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 VILLAGE. AN IDYLL
ELIJAH THE PROPHET
A LOST "L'AG BEOMER"
THREE LITTLE HEADS
GREENS FOR "SHEVUOUS"
ANOTHER PAGE FROM THE "SONG OF SONGS"
A PITY FOR THE LIVING
THE DEAD CITRON
ISSHUR THE BEADLE
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 comes—the dear good Passover—and 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 among them.
"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 school:
"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 fly away.
* * *
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 herself.
* * *
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 me—her 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."
"'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 ocean—that 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 stick."
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 her—to 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 father.
* * *
To go to the synagogue with one's father on the Passover eve—is 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 themselves—the first Festival evening prayer and blessing. Ah, how many luxuries has the good God prepared for his Jewish children.
My mother has no time.
"I am coming. I am coming in a minute. I only want to say a word to Busie—no 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 frightened.
"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 day—the 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 minute—one minute, no more. Busie hears my mother calling me. She tears her hand from mine, gets up, and drives me off.
"Shemak, you are called—you. 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 blows—a 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-where—what does he care for winds? What are storms to him?
The old tree is not a symbol—it 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 times!
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 buys—some 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 money.
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 Arya—peace 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 them—"Come 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, quickly downwards.
* * *
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 soon—that 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 Opanas—a cunning Gentile with one ear-ring, who owns a "samovar." Opanas is a rich Epicurean. Along with the mill he has a store—the 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 policeman—all 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 knowing why.
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 trousers—the 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 body—four 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 and longer?
Feitel met Fedoka outside the door. He could not contain himself, but told him everything—how 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 talking.
* * *
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 times."
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 problem—how 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-where—what 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 mother—to 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 good—not 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 it—this same Passover?
Passover has come at last—the dear sweet Passover. I was dressed as befitted the son of a man of wealth—like 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 over—the 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 synagogue."
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 asleep—fast 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 Prophet—an 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 seven?"
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 and 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 ever—that 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 child—but, 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 darling—her 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 nothing.
"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 it—one 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 united—ten 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 thou—a 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 say, Getzel?"
"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 nuts."
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 five nuts."
"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 again—odd or even? This time you must be right."
"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 silent—eh?"
"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 son—also a gambler—to 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 said:
"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! ha!"
"Be quiet, at any rate, you Goyetzel, you. And let me not see your forbidding countenance."
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 nuts—may 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 be ashamed."
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 earlock!"
"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 you—nor me."
A Lost "L'Ag Beomer"
Our teacher, "Reb" Nissel the small one—so called on account of his size—allowed 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 Assistants.
* * *
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 and Russian.
"One, two, three, four! Jewish children Learn the 'Torah,' Believe in miracles, Are not afraid. Hear, O Israel! Nothing matters. We are not afraid of any one, Excepting God."
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 course—fine 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 things—rolls, 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 commanded us.
"Jewish children, take hands, and march across the bridge, straight for Mezritzer fields. There you will meet the sea-cats, and do battle with them."
"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 blow—phew! 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 forward.
"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 food—where 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-cats—the 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 foreseen.
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 long legs."
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-wine—the 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 squirrels—may 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 it—we 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-wine—may 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 "L'ag Beomer."
"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 himself.
"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 questions'?"
"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 watch—do 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, and—and.... 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 of wine.
"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 you—may you open the second bottle. Take glasses and drink to long life. May God grant that—that——" (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 forest was.
"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 pungent.
"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 beautiful—a 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 Mazeppa?
* * *
"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 least."
"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 Mazeppa?
"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 nothing—for nothing. No one knows whom the shoe pinches—no 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 him—that 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 heart—how 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 them—for 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 poor—may 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 say—when 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 place—between 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 them—the 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 arms—thousands of them—to 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 father—such 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 window—to 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 eyes—may he see all that is good!—a big building, with windows from top to bottom. Abramtzig swears that he saw—may he see all that is good!—a chimney—a high chimney from which there came out smoke. Abramtzig tells that he saw with his own eyes—may he see all that is good!—a machine that sewed without hands. Abramtzig tells that he saw with his own eyes—may 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 swears—that he may see all that is good. And Moshetzig and Dvairke listen to him and sigh. They envy Abramtzig because he knows everything—everything.
For instance, Abramtzig knows that a tree grows. It is true he never saw a tree growing. There are no trees in the street—none. But he knows—he heard it at "Cheder"—that fruit grows on a tree, for which reason one makes the blessing—"Who hast created the fruit of the tree." Abramtzig knows—what 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 them—"Who 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 grass—nothing—nothing. 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, nothing—nothing.
Even a little bird is seldom seen here. Sometimes an odd sparrow strays in—grey 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 own—a 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 them—one 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 happy—may no evil eye rest on them! Next year, if God wills it, they will go off to America—when 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 swore—may 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 market—everything that an eye could see, and a heart desire—cakes 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 grass—curious, long, sweet-smelling grass.
And all three children gathered around their father.
"Father, what is it—that?"
"It is grass."
"What is grass?"
"It is a bunch of greens for 'Shevuous.' Jews need grass for 'Shevuous.'"
"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 it—the 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 greens—even greens.
Greens for "Shevuous"
On the eve of "Shevuous," I induced my mother—peace 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 free—I 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 it—all were mine. I owned everything, and could do what I liked with it—I, and no one else. And like an overlord who had complete control of everything, I longed to show my power, my strength, my authority—all that I could and would do.
* * *
First of all I was displeased with the tall giants with the yellow hats—the 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 heads—the 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 Festival—pocket-knife with two blades, and a sword—a 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.