We all know Sholem Aleichem made his reputation as a humorist. But in the body of his work there are many stories that are satirical in nature but not funny. This story is one of his most somber, especially Yisrulik’s letter from the Old Country, which in its details about a pogrom and its victims rivals the pogrom stories of Lamed Shapiro.
The revolution that Sholem Aleichem refers to is the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia, which preceded by twelve years the more successful one against the czar in 1917. Readers of Sholem Aleichem, writing shortly after the events cited, would know to what the writer was referring. Now, more than one hundred years later, some explanations are needed.
The Krushevan mentioned (who, by the way, was not strung up, as Jacob assumes) is the notorious Pavel Krushevan, a Bessarabian politician and newspaper publisher. He was the first to issue the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and his newspaper regularly ran articles with the headline “Death to the Jews.”
In this story we also get hints of how young Jews themselves were part of the revolution, seeking justice and freedom, and what happened to them. But the disruption in social order brought about by the revolutionary action also resulted in the anti-Jewish (and anti-revolutionary) violence of pogroms, in which many Jewish men, women, and children were brutally murdered. Others were jailed for no reason, and yet others disappeared.
These events occurred just a couple of years after the notorious and widely publicized Kishinev pogrom of 1903, to which Sholem Aleichem also refers. Krushevan was involved here too, instigating violence after insinuating that the deaths of two Christian children, one a boy, the other a girl, were caused on account of the Jews’ need for blood for the preparation of matzo; in other words, the old blood libel accusation. Despite all of this, Pavel Krushevan served later as a Kishinev deputy in the Russian state Duma.
In this story, the gloomy atmosphere of Jews as victims unwittingly adumbrates what Jews would suffer during World War II. It is also noteworthy that here Sholem Aleichem makes reference to a kindly peasant who provided shelter for a Jewish family during the pogrom.
Typical of Sholem Aleichem’s artistry is the conclusion of the second letter, which segues from pogrom to humor, reflecting the A-B-A pattern of the story: humor, stark reality, humor. Yisrolik in Russia knows full well that there’s not going to be a constitution to benefit him; nevertheless, he wants to remain at home and does not want to have dealings with America, where people walk around in blue funks and where towns are red and faces blue.
A Letter from America to the Old Country
To my dear friend Yisrulik, may you and your wife and children be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, and may God’s blessings come upon all Israel, amen.
We’ve been worried stiff because you haven’t written us any letters. We’ve been walking around in a blue funk ever since that period of revolution, constitution, and pogroms began back home in the old country. We’re literally eating our hearts out. If the papers here in America aren’t bluffing, then those revolutionaries have probably made mincemeat of half the world already.
Every day we get wind of another sensational event. Last night I read a cable that they strung up Mr. Krushevan, that damned anti-Semite and president of the Fourth Duma. Let me know if that isn’t a lot of hot air. And write me about your business. Are you still working for someone or are you on your own? And how’s Khane-Rikl? What’s Hershel doing? And how is my cousin Lipa? And how about Yosl, Henikh’s boy! And Bentsi and Rokhl? Zlatke? Motl? And the rest of the tailors? Are you thinking of coming to America? Fill me in on all the details in your next letter.
Now for myself. Well, what can I say, pal? Everything’s okay with me, the wife, and the kids. Thank God, we’re all making a living here. We work like horses, but at least we make ends meet. We’re not salting away any money, but we’ve got two rooms and a kitchen. After work and come nighttime we paint the town red. Sometimes we go to a Socialist meeting, sometimes a Zionist meeting, and sometimes the Yiddish theater. We sweat and toil till we’re blue in the face. But we’re free. I can join any club I like, and if I feel like it, I can become a citizen and vote.
The only thing we miss is . . . home. We’re homesick something awful. My wife, Jennie (we don’t call her Blume anymore), doesn’t leave me alone for a minute. She keeps nagging me to take a trip back to Russia and visit our beloved, dear ones in the cemetery. You’d never recognize Jennie. She’s a regular lady, rigged out in hat, gloves, and all the trimmings. I’m enclosing a snapshot of her and the rest of the family. What do you say to my oldest boy? That’s Motl. Now he’s called Mike. He’s an “alrightnik.” He works in a factory and earns ten, twelve dollars a week. If only he wouldn’t gamble, he’d be a topnotch alrightnik.
My other boy, Jack, used to work in a factory too. He managed to pick up a bit of English and is now a bookkeeper in a barbershop. My third rascal, Benjamin, is a barroom waiter. He doesn’t get wages, but he brings home between six and eight dollars a week in tips. My fourth boy, the one in the picture wearing a cap, is a loafer. He doesn’t want to go to school but hangs around outside on the street day and night playing ball.
The girls are okay too. They work in shops and have some cash in the bank. The only trouble is that I see neither hide nor hair of them. They step out whenever they like, go wherever they like, and with whomever they like.
America’s a free country. You’re perfectly free to keep opinions to yourself. You can’t even tell your own daughter what to do. Take my oldest girl, for example, formerly Khaye, but now known as Frances. What a job I had with her! Without telling me, she fell head over heels in love and said “I do” with a good-for-nothing bum, a member of the Brotherhood of Pickpockets. He was a runaway from the House of Detention but told her he was a famous clothing manufacturer and realtor.
The upshot was that he was a bigamist. He had a sum total of only three wives, none of them divorced. The trouble I had till I got rid of him! Now Frances just married a pushcart peddler and is on easy street. My other girls are still single. When they get engaged, they won’t ask my permission either.
America’s a free country. Everyone minds his own business as he sees fit, and that’s that. Well, now that I’ve written you, pal, and told you what’s doing with me, be sure to let me know right away what’s what with you and what’s going on back home. Best regards to one and all—and again all the best for the New Year. So long and lots of luck!
Your best pal,
Jacob (formerly Yenkl)
A Letter from the Old Country to America
My dear Yenkl,
I received your New Year’s wishes right on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Thank you very much for your kind letter, and I wish you all the best for the coming year. God willing, I hope that we will soon see each other in joy, amen.
Now I’m going to answer your letter.
Listen, if you’ve already taken the trouble to send me New Year’s greetings for the first time in two years, why don’t you write Yiddish like a normal human being? How in heaven’s name am I supposed to understand what you’re saying with words like: “worried stiff,” “blue funk,” “hot air,” “salting away,” “bluff,” “hide nor hair,” and other such phrases and expressions?
You’ve asked me to spell out everything in detail. What can I say? There’s really nothing new. Thank God, all is well now. The rich men are doing nicely, as usual, and the poor people are dying of hunger, like all over. Workingmen like us are sitting around without a stitch of work. But at least we’re all safe from a pogrom. We’re not in the least afraid of a pogrom now. We’ve already had one, along with two encores—something that makes Kishinev unique. In fact, the pogrom reached us a bit late, but to make up for it, we had one with all the trimmings. In short, I don’t want to write too much. I can’t, for there’s nothing new to write about.
Dear Yenkl, I can only report one thing—I’m still alive! I’ve looked the Angel of Death in the face three times. But never mind. How does Getzi the dressmaker—remember him?—put it? “Who by earthquake and who by plague? In other words, if you’re destined for lots of suffering, then at least God spares your life . . .” My heart went out to my wife and children, so I sent them away. They hid in the attic of a kindly peasant and lay there in all their glory for two days and two nights without so much as a drop of water, a crumb of bread, or a wink of sleep. Things quieted down, thank God, only on the third day, when there was no longer anything to rob or anyone to beat. Then everyone slowly crawled down from the attics, alive and well, praise the Lord. No one from our family was hurt, except Lipa, who was killed along with his two sons, and Noah and Melekh, two workers with golden hands, and poor Moyshe-Hersh who was dragged down from an attic, and Perl-Dvora, who was later found dead in a cellar with her tiny infant Reyzele at her breast. . .
Including children, then, the grand total of our family’s losses was seven dead. But how does Getzi put it? “This too is for the best. In other words, it could have been worse. As for better—the sky’s the limit.”
You asked about Hershele. Don’t worry about him. For the past six months, he’s been unemployed, sitting in solitary confinement in prison. Why is he serving time? I suppose a safe guess would be that he was imprisoned for the notorious crime of holding his prayer book upside down! Rumor has it that they have greater honors yet in store for him. He’ll be either hanged or shot. It all depends on his luck. For as Getzi says, “It’s all a matter of mazl.” For instance, Yosl, Henikh’s son, dropped dead just before they were able to cart him off to jail. Otherwise, there’s nothing new.
Well, how come you didn’t ask anything about Leybl, Nekhemya the carpenter’s son? Remember him? He was an absolute good-for-nothing, right? Leybl-Stable he was called. Today he’s living like a duke with lifetime tenure in the Petropavlovsk Penitentiary. But do you know who I feel sorry for? For Zlatke. They say she’s gone mad for woes. No trifle, you know, losing two children in one week.
Avrom, Moyshe’s son, is probably already in America. If you see him, give him my best regards, and tell him that his father’s quite a considerate chap—he dropped dead before they proclaimed the new constitution. And our Motl! Simply disappeared—no one knows where.
Lots like him have vanished. We don’t even know what’s become of them. Some ran away, some were killed, and some are resting up in prison or traipsing about in the Siberian snow, pushing wheelbarrows. But what do they care? Those stubborn characters were insistent. Either constitution or die, they said. But we workingmen don’t know any underhanded tricks. How does Getzi put it? “Spare me your honey, and spare me your sting. In other words, don’t do me any favors! I’ll tie my own shoelaces, thank you!” A queer chap, that Getzi. One of his sons was killed in the war; the other one’s in jail. Getzi himself has got plenty of troubles, but when it comes to quoting a proverb or a verse from the Bible, he gets carried away.
Otherwise, there’s nothing new. Thank God, all is well and, praise the Good Lord, we’re all in the best of health, except for Khane-Rikl, who’s been complaining about her heart, poor soul. No trifle, you know, being in constant fear of expropriation. Of course, you probably don’t know the first thing about expropriation. So I’ll explain. They come into your house with a bomb, and it isn’t filled with matzah meal, you know, but with powder and nails. “Reach for the sky!” they shout. (Getzi calls this a biblical stickup: “Lift ye up your hands.”) They empty all your pockets and take away everything you own. And go try to stop them!
Once, two of these characters came into my place, pronounced that fine verse, and took my sewing machine. I also had a cow but it died of its own accord. My girl, Brokhe, is an even greater pauper than ever before, and Alter too is a far cry from being rich. Leyzer was deported for lack of a residence permit not too long ago. He certainly deserved it, huh? Who asked him to be a Hebrew teacher? Mendel also improved his position: He up and died. Some say of tuberculosis, others of hunger. I say he died of both. Binyomin’s pride and joy is in the army, and there’s constant talk of cholera. That’s all we need.
Otherwise, there’s nothing new. And as for the request of your Blume, or Jennie as she’s now called, to take a trip over here and see her dear ones in the cemetery—now’s not the time, Yenkl. Now’s not the time. Put it off a year, when with God’s help things will quiet down a bit and everyone will stop killing everyone else. That’s when you should come, and then, the Good Lord willing, both of us will go to that holy field. God be praised, many more of our friends are there now. Not to mention casual acquaintances. And more are arriving daily.
Otherwise, there’s nothing new. Be well, and give our regards to each and every one. As for America, I’m not coming there.
Your America doesn’t even begin to attract me. A land where people get stiff when they worry, where you walk around in blue funks and hang around streets, where money is salted, where towns are painted red and faces blue, where Blume becomes Jennie and men have three wives—no offense meant, but from such a land one ought to run away. After reading your letter I’ve come to the conclusion that if we get the constitution we expect, we won’t need America, for we’ll have a better America here than you have over there. But, Yenkl, don’t you worry your head over it. We’re going to get a good constitution like I’m going to wake up a millionaire tomorrow—damn that anti-Semite Krushevan with a pack of ulcers and plagues. I just pray that God inscribes us all—we here and you there—for a year of health and happiness.
CURT LEVIANT, translator of five volumes of Sholem Aleichem, is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels. His works have appeared in nine European languages and in Hebrew. His most recent novel is Katz or Cats; or How Jesus Became My Rival in Love (2018).