L'ag Beomer. And
although I had carried it with me when I had gone with my comrades to
do battle outside the town, yet I could swear to you, though you may
believe me without an oath, that the sword had not spilled one drop of
blood. It was one of those weapons that are carried about in times of
peace. There was not a sign of war. It was quiet and peaceful around
and about. I carried the sword because I wanted to. For the sake of
peace, one must have in readiness swords and guns and rifles and
cannon, horses and soldiers. May they never be needed for ill, as my
mother used to say when she was making preserves.
* * *
It is the same all the world over. In a war, one aims first at the
leaders, the officers. It is better still if one can hit the general.
After that the soldiers fall like chaff, in any event. Therefore you
will not be surprised to hear that, first of all, I fell upon Goliath
the Philistine. I gave him a good blow on the head with my sword, and a
few good blows from the back. And the wicked one was stretched at my
feet, full length. After that I knocked over a good many more wicked
ones. I pulled the stalks out of the ground, and threw them to the
devil. The short, fat green enemies I attacked in a different manner.
Wherever I could, I took the green heads off. The others I trampled
down with my feet. I made a heap of ashes of them.
During a battle, when the blood is hot, and one is carried away by
excitement, one cuts down everything that is at hand, right and left.
When one is spilling blood, one loses one's self, one does not know
where one is in the world. At such a time, one does not honour old age.
One does not care about weak women. One has no pity for little
children. Blood is simply poured out like water.... When I was cutting
down the enemy, I felt a hatred and a malice I had never experienced
before, immediately after I had delivered the first blow. The more I
killed the more excited I became. I urged myself to go on. I was so
beside myself, so enflamed, so ecstatic that I smashed up, and
destroyed everything before me. I cut about me on all sides. Most of
all the little ones suffered at my handsthe young peas in the fat
little pods, the tiny cucumbers that were just showing above ground.
These excited me by their silence and their coldness. And I gave them
such a share that they would never forget me. I knocked off heads, tore
open bellies, shattered to atoms, beat, murdered, killed. May I know of
evil as little as I know how I came to be so wicked. Innocent potatoes,
poor things, that lay deep in the earth, I dug out, just to show them
that there was no hiding from me. Little onions and green garlic I tore
up by the roots. Radishes flew about me like hail. And may the Lord
punish me if I even tasted a single bite of anything. I remembered the
law in the Bible forbidding it. And Jews do not plunder. Every minute,
when an evil spirit came and tempted me to taste a little onion or a
young garlic, the words of the Bible came into my mind.... But I did
not cease from beating, breaking, wounding, and killing and cutting to
pieces, old and young, poor and rich, big and little, without the least
On the contrary, I imagined I heard their wails and groans and cries
for mercy, and I was not moved. It was remarkable that I who could not
bear to see a fowl slaughtered, or a cat beaten, or a dog insulted, or
a horse whippedI should be such a tyrant, such a murderer....
Vengeance, I shouted without ceasing, vengeance. I will have my
revenge of you for all the Jewish blood that was spilled. I will repay
you for Jerusalem, for the Jews of Spain and Portugal, and for the Jews
of Morocco. Also for the Jews who fell in the past, and those who are
falling today. And for the Scrolls of the Law that were torn, and for
the ... Oh! oh! oh! Help! Help! Who has me by the ear?
Two good thumps and two good smacks in the face at the one time
sobered me on the instant. I saw before me a man who, I could have
sworn, was Okhrim, the gardener.
* * *
Okhrim the gardener had for years cultivated fields outside the
town. He rented a piece of ground, made a garden of it, and planted in
it melons and pumpkins, and onions and garlic and radishes and other
vegetables. He made a good living in this way. How did I know Okhrim?
He used to deal with us. That is to say, he used to borrow money off my
mother every Passover eve, and about Succoth time, he used to
begin to pay it back by degrees. These payments used to be entered on
the inside cover of my mother's prayer-book. There was a separate page
for Okhrim, and a separate account. It was headed in big writing,
Okhrim's account. Under these words came the entries: A 'rouble
' from Okhrim. Another 'rouble' from Okhrim. Two 'roubles' from Okhrim.
Half a 'rouble' from Okhrim. A sack of potatoes from Okhrim,
and so on.... And though my mother was not richa widow with children,
who lived by money-lendingshe took no interest from Okhrim. He used
to repay us in garden-produce, sometimes more, sometimes less. We never
quarrelled with him.
If the harvest was good, he filled our cellar with potatoes and
cucumbers to last us all the winter. And if the harvest was bad, he
used to come and plead with my mother:
Do not be offended, Mrs. Abraham, the harvest is bad.
My mother forgave him, and told him not to be greedy next year.
You may trust me, Mrs. Abraham, you may trust me, Okhrim replied.
And he kept his word. He brought us the first pickings of onions and
garlic. We had new potatoes and green cucumbers before the rich folks.
I heard our neighbours say, more than once, that the widow was not so
badly off as she said. See, they bring her the best of everything. Of
course, I at once told my mother what I had heard, and she poured out a
few curses on our neighbours.
Salt in their eyes, and stones in their hearts! Whoever begrudges
me what I have, let him have nothing. I wish them to be in my position
Naturally, I at once told my neighbours what my mother had wished
them; and, of course, for these words they were enraged against her.
They called her by a name I was ashamed to hear.... Naturally I was
angry, and at once told my mother of it. My mother gave me two smacks
and told me to give up carrying 'Purim' presents from one to
the other. The smacks pained, and the words 'Purim' presents
gnawed at my brain. I could not understand why she said 'Purim'
I used to rejoice when I saw Okhrim from the distance, in his high
boots and his thick, white, warm, woollen pellisse which he wore winter
and summer. When I saw him, I knew he was bringing us a sackful of
garden produce. And I flew into the kitchen to tell my mother the news
that Okhrim was coming.
* * *
I must confess that there was a sort of secret love between Okhrim
and myselfa sort of sympathy that could not be expressed in words. We
rarely spoke to one another. Firstly, because I did not understand his
language, that is to say, I understood his but he did not understand
mine. Secondly, I was shy. How could I talk to such a big Okhrim? I had
to ask my mother to be our interpreter.
Mother, ask him why he does not bring me some grapes.
Where is he going to get them? There are no grapes growing in a
Why are there no grapes in a vegetable garden?
Because vine trees do not grow with vegetables.
Why do vine trees not grow with vegetables?
Whywhywhy? You are a fool, cried my mother, and gave me a
smack in the face.
Mrs. Abraham, do not beat the child, said Okhrim, defending me.
That is the sort of Gentile Okhrim was. And it was in his hands I
found myself that day when I waged war against the vegetables.
This is what I believe took place: When Okhrim came up and saw his
garden in ruins, he could not at once understand what had happened.
When he saw me swinging my sword about me on all sides, he ought to
have realized I was a terrible being, an evil spirit, a demon, and
crossed himself several times. But when he saw that it was a Jewish boy
who was fighting so vigorously, and with a wooden sword, he took hold
of me by the ear with so much force that I collapsed, fell to the
ground, and screamed in a voice unlike my own:
Oh! Oh! Oh! Who is pulling me by the ear?
It was only after Okhrim had given me a few good thumps and several
resounding smacks that we encountered each other's eyes and recognized
one another. We were both so astonished that we were speechless.
Mrs. Abraham's boy! cried Okhrim, and he crossed himself. He began
to realize the ruin I had brought on his garden. He scrutinized each
bed and examined each little stick. He was so overcome that the tears
filled his eyes. He stood facing me, his hands folded, and he asked me
only one solitary question:
Why have you done this to me?
It was only then that I realized the mischief I had done, and whom I
had done it to. I was so amazed at myself that I could only repeat:
Come, said Okhrim, and took me by the hand. I was bowed to the
earth with fear. I imagined he was going to make an end of me. But
Okhrim did not touch me. He only held me so tightly by the hand that my
eyes began to bulge from my head. He brought me home to my mother, told
her everything, and left me entirely in her hands.
* * *
Need I tell you what I got from my mother? Need I describe for you
her anger, and her fright, and how she wrung her hands when Okhrim told
her in detail all that had taken place in his garden, and of all the
damage I had done to his vegetables? Okhrim took his stick and showed
my mother how I had destroyed everything on all sides, how I had
smashed and broken, and trampled down everything with my feet, pulled
the little potatoes out of the ground, and torn the tops off the little
onions and the garlic that were just showing above the earth.
And why? And wherefore? Why, Mrs. Abrahamwhy?
Okhrim could say no more. The sobs stuck in his throat and choked
I must tell you the real truth, children. I would rather Okhrim with
the strong arms had beaten me, than have got what I did from my mother,
before Shevuous, and what the teacher gave me after
Shevuous. ... And the shame of it all. I was reminded of it all the
year round by the boys at Cheder. They gave me a
nicknameThe Gardener. I was Yossel the gardener.
This nickname stuck to me almost until the day I was married.
That is how I went to gather greens for Shevuous.
Another Page from The Song of
Quicker, Busie, quicker! I said to her the day before the
Shevuous. I took her by the hand, and we went quickly up the hill.
The day will not stand still, little fool. And we have to climb such a
high hill. After the hill we have another stream. Over the stream there
are some boardsa little bridge. The stream flows, the frogs croak,
and the boards shake and tremble. On the other side of the bridge, over
there is the real Garden of Edenover there begins my real property.
I mean the Levadaa big field that stretches away and away,
without a beginning and without an end. It is covered with a green
mantle, sprinkled with yellow flowers, and nailed down with little red
nails. It gives out a delicious odour. The most fragrant spices in the
world are there. I have trees there beyond the counting, tall
many-branched trees. I have a little hill there that I sit on when I
like. Or else, by pronouncing the Holy Name, I can rise up and fly away
like an eagle, across the clouds, over fields and woods, over seas and
deserts until I come to the other side of the mountain of darkness.
And from there, puts in Busie, you walk seven miles until you
come to a little stream.
No. To a thick wood. First I go in and out of the trees, and after
that I come to the little stream.
You swim across the water, and count seven times seven.
And there appears before me a little old man with a long beard.
He asks you: 'What is your desire?'
I say to him: 'Bring me the Queen's daughter.'
Busie takes her hand from mine, and runs down the hill. I run after
Busie, why are you running off?
Busie does not answer. She is vexed. She likes the story I told her
excepting the part about the Queen's daughter.
* * *
You have not forgotten who Busie is? I told you once. But if you
have forgotten, I will tell you again.
I had an older brother, Benny. He was drowned. He left after him a
water-mill, a young widow, two horses, and a little child. The mill was
neglected; the horses were sold; the widow married again, and went
away, somewhere far; and the child was brought to us. This child was
Ha! ha! ha! Everybody thinks that Busie and I are sister and
brother. She calls my mother mother, and my father father. And we
two live together like sister and brother, and love one another, like
sister and brother.
Like sister and brother? Then why is Busie ashamed before me?
It happened once that we two were left alone in the housewe two by
ourselves in the whole house. It was evening, towards nightfall. My
father had gone to the synagogue to recite the mourners' prayer after
my dead brother Benny, and my mother had gone out to buy matches. Busie
and I crept into a corner, and I told her stories. Busie likes me to
tell her storiesfine stories of Cheder, or from the Arabian
Nights. She crept close to me, and put her hand into mine.
Tell me something, Shemak, tell me.
Softly fell the night around us. The shadows crept slowly up the
walls, paused on the floor, and stole all around. We could hardly,
hardly see one another's face. I felt her hand trembling. I heard her
little heart beating. I saw her eyes shining in the dark. Suddenly she
drew her hand from mine.
What is it, Busie?
We must not.
What must we not?
Hold each other's hands.
Why not? Who told you that?
I know it myself.
Are we strangers? Are we not sister and brother?
Oh, if we were sister and brother, cried Busie. And I imagined I
heard in her voice the words from the Song of Songs, O that thou
wert as my brother.
It is always so. When I speak of Busie, I always think of the Song
* * *
Where was I? I was telling you of the eve of the Shevuous.
Well, we ran down hill, Busie in front, I after her. She is angry with
me because of the Queen's daughter. She likes all my stories excepting
the one about the Queen's daughter. But Busie's anger need not worry
one. It does not last long, no longer than it takes to tell of it. She
is again looking up at me with her great, bright, thoughtful eyes. She
tosses back her hair and says to me:
Shemak, oh, Shemak! Just look! What a sky! You do not see what is
going on all around us.
I see, little fool. Why should I not see? I see a sky. I feel a
warm breeze blowing. I hear the birds piping and twittering as they fly
over our heads. It is our sky, and our breeze. The little birds are
ours tooeverything is ours, ours, ours. Give me your hand, Busie.
No, she will not give me her hand. She is ashamed. Why is Busie
ashamed before me? Why does she grow red?
There, says Busie to meover there, on the other side of the
bridge. And I imagine she is repeating the words of the Shulamite in
the Song of Songs.
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in
Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine
flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud
And we are at the little bridge.
* * *
The stream flows; the frogs croak; the boards of the little bridge
are shaking. Busie is afraid.
Ah, Busie, you are aWhy are you afraid, little fool? Hold on to
me. Or, let us take hold of one another, you of me, and I of you. See?
That's rightthat's right.
No more little bridge.
We still cling to one another, as we walk along. We are alone in
this Garden of Eden. Busie holds me tightly, very tightly. She is
silent, but I imagine she is talking to me in the words from the Song
My beloved is mine, and I am his.
The Levada is big. It stretches away without a beginning and without
an end. It is covered with a green mantle, sprinkled with yellow
flowers, and nailed down with red nails. It gives out a delicious
odourthe most fragrant spices in the world are there. We walked
along, embracedwe two alone in the Garden of Eden.
Shemak, says Busie to me, looking straight into my eyes, and
nestling still closer to me, when shall we start gathering the green
boughs for the 'Shevuous'?
The day is long enough, little fool, I say to her. I am on fire. I
do not know where to look first, whether at the blue sky, or the green
fields, or over there, at the end of the world, where the sky has
become one with the earth. Or shall I look at Busie's shining
faceinto her large beautiful eyes that are to me deep as the heavens
and dreamy as the night? Her eyes are always dreamy. A deep sorrow lies
hidden within them. They are veiled by a shade of melancholy. I know
her sorrow. I am acquainted with the cause of her melancholy. She has a
great grief in her heart. She is pained because her mother married a
stranger, and went away from her for ever and ever, as if she had been
nothing to her. In my home her mother's name must not be mentioned. It
is as if Busie had never had a mother. My mother is her mother, and my
father is her father. They love her as if she were their own child.
They fret over her, and give her everything that her heart desires.
There is nothing too dear for Busie. She wanted to go with me to gather
green boughs for the Festival decorations (I told her to ask it), and
my father said to my mother:
What do you think? He looked over his silver spectacles, and
stroked the silver white hair of his beard. And there went on an
argument between my father and mother about our going off outside the
town to gather green boughs for the Shevuous.
Father: What do you say?
Mother: What do you say?
Father: Shall we let them go?
Mother: Why should we not let them go?
Father: Do I say we should not?
Mother: What then are you saying?
Father: I am saying that we should let them go.
Mother: Why should they not go?
And so forth. I know what is worrying them. About twenty times my
mother warned me, my father repeating the words after her, that there
is a bridge to be crossed, and under the little bridge there is a
watera stream, a stream, a stream.
* * *
We, Busie and I, have long forgotten the little bridge and the
river, the stream. We are going across the broad free Levada, under the
blue, open sky. We run across the green field, fall and roll about on
the sweet-smelling grass. We get up, fall again, and roll about again,
and yet again. We have not yet gathered a single green leaf for the
Festival decorations. I take Busie over the length and breadth of the
Levada. I show off before her with my property.
Do you see those trees? Do you see this sand? Do you see that
Are they all yours? asks Busie. Her eyes are laughing. I am
annoyed because she laughs at me. She always laughs at me. I get sulky
and turn away from her for a moment. Seeing that I am sulky, she goes
in front of me, looks into my eyes, takes my hand, and says to me:
Shemak! My sulks are gone and all is forgotten. I take her hand and
lead her to my hill, there where I sit always, every summer. If I like
I sit down, and if I like I rise up with the help of the Lord, by
pronouncing His Holy Name. And I fly off like an eagle, above the
clouds, over fields and woods, over seas and deserts.
* * *
We sit on the hill, Busie and I. (We have not yet gathered a single
green leaf for the Festival.) We tell stories. That is to say, I tell
stories, and she listens. I tell her what will happen at some far, far
off time. When I am a man and she is a woman we will get married. We
will both rise up, by pronouncing the Holy Name, and travel the whole
world. First we will go to all the countries that Alexander the Great
was in. Then we will run over to the Land of Israel. We will go to the
Hills of Spices, fill our pockets with locust-beans, figs, dates, and
olives, and fly off further and still further. And everywhere we will
play a different sort of trick, for no one will see us.
Will no one see us? asks Busie, catching hold of my hand.
No oneno one. We shall see every one, but no one will see us.
In that case, I have something to ask you.
A little request.
But I know her little requestto fly off to where her mother is,
and play a little trick on her step-father.
Why not? I say to her. With the greatest of pleasure. You may
leave it to me, little fool. I can do something which they will not
forget in a hurry.
Not them, him alone, pleads Busie. But I do not give in so
readily. When I get into a temper it is dangerous. Why should I forgive
her for what she has done to Busie, the cheeky woman? The idea of
marrying another man and going off with him, the devil knows where,
leaving her child behind, and never even writing a letter! Did any one
ever hear of such a wrong?
* * *
I excited myself for nothing. I was as sorry as if dogs were gnawing
at me, but it was too late. Busie had covered her face with her two
hands. Was she crying? I could have torn myself to pieces. What good
had it done me to open her wound by speaking of her mother? In my own
heart I called myself every bad name I could think of: Horse, Beast,
Ox, Cat, Good-for-nothing, Long-tongue. I drew closer to Busie, and
took hold of her hand. I was about to say to her, the words of the
Song of Songs:
Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice.
SuddenlyHow do my father and mother come here?
* * *
My father's silver spectacles shine from the distance. The silver
strands of his hair and beard are spread out on the breeze. My mother
is waving her shawl at us. We two, Busie and I, remain sitting. We are
like paralysed. What are my parents doing here?
They had come to see what we were doing. They were afraid some
accident had befallen usGod forbid! Who could tell? A little bridge,
a water, a stream, a stream, a stream! Curious father and mother.
And where are your green boughs?
What green boughs?
The green boughs that you went to gather for the 'Shevuous'
Busie and I exchanged glances. I understood her looks. I imagined I
heard her saying to me, in the words of the Song of Songs:
'O that thou wert as my brother!'.... Why are you not my brother?
* * *
Well, I expect we shall get some greenery for 'Shevuous'
somehow, says my father with a smile. And the silver strands of his
silver-white beard glisten like rays of light in the golden red of the
sun. Thank God the children are well, and that no ill has befallen
Praised be the Lord! replies my mother to him, wiping her moist
red face with the ends of her shawl. And they are both glad. They seem
to grow broader than long with delight.
Curious, curious father and mother!
A Pity for the Living
If you were a good boy, you would help us to scrape the
horse-radish until we are ready with the fish for the holy festival.
That was what my mother said to me on the eve of Shevuous,
about mid-day. She was helping the cook to prepare the fish for the
supper. The fishes were still alive and wriggling. When they were put
into a clay basin and covered with water they were still struggling.
More than any of the others there struggled a little carp with a
broad back, and a round head and red eyes. It seemed that the little
carp had a strong desire to get back into the river. It struggled hard.
It leaped out of the basin, flapped its tail, and splashed the water
right into my face. Little boy, save me! Little boy, save me!
I wiped my face, and betook myself to the task of scraping the
horse-radish for the supper. I thought within myself, Poor little
fish. I can do nothing for you. They will soon take you in hand. You
will be scaled and ripped open, cut into pieces, put in a pot, salted
and peppered, placed on the fire, and boiled and simmered, and
simmered, and simmered.
It's a pity, I said to my mother. It's a pity for the living.
Of whom is it a pity?
It's a pity of the little fishes.
Who told you that?
She exchanged glances with the cook who was helping her, and they
both laughed aloud.
You are a fool, and your teacher a still greater fool. Ha! ha!
Scrape the horse-radish, scrape away.
That I was a fool I knew. My mother told me that frequently, and my
brothers and my sisters too. But that my teacher was a greater fool
than Ithat was news to me.
* * *
I have a comrade, Pinalle, the Shochet's son. I was at his
house one day, and I saw how a little girl carried a fowl, a huge cock,
its legs tied with a string. My comrade's father, the Shochet,
was asleep, and the little girl sat at the door and waited. The cock, a
fine strong bird, tried to get out of the girl's arms. He drove his
strong feet into her, pecked at her hand, let out from his throat a
loud Cock-a-doodle-doo! protested as much as he could. But the girl
was no weakling either. She thrust the head of the rooster under her
arm and dug her elbows into him, saying:
Be still, you wretch!
And he obeyed and remained silent.
When the Shochet woke up, he washed his hands and took out
his knife. He motioned to have the bird handed to him. I imagined that
the cock changed colour. He must have thought that he was going to be
freed to race back to his hens, to the corn and the water. But it was
not so. The Shochet turned him round, caught him between his
knees, thrust back his head with one hand, with the other plucked out a
few little feathers, pronounced a blessingheck! the knife was drawn
across his throat. He was cast away. I thought he would fall to pieces.
Pinalle, your father is a heathen, I said to my comrade.
Why is he a heathen?
He has in him no pity for the living.
I did not know you were so clever, said my comrade, and he pulled
a long nose right into my face.
* * *
Our cook is blind of one eye. She is called Fruma with the little
eye. She is a girl without a heart. She once beat the cat with nettles
for having run away with a little liver from the board. Afterwards,
when she counted the fowls and the livers, it turned out that she had
made a mistake. She had thought there were seven fowls, and, of course,
seven little livers, and there were only six. And if there were only
six fowls there could be only six little livers. Marvellous! She had
accused the cat wrongly.
You might imagine that Fruma was sorry and apologized to the cat.
But it appeared she forgot all about it. And the cat, too, forgot all
about it. A few hours later she was lying on the stove, licking herself
as if nothing had happened. It's not for nothing that people say: A
But I did not forget. No, I did not forget. I said to the cook: You
beat the cat for nothing. You had a sin for no reason. It was a pity
for the living. The Lord will punish you.
Will you go away, or else I'll give it you across the face with the
That is what Fruma with the little eye said to me. And she added:
Lord Almighty! Wherever in the world do such children come from?
* * *
It was all about a dog that had been scalded with boiling water by
the same Fruma with the little eye. Ah, how much pain it caused the
dog. It squealed, howled and barked with all its might, filling the
world with noise. The whole town came together at the sound of his
howling, and laughed, and laughed. All the dogs in the town barked out
of sympathy, each from his own kennel, and each after his own fashion.
One might think that they had been asked to bark. Afterwards, when the
scalded dog had finished howling, he moaned and muttered and licked his
sores, and growled softly. My heart melted within me. I went over to
him and was going to fondle him.
The dog, seeing my raised hand, jumped up as if he had been scalded
again, took his tail between his legs and ran awayaway.
Shah! Sirko! I said trying to soothe him with soft words. Why do
you run away like that, fool? Am I doing you any harm?
A dog is a dog. His tongue is dumb. He knows nothing of pity for the
My father saw me running after the dog and he pounced down on me.
Go into 'Cheder,' dog-beater.
Then I was the dog-beater.
* * *
It was all about two little birdstwo tiny little birds that two
boys, one big and one small, had killed. When the two little birds
dropped from the tree they were still alive. Their feathers were
ruffled. They fluttered their wings, and trembled in every limb.
Get up, you hedgehog, said the big boy to the small boy. And they
took the little birds in their hands and beat their heads against the
tree-trunk, until they died.
I could not contain myself, but ran over to the two boys.
What are you doing here? I asked.
What's that to do with you? they demanded in Russian. What harm
is it? they asked calmly. They are no more than birds, ordinary
And if they are only birds? Have you no pity for the livingno
mercy for the little birds?
The boys looked curiously at one another, and as if they had already
made up their minds in advance to do it, they at once fell upon me.
When I came home, my torn jacket told the story, and my father gave
me the good beating I deserved.
Ragged fool! cried my mother.
I forgave her for the ragged fool, but why did she also beat me?
* * *
Why was I beaten? Does not our teacher himself tell us that all
creatures are dear to the Lord? Even a fly on the wall must not be
hurt, he says, out of pity for the living. Even a spider, that is an
evil spirit, must not be killed either, he tells us emphatically.
If the spider deserved to die, then the Lord Himself would slay
Then comes the question: Very well, if that is so, then why do the
people slaughter cows and calves and sheep and fowls every day of the
And not only cows and other animals and fowls, but do not men
slaughter one another? At the time when we had the Pogrom, did
not men throw down little children from the tops of houses? Did they
not kill our neighbours' little girl? Her name was Peralle. And how did
they kill her?
Ah, how I loved that little girl. And how that little girl loved me!
Uncle Bebebe, she used to call me. (My name is Velvalle.) And she
used to pull me by the nose with her small, thin, sweet little fingers.
Because of her, because of Peralle, every one calls me Uncle Bebebe.
Here comes Uncle Bebebe, and he will take you in hand.
* * *
Peralle was a sickly child. That is to say, in the ordinary way she
was all right, but she could not walk, neither walk nor stand, only
sit. They used to carry her into the open and put her sitting in the
sand, right in the sun. She loved the sun, loved it terribly. I used to
carry her about. She used to clasp me around the neck with her small,
thin, sweet little fingers, and nestle her whole body close to me
closer and closer. She would put her head on my shoulder. I love
Our neighbour Krenni says she cannot forget Uncle Bebebe to this
day. When she sees me, she says she is again reminded of her Peralle.
My mother is angry with her for weeping.
We must not weep, says my mother. We must not sin. We must
That is what my mother says. She interrupts Krenni in the middle and
drives me off.
If you don't get into our eyes, we won't remember that which we
Ha! ha! How is it possible to forget? When I think of that little
girl the tears come into my eyes of their own accordof their own
See, he weeps again, the wise one, cries Fruma with the little
eye to my mother. My mother gives me a quick glance and laughs aloud.
The horse-radish has gone into your eyes. The devil take you. It's
a hard piece of horse-radish. I forgot to tell him to close his eyes.
Woe is me! Here is my apron. Wipe your eyes, foolish boy. And your
nose, too, wipe at the same time your nose, your nose.
There are people who have never been taught anything, and know
everything, have never been anywhere, and understand everything, have
never given a moment's thought to anything, and comprehend everything.
Blessed hands is the name bestowed on these fortunate beings. The
world envies, honours and respects them.
There was such a man in our town, Kassrillevka. They called him
Moshe-for-once, because, whatever he heard or saw or made, he
It is such-and-such a thing for once.
A new cantor in the synagoguehe is a cantor for once.
Some one is carrying a turkey for the Passoverit is a turkey for
There will be a fine frost tomorrow.
A fine frost for once.
There were blows exchanged at the meeting.
Good blows for once.
Oh, Jews, I am a poor man.
A poor man for once.
And so of everything.
Moshe was aI cannot tell you what Moshe was. He was a Jew, but
what he lived by it would be hard to say. He lived as many thousands of
Jews live in Kassrillevkatens of thousands. He hovered around the
overlord. That is, not the overlord himself, but the gentlefolks that
were with the overlord. And not around the gentlefolks themselves, but
around the Jews that hovered around the gentlefolks who were with the
overlord. And if he made a livingthat was another story.
Moshe-for-once was a man who hated to boast of his good fortune, or to
bemoan his ill-fortune. He was always jolly. His cheeks were always
red. One end of his moustache was longer than the other. His hat was
always on one side of his head; and his eyes were always smiling and
kindly. He never had any time, but was always ready to walk ten miles
to do any one a favour.
That's the sort of a man Moshe-for-once was.
* * *
There wasn't a thing in the world Moshe-for-once could not makea
house, or a clock, or a machine, a lamp, a spinning-top, a tap, a
mirror, a cage, and what not.
True, no one could point to the houses, the clocks, or the machines
that came from his hands; but every one was satisfied Moshe could make
them. Every one said that if need be, Moshe could turn the world upside
down. The misfortune was that he had no tools. I mean the contrary.
That was his good fortune. Through this, the world was not turned
upside down. That is, the world remained a world.
That Moshe was not torn to pieces was a miracle. When a lock went
wrong they came to Moshe. When the clock stopped, or the tap of the
Samovar went out of order, or there appeared in a house
blackbeetles, or bugs, or other filthy creatures, it was always Moshe
who was consulted. Or when a fox came and choked the fowls, whose
advice was asked? It was always and ever Moshe-for-once.
True, the broken lock was thrown away, the clock had to be sent to a
watchmaker, and the Samovar to the copper-smith. The
blackbeetles, and bugs and other filthy things were not at all
frightened of Moshe. And the fox went on doing what a fox ought to do.
But Moshe-for-once still remained the same Moshe-for-once he had been.
After all, he had blessed hands; and no doubt he had something in him.
A world cannot be mad. In proof of thiswhy do the people not come to
you or me with their broken locks, or broken clocks, or for advice how
to get rid of foxes, or blackbeetles and bugs and other filthy things?
All the people in the world are not the same. And it appears that
talent is rare.
* * *
We became very near neighbours with this Moshe-for-once. We lived in
the same house with him, under the one roof. I say became, because,
before that, we lived in our own house. The wheels of fortune suddenly
turned round for us. Times grew bad. We did not wish to be a burden to
any one. We sold our house, paid our debts, and moved into Hershke
Mamtzes' house. It was an old ruin, without a garden, without a yard,
without a paling, without a body, and without life.
Well, it's a hut, said my mother, pretending to be merry. But I
saw tears in her eyes.
Do not sin, said my father, who was black as the earth. Thank God
Why for this, I do not know. Perhaps because we were not living on
the street? I would rather have lived on the street than in this house,
with strange boys and girls whom I did not know, nor wish to know, with
their yellow hair, and their running noses, with their thin legs and
fat bellies. When they walked they waddled like ducks. They did nothing
but eat, and when any one else was eating, they stared right into his
I was very angry with the Lord for having taken our house from us. I
was not sorry for the house as for the Tabernacle we had there. It
stood from year to year. It had a roof that could be raised and
lowered, and a beautiful carved ceiling of green and yellow boards,
made into squares with a Shield of David in the middle. True, kind
friends told us to hope on, for we should one day buy the house back,
or the Lord would help us to build another, and a better, and a bigger
and a handsomer house than the one we had had to sell. But all this was
cold comfort to us. I heard the same sort of words when I broke my tin
watch, accidentally, of course, into fragments. My mother smacked me,
and my father wiped my eyes, and promised to buy me a better, and
bigger and handsomer watch than the one I broke. But the more my father
praised the watch he was going to buy for me, the more I cried for the
other, the old watch. When my father was not looking, my mother wept
silently for the old house. And my father sighed and groaned. A black
cloud settled on his face, and his big white forehead was covered with
I thought it was very wrong of the Father of the Universe to have
taken our house from us.
* * *
I ask youmay your health increase!what are we going to do with
the Tabernacle? asked my mother of my father some time before the
Feast of Tabernacles.
You probably mean to ask what are we going to do without a
Tabernacle? replied my father, attempting to jest. I saw that he was
distressed. He turned away to one side, so that we might not see his
face, which was covered with a thick black cloud. My mother blew her
nose to swallow her tears. And I, looking at them.... Suddenly my
father turned to us with a lively expression on his face.
Hush! We have here a neighbour called Moshe.
Moshe-for-once? asked my mother. And I do not know whether she was
making fun or was in earnest. It seemed she was in earnest, for, half
an hour later, the three were going about the house, father, Moshe, and
Hershke Mamtzes, our landlord, looking for a spot on which to erect a
* * *
Hershke Mamtzes' house was all right. It had only one fault. It
stood on the street, and had not a scrap of yard. It looked as if it
had been lost in the middle of the road. Somebody was walking along and
lost a house, without a yard, without a roof, the door on the other
side of the street, like a coat with the waist in front and the buttons
underneath. If you talk to Hershke, he will bore you to death about his
house. He will tell you how he came by it, how they wanted to take it
from him, and how he fought for it, until it remained with him.
Where do you intend to erect the Tabernacle, 'Reb' Moshe?
asked father of Moshe-for-once. And Moshe-for-once, his hat on the back
of his head, was lost in thought, as if he were a great architect
formulating a big plan. He pointed with his hand from here to there,
and from there to here. He tried to make us understand that if the
house were not standing in the middle of the street, and if it had had
a yard, we would have had two walls ready made, and he could have built
us a Tabernacle in a day. Why do I say in a day? In an hour. But since
the house had no yard, and we needed four walls, the Tabernacle would
take a little longer to build. But for that again, we would have a
Tabernacle for once. The main thing was to get the material.
There will be materials. Have you the tools? asked Hershke.
The tools will be found. Have you the timber? asked Moshe.
There is timber. Have you the nails? asked Hershke.
Nails can be got. Have you the fir-boughs? asked Moshe.
Somehow, you are a little too so-so today, said Hershke.
A little too what? asked Moshe. They looked each other straight in
the eyes, and both burst out laughing.
* * *
When Hershke Mamtzes brought the first few boards and beams, Moshe
said that, please God, it would be a Tabernacle for once. I wondered
how he was going to make a Tabernacle out of the few boards and beams.
I begged of my mother to let me stand by whilst Moshe was working. And
Moshe not only let me stand by him, but even let me be his assistant. I
was to hand him what he wanted, and hold things for him.
Of course this put me into the seventh heaven of delight. Was it a
trifle to help build the Tabernacle? I was of great assistance to
Moshe. I moved my lips when he hammered; went for meals when he went;
shouted at the other children not to hinder us; handed Moshe the hammer
when he wanted the chisel, and the pincers when he wanted a nail. Any
other man would have thrown the hammer or pincers at my head for such
help, but Moshe-for-once had no temper. No one had ever had the
privilege of seeing him angry.
Anger is a sinful thing. It does as little good as any sin.
And because I was greatly absorbed in the work, I did not notice how
and by what miracle the Tabernacle came into being.
Come and see the Tabernacle we have built, I said to father, and
dragged him out of the house by the tails of his coat. My father was
delighted with our work. He looked at Moshe with a smile, and said,
pointing to me:
Had you at any rate a little help from him?
It was a help, for once, replied Moshe, looking up at the roof of
the Tabernacle with anxious eyes.
If only our Hershke brings us the fir-boughs, it will be a
Tabernacle for once.
Hershke Mamtzes worried us about the fir-boughs. He put off going
for them from day to day. The day before the Festival he went off and
brought back a cart-load of thin sticks, a sort of weeds, such as grow
on the banks of the river. And we began to cover the Tabernacle. That
is to say, Moshe did the work, and I helped him by driving off the
goats which had gathered around the fir-boughs, as if they were
something worth while. I do not know what taste they found in the
bitter green stalks.
Because the house stood alone, in the middle of the street, there
was no getting rid of the goats. If you drove one off another came up.
The second was only just got rid of, when the first sprang up again. I
drove them off with sticks.
Get out of this. Are you here again, foolish goats? Get off.
The devil knows how they found out we had green fir-boughs. It seems
they told one another, because there gathered around us all the goats
of the town. And I, all alone, had to do battle with them.
The Lord helped us, and we had all the fir-boughs on the roof. The
goats remained standing around us like fools. They looked up with
foolish eyes, and stupidly chewed the cud. I had my revenge of them,
and I said to them:
Why don't you take the fir-boughs now, foolish goats?
They must have understood me, for they began to go off, one by one,
in search of something to eat. And we began to decorate the Tabernacle
from the inside. First of all, we strewed the floor with sand; then we
hung on the walls all the wadded quilts belonging to the neighbours.
Where there was no wadded quilt, there hung a shawl, and where there
was no shawl, there was a sheet or a table-cloth. Then we brought out
all the chairs and tables, the candle-sticks and candles, the plates
and knives and forks and spoons. And each of the three women of the
house made the blessing over her own candles for the Feast of
* * *
My motherpeace be unto her!was a woman who loved to weep. The
Days of Mourning were her Days of Rejoicing. And since we had lost our
own house, her eyes were not dry for a single minute. My father, though
he was also fretted, did not like this. He told her to fear the Lord,
and not sin. There were worse circumstances than ours, thank God. But
now, in the Tabernacle, when she was blessing the Festival candles, she
could cover her face with her hands and weep in silence without any one
knowing it. But I was not to be fooled. I could see her shoulders
heaving, and the tears trickling through her thin white fingers. And I
even knew what she was weeping for.... It was well for her that father
was getting ready to go to synagogue, putting on his Sabbath coat that
was tattered, but was still made of silk, and his plaited silk girdle.
He thrust his hands into his girdle, and said to me, sighing deeply:
Come, let us go. It is time we went to synagogue to pray.
I took the prayer-books, and we went off. Mother remained at home to
pray. I knew what she would doweep. She might weep as much as she
liked, for she would be alone. And it was so. When we came back, and
entered the Tabernacle, and father started to make the blessing over
the wine, I looked into her eyes, and they were red, and had swollen
lids. Her nose was shining. Nevertheless, she was to me beautiful as
Rachel or Abigail, or the Queen of Sheba, or Queen Esther. Looking at
her, I was reminded of all our beautiful Jewish women with whom I had
just become acquainted at Cheder. And looking at my mother,
with her lovely face that looked lovelier above the lovely silk shawl
she wore, with her large, beautiful, careworn eyes, my heart was filled
with pain that such lovely eyes should be tear-stained alwaysthat
such lovely white hands should have to bake and cook. And I was angry
with the Lord because He did not give us a lot of money. And I prayed
to the Lord to destine me to find a treasure of gold and diamonds and
brilliants. Or let the Messiah come, and we would go back to the Land
of Israel, where we should all be happy.
This was what I thought. And my imagination carried me far, far
away, to my golden dreams that I would not exchange for all the money
in the world. And the beautiful Festival prayers, sung by my father in
his softest and most melodious voice, rang in my ears.
Thou hast chosen us above all peoples, Us hast Thou chosen Of all
Is it a trifle to be God's chosen people? To be God's only child? My
heart was glad for the happy chosen people. And I imagined I was a
prince. Yes, a prince. And the Tabernacle was a palace. The Divine
Holiness rested on it. My mother was the beautiful daughter of
Jerusalem, the Queen of Sheba. And on the morrow we would make the
blessing over the most beautiful fruit in the worldthe citron. Ah,
who could compare with me? Who could compare with me?
* * *
After father, Moshe-for-once pronounced the blessing over the wine.
It was not the same blessing as my father'sbut, really not. After
him, the landlord, Hershke Mamtzes pronounced the blessing over the
wine. He was a commonplace man, and it was a commonplace blessing. We
went to wash our hands, and we pronounced the blessing over the bread.
And each of the three women brought out the food for her familyfine,
fresh, seasoned, pleasant, fragrant fish. And each family sat around
its own table. There were many dishes; a lot of people had soup; a lot
of mouths were eating. A little wind blew into the Tabernacle, through
the frail thin walls, and the thin roof of fir-boughs. The candles
spluttered. Every one was eating heartily the delicious Festival
supper. And I imagined it was not a Tabernacle but a palacea great,
big, brilliantly lit-up palace. And we Jews, the chosen people, the
princes, were sitting in the palace and enjoying the pleasures of life.
It is well for you, little Jews, thought I. No one is so well-off as
you. No one else is privileged to sit in such a beautiful palace,
covered with green fir-boughs, strewn with yellow sand, decorated with
the most beautiful tapestries in the world, on the tables the finest
suppers, and real Festival fish which is the daintiest of all dainties.
And who speaks of Suddenly, crash! The whole roof and the
fir-boughs are on our heads. One wall after the other is falling in. A
goat fell from on high, right on top of us. It suddenly grew pitch
dark. All the candles were extinguished. All the tables were
over-turned. And we all, with the suppers and the crockery and the
goat, were stretched out on the sand. The moon shone, and the stars
peeped out, and the goat jumped up, frightened, and stood on its thin
legs, stock-still, while it stared at us with foolish eyes. It soon
marched off, like an insolent creature, over the tables and chairs, and
over our heads, bleating Meh-eh-eh-eh! The candles were extinguished;
the crockery smashed; the supper in the sand; and we were all
frightened to death. The women were shrieking, the children crying. It
was a destruction of everythinga real destruction.
* * *
You built a fine Tabernacle, said Hershke Mamtzes to us in such a
voice, as if we had had from him for building the Tabernacle goodness
knows how much money. It was a fine Tabernacle, when one goat could
It was a Tabernacle for once, replied Moshe-for-once. He stood
like one beaten, looking upwards, to see whence the destruction had
come. It was a Tabernacle for once.
Yes, a Tabernacle for once, repeated Hershke Mamtzes, in a voice
full of deadly venom. And every one echoed his words, all in one voice:
A Tabernacle for once.
The Dead Citron
My name is Leib. When I am called up to read the portion of the Law
it is by the name of Yehudah-Leib. At home, I sign myself Lyef
Moishevitch. Amongst the Germans I am known as Herr Leon. Here in
England, I am Mr. Leon. When I was a child I was called Leibel. At
Cheder I was Lieb-Dreib-Obderick. You must know that at our
Cheder every boy has a nickname. For instanceMottel-Kappotel,
Meyer-Dreyer, Mendel-Fendel, Chayim-Clayim, Itzig-Shpitzig,
Berel-Tzap. Did you ever hear such rhymes? That Itzig rhymes with
Shpitzig, and Mendel with Fendel, and Chayim with Clayim is correct.
But what has Berel to do with Tzap, or how does Leib rhyme with
Obderick? I did not like my nickname. And I fought about it. I got
blows and thumps and smacks and whacks and pinches and kicks from all
sides. I was black and blue. Because I was the smallest in the
Chederthe smallest and the weakest and the poorest, no one
defended me. On the contrary, the two rich boys tortured me. One got on
top of me, and the other pulled me by the ear. Whilst the thirda poor
boysang a song to tease me
Just so! Just so!
Give it to him.
His little limbs,
His little limbs.
Just so! Just so!
At such times I lay quiet as a kitten. And when they let me go I
went into a corner and wept silently. I wiped my eyes, went back to my
comrades, and was all right again.
Just a wordwhenever you meet the name Leibel in this story, you
will know it refers to me.
I am soft as down, short and fat. In reality, I am not so fat as I
look. On the contrary, I am rather bony, but I wear thick, wadded
little trousers, a thick, wadded vest, and a thick wadded coat. You see
my mother wants me to be warm. She is afraid I might catch cold, God
forbid! And she wraps me in cotton-wool from head to foot. She believes
that cotton-wool is very good to wrap a boy in, but must not be used
for making balls. I provided all the boys with cotton-wool I pulled it
out of my trousers and coat until she caught me. She beat me, and
whacked me, and thumped me and pinched me. But Leibel went on doing
what he likeddistributing cotton-wool.
My face is red, my cheeks rather blue, and my nose always running.
Such a nose! cries my mother. If he had no nose, he would be all
right. He would have nothing to freeze in the cold weather. I often
try to picture to myself what would happen if I had no nose at all. If
people had no noses, what would they look like? Then the question is?
But I was going to tell you the story of a dead citron, and I have
wandered off to goodness knows where. I will break off in the middle of
what I was saying, and go back to the story of the dead citron.
* * *
My father, Moshe-Yankel, has been a clerk at an insurance company's
office for many years. He gets five and a half roubles a week.
He is waiting for a rise in wages. He says that if he gets his rise
this year, please God, he will buy a citron. But my mother,
Basse-Beila, has no faith in this. She says the barracks will fall down
before father will get a rise.
One day, shortly before the New Year, Leibel overheard the following
conversation between his father and his mother.
He: Though the world turn upside down, I must have a citron this
She: The world will not turn upside down, and you will have no
He: That's what you say. But supposing I have already been promised
something towards a citron?
She: It will have to be written into the books of Jests. In the
month called after the town of Kreminitz a miracle happeneda bear
died in the forest. But what then? If I do not believe it, I shall not
be a great heretic either.
He: You may believe or not. I tell you that this Feast of
Tabernacles, we shall have a citron of our own.
She: Amen! May it be so! From your mouth into God's ears!
Amen, amen, repeated Leibel in his heart. And he pictured to
himself his father coming into the synagogue, like a respectable
householder, with his own citron and his own palm-branch. And though
Moshe-Yankel is only a clerk, still when the men walk around the Ark
with their palms and their citrons, he will follow them with his palm
and citron. And Leibel's heart was full of joy. When he came to
Cheder, he at once told every one that this year his father would
have his own palm and citron. But no one believed him.
What do you say to his father? asked the young scamps of one
another. Such a mansuch a beggar amongst beggars desires to have a
citron of his own. He must imagine it is a lemon, or a 'groschen
That was what the young scamps said. And they gave Leibel a few good
smacks and thumps, and punches and digs and pushes. And Leibel began to
believe that his father was a beggar amongst beggars. And a beggar must
have no desires. But how great was his surprise when he came home and
found Reb Henzel sitting at the table, in his Napoleonic cap,
facing his father. In front of them stood a box full of citrons, the
beautiful perfume of which reached the furthest corners of the house.
* * *
The cap which Reb Henzel wore was the sort of cap worn in
the time of Napoleon the First. Over there in France, these caps were
long out of fashion. But in our village there was still one to be
foundonly one, and it belonged to Reb Henzel. The cap was
long and narrow. It had a slit and a button in front, and at the back
two tassels. I always wanted these tassels. If the cap had fallen into
my hands for two minutesonly two, the tassels would have been mine.
Reb Henzel had spread out his whole stock-in-trade. He took
up a citron with his two fingers, and gave it to father to examine.
Take this citron, 'Reb' Moshe-Yankel. You will enjoy it.
A good one? asked my father, examining the citron on all sides, as
one might examine a diamond. His hands trembled with joy.
And what a good one, replied Reb Henzel, and the tassels
of his cap shook with his laughter.
Moshe-Yankel played with the citron, smelled it, and could not take
his eyes off it. He called over his wife to him, and showed her, with a
happy smile, the citron, as if he were showing her a precious jewel, a
priceless gem, a rare antique, or an only childa dear one.
Basse-Beila drew near, and put out her hand slowly to take hold of
the citron. But she did not get it.
Be careful with your hands. A sniff if you like.
Basse-Beila was satisfied with a sniff of the citron. I was not even
allowed to sniff it. I was not allowed to go too near it, or even to
look at it.
He is here, too, said my mother. Only let him go near it, and he
will at once bite the top off the citron.
The Lord forbid! cried my father.
The Lord preserve us! echoed Reb Henzel. And the tassels
shook again. He gave father some cotton-wool into which he might nest
the citron. The beautiful perfume spread into every corner of the
house. The citron was wrapped up as carefully as if it had been a
diamond, or a precious gem. And it was placed in a beautiful round,
carved, painted and decorated wooden sugar box. The sugar was taken
out, and the citron was put in instead, like a beloved guest.
Welcome art thou, 'Reb' citron! Into the boxinto the box!
The box was carefully closed, and placed in the glass cupboard. The
door was closed over on it, and good-bye!
I am afraid the heathenthat was meant for mewill open the
door, take out the citron, and bite its top off, said my mother. She
took me by the hand, and drew me away from the cupboard.
Like a cat that has smelt butter, and jumps down from a height for
it, straightens her back, goes round and round, rubbing herself against
everything, looks into everybody's eyes, and licks herselfin like
manner did Leibel, poor thing, go round and round the cupboard. He
gazed in through the glass door, smiled at the box containing the
citron, until his mother saw him, and said to his father that the young
scamp wanted to get hold of the citron to bite off its top.
To 'Cheder,' you blackguard! May you never be thought of,
Leibel bent his head, lowered his eyes, and went off to Cheder.
* * *
The few words his mother had said to his father about his biting off
the top of the citron burned themselves into Leibel's heart, and ate
into his bones like a deadly poison.
The top of the citron buried itself in Leibel's brain. It did not
leave his thoughts for a moment. It entered his dreams at night,
worried him, and almost dragged him by the hand. You do not recognize
me, foolish boy? It is Ithe top of the citron. Leibel turned round
on the other side, groaned, and went to sleep. It worried him again.
Get up, fool. Go and open the cupboard, take out the citron, and bite
me off. You will enjoy yourself.
Leibel got up in the morning, washed his hands, and began to say his
prayers. He took his breakfast, and was going off to Cheder.
Passing by, he glanced in the direction of the glass cupboard. Through
the glass door, he saw the box containing the citron. And he imagined
the box was winking at him. Over here, over here, little boy. Leibel
marched straight out of the house.
One morning, when Leibel got up, he found himself alone in the
house. His father had gone off to business, his mother had gone to the
market. The servant was busy in the kitchen. Every one is gone. There
isn't a soul in the house, thought Leibel. Passing by, he again looked
inside the glass cupboard. He saw the sugar box that held the citron.
It seemed to be beckoning to him. Over here, over here, little boy.
Leibel opened the glass door softly and carefully, and took out the
boxthe beautiful, round, carved, decorated wooden box, and raised the
lid. Before he had time to lift out the citron, the fragrance of it
filled his nostrilsthe pungent, heavenly odour. Before he had time to
turn around, the citron was in his hand, and the top of it in his eyes.
Do you want to enjoy yourself? Do you want to know the taste of
Paradise? Take and bite me off. Do not be afraid, little fool. No one
will know of it. Not a son of Adam will see you. No bird will tell on
* * *
You want to know what happened? You want to know whether I bit the
top off the citron, or held myself back from doing it? I should like to
know what you would have done in my placeif you had been told ten
times not to dare to bite the top off the citron? Would you not have
wanted to know what it tasted like? Would you not also have thought of
the planto bite it off, and stick it on again with spittle? You may
believe me or notthat is your affairbut I do not know myself how it
happened. Before the citron was rightly in my hands, the top of it was
between my teeth.
* * *
The day before the Festival, father came home a little earlier from
his work, to untie the palm-branch. He had put it away very carefully
in a corner, warning Leibel not to attempt to go near it. But it was
useless warning him. Leibel had his own troubles. The top of the citron
haunted him. Why had he wanted to bite it off? What good had it done
him to taste it when it was bitter as gall? It was for nothing he had
spoiled the citron, and rendered it unfit for use. That the citron
could not now be used, Leibel knew very well. Then what had he done
this for? Why had he spoiled this beautiful creation, bitten off its
head, and taken its life? Why? Why? He dreamt of the citron that night.
It haunted him, and asked him: Why have you done this thing to me? Why
did you bite off my head? I am now uselessuseless. Leibel turned
over on the other side, groaned, and fell asleep again. But he was
again questioned by the citron. Murderer, what have you against me?
What had my head done to you?
* * *
The first day of the Feast of Tabernacles arrived. After a frosty
night, the sun rose and covered the earth with a delayed warmth, like
that of a step-mother. That morning Moshe-Yankel got up earlier than
usual to learn off by heart the Festival prayers, reciting them in the
beautiful Festival melody. That day also Basse-Beila was very busy
cooking the fish and the other Festival dishes. That day also Zalmen
the carpenter came to our Tabernacle to make a blessing over the citron
and palm before any one else, so that he might be able to drink tea
with milk and enjoy the Festival.
Zalmen wants the palm and the citron, said my mother to my father.
Open the cupboard, and take out the box, but carefully, said my
He himself stood on a chair and took down from the top shelf the
palm, and brought it to the Tabernacle to the carpenter.
Here, make the blessing, he said. But be careful, in Heaven's
name be careful!
Our neighbour Zalmen was a giant of a manmay no evil eye harm him!
He had two hands each finger of which might knock down three such
Leibels as I. His hands were always sticky, and his nails red from
glue. And when he drew one of these nails across a piece of wood, there
was a mark that might have been made with a sharp piece of iron.
In honour of the Festival, Zalmen had put on a clean shirt and a new
coat. He had scrubbed his hands in the bath, with soap and sand, but
had not succeeded in making them clean. They were still sticky and the
nails still red with glue.
Into these hands fell the dainty citron. It was not for nothing
Moshe-Yankel was excited when Zalmen gave the citron a good squeeze and
the palm a good shake.
Be careful, be careful, he cried. Now turn the citron head
downwards, and make the blessing. Carefully, carefully. For Heaven's
sake, be careful!
Suddenly Moshe-Yankel threw himself forward, and cried out, Oh!
The cry brought his wife, Basse-Beila, running into the Tabernacle.
What is it, Moshe-Yankel? God be with you!
Coarse blackguard! Man of the earth! he shouted at the carpenter,
and was ready to kill him.
How could you be such a coarse blackguard? Such a man of the earth?
Is a citron an ax? Or is it a saw? Or a bore? A citron is neither an ax
nor a saw nor a bore. You have cut my throat without a knife. You have
spoiled my citron. Here is the top of ithere, see! Coarse blackguard!
Man of the earth!
We were all paralysed on the instant. Zalmen was like a dead man. He
could not understand how this misfortune had happened to him. How had
the top come off the citron? Surely he had held it very lightly, only
just with the tips of his fingers? It was a misfortunea terrible
Basse-Beila was pale as death. She wrung her hands and moaned.
When a man is unfortunate, he may as well bury himself alive and
fresh and well, right in the earth.
And Leibel? Leibel did not know whether he should dance with joy
because the Lord had performed a miracle for him, released him from all
the trouble he had got himself into, or whether he should cry for his
father's agony and his mother's tears, or whether he should kiss
Zalmen's thick hands with the sticky fingers and the red nails, because
he was his redeemer, his good angel.... Leibel looked at his father's
face and his mother's tears, the carpenter's hands, and at the citron
that lay on the table, yellow as wax, without a head, without a spark
of life, a dead thing, a corpse.
A dead citron, said my father, in a broken voice.
A dead citron, repeated my mother, the tears gushing from her
A dead citron, echoed the carpenter, looking at his hands. He
seemed to be saying to himself: There's a pair of hands for you! May
A dead citron, said Leibel, in a joyful voice. But he caught
himself up, fearing his tones might proclaim that he, Leibel, was the
murderer, the slaughterer of the citron.
Isshur the Beadle
When I think of Isshur the beadle, I am reminded of Alexander the
Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and other such giants of history.
Isshur was not a nobody. He led the whole congregation, the whole
town by the nose. He had the whole town in his hand. He was a man who
served everybody and commanded everybody; a man who was under
everybody, but feared nobody. He had a cross look, terrifying eyebrows,
a beard of brass, a powerful fist, and a long stick. Isshur was a name
to conjure with.
Who made Isshur what he was? Ask me an easier question. There are
types of whom it can be said they are cast, fixed. They never move out
of their place. As you see them the first time, so are they always. It
seems they always were as they are, and will ever remain the same. When
I was a child, I could not tear myself away from Isshur. I was always
puzzling out the one questionWhat was Isshur like before he was
Isshur? That is to say, before he got those terrifying eyebrows, and
the big hooked nose that was always filled with snuff, and the big
brass beard that started by being thick and heavy, and ended up in a
few, long straggling, terrifying hairs. How did he look when he was a
child, ran about barefoot, went to Cheder, and was beaten by
his teacher? And what was Isshur like when his mother was carrying him
about in her arms, when she suckled him, wiped his nose for him, and
said: Isshur, my sweet boy. My beautiful boy. May I suffer instead of
your little bones?
These were the questions that puzzled me when I was a child, and
could not tear myself away from Isshur.
Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother. And
Isshur would not even allow any one to think of him.
Surely, I was only one boy, yet Isshur called me wretches. You must
know that Isshur hated to have any one staring at him. Isshur hated
little children. He could not bear them. Children, he said, are
naturally bad. They are scamps and contradictory creatures. Children
are goats that leap into strange gardens. Children are dogs that snap
at one's coat-tails. Children are pigs that crawl on the table.
Children should be taught manners. They ought to be made to tremble, as
with the ague. And we did tremble as if we had the ague.
Why were we afraid, you ask. Well, would you not be afraid if you
were taken by the ear, dragged to the door, and beaten over the neck
Go home, wretches. May the devil take your father and mother.
You will tell your mother on him? Well, try it. You want to know
what will happen? I will tell you. You will go home and show your
mother your torn ear. Your mother will pounce on your father. You see
how the tyrant has torn the ear of your childyour only son. Your
father will take you by the hand to the synagogue, and straight over to
Isshur the beadle, as if to say to him: Here, see what you have done
to my only son. You have almost torn off his ear. And Isshur will
reply to my father's unspoken words: Go in health with your wretches.
You hear? Even an only son is also wretches. And what can father do?
Push his hat on one side, and go home. Mother will ask him: Well? And
he will reply: I gave it to him, the wicked one, the Haman! What more
could I do to him?
It is not at all nice that a father should tell such a big lie. But
what is one to do when one is under the yoke of a beadle?
* * *
One might say that the whole town is under Isshur's yoke. He does
what he likes. If he does not want to heat the synagogue in the middle
of winter, you may burst arguing with him. He will heed you no more
than last year's snow. If Isshur wants prayers to start early in the
morning, you will be too late whenever you come. If Isshur does not
want you to read the portion of the Law for eighteen weeks on end, you
may stare at him from today till tomorrow, or cough until you burst. He
will neither see nor hear you. It is the same with your praying-shawl,
or your prayer-book, or with your citron, or the willow-twigs. Isshur
will bring them to you when he likes, not when you like. He says that
householders are plentiful as dogs, but there is only one beadlemay
no evil eye harm him! The congregation is so big, one might go mad.
And Isshur was proud and haughty. He reduced every one to the level
of the earth. The most respectable householder often got it hot from
him. It is better for you not to start with me, he said. I have no
time to talk to you. There are a lot of you, and I am only onemay no
evil eye harm me! And nobody began with him. They were glad that he
did not begin with them.
Naturally, no one would dream of asking Isshur what became of the
money donated to the synagogue, or of the money he got for the candles,
and the money thrown into the collection boxes. Nor did they ask him
any other questions relating to the management of the synagogue. He was
the master of the whole concern. And whom was he to give an account to?
The people were glad if he left them alone, and that he did not throw
the keys into their faces. Here, keep this place going yourselves.
Provide it with wood and water, candles and matches. The towels must be
kept clean. A slate has to be put on the roof frequently, and the walls
and ceiling have to be whitewashed. The stands have to be repaired, and
the books bought. And what about the 'Chanukali' lamp? And what
of the palm-branch and the citron? And where is this, and where is
that? And though every one knew that all the things he mentioned not
only did not mean an outlay of money, but were, on the contrary, a
source of income, yet no one dared interfere. All these belonged to the
beadle. They were his means of livelihood. The fine salary I get from
you! One's head might grow hard on it. It's only enough for the water
for the porridge, said Isshur. And the people were silent.
The people were silent, though they knew very well that Reb
Isshur was saving money. They knew very well he had plenty of money. It
was possible he even lent out money on interest, in secret, on good
securities, of course. He had a little house of his own, and a garden,
and a cow. And he drank a good glassful of brandy every day. In the
winter he wore the best fur coat. His wife always wore good boots
without holes. She made herself a new cloak not long ago, out of the
public money. May she suffer through it for our blood, Father in
That's what the villagers muttered softly through their teeth, so
that the beadle might not hear them. When he approached, they broke off
and spoke of something else. They blinked their eyes, breathed hard,
and took from the beadle a pinch of snuff with their two fingers.
This excuse me was a nasty excuse me. It was meant to be
flattering, to convey the sense ofExcuse me, your snuff is surely
good. And, Excuse me, give me a pinch of snuff, and go in peace.
Isshur understood the compliment, and also the hint. He knew the
people loved him like sore eyes. He knew the people wished to take away
his office from him as surely as they wished to live. But he heeded
them as little as Haman heeds the Purim rattles. He had them
in his fists, and he knew what to do.
* * *
He who wants to find favour with everybody will find favour with
nobody. And if one has to bow down, let it be to the head, not to the
Isshur understood these two wise sayings. He sought the favour of
the leaders of the community. He did everything they told him to, lay
under their feet, and flew on any errand on which they sent him. And he
flattered them until it made one sick. There is no need to say anything
of what went on at the elections. Then Isshur never rested. Whoever has
not seen Isshur at such a time has seen nothing. Covered with
perspiration, his hat pushed back on his head, Isshur kneaded the thick
mud with his high boots, and with his big stick. He flew from one
committee-man to another, worked, plotted, planned, told lies, and
carried on intrigues and intrigues without an end.
Isshur was always first-class at carrying on intrigues. He could
have brought together a wall and a wall. He could make mischief in such
a way that every person in the town should be enraged with everybody
else, quarrel and abuse his neighbour, and almost come to blows. And he
was innocent of everything. You must know that Isshur had the town very
cleverly. He thought within himself: Argue, quarrel, abuse one
another, my friends, and you will forget all about the doings of Isshur
That they should forget his doings was an important matter to
Isshur, because, of late, the people had begun to talk to him, and to
demand from him an account of the money he had taken for the synagogue.
And who had done this? The young peoplethe young wretches he had
always hated and tortured.
They say that children become men, and men become children. Many
generations have grown up, become men, and gone hence. The youngsters
became greybeards. The little wretches became self-supporting young
men. The young men got married and became householders. The
householders became old men, and still Isshur was Isshur. But all at
once there grew up a generation that was young, fresh, curiousa
generation which was called heathens, insolent, fearless, devils,
wretches. The Lord help and preserve one from them.
How does Isshur come to be an overlord? He is only a beadle. He
ought to serve us, and not we him. How long more will this old Isshur
with the long legs and big stick rule over us? The account. Where is
the account? We must have the account.
This was the demand of the new generation that was made up entirely
of heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches. They
shouted in the yard of the synagogue at the top of their voices. Isshur
pretended to be deaf, and not to hear anything. Afterwards, he began to
drive them out of the yard. He extinguished the candles in the
synagogue, locked the door, and threw out the boys. Then he tried to
turn against them the anger of the householders of the village. He told
them of all their misdeedsthat they mocked at old people, and
ridiculed the committee-men. In proof of his assertions, he showed the
men a piece of paper that one of the boys had lost. On it was written a
Who would have thought it? A foolish poem, and yet what excitement
it caused in the villagewhat a revolution. Oh! oh! It would have been
better if Isshur had not found it, or having found it, had not shown it
to the committee-men. It would have been far better for him. It may be
said that this song was the beginning of Isshur's end. The foolish
committee-men, instead of swallowing down the poem, and saying no more
about it, injured themselves by discussing it. They carried it about
from one to the other so long, until the people learnt it off by heart.
Some one sang it to an old melody. And it spread everywhere. Workmen
sang it at their work; cooks in their kitchens; young girls sitting on
the doorsteps; mothers sang their babies to sleep with it. The most
foolish song has a lot of power in it. When the throat is singing the
head is thinking. And it thinks so long until it arrives at a
conclusion. Thoughts whirl and whirl and fret one so long, until
something results. And when one's imagination is enkindled, a story is
sure to grow out of it.
The story that grew out of this song was fine and brief. You may
listen to it. It may come in useful to you some day.
* * *
The heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones, devils and wretches
burrowed so long, and worked so hard to overthrow Isshur, that they
succeeded in arriving at a certain road. Early one morning they climbed
into the attic of the synagogue. There they found the whole treasurea
pile of candles, several poods of wax, a score of new
Tallissim, a bundle of prayer-books of different sorts that had
never been used. It may be that to you these things would not have been
of great value, but to a beadle they were worth a great deal. This
treasure was taken down from the attic very ceremoniously. I will let
you imagine the picture for yourself. On the one hand, Isshur with the
big nose, terrifying eyebrows, and the beard of brass that started
thick and heavy, and finished up with a few thin terrifying hairs. On
the other hand, the young heathens, insolent ones, fearless ones,
devils and wretches dragging out his treasure. But you need not imagine
Isshur lost himself. He was not of the people that lose themselves for
the least thing. He stood looking on, pretending to be puzzling himself
with the question of how these things came to be in the attic of the
Early next morning, the following announcement was written in chalk
on the door of the synagogue:
Memorial candles are sold here at wholesale price.
Next day there was a different inscription. On the third day still
another one. Isshur had something to do. Every morning he rubbed out
with a wet rag the inscriptions that covered the whole of the door of
the synagogue. Every Sabbath morning, on their desks the congregants
found bundles of letters, in which the youngsters accused the beadle
and his bought-over committee-men of many things.
Isshur had a hard time of it. He got the committee-men to issue a
proclamation in big letters, on parchment.
Hear all! As there have arisen in our midst a band of hooligans,
scamps, good-for-nothings who are making false accusations against the
most respected householders of the village, therefore we, the leaders
of the community, warn these false accusers openly that we most
strongly condemn their falsehoods, and if we catch any of them, we will
punish him with all the severities of the law.
Of course, the boys at once tore down this proclamation. A second
was hung in its place. The boys did not hesitate to hang up a
proclamation of their own in its stead. And the men found on their
desks fresh letters of accusation against the beadle and the
committee-men. In a word, it was a period when the people did nothing
else but write. The committee-men wrote proclamations, and the boys,
the scamps, wrote letters. This went on until the Days of Mourning
arrivedthe time of the elections. And there began a struggle between
the two factions. On the one side there was Isshur and his patrons, the
committee-men; and on the other side, the youngsters, the heathens, the
scamps, and their candidates. Each faction tried to attract the most
followers by every means in its power. One faction tried impassioned
words, enflamed speeches; the other, soft words, roast ducks, dainties,
and liberal promises. And just think who won? You will never guess. It
was we young scamps who won. And we selected our own committee-men from
amongst ourselvesyoung men with short coats, poor men, beggars. It is
a shame to tell it, but we chose working menordinary working men.
* * *
I am afraid you are anxious for my story to come to an end. You want
to know how long it is going to last? Or would you rather I told you
how our new committee-men made up their accounts with the old beadle?
Do you want to hear how the poor old beadle was dragged through the
whole village by the youngsters, with shouting and singing? The boys
carried in front of the procession the whole treasure of candles, wax,
Tallissim and prayer-books which they had found in the attic
of the synagogue. No, I don't think you will expect me to tell you of
Take revenge of our enemybathe in his blood, so to speak? No! We
could not do that. I shall tell you the end in a few words.
Last New Year I was at home, back again in the village of my birth.
A lot, a lot of water had flown by since the time I have just told you
of. Still, I found the synagogue on the same spot. And it had the same
Ark of the Law, the same curtains, the same reader's-desk, and the same
hanging candlesticks. But the people were different; they were greatly
changed. It was almost impossible to recognize them. The old people of
my day were all gone. No doubt there were a good many more stones and
inscriptions in the holy place. The young folks had grown grey. The
committee-men were new. The cantor was new. There was a new beadle, and
new melodies, and new customs. Everything was new, and new, and new.
One dayit was Hoshana Rabbathe cantor sang with his
choir, and the people kept beating their willow-twigs against the desks
in front of them. (It seems this custom has remained unchanged.) And I
noticed from the distance a very old man, white-haired, doubled-up,
with a big nose, and terrifying eyebrows, and a beard that started
thick and heavy, but finished up with a few straggling, terrifying
hairs. I was attracted to this old man. I went over to him, and put out
Peace be unto you! I said. I think you are 'Reb' Isshur
The beadle? What beadle? I am not the beadle this long time. I am a
bare willow-twig this long time. Heh! heh!
That is what the old man said to me in a tremulous voice. And he
pointed to the bare willow-twigs at his feet. A bitter smile played
around his grizzled beard that started thick and heavy, but finished
off with a few straggling, terrifying hairs.
Boaz the Teacher
That which I felt on the first day my mother took me by the hand to
Cheder must be what a little chicken feels, after one has made
the sacrificial blessing over her and is taking her to be slaughtered.
The little chicken struggles and flutters her wings. She understands
nothing, but feels she is not going to have a good time, but something
different.... It was not for nothing my mother comforted me, and told
me a good angel would throw me down a groschen from the
ceiling. It was not for nothing she gave me a whole apple and kissed me
on the brow. It was not for nothing she asked Boaz to deal tenderly
with mejust a little more tenderly because the child has only
recovered from the measles.
So said my mother, pointing to me, as if she were placing in Boaz's
hands a rare vessel of crystal which, with one touch, would be a vessel
no moreGod forbid!
My mother went home happy and satisfied, and the child that had
only recovered from the measles, remained behind, alone. He cried a
little, but soon wiped his eyes, and was introduced to the holiness of
the Torah and a knowledge of the ways of the world. He waited
for the good angel to throw him the groschen from the ceiling.
Oh, that good angelthat good angel! It would have been better if
my mother had never mentioned his name, because when Boaz came over,
took hold of me with his dry, bony hand and thrust me into a chair at
the table, I was almost faint, and I raised my head to the ceiling. I
got a good portion from Boaz for this. He pulled me by the ear and
Devil, what are you looking at?
Of course, the child that had only recovered from the measles
began to wail. It was then he had his first good taste of the teacher's
floggings. A little boy must not look where it is forbidden. A little
boy must not bleat like a calf.
* * *
Boaz's system of teaching was founded on one thingwhippings. Why
whippings? He explained the reason by bringing forward the case of the
horse. Why does a horse go? Because it is afraid. What is it afraid of?
Whippings. And it is the same with a child. A child must be afraid. He
must fear God and his teacher, and his father and his mother, a sin and
a bad thought. And in order that a child should be really afraid, he
must be laid down, in true style, and given a score or so lashes. There
is nothing better in the world than the rod. May the whip live long!
So says Boaz. He takes the strap slowly in his hands, without haste,
examines it on all sides as one examines a citron. Then he betakes
himself to his work in good earnest, cheerfully singing a song by way
Wonder of wonders! Boaz never counts the strokes, and never makes a
mistake. Boaz flogs, and is never angry. Boaz is not a bad tempered
man. He is only angry when a boy will not let himself be whipped, tries
to tear himself free, or kicks out his legs. Then it is different. At
such times Boaz's eyes are bloodshot, and he flogs without counting and
without singing his little song. A little boy must be still while his
teacher flogs him. A little boy must have manners, even when he is
Boaz is also angry if a boy laughs when he is being whipped. (There
are children who laugh when they are beaten. People say this is a
disease.) To Boaz laughing is a danger to the soul. Boaz has never
laughed as long as he is alive. And he hates to see any one else
laughing. One might easily have promised the greatest reward to the
person who could swear he once saw Boaz laughing. Boaz is not a man for
laughter. His face is not made for it. If Boaz laughed, he would surely
look more terrible than another man crying. (There are such faces in
the world.) And really, what sort of a thing is laughter? It is only
idlers who laugh, empty-headed gools, good-for-nothings, devil-may-care
sort of people. Those who have to work for a living, or carry on their
shoulders the burden of a knowledge of the Holy Law and of the ways of
the world, have no time to laugh. Boaz never has time. He is either
teaching or whipping. That is to say, he teaches while he whips, and
whips while he teaches. It would be hard to divide these twoto say
where teaching ended and whipping began.
And you must know that Boaz never whipped us for nothing. There was
always a reason for it. It was either for not learning our lessons, for
not wanting to pray well, for not obeying our fathers and mothers, for
not looking in, and for not looking out, for just looking, for praying
too quickly, for praying too slowly, for speaking too loudly, for
speaking too softly, for a torn coat, a lost button, a pull or a push,
for dirty hands, a soiled book, for being greedy, for running, for
playingand so on, and so on, without an end.
One might say we were whipped for every sin that a human being can
commit. We were whipped for the sake of the next world as well as this
world. We were whipped on the eve of every Sabbath, every feast and
every fast. We were told that if we had not earned the whippings yet,
we would earn them soon, please God. And Boaz gave us all the whippings
we ought to have had from our friends and relatives. They gave the
pleasant task in to his hands. Then we got whippings of which the
You surely know yourself what they are for. And whippings just for
nothing. Let me see how a little boy lets himself be whipped. In a
word, it was whippings, rods, leathers, fears and tears. These
prevailed at that time, in our foolish little world, without a single
solution to the problems they brought into being, without a single
remedy for the evils, without a single ray of hope that we would ever
free ourselves from the fiendish system under which we lived.
And the good angel of whom my mother spoke? Where was hethat good
* * *
I must confess there were times when I doubted the existence of this
good angel. Too early a spark of doubt entered my heart. Too early I
began to think that perhaps my mother had fooled me. Too early I became
acquainted with the emotion of hatred. Too early, too early, I began to
hate my teacher Boaz.
And how could one help hating him? How, I ask you, could one help
hating a teacher who does not allow you to lift your head? That you may
not dothis you may not say. Don't stand here. Don't go there. Don't
talk to So-and-so. How can one help hating a man who has not in him a
germ of pity, who rejoices in another's pains, bathes in other's tears,
and washes himself in other's blood? Can there be a more shameful word
than flogging? And what can be more disgraceful than to strip anybody
stark naked and put him in a corner? But even this was not enough for
Boaz. He required you to undress yourself, to pull your own little
shirt over your own head, and to stretch yourself face downwards. The
rest Boaz managed.
And not only did Boaz flog the boys himself, but his assistants
helped himhis lieutenants, as he called them, naturally under his
direction, lest they might not deliver the full number of strokes. A
little less learning and a little more flogging, was his rule. He
explained the wisdom of his system in this way: Too much learning
dulls a boy, and a whipping too many does not hurt. Because, what a boy
learns goes straight to his head, and his senses are quickened and his
brains loaded. With the floggings it is the exact opposite. Before the
effects of the flogging reach the brain the blood is purified, and by
this means the brain is cleared. Well, do you understand?
And Boaz never ceased from purifying our blood, and clearing our
brain. And woe unto us! We did not believe any more in the good angel
that looked down upon us from above. We realized that it was only a
fairy-tale, an invented story by which we were fooled into going to
Boaz's Cheder. And we began to sigh and groan because of our
sufferings under Boaz. And we also began to make plans, to talk and
argue how to free ourselves from our galling slavery.
* * *
In the melancholy moments between daylight and darkness, when the
fiery red sun is about to bid farewell to the cold earth for the
nightin these melancholy moments, when the happy daylight is
departing, and on its heels is treading silently the still night, with
its lonely secretsin these melancholy moments, when the shadows are
climbing on the walls growing broader and longerin these melancholy
moments between the afternoon and the evening prayers, when the teacher
is at the synagogue, and his wife is milking the goat or washing the
crockery, or making the Borshtthen we youngsters came
together at Cheder, beside the stove. We sat on the floor, our
legs curled up under us, like innocent lambs. And there in the evening
darkness, we talked of our terrible Titus, our angel of death, Boaz.
The bigger boys, who had been at Cheder some time, told us the
most awful tales of Boaz. They swore by all the oaths they could think
of that Boaz had flogged more than one boy to death, that he had
already driven three women into their graves, and that he had buried
his one and only son. We heard such wild tales that our hair stood on
end. The older boys talked, and the younger listenedlistened with all
their senses on the alert. Black eyes gleamed in the darkness. Young
hearts palpitated. And we decided that Boaz had no soul. He was a man
without a soul. And such a man is compared to an animal, to an evil
spirit that it is a righteous act to get rid of. Thousands of plans,
foolish, childish plans, were formed in our childish brains. We hoped
to rid ourselves of our angel of death, as we called Boaz. Foolish
children! These foolish plans buried themselves deep in each little
heart that cried out to the Lord to perform a miracle. We asked that
either the books should be burnt, or the strap he whipped us with taken
to the devil, oror.... No one wished to speak of the last
alternative. They were afraid to bring it to their lips. And the evil
spirit worked in their hearts. The young fancies were enkindled, and
the boys were carried away by golden dreams. They dreamed of freedom,
of running down hill, of wading barefoot in the river, playing horses,
jumping over the logs. They were good, sweet, foolish dreams that were
not destined to be realized. There was heard a familiar cough, a
familiar footfall. And our hearts were frozen. All our limbs were
paralysed, deadened. We sat down at the table and started our lessons
with as much enthusiasm as if we were starting for the gallows. We were
reading aloud, but still our lips muttered: Father in Heaven, will
there never come an end to this tyrant, this Pharaoh, this Haman, this
Gog-Magog? Or will there ever come a time when we shall be rid of this
hard, hopeless, dark tyranny? No, never, never!
That is the conclusion we arrived at, poor innocent, foolish
* * *
Children, do you want to hear of a good plan that will rid us of
That was what one of the boys asked us on one of those melancholy
moments already described. His name was Velvel Leib Aryas. He was a
young heathen. When he was speaking his eyes gleamed in the darkness
like those of a wolf. And the whole school of boys crowded around
Velvel to hear the plan by which we might get rid of our Gog-Magog.
Velvel began his explanation by giving us a lecturehow impossible it
was to stand Boaz any longer, how the Ashmodai was bathing in our
blood, how he regarded us as dogsworse than dogs, because when a dog
is beaten with a stick it may, at any rate, howl. And we may not do
that either. And so on, and so on. After this Velvel said to us:
Listen, children, to what I will ask you. I am going to ask you
Ask it, we all cried in one voice.
What is the law in a case where, for example, one of us suddenly
It is not good, we replied.
No, I don't mean that. I mean something else. I mean, if one of us
is ill does he go to 'Cheder,' or does he stay at home?
Of course he stays at home, we all answered together.
Well, what is the law if two of us get ill?
Two remain at home.
Well, and if three get ill? Velvel went on asking us, and we went
on answering him.
Three stay at home.
What would happen if, for example, we all took ill?
We should all stay at home.
Then let a sickness come upon us all, he cried joyfully. We
The Lord forbid! Are you mad, or have you lost your reason?
I am not mad, and I have not lost my reason. Only you are fools,
yes. Do I mean that we are to be really ill? I mean that we are to
pretend to be ill, so that we shall not have to go to 'Cheder.'
Do you understand me now?
When Velvel had explained his plan to us, we began to understand it,
and to like it. And we began to ask ourselves what sort of an illness
we should suffer from. One suggested toothache, another headache, a
third stomach-ache, a fourth worms. But we decided that it was not
going to be toothache, nor headache, nor stomach-ache, nor worms. What
then? We must all together complain of pains in our feet, because the
doctor could decide whether we really suffered from any of the other
illnesses or not. But if we told him we had pains in our feet, and were
unable to move them, he could do nothing.
Remember, children, you are not to get out of bed tomorrow morning.
And so that we may all be certain that not one of us will come to '
Cheder' tomorrow, let us promise one another, take an oath.
So said our comrade Velvel. And we gave each other our promise, and
took an oath that we would not be at Cheder next morning. We
went home from Cheder that evening lively, joyful, and
singing. We felt like giants who knew how to overcome the enemy and win
More than any of the boys at Cheder, more than any boy of
the town, and more than any person in the world, I loved my friend,
Benny Polkovoi. The feeling I had for him was a peculiar
combination of love, devotion, and fear. I loved him because he was
handsomer, cleverer and smarter than any other boy. He was kind and
faithful to me. He took my part, fought for me, and pulled the ears of
those boys who annoyed me.
And I was afraid of him because he was big and quarrelsome. He could
beat whom he liked, and when he liked. He was the biggest, oldest, and
wealthiest boy in the Cheder. His father, Mayer Polkovoi, though he was only a regimental tailor, was nevertheless a rich man,
and played an important part in public affairs. He had a fine house, a
seat in the synagogue beside the ark. At the Passover, his Matzo
was baked first. At the feast of Tabernacles his citron was the best.
On the Sabbath he always had a poor man to meals. He gave away large
sums of money in charity. And he himself went to the house of another
to lend him money as a favour. He engaged the best teachers for his
children. In a word, Mayer Polkovoi tried to refine
himselfto be a man amongst men. He wanted to get his name inscribed
in the books of the best society, but did not succeed. In our town,
Mazapevka, it was not easy to get into the best society. We did not
forget readily a man's antecedents. A tailor may try to refine himself
for twenty years in succession, but he will still remain a tailor to
us. I do not think there is a soap in the world that will wash out this
stain. How much do you think Mayer Polkovoi would have given
to have us blot out the name bestowed upon him, Polkovoi? His
misfortune was that his family was a thousand times worse than his
name. Just imagine! In his passport he was called Mayor Mofsovitch
It is a remarkable thing. May Mayer's great-great-grandfather have a
bright Paradise! He also must have been a tailor. When it came to
giving himself a family name, he could not find a better one than
Heifer. He might have called himself Thimble, Lining, Buttonhole,
Bigpatch, Longfigure. These are not family names either, it is true,
but they are in some way connected with tailoring. But Heifer? What did
he like in the name of Heifer? You may ask why not Goat? Are there not
people in the world called Goat? You may say what you like, Heifer and
Goat are equally nice. Still, they are not the same. A Heifer is not a
But we will return to my friend Benny.
* * *
Benny was a nice boy, with yellow tousled hair, white puffed-out
cheeks, scattered teeth, and peculiar red, bulging, fishy eyes. These
red, fishy eyes were always smiling and roguish. He had a turned-up
nose. His whole face had an expression of impudence. Nevertheless, I
liked his face, and we became friends the first hour we met.
We met for the first time at Cheder, at the teachers'
table. When my mother took me to Cheder, the teacher was
sitting at his table with the boys, teaching them the book of Genesis.
He was a man with thick eyebrows and a pointed cap. He made no fuss of
me. He asked me no questions, neither did he take my measurements, but
said to me
Get over there, on that bench, between those two boys.
I got on the bench, between the boys, and was already a pupil. There
was no talk between my mother and the teacher. They had made all
Remember to learn as you ought, said my mother from the doorway.
She turned to look at me again, lovingly, joyfully. I understood her
look very well. She was pleased that I was sitting with nice children,
and learning the Torah. And she was pained because she had to
part with me.
I must confess I felt much happier than my mother. I was amongst a
crowd of new friendsmay no evil eye harm them! They looked at me, and
I looked at them. But the teacher did not let us idle for long. He
shook himself, and shouted aloud the lesson we had to repeat after him
at the top of our voices.
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field.
Boys who sit so close together, though they shake and shout aloud,
cannot help getting to know one another, or exchange a few words. And
so it was.
Benny Polkovoi, who sat crushing me, pinched my leg, and
looked into my eyes. He went on shaking himself, and shouting out the
lesson with the teacher and the other boys. But he threw his own words
into the middle of the sentence we were translating.
And Adam knew (here are buttons for you) Eve his wife. (Give me a
locust-bean and I will give you a pull of my cigarette.)
I felt a warm hand in mine, and I had some smooth buttons. I confess
I did not want the buttons, and I had no locust-beans, neither did I
smoke cigarettes. But I liked the idea of the thing. And I replied in
the same tones in which the lesson was being recited:
And she conceived and bare Cain. (Who told you I have
That is how we conversed the whole time, until the teacher suspected
that though I shook myself to and fro, my mind was far from the lesson.
He suddenly put me through an examination.
Listen, you, whatever your name is, you surely know whose son Cain
was, and the name of his brother?
This question was as strange to me as if he had asked me when there
would be a fair in the sky, or how to make cream-cheese from snow, so
that they should not melt. In reality my mind was elsewhere, I don't
Why do you look at me so? asked the teacher. Don't you hear me? I
want you to tell me the name of the first man, and the story of Cain
and his brother Abel.
The boys were smiling, smothering their laughter. I did not know
Fool, say you do not know, because we have not learnt it,
whispered Benny in my ear, digging me with his elbow. I repeated his
words, like a parrot. And the Cheder was filled with loud
What are they laughing at? I asked myself. I looked at them, and
at the teacher. All were rolling with laughter. And, at that moment, I
counted the buttons from one hand into the other. There were exactly
half a dozen.
Well, little boy, show me your hands. What are you doing with
them? And the teacher bent down and looked under the table.
You are clever boys, and you will understand yourselves what I had
from the teacher, for the buttons, on my first day at Cheder.
* * *
Whippings heal up; shame is forgotten. Benny and I became good
friends. We were one soul. This is how it came about:
Next morning I arrived at Cheder with my Bible in one hand
and my dinner in the other. The boys were excited, jolly. Why? The
teacher was not there. What had happened? He had gone off to a
Circumcision with his wife. That is to say, not with her, God forbid! A
teacher never walks with his wife. The teacher walks before, and his
wife after him.
Let us make a bet, cried a boy with a blue nose. His name was
How much shall we bet? asked another boy, Koppel Bunnas. He had a
torn sleeve out of which peeped the point of a dirty elbow.
A quarter of the locust-beans.
Let it be a quarter of the locust-beans. What for? Let us hear.
I say he will not stand more than twenty-five.
And I say thirty-six.
Thirty-six. We shall soon see. Boys, take hold of him.
This was the order of Hosea Hessel, of the blue nose. And several
boys took hold of me, all together, turned me over on the bench, face
upwards. Two sat on my legs, two on my arms, and one held my head, so
that I should not be able to wriggle. And another placed his left
forefinger and thumb at my nose. (It seemed he was left-handed.) He
curled up his finger and thumb, closed his eye, and began to fillip me
on the nose. And how, do you think? Each time I saw my father in the
other world. Murderers, slaughterers! What had they against my nose?
What had it done to them? Whom had it bothered? What had they seen on
ita nose like all noses.
Boys, count, commanded Hosea Hessel. One, two, three
Nearly always, since ever the world began, when a misfortune happens
to a manwhen robbers surround him in a wood, bind his hands, sharpen
their knives, tell him to say his prayers, and are about to finish him
off, there comes a woodman with a bell. The robbers run away, and the
man lifts his hands on high and praises the Lord for his deliverance.
It was just like that with me and my nose. I don't remember whether
it was at the fifth or sixth blow that the door opened, and Benny
Polkovoi came in. The boys freed me at once, and remained standing
like blocks of wood. Benny took them in hand, one by one. He caught
each boy by the ear, twisted it round, and said:
Well, now you will know what it means to meddle with a widow's
From that day the boys did not touch either me or my nose. They were
afraid to begin with the widow's boy whom Benny had taken under his
wing, into his guardianship, under his protection.
* * *
The widow's boy-I had no other name at Cheder. This was
because my mother was a widow. She supported herself by her own work.
She had a little shop in which were, for the most part, so far as I can
remember, chalk and locust-beansthe two things that sell best in
Mazapevka. Chalk is wanted for white-washing the houses, and
locust-beans are a luxury. They are sweet, and they are light in
weight, and they are cheap. Schoolboys spend on them all the money they
get for breakfast and dinner. And the shopkeepers make a good profit
out of them. I could never understand why my mother was always
complaining that she could hardly make enough to pay the rent and my
school-fees. Why school-fees? What about the other things a human being
needs, food and clothes and boots, for example? She thought of nothing
but the school-fees. When the Lord punished me, she wailed, and took
my husband from meand such a husband!and left me all alone, I want
my son to be a scholar, at any rate. What do you say to that? Do you
think she did not come frequently to the Cheder to find out
how I was getting on? I say nothing of the prayers she took good care I
should recite every morning. She was always lecturing me to be even
half as good as my fatherpeace be unto him! And whenever she looked
at me, she said I was exactly like himmay I have longer years than
he! And her eyes grew moist. Her face grew curiously careworn, and had
a mournful expression.
I hope he will forgive me, I mean my father, from the other world,
but I could not understand what sort of a man he had been. From what my
mother told of him, he was always either praying or studying. Had he
never been drawn, like me, out into the open, on summer mornings, when
the sun was not burning yet, but was just beginning to show in the sky,
marching rapidly onwards, a fiery angel, in a fiery chariot, drawn by
fiery horses, into whose brilliant, burning, guinea-gold faces it was
impossible to look? I ask you what taste have the week-day prayers on
such a morning? What sort of a pleasure is it to sit and read in a
stuffy room, when the golden sun is burning, and the air is hot as an
iron frying-pan? At such a time, you are tempted to run down the hill,
to the riverthe beautiful river that is covered with a green slime. A
peculiar odour, as of a warm bath, comes from the distance. You want to
undress and jump into the warm water. Under the trees it is cool and
the mud is soft and slippery. And the curious insects that live at the
bottom of the river whirl around and about before your eyes. And
curious, long-legged flies slip and slide on the surface of the water.
At such a time one desires to swim over to the other sideover to
where the green flags grow, their yellow and white stalks shimmering in
the sun. A green, fresh fern looks up at you, and you go after it,
plash-plash into the water, hands down, and feet up, so that people
might think you were swimming. I ask you again, what pleasure is it to
sit in a little room on a summer's evening, when the great dome of the
sky is dropping over the other side of the town, lighting up the spire
of the church, the shingle roofs of the baths, and the big windows of
the synagogue. And on the other side of the town, on the common, the
goats are bleating, and the lambs are frisking, the dust rising to the
heavens, the frogs croaking. There is a tearing and a shrieking and a
tumult as at a regular fair. Who thinks of praying at such a time? But
if you talk to my mother, she will tell you that her husbandpeace be
unto him!did not succumb to temptations. He was a different sort of a
man. What sort of a man he was I do not knowasking his pardon. I only
know that my mother annoys me very much. She reminds me every minute
that I had a father; and throws it into my teeth that she has to pay my
school-fees for me. For this she asks only two things of methat I
should learn diligently, and say my prayers willingly.
* * *
It could not be said that the widow's boy did not learn well. He was
not in any way behind his comrades. But I cannot guarantee that he said
his prayers willingly. All children are alike. And he was as
mischievous as any other boy. He, like the rest, was fond of running
away and playing, though there is not much to be said of the play of
Jewish children. They tie a paper bag to a cat's tail so that she may
run through the house like mad, smashing everything in her way. They
lock the women's portion of the synagogue from the outside on Friday
nights, so that the women may have to be rescued. They nail the
teacher's shoes to the floor, or seal his beard to the table with wax
when he is asleep. But oh, how many thrashings do they get when their
tricks are found out! It may be gathered that everything must have an
originator, a commander, a head, a leader who shows the way.
Our leader, our commander was Benny Polkovoi. From him all
things originated; and on our heads were the consequences. Benny, of
the fat face and red, fishy eyes, always managed to escape scot free
from the scrapes. He was always innocent as a dove. Whatever tricks or
mischief we did, we always got the idea from Benny. Who taught us to
smoke cigarettes in secret, letting the smoke out through our nostrils?
Benny. Who told us to slide on the ice, in winter, with the
peasant-boys? Benny. Who taught us to gamble with buttonsto play odd
or even, and lose our breakfasts and dinners? Benny. He was up to
every trick, and taught us them all. He won our last groschens
from us. And when it came to anything, Benny had disappeared. Playing
was to us the finest thing in the world. And for playing we got the
severest thrashings from our teacher. He said he would tear out of us
the desire to play.
Play in my house? You will play with the Angel of Death, said the
teacher. And he used to empty our pockets of everything, and thrash us
But there was one week of the year when we were allowed to play. Why
do I say allowed? It was a righteous thing to play then.
And that week was the week of Chanukah. And we played with
* * *
It is true that the games of cardsbridge and whist, for
examplewhich are played at Chanukah nowadays have more sense
in them than the old game of spinning-tops. But when the play is for
money, it makes no difference what it is. I once saw two peasant-boys
beating one another's heads against the wall. When I asked them why
they were doing this, if they were out of their minds, they told me to
go my road. They were playing a game, for money, which of them would
get tired the soonest of having his head banged on the wall.
The game of spinning-tops that have four corners, each marked with a
letter of the alphabet, and are like dice, is very exciting. One can
lose one's soul playing it. It is not so much the loss of the money as
the annoyance of losing. Why should the other win? Why should the top
fall on the letter G for him, and on the N for you? I suppose you know
what the four letters stand for? N means no use. H means half. B means
bad. And G means good. The top is a sort of lottery. Whoever is
fortunate wins. Take, for example, Benny Polkovoi. No matter
how often he spins the top, it always falls on the letter G.
The boys said it was curious how Benny won. They kept putting down
their money. He took on their bets. What did he care? He was a rich
G again. It's curious, they cried, and again opened their purses
and staked their money. Benny whirled the top. It spun round and round,
and wobbled from side to side, like a drunkard, and fell down.
G, said Benny.
G, G. Again G. It's extraordinary, said the boys, scratching their
heads and again opening their purses.
The game grew more exciting. The players grew hot, staked their
money, crushed one another, and dug one another in the ribs to get
nearer the table, and called each other peculiar namesBlack Tom-cat!
Creased Cap! Split Coat! and the like. They did not see the teacher
standing behind them, in his woollen cap and coat, and carrying his
Tallis and Tephilin under his arm. He was going to the
synagogue to say his prayers, and seeing the crowd of excited boys, he
drew near to watch the play. This day he does not interfere. It is
Chanukah. We are free for eight days on end, and may play as much
as we like. But we must not fight, nor pull one another by the nose.
The teacher's wife took her sickly child in her arms, and stood at her
husband's shoulder, watching the boys risk their money, and how Benny
took on all the bets. Benny was excited, burning, aflame, ablaze. He
twirled the top. It spun round and round, wobbled and fell down.
G all over again. It's a regular pantomime.
Benny showed us his smartness and his quick-wittedness so long,
until our pockets were empty. He thrust his hands in his pockets, as if
challenging usWell, who wants more?
We all went home. We carried away with us the heartache and the
shame of our losses. When we got home, we had to tell lies to account
for the loss of the money we had been given in honour of Chanukah. One boy confessed he had spent his on locust-beans. Another said the
money had been stolen out of his pocket the previous night. A third
came home crying. He said he had bought himself a pocket-knife. Well,
why was he crying? He had lost the knife on his way home.
I told my mother a fine storya regular Arabian Nights tale, and
got out of her a second Chanukah present of ten groschens. I ran off with them to Benny, played for five minutes, lost to him,
and flew back home, and told my mother another tale. In a word, brains
were at work and heads were busy inventing lies. Lies flew about like
chaff in the wind. And all our Chanukah money went into
Benny's pockets, and was lost to us for ever.
One of the boys became so absorbed in the play that he was not
satisfied to lose only his Chanukah money, but went on
gambling through the whole eight days of the festival.
And that boy was no other than myself, the widow's son.
* * *
You must not ask where the widow's boy got the money to play with.
The great gamblers of the world who have lost and won fortunes, estates
and inheritancesthey will know and understand. Woe is me! May the
hour never be known on which the evil spirit of gambling takes hold of
one! There is nothing too hard for him. He breaks into houses, gets
through iron walls, and does the most terrible thing imaginable. It's a
name to conjure withthe spirit of gambling.
First of all, I began to make money by selling everything I
possessed, one thing after the other, my pocket-knife, my purse, and
all my buttons. I had a box that opened and closed, and some wheels of
an old clockgood brass wheels that shone like the sun when they were
polished. I sold them all at any price, flew off, and lost all my money
to Benny. I always left him with a heart full of wounds and the
bitterest annoyance, and greatly excited. I was not angry with Benny.
God forbid! What had I against him? How was he to blame if he always
won at play? If the top fell on the G for me, he said, I should win. If
it falls on the G for him, then he wins. And he is quite right. No, I
am only sorry for myself, for having run through so much moneymy
mother's hard-earned groschens, and for having made away with
all my things. I was left almost naked. I even sold my little
prayer-book. O that prayer-book, that prayer-book! When I think of it,
my heart aches, and my face burns with shame. It was an ornament, not a
book. My mother bought it of Pethachiah the pedlar, on the anniversary
of my father's death. And it was a book of booksa good one, a real
good one, thick, and full of everything. It had every prayer one could
mention, the Song of Songs, the Ethics of the Fathers, and the
Psalms, and the Haggadah, and all the prayers of the whole
year round. Then the print and the binding, and the gold lettering. It
was full of everything, I tell you. Each time Pethachiah the pedlar
came round with his cut moustache that made his careworn face appear as
if it was smilingeach time he came round and opened his pack outside
the synagogue door, I could not take my eyes off that prayer-book.
What would you say, little boy? asked Pethachiah, as if he did not
know that I had my eyes on the prayer-book, and had had it in my hands
seventeen times, each time asking the price of it.
Nothing, I replied. Just so! And I left him, so as not to be
Ah, mother, you should see the fine thing Pethachiah the pedlar
What sort of a thing? asked my mother.
A little prayer-book. If I had such a prayer-book, I wouldI don't
know myself what I would do.
Haven't you got a prayer-book? And where is your father's
You can't compare them. This is an ornament, and my book is only a
An ornament? repeated my mother. Are there then more prayers in
an ornamental book, or do the prayers sound better?
Well, how can you explain an ornament to your mothera really fine
book with red covers, and blue edges, and a green back?
Come, said my mother to me, one evening, taking me by the hand.
Come with me to the synagogue. Tomorrow is the anniversary of your
father's death. We will bring candles to be lit for him, and at the
same time we will see what sort of a prayer-book it is that Pethachiah
I knew beforehand that on the anniversary of the death of my father,
I could get from my mother anything I asked for, even to the little
plate from heaven, as the saying is. And my heart beat with joy.
When we got to the synagogue, we found Pethachiah with his pack
still unopened. You must know Pethachiah was a man who never hurried.
He knew very well he was the only man at the fair. His customers would
never leave him. Before he opened his pack and spread out his goods, it
took a year. I trembled, I shook. I could hardly stand on my feet. And
he did not care. It was as if we were not talking to him at all.
Let me see what sort of a prayer-book it is you have, said my
Pethachiah had plenty of time. The river was not on fire. Slowly,
without haste, he opened his pack, and spread out his waresbig
Bibles, little prayer-books for men, and for women, big Psalm books and
little, and books for all possible occasions, without an end. Then
there were books of tales from the Talmud, tales of the
Bal-shem-tov, books of sermons, and books of devotion. I imagined
he would never run short. He was a well, a fountain. At last he came to
the little books, and handed out the one I wanted.
Is this all? asked my mother. Such a little one.
This little one is dearer than a big one, answered Pethachiah.
And how much do you want for the little squirrel?God forgive me
for calling it by that name.
You call a prayer-book a squirrel? asked Pethachiah. He took the
book slowly out of her hand; and my heart was torn.
Well, say. How much is it? asked my mother. But Pethachiah had
plenty of time. He answered her in a sing-song:
How much is the little prayer-book? It will cost youit will cost
youI am afraid it is not for your purse.
My mother cursed her enemies, that they might have black, hideous
dreams, and asked him to say how much.
Pethachiah stated the price. My mother did not answer him. She
turned towards the door, took my hand, and said to me:
Come, let us go. We have nothing to do here. Don't you know that '
Reb' Pethachiah is a man who charges famine prices?
I followed my mother to the door. And though my heart was heavy, I
still hoped the Lord would pity us, and Pethachiah would call us back.
But Pethachiah was not that sort of a man. He knew we should turn back
of our own accord. And so it was. My mother turned round, and asked him
to talk like a man. Pethachiah did not stir. He looked at the ceiling.
And his pale face shone. We went off, and returned once again.
A curious Jew, Pethachiah, said my mother to me afterwards. May
my enemies have the plague if I would have bought the prayer-book from
him. It is at a famine price. As I live, it is a sin. The money could
have gone for your school-fees. But it's useless. For the sake of
tomorrow, the anniversary of your father's deathpeace be unto him!I
have bought you the prayer-book, as a favour. And now, my son, you must
do me a favour in return. Promise me that you will say your prayers
faithfully every day.
Whether I really prayed as faithfully as I had promised, or not, I
will not tell you. But I loved the little book as my life. You may
understand that I slept with it, though, as you know, it is forbidden.
The whole Cheder envied me the little book. I minded it as if
it were the apple of my eye. And now, this Chanukahwoe unto
me!I carried it off with my own hands to Moshe the carpenter's boy,
who had long had his eye on it. And I had to beg of him, for an hour on
end, before he bought it. I almost gave it away for nothingthe little
prayer-book. My heart faints and my face burns with shame. Sold! And to
what end? For whose sake? For Benny's sake, that he might win off me
another few kopeks. But how is Benny to blame if he wins at
That's what a spinning-top is for, explained Benny, putting into
his purse my last few groschens. If things went with you as
they are going with me, then you would be winning. But I am lucky, and
And Benny's cheeks glowed. It is bright and warm in the house. A
silver Chanukah lamp is burning the best oil. Everything is
fine. From the kitchen comes a delicious odour of freshly melted
We are having fritters tonight, Benny told me in the doorway. My
heart was weak with hunger. I flew home in my torn sheep-skin. My
mother had come in from her shop. Her hands were red and swollen with
the cold. She was frozen through and through, and was warming herself
at the stove. Seeing me, her face lit up with pleasure.
From the synagogue? she asked.
From the synagogue, was my lying answer.
Have you said the evening prayer?
I have said the evening prayer, was my second lie to her.
Warm yourself, my son. You will say the blessing over the '
Chanukah' lights. It is the last night of 'Chanukah' tonight,
* * *
If a man had only troubles to bear, without a scrap of pleasure, he
would never get over them, but would surely take his own life. I am
referring to my mother, the widow, poor thing, who worked day and
night, froze, never had enough to eat, and never slept enough for my
sake. Why should she not have a little pleasure too? Every person puts
his own meaning into the word pleasure. To my mother there was no
greater pleasure in the world than hearing me recite the blessings on
Sabbaths and Festivals. At the Passover I carried out the Seder
for her, and at Chanukah I made the blessing over the lights.
Was the blessing over wine or beer? Had we for the Passover fritters or
fresh matzo? What were the Chanukah lightsa silver,
eight-branched lamp with olive oil, or candles stuck in pieces of
potato? Believe me, the pleasure has nothing to do with wine or
fritters, or a silver lamp. The main thing is the blessing itself. To
see my mother's face when I was praying, how it shone and glowed with
pleasure was enough. No words are necessary, no detailed description,
to prove that this was unalloyed happiness to her, real pleasure. I
bent over the potatoes, and recited the blessing in a sing-song voice.
She repeated the blessing after me, word for word, in the same
sing-song. She looked into my eyes, and moved her lips. I knew she was
thinking at the time: It is hehe in every detail. May the child have
longer years! And I felt I deserved to be cut to pieces like the
potatoes. Surely, I had deceived my mother, and for such a base cause.
I had betrayed her from head to foot.
The candles in the potatoesmy Chanukah lightsflickered
and flickered until they went out. And my mother said to me:
Wash your hands. We are having potatoes and goose-fat for supper.
In honour of 'Chanukah,' I bought a little measure of
goose-fatfresh, beautiful fat.
I washed myself with pleasure, and we sat down to supper.
It is a custom amongst some people to have fritters for supper on
the last night of 'Chanukah,' said my mother, sighing. And
there arose to my mind Benny's fritters, and Benny's spinning-top that
had cost me all I possessed in the world. I had a sharp pain at my
heart. More than all, I regretted the little prayer-book. But, of what
use were regrets? It was all over and done with.
Even in my sleep I had uneasy thoughts. I heard my mother's groans.
I heard her bed creaking, and I imagined that it was my mother
groaning. Out of doors, the wind was blowing, rattling the windows,
tearing at the roof, whistling down the chimney, sighing loudly. A
cricket had come to our house a long time before. It was now chirping
from the wall, Tchireree! Tchireree! And my mother did not cease from
sighing and groaning. And each sigh and each groan echoed itself in my
heart. I only just managed to control myself. I was on the point of
jumping out of bed, falling at my mother's feet, kissing her hands, and
confessing to her all my sins. I did not do this. I covered myself with
all the bed-clothes, so that I might not hear my mother sighing and
groaning and her bed creaking. My eyes closed. The wind howled, and the
cricket chirped, Tchireree! Tchireree! Tchireree! Tchireree! And
there spun around before my eyes a man like a topa man I seemed to
know. I could have sworn it was the teacher in his pointed cap. He was
spinning on one foot, round, and round, and round. His cap sparkled,
his eyes glistened, and his earlocks flew about. No, it was not the
teacher. It was a spinning-topa curious, living top with a pointed
cap and earlocks. By degrees the teacher-top, or the top-teacher ceased
from spinning round. And in its place stood Pharaoh, the king of Egypt
whose story we had learnt a week ago. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, stood
naked before me. He had only just come out of the river. He had my
little prayer-book in his hand. I could not make out how that wicked
king, who had bathed in Jewish blood, came to have my prayer-book. And
I saw seven cows, lean and starved, mere skin and bones, with big horns
and long ears. They came to me one after the other. They opened their
mouths and tried to swallow me. Suddenly, there appeared my friend
Benny. He took hold of their long ears, and twisted them round. Some
one was crying softly, sobbing, wailing, howling, and chirping. A man
stood near me. He was not a human being. He said to me softly:
Tell me, son, on which day do you recite the mourner's prayer for
I understood that this was my father of whom my mother had told me
so many good things. I wanted to tell him the day on which I must say
the mourner's prayer for him, but I had forgotten it. I fretted myself.
I rubbed my forehead, and tried to remind myself of the day, but I
could not. Did you ever hear the like? I forgot the day of the
anniversary of my father's death. Listen, Jewish children, can you not
tell me when the day is? Why are you silent? Help! Help! Help!
* * *
God be with you! Why are shouting? Why do you shriek? What is the
matter with you? May the Lord preserve you!
You will understand it was my mother who was speaking to me. She
held my head. I could feel her trembling and shaking. The lowered lamp
gave out no light, but an oppressive stench. I saw my mother's shadow
dancing on the wall. The points of the kerchief she wore on her head
were like two horns. Her eyes gleamed horribly in the darkness.
When do I say the mourner's prayer, mother? Tell me, when do I say
the mourner's prayer?
God be with you! The anniversary of your father's death was not
long ago. You have had a bad dream. Spit out three times. Tfu! Tfu!
Tfu! May it be for a good sign! Amen! Amen! Amen!
* * *
Children, I grew up, and Benny grew up. He became a young man with a
yellowish beard and a round belly. He wears a gold chain across it. It
seems he is a rich man.
We met in the train. I recognized him by his fishy, bulging eyes and
his scattered teeth. We had not met for a long time. We kissed one
another and talked of the good old times, the dear good days of our
childhood, and the foolish things we did then.
Do you remember, Benny, that 'Chanukah' when you won
everything with the spinning top? The G always fell for you.
I looked at Benny. He was convulsed with laughter. He held his
sides. He was rolling over. He was actually choking with laughter.
God be with you, Benny! Why this sudden burst of laughter, Benny?
Oh! he cried, oh! go away with your spinning-top! That was a good
top. It was a real top. It was a pudding made only of suet. It was a
stew of nothing but raisins.
What sort of a top was it, Benny? Tell me quicker.
It was a top that had all around it, on all the corners only the
one letter, G.
I am not going to tell you a story of Cheder or of the
teacher, or of the teacher's wife. I have told you enough about them.
Perhaps you will allow me, this time, in honour of the feast of
Purim, to tell you a story of the teacher's daughter, Esther.
* * *
If the Esther of the Bible was as beautiful a creature as the Esther
of my story, then it is no wonder she found favour in the eyes of King
Ahasuerus. The Esther of whom I am going to tell you was loved by
everybody, everybody, even by me and by my older brother Mottel,
although he was Bar-mitzvah long ago, and they were making up
a match for him, and he was wearing a watch and chain this good while.
(If I am not mistaken, he had already started to grow a beard at the
time I speak of.) And that my brother Mottel loves Esther, I am
positive. He thinks I do not know that his going to Cheder
every Sabbath to read with the teacher is a mere pretext, a yesterday's
day! The teacher snores loudly. The teacher's wife stands on the
doorstep talking with the women. We boys play around the room, and
Mottel and Esther are staringshe at him, and he at her. It sometimes
happens that we boys play at blind-man's-buff. Do you know what
blind-man's-buff is? Well, then I will tell you. You take a boy,
bandage his eyes with a handkerchief, place him in the middle of the
floor, and all the boys fly round him crying: Blindman, blindman,
Mottel and Esther also play at blind-man's-buff with us. They like
the game because, when they are playing it, they can chase one
anothershe him, and he her.
And I have many more proofs I could give you thatBut I am not that
I once caught them holding hands, he hers, and she his. And it was
not on the Sabbath either, but on a week-day. It was towards evening,
between the afternoon and the evening prayers. He was pretending to go
to the synagogue. He strayed into Cheder. Where is the
teacher? The teacher is not here. And he went and gave her his hand,
Esther, that is. I saw them. He withdrew his hand and gave me a
groschen to tell no one. I asked two, and he gave me two. I asked
three, and he gave me three. What do you thinkif I had asked four, or
five, or six, would he not have given them? But I am not that sort.
Another time, too, something happened. But enough of this. I will
rather tell you the real storythe one I promised you.
* * *
As I told you, my brother Mottel is grown up. He does not go to
Cheder any more, nor does he wish to learn anything at home. For
this, my father calls him Man of clay. He has no other name for him.
My mother does not like it. What sort of a habit is it to call a young
man, almost a bridegroom, a man of clay? My father says he is nothing
else but a man of clay. They quarrel about it. I do not know what other
parents do, but my parents are always quarrelling. Day and night they
If I were to tell you how my father and mother quarrel, you would
split your sides laughing. But I am not that sort.
In a word, my brother Mottel does not go to Cheder any
more. Nevertheless, he does not forget to send the teacher a Purim
present. Having been a pupil of his he sends him a nice poem in
Hebrew, illuminated with a Shield of David, and two paper roubles. With whom does he send this Purim present? With me, of
course. My brother says to me, Here, hand the teacher this Purim
present. When you come back, I will give you ten 'groschens.'
Ten groschens is money. But what then? I want the money now.
My brother said I was a heathen. Said I: It may be I am a heathen. I
will not argue about it. But I want to see the money, said I. Who do
you think won?
He gave me the ten groschens, and handed me the teacher's
Purim present in a sealed envelope. When I was going off, he thrust
into my hand a second envelope and said to me, in a quick whisper: And
this you will give to Esther. To Esther? To Esther. Any one else
in my place would have asked twice as much for this. But I am not that
* * *
Father of the Universe, thought I, when I was going off with the
Purim present, what can my brother have written to the teacher's
daughter? I must have a peeponly just a peep. I will not take a bite
out of it. I will only look at it.
And I opened Esther's letter and read a whole Book of Esther. I
will repeat what was there, word for word.
FROM MORDECAI TO ESTHER,
And there was a man, a young man in Shushanour village. His name
was Mordecai and he loved a maiden called Esther. And the maiden was
beautiful, charming. And the maiden found favour in his eyes. The
maiden told this to no one because Mottel had asked her not to. Every
day Mottel passes her house to catch a glimpse of Esther. And when the
time comes for Esther to get married, Mottel will go with her under the
* * *
What do you say to my brotherhow he translated the Book of
Esther? I should like to hear what the teacher will say to such a
translation. But how comes the cat over the water? Hush! There's a way,
as I am a Jew! I will change the letters, give the teacher's poem to
Esther, and Esther's letter to the teacher. Let him rejoice.
Afterwards, if there's a fine to do, will I be to blame? Don't all
people make mistakes sometimes? Does it not happen that even the
postmaster of our village himself forgets to give up letters? No such
thing will ever happen to me. I am not that sort.
* * *
Good 'Yom-tov,' teacher, I cried the moment I rushed into
Cheder, in such an excited voice that he jumped. My brother Mottel
has sent you a 'Purim' present, and he wishes you to live to
And I gave the teacher Esther's letter. He opened it, read it,
thought a while, looked at it again, turned it about on all sides, as
if in search of something. Search, search, I said to myself, and you
will find something.
The teacher put on his silver spectacles, read the letter, and did
not even make a grimace. He only sighedno more. Later he said to me:
Wait. I will write a few lines. And he took the pen and ink and
started to write a few lines. Meanwhile, I turned around in the
Cheder. The teacher's wife gave me a little cake. And when no one
was looking, I put into Esther's hand the poem and the money intended
for her father. She reddened, went into a corner, and opened the
envelope slowly. Her face burnt like fire, and her eyes blazed
dangerously. She doesn't seem to be satisfied with the 'Purim'
present, I thought. I took from the teacher the few lines he had
Good 'Yom-tov' to you, teacher, I cried in the same excited
voice as when I had come in. May you live to next year. And I was
When I was on the other side of the door, Esther ran after me. Her
eyes were red with weeping. Here, she said angrily, give this to
On the way home I first opened the teacher's letter. He was more
important. This is what was written in it.
MY DEAR AND FAITHFUL PUPIL, MORDECAI N.
I thank you many times for your 'Purim' present that you
have sent me. Last year and the year before, you sent me a real '
Purim' present. But this year you sent me a new translation of the
'Book of Esther.' I thank you for it. But I must tell you, Mottel, that
your rendering does not please me at all. Firstly, the city of Shushan
cannot be called 'our village.' Then I should like to know where it
says that Mordecai was a young man? And why do you call him Mottel?
Which Mottel? And where does it say he loved a maiden? The word
referring to Mordecai and Esther means 'brought up.' And your saying
'he will go with her under the wedding canopy' is just idiotic
nonsense. The phrase you quote refers to Ahasuerus, not to Mordecai.
Then again, it is nowhere mentioned in the 'Book of Esther' that
Ahasuerus went with Esther under the wedding canopy. Does it need
brains to turn a passage upside down? Every passage must have sense in
it. Last year, and the year before, you sent me something different.
This year you sent your teacher a translation of the 'Book of Esther,'
and a distorted translation into the bargain. Well, perhaps it should
be so. Anyhow, I am sending you back your translation, and may the Lord
send you a good year, according to the wishes of your teacher.
* * *
Well, that's what you call a slap in the face. It serves my brother
right. I should think he will never write such a Book of Esther
Having got through the teacher's letter, I must see what the
teacher's daughter writes. On opening the envelope, the two paper
roubles fell out. What the devil does this mean? I read the
letteronly a few lines.
Mottel, I thank you for the two 'roubles.' You may take them
back. I never expected such a 'Purim' present from you. I want
no presents from you, and certainly no charity.
Ha! ha! What do you say to that? She does not want charity. A nice
story, as I am a Jewish child! Well, what's to be done next? Any one
else in my place would surely have torn up the two letters and put the
money in his pocket. But I am not that sort. I did a better thing than
that. You will hear what. I argued with myself after this fashion: When
all is said and done, I got paid by my brother Mottel for the journey.
Then what do I want him for now? I went and gave the two letters to my
father. I wanted to hear what he would say to them. He would understand
the translation better than the teacher, though he is a father, and the
teacher is a teacher.
* * *
What happened? After my father had read the two letters and the
translation, he took hold of my brother Mottel and demanded an
explanation of him. Do not ask me any more.
You want to know the endwhat happened to Esther, the teacher's
daughter, and to my brother Mottel? What could have happened? Esther
got married to a widower. Oh, how she cried. I was at the wedding. Why
she cried so much I do not know. It seemed that her heart told her she
would not live long with her husband. And so it was. She lived with him
only one-half year, and died. I do not know what she died of. I do not
know. No one knows. Her father and mother do not know either. It was
said she took poisonjust went and poisoned herself. But it's a lie.
Enemies have invented that lie, said her mother, the teacher's wife. I
heard her myself.
And my brother Mottel? Oh, he married before Esther was even
betrothed. He went to live with his father-in-law. But he soon
returned, and alone. What had happened? He wanted to divorce his wife.
Said my father to him: You are a man of clay. My mother would not
have this. They quarrelled. It was lively. But it was useless. He
divorced his wife and married another woman. He now has two childrena
boy and a girl. The boy is called Herzl, after Dr. Herzl, and the girl
is called Esther. My father wanted her to be named Gittel, and my
mother was dying for her to be called Leah, after her mother. There
arose a quarrel between my father and mother. They quarrelled a whole
day and a whole night. They decided the child should be named
Leah-Gittel, after their two mothers. Afterwards my father decided he
would not have Leah-Gittel. What is the sense of it? Why should her
mother's name go first? My brother Mottel came in from the synagogue
and said he had named the child Esther. Said my father to him: Man of
clay, where did you get the name Esther from? Mottel replied: Have
you forgotten it will soon be 'Purim'? Well, what have you to
say now? It's all over. My father never calls Mottel man of clay
since then. But both of themmy mother and my fatherexchanged
glances and were silent.
What the silence and the exchange of glances meant I do not know.
Perhaps you can tell me?
Listen, children, and I will tell you a story about a little
knifenot an invented story, but a true one, that happened to myself.
I never wished for anything in the world so much as for a
pocket-knife. It should be my own, and should lie in my pocket, and I
should be able to take it out whenever I wished, to cut whatever I
liked. Let my friends know. I had just begun to go to school, under
Yossel Dardaki, and I already had a knife, that is, what was almost a
knife. I made it myself. I tore a goose-quill out of a feather brush,
cut off one end, and flattened out the other. I pretended it was a
knife and would cut.
What sort of a feather is that? What the devil does it mean? Why do
you carry a feather about with you? asked my fathera sickly Jew,
with a yellow, wrinkled face. He had a fit of coughing. Here are
feathers for youplaytoys! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!
What do you care if the child plays? asked my mother of him. She
was a short-built woman and wore a silk scarf on her head. Let my
enemies eat out their hearts!
Later, when I was learning the Bible and the commentaries, I very
nearly had a real knife, also of my own making. I found a bit of steel
belonging to my mother's crinoline, and I set it very cleverly into a
piece of wood. I sharpened the steel beautifully on a stone, and
naturally cut all my fingers to pieces.
See, just see, how he has bled himself, that son of yours, said my
father. He took hold of my hands in such a way that the very bones
cracked. He's a fine fellow! Heh-heh-heh!
Oh, may the thunder strike me! cried my mother. She took the
little knife from me, and threw it into the fire. She took no notice of
my crying. Now it will come to an end. Woe is me!
I soon got another knife, but in reality, a little knife. It had a
thick, round, wooden handle, like a barrel, and a curved blade which
opened as well as closed. You want to know how I came by it? I saved up
the money from what I got for my breakfasts, and I bought the knife for
seven groschens from Solomon, and I owed him three more
Oh, how I loved it, how I loved it. I came home from school black
and blue, hungry and sleepy, and with my ears well boxed. (You see, I
had just started learning the Gemarra with Mottel, the Angel
of Death. If an ox gore a cow I learnt. And if an ox gores a cow,
then I must get beaten.) And the first thing I did was to take out my
pocket-knife from under the black cupboard. (It lay there the whole
day, because I dared not take it to school with me; and at home no one
must know that I have a knife.) I stroked it, I cut a piece of paper
with it, split a straw in halves, and then cut up my bread into little
cubes which I stuck on the tip of the blade, and afterwards put into my
Later, before going to bed, I cleaned the knife, and scrubbed it,
and polished it. I took the sharpening stone, which I found in the
hayloft, spit on it, and in silence began to work, sharpening the
little knife, sharpening, sharpening.
My father, his little round cap on his head, sat over a book. He
coughed and read, read and coughed. My mother was in the kitchen making
bread. I did not cease from sharpening my knife, and sharpening it.
Suddenly my father woke up, as from a deep sleep.
Who is making that hissing noise? Who is working? What are you
doing, you young scamp?
He stood beside me, and bent over my sharpening-stone. He caught
hold of my ear. A fit of coughing choked him.
Ah! Ah! Ah! Little knives! Heh-heh-heh! said my father, and he
took the knife and the sharpening-stone from me. Such a scamp! Why the
devil can't he take a book into his hand? Tkeh-heh-heh!
I began to cry. My father improved the situation by a few slaps. My
mother ran in from the kitchen, her sleeves turned up, and she began to
Shah! Shah! What's the matter here? Why do you beat him? God be
with you! What have you against the child? Woe is me!
Little knives, said my father, ending up with a cough. A tiny
child. Such a devil. Tkeh-heh-heh! Why the devil can't he take a book
into his hand? He's already a youth of eight years.... I will give you
pocket-knivesyou good-for-nothing, you. In the middle of everything,
But what had he against my little knife? How had it sinned in his
eyes? Why was he so angry?
I remember that my father was nearly always ailingalways pale and
hollow-cheeked, and always angry with the whole world. For the least
thing he flared up and would tear me to pieces. It was fortunate my
mother defended me. She took me out of his hands.
And that pocket-knife of mine was thrown away somewhere. For eight
days on end I looked and looked for it, but could not find it. I
mourned deeply for that curved knifethe good knife. How dark and
embittered was my soul at school when I remembered that I would come
home with a swollen face, with red, torn ears from the hands of Mottel,
the Angel of Death, because an ox gored a cow, and I would have no
one to turn to for comfort. I was lonely without the curved
knifelonely as an orphan. No one saw the tears I shed in silence, in
my bed, at night, after I had come back from Cheder. In
silence, I cried my eyes out. In the morning I was again at Cheder, and again I repeated: If an ox gore a cow, and again I felt the
blows of Mottel, the Angel of Death; again my father was angry,
coughed, and swore at me. I had not a free moment. I did not see a
smiling face. There was not a single little smile for me anywhere, not
a single one. I had nobody. I was aloneall alone in the whole world.
* * *
A year went by, and perhaps a year and a half. I was beginning to
forget the curved knife. It seems I was destined to waste all the years
of my childhood because of pocket-knives. A new knife was createdto
my misfortunea brand new knife, a beauty, a splendid one. As I live,
it was a fine knife. It had two blades, fine, steel ones, sharp as
razors, and a white bone handle, and brass ends, and copper rivets. I
tell you, it was a beauty, a real good pocket-knife.
How came to me such a fine knife, that was never meant for such as
I? That is a whole storya sad, but interesting story. Listen to me
What value in my eyes had the German Jew who lodged with usthe
contractor, Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz, when he spoke Yiddish, went about
without a cap, had no beard or earlocks, and had his coat-tails cut
off? I ask you how I could have helped laughing into his face, when
that Jewish-Gentile, or Gentilish-Jew talked to me in Yiddish, but in a
curious Yiddish with a lot of A's in it.
Well, dear boy, which portion of the Law will be read this week?
Ha! ha! ha! I burst out laughing and hid my face in my hands.
Say, say, my dear child, what portion of the Law will be read this
Ha! ha! ha! Balak, I burst out with a laugh, and ran away.
But that was only in the beginning, before I knew him. Afterwards,
when I knew Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz better (he lived at our house for
over a year) I loved him so well that I did not care if he said no
prayers, and ate his food without saying the blessings. Nevertheless, I
did not understand how he existed, and why the Lord allowed him to
remain in the world. Why was he not choked at table? And why did the
hair not fall out of his uncovered head? I had heard from my teacher,
Mottel, the Angel of Death, from his own mouth, that this German Jew
was only a spirit. That is to say, a Jew was turned into a German; and
later on he might turn into a wolf, a cow, a horse, or maybe a duck. A
Ha! ha! ha! A fine story, thought I. But I was genuinely sorry for
the German. Nevertheless, I did not understand why my father, who was a
very orthodox Jew, should pay the German Jew so much respect, as also
did the other Jews who used to come into our house.
Peace be unto you, Reb Hertzenhertz! Blessed art thou who comest,
Reb Hertz Hertzenhertz!
I once ventured to ask my father why this was so, but he thrust me
to one side and said:
Go away. It is not your business. Why do you get under our feet?
Who the devil wants you? Why the devil can't you take a book into your
Again a book? Lord of the world, I also want to see; I also want to
hear what people are saying.
I went into the parlour, hid myself in a corner, and heard
everything the men talked about. Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz laughed aloud,
and smoked thick black cigars that had a very strong smell. Suddenly my
father came over to me, and gave me a smack.
Are you here again, you idler and good-for-nothing? What will
become of you, you dunce? What will become of you? Heh-heh-heh-heh!
It was no use. My father drove me out. I took a book into my hands,
but I did not want to read it. What was I to do? I went about the
house, from one room to the other, until I came to the nicest room of
allthe room in which slept Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz. Ah, how beautiful
and bright it was! The lamps were lit, and the mirror shone. On the
table was a big, beautiful silver inkstand, and beautiful pens, also
little ornamentsmen, and animals, and flowers, and bones and stones,
and a little knife! Ah, what a beautiful knife! What if I had such a
knife? What fine things I would make with it. How happy I should be.
Well, I must try it. Is it sharp? Ah, it cuts a hair. It slices up a
hair. Oh, oh, oh, what a knife!
One moment I held the knife in my hand. I looked about me on all
sides, and slipped it into my pocket. My hands trembled. My heart was
beating so loudly that I could hear it saying, Tick, tick, tick! I
heard some one coming. It was heHerr Hertz Hertzenhertz. Ah, what was
I to do? The knife might remain in my pocket. I could put it back later
on. Meanwhile, I must get out of the room, run away, away, far.
I could eat no supper that night. My mother felt my head. My father
threw angry glances at me, and told me to go to bed. Sleep? Could I
close my eyes? I was like dead. What was I to do with the little knife?
How was I going to put it back again?
* * *
Come over here, my little ornament, said my father to me next day.
Did you see the little pocket-knife anywhere?
Of course I was very much frightened. It seemed to me that he
knewthat everybody knew. I was almost, almost crying out: The
pocket-knife? Here it is. But something came into my throat, and would
not let me utter a sound for a minute or so. In a shaking voice I
Where? What pocket-knife?
Where? What knife? my father mocked at me. What knife? The golden
knife. Our guest's knife, you good-for-nothing, you! You dunce, you!
What do you want of the child? put in my mother. The child knows
nothing of anything, and he worries him about the knife, the knife.
The knifethe knife! How can he not know about it? cried my
father angrily. All the morning he hears me shoutingThe knife! The
knife! The knife! The house is turned upside down for the knife, and he
asks 'Where? What knife?' Go away. Go and wash yourself, you
good-for-nothing, you. You dunce, dunce! Tkeh-heh-heh!
I thank Thee, Lord of the Universe, that they did not search me. But
what was I to do next? The knife had to be hidden somewhere, in a safe
place. Where was I to hide it? Ah! In the attic. I took the knife
quickly from my pocket, and stuck it into my top-boot. I ate, and I did
not know what I was eating. I was choking.
Why are you in such a hurry? What the devil ...? asked my father.
I am hurrying off to school, I answered, and grew red as fire.
A scholar, all of a sudden. What do you say to such a saint? he
muttered, and glared at me. I barely managed to finish my breakfast,
and say grace.
Well, why are you not off to 'Cheder,' my saint? asked my
Why do you hunt him so? asked my mother. Let the child sit a
I was in the attic. Deep, deep in a hole lay the beautiful knife. It
lay there in silence.
What are you doing in the attic? called out my father. You
good-for-nothing! You street-boy! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!
I am looking for something, I answered. I nearly fell down with
Something? What is the something? What sort of a thing is that
Aa book. Anan old 'Gegemarra.'
What? A 'Gemarra'? In the attic? Ah, you scamp you! Come
down at once. Come down. You'll get it from me. You street-boy! You
dog-beater! You rascal! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!
I was not so much afraid of my father's anger as that the
pocket-knife might be found. Who could tell? Perhaps some one would go
up to the attic to hang out clothes to dry, or to paint the rafters?
The knife must be taken down from there, and hidden in a better place.
I went about in fear and trembling. Every glance at my father told me
that he knew, and that now, now he was going to talk to me of the
guest's knife. I had a place for ita grand place. I would bury it in
the ground, in a hole near the wall. I would put some straw on the spot
to mark it. The moment I came from Cheder I ran out into the
yard. I took the knife carefully from my pocket, but had no time to
look at it, when my father called out:
Where are you at all? Why don't you go and say your prayers? You
swine-herd you! You are a water-carrier! Tkeh-heh-heh!
But whatever my father said to me, and as much as the teacher beat
me, it was all rubbish to me when I came home, and had the pleasure of
seeing my one and only dear friendmy little knife. The pleasure was,
alas! mixed with pain, and embittered by fearby great fear.
* * *
It is the summer time. The sun is setting. The air grows somewhat
cooler. The grass emits a sweet odour. The frogs croak, and the thick
clouds fly by, without rain, across the moon. They wish to swallow her
up. The silvery white moon hides herself every minute, and shows
herself again. It seemed to me that she was flying and flying, but was
still on the same spot. My father sat down on the grass, in a long
mantle. He had one hand in the bosom of his coat, and with the other he
smoothed down the grass. He looked up at the star-spangled sky, and
coughed and coughed. His face was like death, silvery white. He was
sitting on the exact spot where the little knife was hidden. He knew
nothing of what was in the earth under him. Ah, if he only knew! What,
for instance, would he say, and what would happen to me?
Aha! thought I within myself, you threw away my knife with the
curved blade, and now I have a nicer and a better one. You are sitting
on it, and you know nothing. Oh, father, father!
Why do you stare at me like a tom-cat? asked my father. Why do
you sit with folded arms like a self-satisfied old man? Can you not
find something to do? Have you said the night prayer? May the devil not
take you, scamp! May an evil end not come upon you! Tkeh-heh-heh!
When he says may the devil not take you, and may an evil end
not come upon you, then he is not angry. On the contrary, it is a
sign that he is in a good humour. And, surely, how could one help being
in a good humour on such a wonderfully beautiful night, when every one
is drawn out of doors into the street, under the soft, fresh, brilliant
sky? Every one is now out of doorsmy father, my mother, and the
younger children who are looking for little stones and playing in the
sand. Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz was going about in the yard, without a
hat, smoking a cigar, and singing a German song. He looked at me, and
laughed. Probably he was laughing because my father was driving me
away. But I laughed at them all. Soon they would be going to bed, and I
would go out into the yard (I slept in the open, before the door,
because of the great heat), and I would rejoice in, and play with my
The house is asleep. It is silent around and about. Cautiously I get
up; I am on all fours, like a cat; and I steal out into the yard. The
night is silent. The air is fresh and pure. Slowly I creep over to the
spot where the little knife lies buried. I take it out carefully, and
look at it by the light of the moon. It shines and glitters, like
guinea-gold, like a diamond. I lift up my eyes, and I see that the moon
is looking straight down on my knife. Why is she looking at it so? I
turn round. She looks after me. Maybe she knows whose knife it is, and
where I got it? Got it? Stole it!
For the first time since the knife came into my hands has this
terrible word entered my thoughts. Stolen? Then I am, in short, a
thief, a common thief? In the Holy Law, in the Ten Commandments, are
written, in big letters: THOU SHALT NOT STEAL.
Thou shalt not steal. And I have stolen. What will they do to me in
hell for that? Woe is me! They will cut off my handthe hand that
stole. They will whip me with iron rods. They will roast and burn me in
a hot oven. I will glow for ever and ever. The knife must be given
back. The knife must be put back in its place. One must not hold a
stolen knife. Tomorrow I will put it back.
That was what I decided. And I put the knife into my bosom. I
imagined it was burning, scorching me. No, it must be hidden again,
buried in the earth till tomorrow. The moon still looked down on me.
What was she looking at? The moon saw. She was a witness.
I crept back to the house, to my sleeping-place. I lay down again,
but could not sleep. I tossed about from side to side, but could not
fall asleep. It was already day when I dozed off. I dreamt of a moon, I
dreamt of iron rods, and I dreamt of little knives. I got up very
early, said my prayers with pleasure, with delight, ate my breakfast
while standing on one foot, and marched off to Cheder.
Why are you in such a hurry for 'Cheder'? cried my father
to me. What is driving you? You will not lose your knowledge if you go
a little later. You will have time enough for mischief. You scamp! You
epicurean! You heathen! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!
* * *
Why so late? Just look at this. The teacher stopped me, and
pointed with his finger at my comrade, Berrel the red one, who was
standing in the corner with his head down.
Do you see, bandit? You must know that from this day his name is
not Berrel the red one, as he was called. He is now called a fine name.
His name is now Berrel the thief. Shout it out, children. Berrel the
thief! Berrel the thief!
The teacher drew out the words, and put a little tune into them. The
pupils repeated them after him, like a chorus.
Berrel the thiefBerrel the thief!
I was petrified. A cold wave passed over my body. I did not know
what it all meant.
Why are you silent, you heathen, you? cried the teacher, and gave
me an unexpected smack in the face. Why are you silent, you heathen?
Don't you hear the others singing? Join in with them, and help them.
Berrel the thiefBerrel the thief!
My limbs trembled. My teeth rattled. But, I helped the others to
shout aloud Berrel the thief! Berrel the thief!
Louder, heathen, prompted the teacher. In a stronger
And I, along with the rest of the choir, sang out in a variety of
voices, Berrel the thiefBerrel the thief!
Shshshaaah! cried the teacher, banging the table with
his open hand. Hush! Now we will betake ourselves to pronouncing
judgment. He spoke in a sing-song voice.
Ah, well, Berrel thief, come over here, my child. Quicker, a little
quicker. Tell me, my boy, what your name is. This also was said in a
BerrelBerrel the thief.
That's right, my dear child. Now you are a good boy. May your
strength increase, and may you grow stronger in every limb! (Still in
the same sing-song.) Take off your clothes. That's right. But can't
you do it quicker? I beg of you, be quick about it. That's right,
little Berrel, my child.
Berrel stood before us as naked as when he was born. Not a drop of
blood showed in his body. He did not move a limb. His eyes were
lowered. He was as dead as a corpse.
The teacher called out one of the older scholars, still speaking in
the same sing-song voice:
Well, now, Hirschalle, come out from behind the table, over here to
me. Quicker. Just so. And now tell us the story from beginning to
endhow our Berrel became a thief. Listen, boys, pay attention.
And Hirschalle began to tell the story. Berrel had got the little
collecting box of Reb Mayer the Wonder-worker, into which his
mother threw a kopek, sometimes two, every Friday, before
lighting the Sabbath candles. Berrel had fixed his eyes on that box, on
which there hung a little lock. By means of a straw gummed at the end,
he had managed to extract the kopeks from the box, one by one.
His mother, Slatte, the hoarse one, suspecting something wrong, opened
the box, and found in it one of the straws tipped with gum. She beat
her son Berrel. And after the whipping she had prevailed on the teacher
to give him, he confessed that for a whole yeara round year, he had
been extracting the kopeks, one by one, and that, every
Sunday, he had bought himself two little cakes, some locust beans,
andand so forth, and so forth.
Now, boys, pronounce judgment on him. You know how to do it. This
is not the first time. Let each give his verdict, and say what must be
done to a boy who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box, by means
of a straw.
The teacher put his head to one side. He closed his eyes, and turned
his right ear to Hirschalle. Hirschalle answered at the top of his
A thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box should be
flogged until the blood spurts from him.
Moshalle, what is to be done to a thief who steals 'kopeks'
from a charity-box?
A thief, replied Moshalle, in a wailing voice, a thief who steals
'kopeks' from a charity-box should be stretched out. Two boys
should be put on his head, two on his feet, and two should flog him
with pickled rods.
Topalle Tutteratu, what is to be done to a thief who steals '
kopeks' from a charity-box?
Kopalle Kuckaraku, a boy who could not pronounce the letters K and
G, wiped his face, and gave his verdict in a squeaking voice.
A boy who steals 'topets' from the charity-bots should be punished
lite this. Every boy should do over to him, and shout into his face,
three times, thief, thief, thief.
The whole school laughed. The master put his thumb on his wind-pipe,
like a cantor, and called out to me, as if I were a bridegroom being
called up, at the synagogue, to read the portion of the Law for the
Tell me, now, my dear little boy, what would you say should be done
to a thief who steals 'kopeks' from a charity-box.
I tried to reply, but my tongue would not obey me. I shivered as
with ague. Something was in my throat, choking me. A cold sweat broke
out all over my body. There was a whistling in my ears. I saw before
me, not the teacher, nor the naked Berrel the thief, nor my comrades. I
saw before me only knivespocket-knives without an end, white, open
knives that had many blades. And there, beside the door, hung the moon.
She looked at me, and smiled, like a human being. My head was going
round. The whole roomthe table and the books, the boys and the moon
that hung beside the door, and the little knivesall were whirling
round. I felt as if my two feet were chopped off. Another moment, and I
might have fallen down, but I controlled myself with all my strength,
and I did not fall.
In the evening, I came home, and felt that my face was burning. My
cheeks were on fire, and in my ears was a hissing noise. I heard some
one speaking to me, but what they said I do not know. My father was
saying something, and seemed to be angry. He wanted to beat me. My
mother intervened. She spread out her apron, as a clucking hen spreads
out her wing to defend her chickens from injury. I heard nothing, and
did not want to hear. I only wanted the darkness to fall sooner, so
that I might make an end of the little knife. What was I to do with it?
Confess everything, and give it up? Then I would suffer the same
punishment as Berrel. Throw it carelessly somewhere? But I may be
caught? Throw it away, and no more, so long as I am rid of it? Where
was I to throw it in order that it might not be found by anybody? On
the roof? The noise would be heard. In the garden? It might be found.
Ah, I know! I have a plan, I'll throw it into the water. A good plan,
as I live. I'll throw it into the well that is in our own yard. This
plan pleased me so much that I did not wish to dwell on it longer. I
took up the knife, and ran off straight to the well. It seemed to me
that I was carrying in my hand not a knife but something repulsivea
filthy little creature of which I must rid myself at once. But, still I
was sorry. It was such a fine little knife. For a moment, I stood
thinking, and it seemed to me that I was holding in my hand a living
thing. My heart ached for it. Surely, surely, it has cost me so much
heartache. It is a pity for the living. I summoned all my courage, and
let it out suddenly from my fingers. Plash! The water bubbled up for a
moment. Nothing more was heard, and my knife was gone. I stood a moment
at the well and listened. I heard nothing. Thank God, I was rid of it.
My heart was faint, and full of longing. Surely, it was a fine
knifesuch a knife!
* * *
I went back to bed, and saw that the moon was still looking down at
me. And it seemed to me she had seen everything I had done. From the
distance a voice seemed to be saying to me: But, you are a thief all
the same. Catch him, beat him. He is a thief, a thief.
I stole back into the house, and into my own bed.
I dreamt that I ran, swept through the air. I flew with my little
knife in my hand. And the moon looked at me and said:
Catch him, beat him. He is a thiefa thief.
* * *
A long, long sleep, and a heavy, a very heavy dream. A fire burnt
within me. My head was buzzing. Everything I saw was red as blood.
Burning rods of fire cut into my flesh. I was swimming in blood. Around
me wriggled snakes and serpents. They had their mouths open, ready to
swallow me. Right into my ears some one was blowing a trumpet. And,
some one was standing over me, and shouting, keeping time with the
trumpet: Whip him, whip him, whip him. He is a thieef. And I myself
shouted: Oh, oh, take the moon away from me. Give her up the little
knife. What have you against poor Berrel? He is not guilty. It is I who
am a thiefa thief.
Beyond that, I remember nothing.
* * *
I opened one eye, then the other. Where was I? On a bed, I think.
Ah, is that you, mother, mother? She does not hear me. Mother, mother,
mooother! What is this? I imagine I am shouting aloud. Shah! I
listen. She is weeping silently. I also see my father, with his yellow,
sickly face. He is sitting near me, an open book in his hand. He reads,
and sighs, and coughs and groans. It seems that I am dead already.
Dead?... All at once, I feel that it is growing brighter before my
eyes. Everything is growing lighter, too. My head and my limbs are
lighter. There is a ringing in my ear, and in my other ear. Tschinna! I
Good health! May your days be lengthened! May your years be
prolonged! It is a good sign. Blessed art Thou, O Lord!
Sneezed in reality? Blessed be the Most High!
Let us call at once Mintze the butcher's wife. She knows how to
avert the evil eye.
The doctor ought to be calledthe doctor.
The doctor? What for? That is nonsense. The Most High is the best
doctor. Blessed be the Lord, and praised be His Name!
Go asunder, people. Separate a bit. It is terribly hot. In the name
of God, go away.
Ah, yes. I told you that you have to cover him with wax. Well, who
Praise be the Lord, and blessed be His Holy Name! Ah, God! God!
Blessed be the Lord! and praised be His Holy Name!
They fluttered about me. They looked at me. Each one came and felt
my head. They prayed over me, and buzzed around me. They licked my
forehead, and spat out, by way of a charm. They poured hot soup down my
throat, and filled my mouth with spoonfuls of preserves. Every one flew
around me. They cared for me as if I were the apple of their eye. They
fed me with broths and tiny chickens, as if I were an infant. They did
not leave me alone. My mother sat by me always, and told me over and
over again the whole story of how they had lifted me up from the
ground, almost dead, and how I had been lying for two weeks on end,
burning like a fire, croaking like a frog, and muttering something
about whippings and little knives. They already imagined I was dead,
when suddenly I sneezed seven times. I had practically come to life
Now we see what a great God we have, blessed be He, and praised be
His Name! That was how my mother ended up, the tears springing to her
eyes. Now we can see that when we call to Him He listens to our sinful
requests and our guilty tears. We shed a lot, a lot of tears, your
father and I, until the Lord had pity on us.... We nearly, nearly lost
our child through our sinfulness. May we suffer in your stead! And
through what? Through a boy who was a thief, a certain Berrel whom the
teacher flogged at 'Cheder,' almost until he bled. When you came
home from 'Cheder' you were more dead than alive. May your
mother suffer instead of you! The teacher is a tyrant, a murderer. The
Lord will punish him for itthe Lord of the Universe. No, my child, if
the Lord lets us live, when you get well, we will send you to another
teacher, not to such a tyrant as is the 'Angel of Death,'may his name
be blotted out for ever!
These words made a terrible impression on me. I threw my arms around
my mother, and kissed her.
Dear, dear mother.
And my father came over to me softly. He put his cold, white hand on
my forehead, and said to me kindly, without a trace of anger:
Oh, how you frightened us, you heathen you! Tkeh-heh-heh-heh!
Also the Jewish German, or the German Jew, Herr Hertz Hertzenhertz,
his cigar between his teeth, bent down and touched my cheek, with his
clean-shaven chin. He said to me in German:
Good! Good! Be wellbe well!
* * *
A few weeks after I got out of bed, my father said to me:
Well, my son, now go to 'Cheder,' and never think of little
knives again, or other such nonsense. It is time you began to be a bit
of a man. If it please God, you will be 'Bar-Mitzvah' in three
yearsmay you live to a hundred and twenty. Tkeh-heh-heh!
With such sweet words did my father send me off to Cheder,
to my new teacher, Reb Chayim Kotter. It was the first time
that I had heard such good kind words from my father. And I forgot, in
a moment, all his harshness, and all his abuse, and all his blows. It
was as if they had never existed in the world. If I were not ashamed, I
would have thrown my arms about his neck, and kissed him. But how can
one kiss a father? Ha! ha! ha!
My mother gave me a whole apple and three groschens to take
to Cheder, and the German gave me a few kopeks. He
pinched my cheek, and said in his language:
Best boy, good, good!
I took my Gemarra under my arm, kissed the Mezuzah, and went off to Cheder like one newly born, with a clean
heart, and fresh, pious thoughts. The sun looked down, and greeted me
with its warm rays. The little breeze stole in under one of my
earlocks. The birds twitteredTiftiftiftif! I was lifted up. I
was borne on the breeze. I wanted to run, jump, dance. Oh, how good it
ishow sweet to be alive and to be honest, when one is not a thief and
not a liar.
I pressed my Gemarra tightly to my breast, and still
tighter. I ran to Cheder with pleasure, with joy. And I swore
by my Gemarra that I would never, never touch what belonged to
anothernever, never steal, and never, never deny anything again. I
would always be honest, for ever and ever honest.
On the Fiddle
Children, I will now play for you a little tune on the fiddle. I
imagine there is nothing better and finer in the world than to be able
to play on the fiddle. What? Perhaps it is not so? I don't know how it
is with you. But I know that since I first reached the age of
understanding, my heart longed for a fiddle. I loved as my life any
musician whateverno matter what instrument he played. If there was a
wedding anywhere in the town, I was the first to run forward and
welcome the musicians. I loved to steal over to the bass, and draw my
fingers across one of the stringsBoom! And I flew away. Boom! And I
flew away. For this same boom I once got it hot from Berel Bass.
Berel Bassa cross Jew with a flattened out nose, and a sharp
glancepretended not to see me stealing over to the bass. And when I
stretched out my hand to the thick string, he caught hold of me by the
ear and dragged me, respectfully, to the door:
Here, scamp, kiss the 'Mezuzah.'
But this was not of much consequence to me. It did not make me go a
single step from the musicians. I loved them all, from Sheika the
little fiddler with his beautiful black beard and his thin white hands,
to Getza the drummer with his beautiful hump, and, if you will forgive
me for mentioning it, the big bald patches behind his ears. Not once,
but many times did I lie hidden under a bench, listening to the
musicians playing, though I was frequently found and sent home. And
from there, from under the bench, I could see how Sheika's thin little
fingers danced about over the strings; and I listened to the sweet
sounds which he drew so cleverly out of the little fiddle.
Afterwards I used to go about in a state of great inward excitement
for many days on end. And Sheika and his little fiddle stood before my
eyes always. At night I saw him in my dreams; and in the daytime I saw
him in reality; and he never left my imagination. When no one was
looking I used to imagine that I was Sheika, the little fiddler. I used
to curve my left arm and move my fingers, and draw out my right hand,
as if I were drawing the bow across the strings. At the same time I
threw my head to one side, closing my eyes a littlejust as Sheika
did, not a hair different.
My Rebbe, Nota-Leib, once caught me doing this. It happened
in the middle of a lesson. I was moving my arms about, throwing my head
to one side, and blinking my eyes, and he gave me a sound box on the
What a scamp can do! We are teaching him his lessons, and he makes
faces and catches flies!
* * *
I promised myself that, even if the world turned upside down, I must
have a little fiddle, let it cost me what it would. But what was I to
make a fiddle out of? Of cedar wood, of course. But it's easy to talk
of cedar wood. How was I to come by it when, as everybody knows, the
cedar tree grows only in Palestine? But what does the Lord do for me?
He goes and puts a certain thought in my head. In our house there was
an old sofa. This sofa was left us, as a legacy, by our grandfather
Reb Anshel. And my two uncles fought over this sofa with my
fatherpeace be unto him! My uncle Benny argued that since he was my
grandfather's oldest son, the sofa belonged to him; and my uncle Sender
argued that he was the youngest son, and that the sofa belonged to him.
And my fatherpeace be unto him!argued that although he was no more
than a son-in-law to my grandfather, and had no personal claim on the
sofa, still, since his wife, my mother, that is, was the only daughter
of Reb Anshel, the sofa belonged, by right, to her. But all
this happened long ago. And as the sofa has remained in our house, this
was a proof that it was our sofa. And our two aunts interfered, my aunt
Etka, and my aunt Zlatka. They began to invent scandals and to carry
tales from one house to another. It was sofa and sofa, and nothing else
but sofa! The town rocked, all because of the sofa. However, to make a
long story short, the sofa remained our sofa.
This same sofa was an ordinary wooden sofa covered with a thin
veneer. This veneer had come unloosened in many places and was split
up. It had now a number of small mounds. And the upper layer of the
veneer which had come unloosened was of the real cedar woodthe wood
of which fiddles are made. At least, that is what I was told at school.
The sofa had one fault, and this fault was, in reality, a good quality.
For instance, when one sat on it one could not get up off it again
because it stood a little on the slant. One side was higher than the
other, and in the middle there was a hole. And the good thing about our
sofa was that no one wanted to sit on it, and it was put away in a
corner, to one side, in compulsory retirement.
It was on this sofa that I had cast my eyes, to make a fiddle out of
the cedar wood veneer. A bow I had already provided myself with, long
ago. I had a comrade, Shimalle Yudel, the car-owner's son. He promised
me a few hairs from the tail of his father's horse. And resin to smear
the bow with I had myself. I hated to depend on miracles. I got the
resin from another friend of mine, Mayer-Lippa, Sarah's son, for a bit
of steel from my mother's old crinoline which had been knocking about
in the attic. Out of this piece of steel, Mayer Lippa afterwards made
himself a little knife. It is true when I saw the knife I wanted him to
change back again with me. But he would not have it. He began to shout:
A clever fellow that! What do you say to him! I worked hard for
three whole nights. I sharpened and sharpened and cut all my fingers
sharpening, and now he comes and wants me to change back again with
Just look at him! I cried. Well then, it won't be! A great
bargain for youa little bit of steel! Isn't there enough steel
knocking about in our attic? There will be enough for our children, and
our children's children even.
Anyway, I had everything that was necessary. And there only remained
one thing for me to doto scale off the cedar wood from the sofa. For
this work I selected a very good time, when my mother was in the shop,
and my father had gone to lie down and have a nap after dinner. I hid
myself in a corner and, with a big nail, I betook myself to my work in
good earnest. My father heard, in his sleep, how some one was scraping
something. At first he thought there were mice in the house, and he
began to make a noise from his bedroom to drive them offKush! Kush!
I was like dead.... My father turned over on the other side and when I
heard him snoring again, I went back to my work. Suddenly I looked
about me. My father was standing and staring at me with curious eyes.
It appeared that he could not, on any account, understand what was
going onwhat I was doing. Then, when he saw the spoiled and torn
sofa, he realized what I had done. He pulled me out of the corner by
the ear and beat me so much that I fainted away and had to be revived.
I actually had to have cold water thrown over me to bring me to life
The Lord be with you! What have you done to the child? my mother
wailed, the tears starting to her eyes.
Your beautiful son! He will drive me into my grave, while I am
still living, said my father, who was white as chalk. He put his hand
to his heart and was attacked by a fit of coughing which lasted several
Why should you eat your heart out like this? my mother asked him.
As it is you are a sickly man. Just look at the face you've got. May
my enemies have as healthy a year!
* * *
My desire to play the fiddle grew with me. The older I grew, the
stronger became my desire. And, as if out of spite, I was destined to
hear music every day of the week. Right in the middle of the road,
halfway between my home and the school, stood a little house covered
with earth. And from that house came forth various sweet sounds. But
most often than all the playing of a fiddle could be heard. In that
house there lived a musician whose name was Naphtali Bezborodka,a Jew who wore a short jacket, curled-up earlocks, and a starched
collar. He had a fine-sized nose. It looked as if it had been stuck on
his face. He had thick lips and black teeth. His face was pock-pitted,
and had not on it even signs of a beard. That is why he was called
Bezborodka, the Beardless One. He had a wife who was like a
machine. The people called her Mother Eve. Of children he had about a
dozen and a half. They were ragged, half-naked, and bare-footed. And
each child, from the biggest to the smallest, played on a musical
instrument. One played the fiddle, another the 'cello, another the
double-bass, another the trumpet, another the Ballalaika,
another the drum, and another the cymbals. And amongst them there were
some who could whistle the longest melody with their lips, or between
their teeth. Others could play tunes on little glasses, or little pots,
or bits of wood. And some made music with their faces. They were
demons, evil spiritsnothing else.
I made the acquaintance of this family quite by accident. One day,
as I was standing outside the window of their house, listening to them
playing, one of the children, Pinna the flautist, a youth of about
fifteen, in bare feet, caught sight of me through the window. He came
out to me and asked me if I liked his playing.
I only wish, said I, that I may play as well as you in ten years'
Can't you manage it? he asked of me. And he told me that for two
and a half 'roubles' a month, his father would teach me how to
play. But if I liked he himself, the son, that is, would teach me.
Which instrument would you like to learn to play? he asked. On
On the fiddle.
On the fiddle? he repeated. Can you pay two and a half '
roubles' a month? Or are you as unfortunate as I am?
So far as that goes, I can manage it, I said. But what then?
Neither my father nor my mother, nor my teacher must know that I am
learning to play the fiddle.
The Lord keep us from telling it! he cried. Whose business is it
to drum the news through the town? Maybe you have on you a cigar end,
or a cigarette? No? You don't smoke? Then lend me a 'kopek' and
I will buy cigarettes for myself. But you must tell no one, because my
father must not know that I smoke. And if my mother finds that I have
money, she will take it from me and buy rolls for supper. Come into the
house. What are we standing here for?
* * *
With great fear, with a palpitating heart and trembling limbs, I
crossed the threshold of the house that was to me a little Garden of
My friend Pinna introduced me to his father.
ShalomNahum Veviksa rich man's boy. He wants to learn to play
Naphtali Bezborodka twirled his earlocks, straightened his
collar, buttoned up his coat, and started a long conversation with me,
all about music and musical instruments in general and the fiddle in
particular. He gave me to understand that the fiddle was the best and
most beautiful of all instruments. There was none older and none more
wonderful in the world than the fiddle. To prove this to me, he went on
to tell me that the fiddle was always the leading instrument of any
orchestra, and not the trumpet or the flute. And this was simply
because the fiddle was the mother of all musical instruments.
And so it came about that Naphtali Bezborodka gave me a
whole lecture on music. Whilst he was speaking he gesticulated with his
hands and moved his nose, and I stood staring right into his mouth. I
looked at his black teeth and swallowed, yes, positively swallowed,
every word that he said.
The fiddle, you must understand, went on Naphtali Bezborodka
to me, and evidently satisfied with the lecture he was giving me, the
fiddle, you must understand, is an instrument that is older than all
other instruments. The first man in the world to play on the fiddle was
Jubal-Cain, or Methuselah, I don't exactly remember which. You will
know that better than I, for, to be sure, you are learning Bible
history at school. The second fiddler in the world was King David.
Another great fiddlerthe third greatest in the worldwas Paganini.
He also was a Jew. All the best fiddlers in the world were Jews. For
instance there was 'Stempenyu,' and there was 'Pedotchur.' Of myself I say nothing. People tell me that I do not play the fiddle
badly. But how can I come up to Paganini? They say that Paganini sold
his soul to the Ashmodai for a fiddle. Paganini hated to play before
great people like kings and popes, although they covered him with gold.
He would much rather play at wayside inns for poor folks, or in
villages. Or else he would play in the forest for wild beasts and fowls
of the air. What a fiddler Paganini was!...
Eh, boys, to your places! To your instruments!
That was the order which Naphtali Bezborodka gave to his
regiment of children, all of whom came together in one minute. Each one
took up an instrument. Naphtali himself stood up, beat his baton on the
table, threw a sharp glance on every separate child and on all at once;
and they began to play a concert on every sort of instrument with so
much force that I was almost knocked off my feet. Each child tried to
make more noise than the other. But above all, I was nearly deafened by
the noise that one boy made, a little fellow who was called Hemalle. He
was a dry little boy with a wet little nose, and dirty bare little
feet. Hemalle played a curiously made instrument. It was a sort of sack
which, when you blew it up, let out a mad screecha peculiar sound
like a yell of a cat after you have trodden on its tail. Hemalle beat
time with his little bare foot. And all the while he kept looking at me
out of his roguish little eyes, and winking to me as if he would say:
Well, isn't it so? I blow welldon't I? But it was Naphtali himself
who worked the hardest of all. Along with playing the fiddle, he led
the orchestra, waved his hands about, shifted his feet, and moved his
nose, and his eyes and his whole body. And if some one made a
mistakeGod forbid! he ground his teeth and shouted in anger:
Forte, devil, forte! Fortissimo! Time, wretch, time! One, two,
three! One, two, three!
* * *
Having arranged with Naphtali Bezborodka that he should
give me three lessons a week, of an hour and a half each day, for two
roubles a month, I again and yet again begged of him that he would
keep my visits a secret of secrets; for if he did not, I would be lost
forever. He promised me faithfully that not even a bird would hear of
my coming and going.
We are the sort of people, he said to me, proudly, fixing his
collar in place, we are the sort of people who never have any money.
But you will find more honour and justice in our house than in the
house of the richest man. Maybe you have a few 'groschens' about
I took out a rouble and gave it to him. Naphtali took it in
the manner of a professor, with his two fingers. He called over Mother
Eve, turned away his eyes, and said to her:
Here! Buy something to eat.
Mother Eve took the rouble from him, but with both hands
and all her fingers, examined it on all sides, and asked her husband:
What shall I buy?
What you like, he answered, pretending not to care. Buy a few
rolls, two or three salt herring, and some dried sausage. And don't
forget an onion, vinegar and oil. Well, and a glass of brandy, say
When all these things were brought home and placed upon the table,
the family fell upon them with as much appetite as if they had just
ended a long fast. I was actually tempted by an evil spirit; and when
they asked me to take my place at the table I could not refuse. I do
not remember when I enjoyed a meal as much as I enjoyed the one at the
musician's house that day.
After they had eaten everything, Naphtali winked to the children
that they should take their instruments in their hands. And he treated
me, all over again to a piecehis own composition. This
composition was played with so much excitement and force that my ears
were deafened and my brain was stupefied. I left the house intoxicated
by Naphtali Bezborodka's composition. The whole day at
school, the teacher and the boys and the books were whirling round and
round in front of my eyes. And my ears were ringing with the echoes of
Naphtali's composition. At night I dreamt that I saw Paganini riding
on the Ashmodai, and that he banged me over the head with his fiddle. I
awoke with a scream, and a headache, and I began to pour out words as
from a sack. What I said I do not know. But my older sister, Pessel,
told me afterwards that I talked in heat, and that there was no
connection between any two words I uttered. I repeated some fantastic
namesComposition. Paganini, etc.... And there was another thing
my sister told me. During the time I was lying delirious, several
messages were sent from Naphtali the Musician to know how I was. There
came some barefoot boy who made many inquiries about me. He was driven
off, and was told never to dare to come near the house again....
What was the musician's boy doing here? asked my sister. And she
tormented me with questions. She wanted me to tell her. But I kept
repeating the same words:
I do not know. As I live, I do not know. How am I to know?
What does it look like? asked my mother. You are already a young
man, a grown-up manmay no evil eye harm you! They will be soon
looking for a bride for you, and you go about with fine friends,
barefoot young musicians. What business have you with musicians? What
was Naphtali the Musician's boy doing here?
What Naphtali? I asked, pretending not to understand. What
Just look at himthe saint! put in my father. He knows nothing
about anything. Poor thing! His soul is innocent before the Lord! When
I was your age I was already long betrothed. And he is still playing
with strange boys. Dress yourself, and go off to school. And if you
meet Hershel the Tax-collector, and he asks you what was the matter
with you, you are to tell him that you had the ague. Do you hear what I
am saying to you? The ague!
I could not for the life of me understand what business Hershel the
Tax-collector had with me. And for what reason was I to tell him I had
been suffering from the ague?... It was only a few weeks later that
this riddle was solved for me.
* * *
Hershel the Tax-collector was so called because he, and his
grandfather before him, had collected the taxes of the town. It was the
privilege of their family. He was a young man with a round little
belly, and a red little beard, and moist little eyes, and he had a
broad white forehead, a sure sign that he was a man of brains. And he
had the reputation in our town of being a fine, young man, a modern,
and a scholar. He had a sound knowledge of the Bible, and was a writer
of distinction. That is to say, he had a beautiful hand. They say that
his manuscripts were carried around and shown in the whole world. And
along with these qualities, he had money, and he had one little
daughteran only child, a girl with red hair and moist eyes. She and
her father, Hershel the Tax-collector, were as like as two drops of
water. Her name was Esther, but she was called by the nickname of
Plesteril. She was nervous and genteel. She was as frightened of us,
schoolboys, as of the Angel of Death, because we used to torment her.
We used to tease her and sing little songs about her:
Why have you no little sister?
Well, after all, what is there in these words? Nothing, of course.
Nevertheless, whenever Plesteril heard them, she used to cover up her
ears, run home crying, and hide herself away in the farthest of far
corners. And, for several days, she was afraid to go out in the street.
But that was once on a time, when she was still a child. Now she is
a young woman, and is counted amongst the grown-ups. Her hair was tied
up in a red plait, and she was dressed like a bride, in the latest
fashions. My mother had a high opinion of her. She could never praise
her enough, and called her a quiet dove. Sometimes, on the Sabbath
Esther came into our house, to see my sister Pessel. And when she saw
me, she grew redder than ever, and dropped her eyes. At the same time,
my sister Pessel would call me over to ask me something, and also to
look into my eyes as she looked into Esther's.
And it came to pass that, on a certain day, there came into my
school my father and Hershel the Tax-collector. And after them came
Shalom-Shachno the Matchmakera Jew who had six fingers, and a curly
black beard, and who was terribly poor. Seeing such visitors, our
teacher, Reb Zorach, pulled on his long coat, and put his hat
on his head. And because of his great excitement, one of his earlocks
got twisted up behind his ear. His hat got creased; and more than half
of his little round cap was left sticking out at the back of his head,
from under his hat; and one of his cheeks began to blaze. One could see
that something extraordinary was going to happen.
Of late, Reb Shalom-Shachno the Matchmaker had started
coming into the school a little too often. He always called the teacher
outside, where they stood talking together for some minutes, whispering
and getting excited. The matchmaker gesticulated with his hands, and
shrugged his shoulders. He always finished up with a sigh, and said:
Well, it's the same story again. If it is destined it will probably
take place. How can we know anythinghow?
When the visitors came in, our teacher, Reb Zorach, did not
know what to do, or where he was to seat them. He took hold of the
kitchen stool on which his wife salted the meat, and first of all spun
round and round with it several times, and went up and down the whole
length of the room. After this, he barely managed to place the stool on
the floor when he sat down on it himself. But he at once jumped up
again, greatly confused; and he caught hold of the back pocket of his
long coat, just as if he had lost a purse of money.
Here is a stool. Sit down, he said to his visitors.
It's all right! Sit down, sit down, said my father to him. We
have come in to you, 'Reb' Zorach, only for a minute. This
gentleman wants to examine my sonto see what he knows of the Bible.
And my father pointed to Hershel the Tax-collector.
Oh, by all means! Why not? answered the teacher, Reb
Zorach. He took up a little Bible, and handed it to Hershel the
Tax-collector. The expression on his face was as if he were saying:
Here it is for you, and do what you like.
Hershel the Tax-collector took the Bible in his hand like a man who
knows thoroughly what he is doing. He twisted his little head to one
side, closed one eye, turned and turned the pages, and gave me to read
the first chapter of the Song of Songs.
Is it the 'Song of Songs'? asked my teacher, with a faint smile,
as if he would say: Could you find nothing more difficult?
The 'Song of Songs,' replied Hershel the Tax-collector. The 'Song
of Songs' is not as easy as you imagine. One must undehstand the 'Song
of Songs.' (Hershel could not pronounce the letter R but said H.)
Certainly, put in Shalom-Shachno, with a little laugh.
The teacher gave me a wink. I went over to the table, shook myself
to and fro for a minute, and began to chant the Song of Songs to a
beautiful melody, first introducing this commentary on it:
The 'Song of Songs'a song above all songs! All other songs have
been sung by prophets, but this 'Song' has been sung by a prophet who
was the son of a prophet. All other songs have been sung by men of
wisdom, but this 'Song' has been sung by a man of wisdom who was the
son of a man of wisdom. All other songs have been sung by kings, but
this 'Song' has been sung by a king who was the son of a king.
Whilst I was singing, I glanced quickly at my audience. And on each
face I could see a different expression. On my father's face I could
see pride and pleasure. On my teacher's face were fear and anxiety,
lest, God forbid! I should make a mistake, or commit errors in reading.
His lips, in silence, repeated every word after me. Hershel the
Tax-collector sat with his head a little to one side, the ends of his
yellow beard in his mouth, one little eye closed, the other staring up
at the ceiling. He was listening with the air of a great, great judge.
Reb Shalom-Shachno the Matchmaker never took his eyes off
Hershel for a single minute. He sat with half his body leaning forward,
shaking himself to and fro, as I did. And he could not restrain himself
from interrupting me many times by an exclamation, a little laugh and a
cough, all in one breath, as he waved his double-jointed finger in the
When people say that he knowsthen he knows!
A few days after this, plates were broken, and in a fortunate hour,
I was betrothed to Hershel the Tax-collector's only daughter,
* * *
It sometimes happens that a man grows in one day more than anybody
else grows in ten years. When I was betrothed, I, all at once, began to
feel that I was a grown-up. Surely I was the same as before, and yet
I was not the same. From my smallest comrade to my teacher Reb
Zorach, everybody now began to look upon me with more respect. After
all, I was a bridegroom-elect, and had a watch. And my father also gave
up shouting at me. Of smacks there is no need to say anything. How
could any one take hold of a bridegroom-elect who had a gold watch, and
smack his face for him? It would be a disgrace before the whole world,
and a shame for one's own self. It is true that it once happened that a
bridegroom-elect named Eli was flogged at our school, because he had
been caught sliding on the ice with the Gentile boys of the town. But
for that again, the whole town made a fine business of the flogging
afterwards. When the scandal reached the ears of Eli's betrothed, she
cried so much until the marriage contract was sent back to the
bridegroom-elect, to Eli, that is. And through grief and shame, he
would have thrown himself into the river, but that the water was
Nearly as bad a misfortune happened to me. But it was not because I
got a flogging, and not because I went sliding on the ice. It was
because of a fiddle.
And here is the story for you:
At our wine-shop we had a frequent visitor, Tchitchick, the
bandmaster, whom we used to call Mr. Sergeant. He was a tall,
powerful man with a big round beard and terrifying eyebrows. And he
talked a curiously mixed-up jargon composed of several languages. When
he talked, he moved his eyebrows up and down. When he lowered his
eyebrows, his face was black as night. When he raised them up, his face
was bright as day. And this was because, under these same thick
eyebrows he had a pair of kindly, smiling light blue eyes. He wore a
uniform with gilt buttons, and that is why he was called at our place
Mr. Sergeant. He was a very frequent visitor at our wine-shop. Not
because he was a drunkard. God forbid! But for the simple reason that
my father was very clever at making from raisins the best and finest
Hungarian wine. Tchitchick used to love this wine. He never ceased
from praising it. He used to put his big, terrifying hand on my
father's shoulder, and say to him:
Mr. Cellarer, you have the best Hungarian wine. There isn't such
wine in Buda Pesth, by God!
With me Tchitchick was always on the most intimate terms. He praised
me for learning such a lot at school. He often examined me to see if I
knew who Adam was. And who was Isaac? And who was Joseph?
Yousef? I asked him, in Yiddish. Do you mean Yousef the Saint?
Joseph, he repeated.
Yousef, I corrected him, once again.
With us it's Joseph. With you it's Youdsef, he said to me, and
pinched my cheek. Joseph, Youdsef, Youdsef, Dsodsepfwhat does it
matter? It is all the same.
Ha! ha! ha!
I buried my face in my hands, and laughed heartily.
But from the day I became a bridegroom-elect, Tchitchick gave up
playing with me as if I were a clown; and he began to talk to me as if
I were his equal. He told me stories of the regiment and of musicians.
Mr. Sergeant had a tremendous lot of talk in him. But no one else
excepting myself had the time to listen to him. On one occasion he
began to talk to me of playing. And I asked him:
On which instrument does 'Mr. Sergeant' play?
On all instruments, he answered, and raised his eyebrows at me.
On the fiddle, also? I asked him. And all at once he took on, in
my imagination, the face of an angel.
Come over to me some day, he said, and I will play for you.
When can I come to you Mr. Sargeant, if not on the Sabbath day? I
asked. But I can only come on condition that no-one knows anything
about it. Can you promise that?
As I serve God, he exclaimed, and lifted his eyebrows at me.
Tchitchick lived far out of town. In a little white house that had
tidy windows and painted shutters. Leading up to it, there was a big
green garden from out of which peeked proudly a number of tall, yellow
sunflowers. As if they were something important. They bent their heads
a little to one side and shook themselves to and fro. It seemed to me
that they were calling out to me, Come over here to us, boy. There
is grass here. There is freedom here. There is light here. It is fresh
here. It is warm here. It is pleasant here. And after the stench and
heat and dust of the town, and after the overcrowding and the noise and
the tumult of the school, one was indeed glad to get here because there
is grass here. It is fresh here. It is bright here. It is warm here. It
is pleasant here. One longs to run, leap shout and sing. Or else one
wants suddenly to throw oneself on the bear earth. To bury one's face
in the green sweet smelling grass.
But alas, this is not for you Jewish children. Yellow sunflowers,
green leaves, fresh air, pure earth or a clear day. Do not be offended
Jewish children. But all these have not grown up out of your rubbish.
I was met by a big, shaggy-haired dog with red, fiery eyes. He fell
upon me with so much fierceness that the soul almost dropped out of my
body. It was fortunate that he was tied up with a rope.
On hearing my screams, Tchitchick flew out without his jacket and
began ordering the dog to be silent. And he was silent.
Afterwards, Tchitchick took hold of my hand, led me straight to the
black dog and told me not to be afraid. He would not harm me.
Just try and pat him on the back, said Tchitchick to me. And
without waiting, took hold of my hand and drew it all over the dog's
skin. At the same time calling him many curious names and speaking kind
words to him.
The black villain lowered his head, wagged his tail and licked
himself with his tongue. He threw at me a glance of contempt. As if he
would say, It's lucky for you that my master is standing beside you.
Otherwise you would have gone from here without a hand.
I got over my terror of the dog. I entered the house with Mr.
Sargeant and I was struck dumb with astonishment. All the walls were
covered with guns. From top to bottom. And on the floor lay a skin with
the head of a lion or a leopard. It had terribly sharp teeth. But the
lion was half an evil. After all, it was dead. But the guns. The guns!
I did not even care about the fresh plums and the apples which the
master of the house offered me out of his own garden. My eyes did not
cease leaping from one wall to the other.... But later on, when
Tchitchick took a little fiddle out of a red drawera beautiful, round
little fiddle, with a curious little belly, let his big spreading beard
droop over it, and held it with his big strong hands, and drew the bow
across the strings a few times, backwards and forwards, I forgot, in
the blinking of an eye, the black dog and the terrible lion, and the
loaded guns. I only saw before me Tchitchick's spreading beard and his
black, lowered eyebrows. I only saw a round little fiddle with a
curious little belly, and fingers which danced over the strings so
rapidly that no human brain could answer the questions which arose to
my mind: Where does one get so many fingers?
Presently, Tchitchick and his spreading beard, vanished, along with
his thick eyebrows and his wonderful fingers. And I saw nothing at all
before me. I only heard a singing, a groaning, a weeping, a sobbing, a
talking, and a growling. They were extraordinary, peculiar sounds that
I heard, the like of which I had never heard before, in all my life.
Sounds sweet as honey, and smooth as oil were pouring themselves right
into my heart, without ceasing. And my soul went off somewhere far from
the little house, into another world, into a Garden of Eden which was
nothing else but beautiful soundswhich was one mass of singing, from
beginning to end....
Do you want some tea? asked Tchitchick of me, putting down the
little fiddle, and slapping me on the shoulder.
I felt as if I had fallen down from the seventh heaven on to the
From that day I visited Tchitchick regularly every Sabbath
afternoon, to hear him playing the fiddle. I went straight to the
house. I was afraid of no one; and I even became such good friends with
the black dog that, when he saw me, he wagged his tail, and wanted to
fall upon me to lick my hands. I would not let him do this. Let us
rather be good friends from the distance.
At home not even a bird knew where I spent the Sabbath afternoons. I
was a bridegroom-elect, after all. And no one would have known of my
visits to Tchitchick to this day, if a new misfortune had not befallen
mea great misfortune, of which I will now tell you.
* * *
Surely it is no one's affair if a Jewish young man goes for a walk
on the Sabbath afternoon a little beyond the town? Have people really
got nothing better to do than to think of others and look after them to
see where they are going? But of what use are such questions as these?
It lies in our nature, in the Jewish nature, I mean, to look well after
every one else, to criticize others and advise them. For example, a Jew
will go over to his neighbour, at prayers, and straighten out the
Frontispiece of his phylacteries. Or he will stop his neighbour, who
is running with the greatest haste and excitement, to tell him that the
leg of his trouser is turned up. Or he will point his finger at his
neighbour, so that the other shall not know what is amiss with him,
whether it is his nose, or his beard, or what the deuce is wrong with
him. Or a Jew will take a thing out of his neighbour's hand, when the
other is struggling to open it, and will say to him: You don't know
how. Let me. Or should he see his neighbour building a house, he will
come over to look for a fault in it. He says he believes the ceiling is
too high, the rooms are too small, or the windows are awkwardly large.
And there seems nothing else left the builder to do but scatter the
house to pieces, and start it all over again.... We Jews have been
distinguished by this habit of interfering from time immemorialfrom
the very first day on which the world was created. And you and I
between us will never alter the world full of Jews. It is not our duty
to even attempt it....
After this long introduction, it will be easy for you to understand
how Ephraim Log-of-wooda Jew who was a black stranger to me, and who
did not care a button for any of usshould poke his nose into my
affairs. He sniffed and smelled my tracks, and found out where I went
on Sabbath afternoons, and got me into trouble. He swore that he
himself saw me eating forbidden food at the house of Mr. Sergeant,
and that I was smoking a cigarette on the Sabbath. May I see myself
enjoying all that is good! he cried. If it is not as I say, may I
never get to the place where I am going, he said. And if I am
uttering the least word of falsehood, may my mouth be twisted to one
side, and may my two eyes drop out of my head, he added.
Amen! May it be so, I cried.
And I caught from my father another smack in the face. I must not be
insolent, he told me....
But I imagine I am rushing along too quickly with my story. I am
giving you the soup before the fish. I was forgetting entirely to tell
you who Ephraim Log-of-wood was, and what he was, and how the incident
At the end of the town, on the other side of the bridge, there lived
a Jew named Ephraim Log-of-wood. Why was he called Log-of-wood? Because
he had once dealt in timber. And today he is not dealing in timber
because something happened to him. He said it was libel, a false
accusation. People found at his place a strange log of wood with a
strange name branded on it. And he had a fine lot of trouble after
that. He had a case, and he had appeals, and he had to send petitions.
He just managed to escape from being put into prison. From that time,
he threw away all trading, and betook himself to looking after public
matters. He pushed himself into all institutions, the tax-collecting,
and the work done at the House of Learning. Generally speaking, he was
not so well off. He was often put to shame publicly. But as time went
on, he insinuated himself into everybody's bones. He gave people to
understand that He knew where a door was opening. And in the course
of time, Ephraim became a useful person, a person it was hard to do
without. That is how a worm manages to crawl into an apple. He makes
himself comfortable, makes a soft bed for himself, makes himself a
home, and in time becomes the real master of the house.
In person, Ephraim was a tiny little man. He had short little legs,
and small little hands, and red little cheeks, and a quick walk which
was a sort of a little dance. And he tossed his little head about. His
speech was rapid, and his voice squeaky. And he laughed with a curious
little laugh which sounded like the rattling of dried peas. I could not
bear to look at him, I don't know why. Every Sabbath afternoon, when I
was going to Tchitchick's, I used to meet Ephraim on the bridge,
walking along, in a black, patched cloak, the sleeves of which hung
loosely over his shoulders. His hands were folded in front of him, and
he was singing in his thin little voice. And the ends of his long cloak
kept dangling at his heels.
A good Sabbath, I said to him.
A good Sabbath, he replied. And where is a boy going?
Just for a walk, I said.
For a walk? All alone? he asked. And he looked straight into my
eyes with such a little smile that it was hard to guess what he meant
by itwhether he thought that it was very brave of me to be walking
all alone or not. Was it, in his opinion, a wise thing to do, or a
* * *
On one occasion, when I was going to Tchitchick's house, I noticed
that Ephraim Log-of-wood was looking at me very curiously. I stopped on
the bridge and gazed into the water. Ephraim also stopped on the
bridge, and he also gazed into the water. I started to go back. He
followed me. I turned round again, to go forward, and he also turned
round in the same direction. A few minutes later, he was lost to me.
When I was sitting at Tchitchick's table, drinking tea, we heard the
black dog barking loudly at some one, and tearing at his rope. We
looked out of the window, and I imagined I saw a low-sized, black
figure with short little legs, running, running. Then it disappeared
from view. From his manner of running, I could have sworn the little
creature was Ephraim Log-of-wood.
And thus it came to pass
I came home late that Sabbath evening. It was already after the
Havdalah. My face was burning. And I found Ephraim Log-of-wood
sitting at the table. He was talking very rapidly, and was laughing
with his curious little laugh. When he saw me, he was silent. He
started drumming on the table with his short little fingers. Opposite
him sat my father. His face was death-like. He was pulling at his
beard, tearing out the hairs one by one. This was a sure sign that he
was in a temper.
Where have you come from? my father asked of me and looked at
Where am I to come from? said I.
How do I know where you are to come from? said he. You tell me
where you have come from. You know better than I.
From the House of Learning, said I.
And where were you the whole day? said he.
Where could I be? said I.
How do I know? said he. You tell me. You know better than I.
At the House of Learning, said I.
What were you doing at the House of Learning? said he.
What should I be doing at the House of Learning? said I.
Do I know what you could be doing there? said he.
I was learning, said I.
What were you learning? said he.
What should I learn? said I.
Do I know what you should learn? said he.
I was learning 'Gemarra' were you learning? said he.
What 'Gemarra' should I learn? said I.
Do I know what 'Gemarra' you should learn? said he.
I learnt the 'Gemarra', 'Shabos', said I.
At this Ephraim Log-of-wood burst out laughing in his rattling
little laugh. And it seemed that my father could bear no more. He
jumped up from his seat and delivered me two resounding fiery boxes on
the ears. Stars flew before my eyes. My mother heard my shouts from the
other room. She flew into us with a scream.
Nahum! The Lord be with you! What are you doing? A young mana
bridegroom-elect! Just before his wedding! Bethink yourself! If her
father gets to know of thisGod forbid!
* * *
My mother was right. The girl's father got to know the whole story.
Ephraim Log-of-wood went off himself and told it to him. And in this
way Ephraim had his revenge of Hershel the Tax-collector; for the two
had always been at the point of sticking knives into one another.
* * *
Next day I got back the marriage-contract and the presents which had
been given to the bride-elect. And I was no longer a bridegroom-elect.
This grieved my father so deeply that he fell into a very serious
illness. He was bedridden for a long time. He would not let me come
near him. He refused to look into my face. All my mother's tears and
arguments and explanations and her defence of me were of no use at all.
The disgrace, said my father, the disgrace of it is worse than
May it turn out to be a real, true sacrifice for us all, said my
mother to him. The Lord will have to send us another bride-elect. What
can we do? Shall we take our own lives? Perhaps it is not his destiny
to marry this girl.
Amongst those who came to visit my father in his illness was
Tchitchick the bandmaster.
When my father saw him, he took off his little round cap, sat up in
his bed, stretched out his hand to him, looked straight into his eyes
Oh, 'Mr. Sergeant!' 'Mr. Sergeant!'
He could not utter another sound, because he was smothered by his
tears and his cough....
This was the first time in my life that I saw my father crying. His
tears gripped hold of my heart, and chilled me to the very soul.
I stood and looked out of the window, swallowing my tears in
silence. At that moment, I was heartily sorry for all the mischief I
had done. I cried within myself, from the very depths of my heart,
beating my breast: I have sinned. And within myself, I vowed solemnly
to myself that I would never, never anger my father again, and never,
never cause him any pain.
No more fiddle!
TO MY DEAR SON,
I send you'roubles,' and beg of you, my dear son, to
do me the
favour, and come home for the Passover Festival. It is a
to me in my old age. We have one son, an only child, and we
worthy to see him. Your mother also asks me to beg of you to
sure to come home for the Passover. And you must know that
to be congratulated. She is now betrothed. And if the Lord
it, she is going to be married on the Sabbath after the Feast
This is the letter my father wrote to me. For the first time a sharp
letterfor the first time in all those years since we had parted. And
we had parted from one another, father and I, in silence, without
quarrelling. I had acted in opposition to his wishes. I would not go
his road, but my own road. I went abroad to study. At first my father
was angry. He said he would never forgive me. Later, he began to send
I send you'roubles,' he used to write, and your mother
sends you her heartiest greetings.
Short, dry letters he wrote me. And my replies to him were also
short and dry:
I have received your letter with the'roubles.' I thank
you, and I send my mother my heartiest greetings.
Cold, terribly cold were our letters to one another. Who had time to
realize where I found myself in the world of dreams in which I lived?
But now my father's letter woke me up. Not so much his complaint that
it was a shame I should have left him alone in his old agethat it was
a disgrace for him that his only son should be away from him. I will
confess it that this did not move me so much. Neither did my mother's
pleadings with me that I should have pity on her and come home for the
Passover Festival. Nothing took such a strong hold of me as the last
few lines of my father's letter. And you must know that Busie is to be
Busie! The same Busie who has no equal anywhere on earth, excepting
in the Song of Songsthe same Busie who is bound up with my life,
whose childhood is interwoven closely with my childhoodthe same Busie
who always was to me the bewitched Queen's Daughter of all my wonderful
fairy talesthe most wonderful princess of my golden dreamsthis same
Busie is now betrothed, is going to be married on the Sabbath after the
Feast of Weeks? Is it true that she is going to be married, and not to
me, but to some one else?
* * *
Who is Busiewhat is she? Oh, do you not know who Busie is? Have
you forgotten? Then I will tell you her biography all over again,
briefly, and in the very same words I used when telling it you once on
a time, years ago.
I had an older brother, Benny. He was drowned. He left after him a
water-mill, a young widow, two horses, and one child. The mill was
neglected; the horses were sold; the young widow married again and went
away somewhere, far; and the child was brought home to our house.
That child was Busie.
And Busie was beautiful as the lovely Shulamite of the Song of
Songs. Whenever I saw Busie I thought of the Shulamite of the Song of
Songs. And whenever I read the Song of Songs Busie's image came up
and stood before me.
Her name is the short for Esther-Liba: Libusa: Busie. She grew up
together with me. She called my father father, and my mother
mother. Everybody thought that we were sister and brother. And we
grew up together as if we were sister and brother. And we loved one
another as if we were sister and brother.
Like a sister and a brother we played together, and we hid in a
cornerwe two; and I used to tell her the fairy tales I learnt at
schoolthe tales which were told me by my comrade Sheika, who knew
everything, even Kaballa. I told her that by means of
Kaballa, I could do wonderful tricksdraw wine from a stone, and
gold from a wall. By means of Kaballa, I told her, I could
manage that we two should rise up into the clouds, and even higher than
the clouds. Oh, how she loved to hear me tell my stories! There was
only one story which Busie did not like me to tellthe story of the
Queen's Daughter, the princess who had been bewitched, carried off from
under the wedding canopy, and put into a palace of crystal for seven
years. And I said that I was flying off to set her free.... Busie loved
to hear every tale excepting that one about the bewitched Queen's
Daughter whom I was flying off to set free.
You need not fly so far. Take my advice, you need not.
This is what Busie said to me, fixing on my face her beautiful blue
Song of Songs eyes.
That is who and what Busie is.
And now my father writes me that I must congratulate Busie. She is
betrothed, and will be married on the Sabbath after the Feast of Weeks.
She is some one's bridesome one else's, not mine!
I sat down and wrote a letter to my father, in answer to his.
TO MY HONOURED AND DEAR FATHER,
I have received your letter with the'roubles.' In a
as soon as I am ready, I will go home, in time for the first
of the Passover Festivalor perhaps for the latter days. But
will surely come home. I send my heartiest greetings to my
And to Busie I send my congratulations. I wish her joy and
It was a lie. I had nothing to get ready; nor was there any need for
me to wait a few days. The same day on which I received my father's
letter and answered it, I got on the train and flew home. I arrived
home exactly on the day before the Festival, on a warm, bright Passover
I found the village exactly as I had left it, once on a time, years
ago. It was not changed by a single hair. Not a detail of it was
different. It was the same village. The people were the same. The
Passover eve was the same, with all its noise and hurry and flurry and
bustle. And out of doors it was also the same Passover eve as when I
had been at home, years ago.
There was only one thing missingthe Song of Songs. No; nothing
of the Song of Songs existed any longer. It was not now as it had
been, once on a time, years ago. Our yard was not any more King
Solomon's vineyard, of the Song of Songs. The wood and the logs and
the boards that lay scattered around the house were no longer the
cedars and the fir trees. The cat that was stretched out before the
door, warming herself in the sun, was no more a young hart, or a roe,
such as one comes upon in the Song of Songs. The hill on the other
side of the synagogue was no more the Mountain of Lebanon. It was no
more one of the Mountains of Spices.... The young women and girls who
were standing out of doors, washing and scrubbing and making everything
clean for the Passoverthey were not any more the Daughters of
Jerusalem of whom mention is made in the Song of Songs. ... What has
become of my Song of Songs world that was, at one time, so fresh and
clear and brightthe world that was as fragrant as though filled with
* * *
I found my home exactly as I had left it, years before. It was not
altered by a hair. It was not different in the least detail. My father,
too, was the same. Only his silvery-white beard had become a little
more silvery. His broad white wrinkled forehead was now a little more
wrinkled. This was probably because of his cares.... And my mother was
the same as when I saw her last. Only her ruddy cheeks were now
slightly sallow. And I imagined she had grown smaller, shorter and
thinner. Perhaps I only imagined this because she was now slightly
bent. And her eyes were slightly enflamed, and had little puffy bags
under them, as if they were swollen. Was it from weeping, perhaps?...
For what reason had my mother been weeping? For whom? Was it for me,
her only son who had acted in opposition to his father's wishes? Was it
because I would not go the same road as my father, but took my own
road, and went off to study, and did not come home for such a long
time?... Or did my mother weep for Busie, because she was getting
married on the Sabbath after the Feast of Weeks?
Ah, Busie! She was not changed by so much as a hair. She was not
different in the least detail. She had only grown upgrown up and also
grown more beautiful than she had been, more lovely. She had grown up
exactly as she had promised to grow, tall and slender, and ripe, and
full of grace. Her eyes were the same blue Song of Songs eyes, but
more thoughtful than in the olden times. They were more thoughtful and
more dreamy, more careworn and more beautiful Song of Songs eyes than
ever. And the smile on her lips was friendly, loving, homely and
affectionate. She was quiet as a dovequiet as a virgin.
When I looked at the Busie of today, I was reminded of the Busie of
the past. I recalled to mind Busie in her new little holiday frock
which my mother had made for her, at that time, for the Passover. I
remembered the new little shoes which my father had bought for her, at
that time, for the Passover. And when I remembered the Busie of the
past, there came back to me, without an effort on my part, all over
again, phrase by phrase, and chapter by chapter, the long-forgotten
Song of Songs.
Thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of
goats, that appear from mount Gilead.
Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which come
up from the washing: whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely:
thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.
I look at Busie, and once again everything is as in the Song of
Songs, just as it was in the past, once on a time, years before.
* * *
Busie, am I to congratulate you?
She does not hear me. But why does she lower her eyes? And why have
her cheeks turned scarlet? No, I must bid her joyI must!
I congratulate you, Busie.
May you live in happiness, she replies.
And that is all. I could ask her nothing. And to talk with her?
There was nowhere where I might do that. My father would not let me
talk with her. My mother hindered me. Our relatives prevented it. The
rest of the family, the friends, neighbours and acquaintances who
flocked into the house to welcome me, one coming and one goingthey
would not let me talk with Busie either. They all stood around me. They
all examined me, as if I were a bear, or a curious creature from
another world. Everybody wanted to see and hear meto know how I was
getting on, and what I was doing. They had not seen me for such a long
Tell us something new. What have you seen? What have you heard?
And I told them the newsall that I had seen and all that I had
heard. At the same time I was looking at Busie. I was searching for her
eyes. And I met her eyesher big, deep, careworn, thoughtful,
beautiful blue Song of Songs eyes. But her eyes were dumb, and she
herself was dumb. Her eyes told me nothingnothing at all. And there
arose to my memory the words I had learnt in the past, the Song of
Songs sentence by sentence
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse: a spring shut up, a
* * *
And a storm arose within my brain, and a fire began to burn within
my heart. This terrible fire did not rage against anybody, only against
myselfagainst myself and against my dreams of the pastthe foolish,
boyish, golden dreams for the sake of which I had left my father and my
mother. Because of those dreams I had forgotten Busie. Because of them
I had sacrificed a great, great part of my life; and because of them,
and through them I had lost my happinesslost it, lost it for ever!
Lost it for ever? No, it cannot beit cannot be! Have I not come
backhave I not returned in good time?... If only I could manage to
talk with Busie, all alone with her! If only I could get to say a few
words to her. But how could I speak with her, all alone, the few words
I longed to speak, when everybody was presentwhen the people were all
crowding around me? They were all examining me as if I were a bear, or
a curious creature from another world. Everybody wanted to see and hear
meto know how I was getting on, and what I was doing. They had not
seen me for such a long time!
More intently than any one else was my father listening to me. He
had a Holy Book open in front of him, as always. His broad forehead was
wrinkled up, as always. He was looking at me from over his silver
spectacles, and was stroking the silver strands of his silvery-white
beard, as always. And I imagined that he was looking at me with other
eyes than he used to look. No, it was not the same look as always. He
was reproaching me. I felt that my father was offended with me. I had
acted contrary to his wishes. I had refused to go his road, and had
taken a road of my own choosing....
My mother, too, was standing close behind me. She came out of the
kitchen. She left all her work, the preparations for the Passover, and
she was listening to me with tears in her eyes. Though her face was
still smiling, she wiped her eyes in secret with the corners of her
apron. She was listening to me attentively. She was staring right into
my mouth; and she was swallowing, yes, swallowing every word that I
And Busie also stood over against me. Her hands were folded on her
bosom. And she was listening to me just as the others were. Along with
them, she was staring right into my mouth. I looked at Busie. I tried
to read what was in her eyes; but I could read nothing there, nothing
at all, nothing at all.
Tell more. Why have you grown silent? my father asked me.
Leave him alone. Did you ever see the like? put in my mother
hastily. The child is tired. The child is hungry, and he goes on
saying to him: 'Tell! Tell! Tell! And tell!'
* * *
The people began to go away by degrees. And we found ourselves
alone, my father and my mother, Busie and I. My mother went off to the
kitchen. In a few minutes she came back, carrying in her hand a
beautiful Passover platea plate I knew well. It was surrounded by a
design of big green fig leaves.
Perhaps you would like something to eat, Shemak? It is a long time
to wait until the 'Seder.'
That is what my mother said to me, and with so much affection, so
much loyalty and so much passionate devotion. And Busie got up, and
with silent footfalls, brought me a knife and forkthe well-known
Passover knife and fork. Everything was familiar to me. Nothing was
changed, nor different by a hair. It was the same plate with the big
green fig leaves; the same knife and fork with the white bone handles.
The same delicious odour of melted goose-fat came in to me from the
kitchen; and the fresh Passover cake had the same Garden-of-Eden taste.
Nothing was changed by a hair. Nothing was different in the least
Only, in the olden times, we ate together on the Passover eve, Busie
and I, off the same plate. I remember that we ate off the same
beautiful Passover plate that was surrounded by a design of big green
fig leaves. And, at that time, my mother gave us nuts. I remember how
she filled our pockets with nuts. And, at that time, we took hold of
one another's hands, Busie and I. And I remember that we let ourselves
go, in the open. We flew like eagles. I ran; she ran after me. I leaped
over the logs of wood; she leaped after me. I was up; she was up. I was
down; she was down.
Shemak! How long are we going to run, Shemak?
So said Busie to me. And I answered her in the words of the Song of
Songs: Until the day break, and the shadows flee away.
* * *
This was once on a time, years ago. Now Busie is grown up. She is
big. And I also am grown up. I also am big. Busie is betrothed. She is
betrothed to some oneto some one else, and not to me.... And I want
to be alone with Busie. I want to speak a few words with her. I want to
hear her voice. I want to say to her, in the words of the Song of
Songs: Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice.
And I imagine that her eyes are answering my unspoken words, also in
the words of the Song of Songs. Come, my beloved, let us go forth
into the fields; let us lodge in the villages.
Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine
flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud
forth: there will I give thee my loves.
I snatched a glimpse through the window to see what was going on out
of doors. Ah, how lovely it was! How beautiful! How fragrant of the
Passover! How like the Song of Songs! It was a sin to be indoors.
Soon the day would be at an end. Lower and lower sank the sun, painting
the sky the colour of guinea-gold. The gold was reflected in Busie's
eyes. They were bathed in gold. Soon, soon, the day would be dead. And
I would have no time to say a single word to Busie. The whole day was
spent in talking idly with my father and my mother, my relatives and
friends, telling them of all that I had heard, and all that I had seen.
I jumped up, and went over to the window. I looked out of it. As I was
passing her, I said quickly to Busie:
Perhaps we should go out for a while? It is so long since I was at
home. I want to see everything. I want to have a look at the village.
* * *
Can you tell me what was the matter with Busie? Her cheeks were at
once enflamed. They burned with a great fire. She was as red as the sun
that was going down in the west. She threw a glance at my father. I
imagined she wanted to hear what my father would say. And my father
looked at my mother, over his silver spectacles. He stroked the silver
strands of his silvery-white beard, and said casually, to no one in
The sun is setting. It's time to put on our Festival garments, and
to go into the synagogue to pray. It is time to light the Festival
candles. What do you say?
No! It seemed that I was not going to get the chance of saying
anything to Busie that day. We went off to change our garments. My
mother had finished her work. She had put on her new silk Passover
gown. Her white hands gleamed. No one has such beautiful white hands as
my mother. Soon she will make the blessing over the Festival candles.
She will cover her eyes with her snow-white hands and weep silently, as
she used to do once on a time, years ago. The last lingering rays of
the setting sun will play on her beautiful, transparent white hands. No
one has such beautiful, white transparent hands as my mother.
But what is the matter with Busie? The light has gone out of her
face just as it is going out of the sun that is slowly setting in the
west, and as it is going out of the day that is slowly dying. But she
is beautiful, and graceful as never before. And there is a deep sadness
in her beautiful blue Song of Songs eyes. They are very thoughtful,
are Busie's eyes.
What is Busie thinking of now? Of the loving guest for whom she had
waited, and who had come flying home so unexpectedly, after a long,
long absence from home?... Or is she thinking of her mother, who
married again, and went off somewhere far, and who forgot that she had
a daughter whose name was Busie?... Or is Busie now thinking of her
betrothed, her affianced husband whom, probably, my father and mother
were compelling her to marry against her own inclinations?... Or is she
thinking of her marriage that is going to take place on the Sabbath
after the Feast of Weeks, to a man she does not know, and does not
understand? Who is he, and what is he?... Or, perhaps, on the contrary,
I am mistaken? Perhaps she is counting the days from the Passover to
the Feast of Weeks, until the Sabbath after the Feast of Weeks, because
the man she is going to marry on that day is her chosen, her dearest,
her beloved? He will lead her under the wedding canopy. To him she will
give all her heart, and all her love. And to me? Alas! Woe is me! To me
she is no more than a sister. She always was to me a sister, and always
will be.... And I imagine that she is looking at me with pity and with
regret, and that she is saying to me, as she said to me, once on a
time, years ago, in the words of the Song of Songs:
O that thou wert as my brother.
Why are you not my brother?
What answer can I make her to these unspoken words? I know what I
should like to say to her. Only let me get the chance to say a few
words to her, no more than a few.
No! I shall not be able to speak a single word with Busie this
daynor even half a word. Now she is rising from her chair. She is
going with light, soft footfalls to the cupboard. She is getting the
candles ready for my mother, fixing them into the silver candlesticks.
How well I know these silver candlesticks! They played a big part in my
golden, boyish dreams of the bewitched Queen's Daughter whom I was
going to rescue from the palace of crystal. The golden dreams, and the
silver candlesticks, and the Sabbath candles, and my mother's
beautiful, white transparent hands, and Busie's beautiful blue Song of
Songs eyes, and the last rays of the sun that is going down in the
westare they not all one and the same, bound together and interwoven
Ta! exclaimed my father, looking out of the window, and winking to
me that it was high time to change and go into the synagogue to pray.
And we changed our garments, my father and I, and we went into the
synagogue to say our prayers.
* * *
Our synagogue, our old, old synagogue was not changed either, not by
so much as a hair. Not a single detail was different. Only the walls
had become a little blacker; the reader's desk was older; the curtain
before the Holy Ark had drooped lower; and the Holy Ark itself had lost
its polish, its newness.
Once on a time, our synagogue had appeared in my eyes like a small
copy of King Solomon's Temple. Now the small temple was leaning
slightly to one side. Ah, what has become of the brilliance, and the
holy splendour of our little old synagogue? Where now are the angels
which used to flutter about, under the carved wings of the Holy Ark on
Friday evenings, when we were reciting the prayers in welcome of the
Sabbath, and on Festival evenings when we were reciting the beautiful
And the members of the congregation were also very little changed.
They were only grown a little older. Black beards were now grey.
Straight shoulders were stooped a little. The satin holiday coats that
I knew so well were more threadbare, shabbier. White threads were to be
seen in them and yellow stripes. Melech the Cantor sang as beautifully
as in the olden times, years ago. Only today his voice is a little
husky, and a new tone is to be heard in the old prayers he is chanting.
He weeps rather than sings the words. He mourns rather than prays. And
our rabbi? The old rabbi? He has not changed at all. He was like the
fallen snow when I saw him last, and today is like the fallen snow. He
is different only in one trifling respect. His hands are trembling. And
the rest of his body is also trembling, from old age, I should imagine.
Asreal the Beadlea Jew who had never had the least sign of a
beardwould have been exactly the same man as once on a time, years
before, if it were not for his teeth. He has lost every single tooth he
possessed; and with his fallen-in cheeks, he now looks much more like a
woman than a man. But for all that, he can still bang on the desk with
his open hand. True, it is not the same bang as once on a time. Years
ago, one was almost deafened by the noise of Asreal's hand coming down
on the desk. Today, it is not like that at all. It seems that he has
not any longer the strength he used to have. He was once a giant of a
Once on a time, years ago, I was happy in the little old synagogue;
I remember that I felt happy without an endwithout a limit! Here, in
the little synagogue, years ago, my childish soul swept about with the
angels I imagined were flying around the carved wings of the Holy Ark.
Here, in the little synagogue, once on a time, with my father and all
the other Jews, I prayed earnestly. And it gave me great pleasure,
* * *
And now, here I am again in the same old synagogue, praying with the
same old congregation, just as once on a time, years ago. I hear the
same Cantor singing the same melodies as before. And I am praying along
with the congregation. But my thoughts are far from the prayers. I keep
turning over the pages of my prayer-book idly, one page after the
other. AndI am not to blame for itI come upon the pages on which
are printed the Song of Songs. And I read:
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou are fair; thou hast
dove's eyes within thy locks.
I should like to pray with the congregation, as they are praying,
and as I used to pray, once on a time. But the words will not rise to
my lips. I turn over the pages of my prayer-book, one after the other,
andI am not to blame for itagain I turn up the Song of Songs, at
the fifth chapter.
I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse.
I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb
with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk.
But what am I talking about? What am I saying? The garden is not
mine. I shall not gather any myrrh, nor smell any spices. I shall eat
no honey, and drink no wine. The garden is not my garden. Busie is not
my betrothed. Busie is betrothed to some one elseto some one else,
and not to me.... And there rages within me a hellish fire. Not against
Busie. Not against anybody at all. No; only against myself alone.
Surely! How could I have stayed away from Busie for such a long time?
How could I have allowed itthat Busie should be taken away from me,
and given to some one else? Had she not written many letters to me,
often, and given me to understand that she hoped to see me shortly?...
Had I not myself promised to come home, and then put off going, from
one Festival to another, so many times until, at last, Busie gave up
writing to me?
* * *
Good 'Yom-Tov'! This is my son!
That was how my father introduced me to the men of the congregation
at the synagogue, after prayers. They examined me on all sides. They
greeted me with, Peace be unto you! and accepted my greeting, in
return, Unto you be peace! as if it were no more than their due.
This is my son....
That is your son? Here is a 'Peace be unto you!'
In my father's words, This is my son, there were many shades of
feeling, many meaningsjoy, and happiness, and reproach. One might
interpret the words as one liked. One might argue that he meant to say:
What do you think? This is really my son.
Or one might argue that he meant to say:
Just imagine itthis is my son!
I could feel for my father. He was deeply hurt. I had opposed his
wishes. I had not gone his road, but had taken a road of my own. And I
had caused him to grow old before his time. No; he had not forgiven me
yet. He did not tell me this. But his manner saved him the trouble of
explaining himself. I felt that he had not forgiven me yet. His eyes
told me everything. They looked at me reproachfully from over his
silver-rimmed spectacles, right into my heart. His soft sigh told me
that he had not forgiven me yetthe sigh which tore itself, from time
to time, out of his weak old breast....
We walked home from the synagogue together, in silence. We got home
later than any one else. The night had already spread her wings over
the heavens. Her shadow was slowly lowering itself over the earth. A
silent, warm, holy Passover night it wasa night full of secrets and
mysteries, full of wonder and beauty. The holiness of this night could
be felt in the air. It descended slowly from the dark blue sky.... The
stars whispered together in the mysterious voices of the night. And on
all sides of us, from the little Jewish houses came the words of the
Haggadah: We went forth from Egypt on this night.
With hasty, hasty steps I went towards home, on this night. And my
father barely managed to keep up with me. He followed after me like a
Why are you flying? he asked of me, scarcely managing to catch his
Ah, father, father! Do you not know that I have been compared with
a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of spices?... The time is
long for me, father, too long. The way is long for me, father, too
long. When Busie is betrothed to some oneto some one else and not to
me, the hours and the roads are too long for me.... I am compared with
a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of spices.
That is what I wanted to say to my father, in the words of the Song
of Songs. I did not feel the ground under my feet. I went towards home
with hasty, hasty steps, on this night. My father barely managed to
keep up with me. He followed after me like a shadow.
* * *
With the same Good 'Yom-Tov' which we had said on coming in
from the synagogue on such a night as this, years ago, we entered the
house on this night, my father and I.
With the same Good 'Yom-Tov,' good year, with which my
mother and Busie used to welcome us, on such a night as this, once on a
time, years ago, they again welcomed us on this night, my father and
My mother, the Queen of the evening, was dressed in her royal robes
of silk; and the Queen's Daughter, Busie, was dressed in her snow-white
frock. They made the same picture which they had made, once on a time,
years ago. They were not altered by as much as a hair. They were not
different in a single detail.
As it had been years ago, so it was now. On this night, the house
was full of grace. A peculiar beautya holy, festive, majestic
loveliness descended upon our house. A holy, festive glamour hung about
our house on this night. The white table-cloth was like driven snow.
And everything which was on the table gleamed and glistened. My
mother's Festival candles shone out of the silver candlesticks. The
Passover wine greeted us from out the sparkling bottles. Ah, how pure,
how simple the Passover cakes looked, peeping innocently from under
their beautiful cover! How sweetly the horse-radish smiled to me! And
how pleasant was the mortarthe mixture of crushed nuts and apples
and wine which symbolized the mortar out of which the Israelites made
bricks in Egypt, when they were slaves! And even the dish of salt-water
was good to look upon.
Proudly and haughtily stood the throne on which my father, the King
of the night, was going to recline. A glory shone forth from my
mother's countenance, such as I always saw shining forth from it on
such a night. And the Queen's Daughter, Busie, was entirely, from her
head to her heels, as if she really belonged to the Song of Songs.
No! What am I saying? She was the Song of Songs itself.
The only pity was that the King's son was put sitting so far away
from the Queen's Daughter. I remember that they once sat at the
Passover ceremony in a different position. They were together, once on
a time, years ago. One beside the other they sat....
I remember that the King's Son asked his father The Four
Questions. And I remember that the Queen's Daughter stole from his
Majesty the Afikomenthe pieces of Passover cake he had
hidden away to make the special blessing over. And I? What had I done
then? How much did we laugh at that time! I remember that, once on a
time, years ago, when the Seder was ended, the Queen had taken
off her royal garment of silk, and the King had taken off his white
robes, and we two, Busie and I, sat together in a corner playing with
the nuts which my mother had given us. And there, in the corner, I told
Busie a storyone of the fairy tales I had learnt at school from my
comrade Sheika, who knew everything in the world. It was the story of
the beautiful Queen's Daughter who had been taken from under the
wedding canopy, bewitched, and put into a palace of crystal for seven
years on end, and who was waiting for some one to raise himself up into
the air by pronouncing the Holy Name, flying above the clouds, across
hills, and over valleys, over rivers, and across deserts, to release
her, to set her free.
* * *
But all this happened once on a time, years ago. Now the Queen's
Daughter is grown up. She is big. And the King's Son is grown up. He is
big. And we two are seated in such a way, so pitilessly, that we cannot
even see one another. Imagine it to yourself! On the right of his
majesty sat the King's Son. On the left of her majesty sat the Queen's
Daughter!... And we recited the Haggadah, my father and I, at
the top of our voices, as once on a time, years ago, page after page,
and in the same sing-song as of old. And my mother and Busie repeated
the words after us, softly, page after page, until we came to the Song
of Songs. I recited the Song of Songs together with my father, as
once on a time, years ago, in the same melody as of old, passage after
passage. And my mother and Busie repeated the words after us, softly,
passage after passage, until the King of the night, tired out, after
the long Passover ceremony, and somewhat dulled by the four cups of
raisin wine, began to doze off by degrees. He nodded for a few minutes,
woke up, and went on singing the Song of Songs. He began in a loud
Many waters cannot quench love.....
And I caught him up, in the same strain:
Neither can floods drown it.
The recital grew softer and softer with us both, as the night wore
on, until at last his majesty fell asleep in real earnest. The Queen
touched him on the sleeve of his white robe. She woke him with a sweet,
affectionate gentleness, and told him he should go to bed. In the
meantime, Busie and I got the chance of saying a few words to one
another. I got up from my place and went over close beside her. And we
stood opposite one another for the first time, closely, on this night.
I pointed out to her how rarely beautiful the night was.
On such a night, I said to her, it is good to go walking.
She understood me, and answered me, with a half-smile by asking:
On such a night? ...
And I imagined that she was laughing at me. That was how she used to
laugh at me, once on a time, years ago.... I was annoyed. I said to
Busie, we have something to say to one anotherwe have much to
Much to talk about? she replied, echoing my words.
And again I imagined that she was laughing at me.... I put in
Perhaps I am mistaken? Maybe I have nothing at all to say to you
These words were uttered with so much bitterness that Busie ceased
from smiling, and her face grew serious.
Tomorrow, she said to me, tomorrow we will talk. ...
And my eyes grew bright. Everything about me was bright and good and
joyful. Tomorrow! Tomorrow we will talk! Tomorrow! Tomorrow!...
I went over nearer to her. I smelt the fragrance of her hair, the
fragrance of her clothesthe same familiar fragrance of her. And there
came up to my mind the words of the Song of Songs:
Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are
under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of
And all our speech this night was the samewithout words. We spoke
together with our eyeswith our eyes.
* * *
Busie, good-night, I said to her softly.
It was hard for me to go away from her. The one God in Heaven knew
the truthhow hard it was.
Good-night, Busie made answer.
She did not stir from the spot. She looked at me, deeply perplexed,
out of her beautiful blue Song of Songs eyes.
I said good-night to her again. And she again said good-night to
me. My mother came in and led me off to bed. When we were in my room,
my mother smoothed out for me, with her beautiful, snow-white hands,
the white cover of my bed. And her lips murmured:
Sleep well, my child, sleep well.
Into these few words she poured a whole ocean of tender lovethe
love which had been pent up in her breast the long time I had been away
from her. I was ready to fall down before her, and kiss her beautiful
Good-night, I murmured softly to her.
And I was left aloneall alone, on this night.
* * *
I was all alone on this nightall alone on this silent, soft, warm,
early spring night.
I opened my window and looked out into the open, at the dark blue
night sky, and at the shimmering stars that were like brilliants. And I
Is it then true? Is it then true?...
Is it then true that I have lost my happinesslost my happiness
Is it then true that with my own hands I took and burnt my
wonderful dream-palace, and let go from me the divine Queen's Daughter
whom I had myself bewitched, once on a time, years ago? Is it then so?
Is it so? Maybe it is not so? Perhaps I have come in time? 'I am come
into my garden, my sister, my spouse.' ...
I sat at the open window for a long time on this night. And I
exchanged whispered secrets with the silent, soft, warm early spring
night that was fullstrangely fullof secrets and mysteries....
On this night, I made a discovery
That I loved Busie with that holy, burning love which is so
wonderfully described in our Song of Songs. Big fiery letters seemed
to carve themselves out before my eyes. They formed themselves into the
words which I had only just recited, my father and Ithe words of the
Song of Songs. I read the carved words, letter by letter.
Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals
thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
On this night, I sat down at my open window, and I asked of the
night which was full of secrets and mysteries, that she should tell me
Is it true that I have lost Busie for ever? Is it then true? ...
But she is silentthis night of secrets and mysteries. And the
secret must remain a secret for meuntil the morrow.
Tomorrow, Busie had said to me, we will talk.
Ah! Tomorrow we will talk!...
Only let the night go byonly let it vanish, this night!
This night! This night!