Another of Sholem Aleichem’s strokes of genius is placing some of his stories on a train. One could always meet a fellow Jew on a train, mostly in third class, and Jews could readily recognize one another. In some of these amazingly versatile tales the train is an integral part of the plot: both the teller and the event must necessarily compete with the end of the trip or the oncoming station. In others, the ride is just a catalyst between the narrator and his fellow riders, a site for storytelling. I call the ambience of these railroad cars “a shtetl on wheels.”
Sholem Aleichem apprises us of the setting in the very first paragraph.
“Gather round me brother Jews,” says the narrator. Further on, aware that his brother Jews may be nervous since the peasant co-riders may be listening in to his story, the narrator says, “You think these peasants sitting here know what we’re jabbering about?” After that first paragraph we move right into the narrative and hear no more mention of railroad until the last line when the narrator tells us, “We have arrived at our station.”
Sholem Aleichem’s humor here is his typical blend of reality and exaggeration. It is true that a local official appointed by the Czarist authority could either make things pleasant or difficult for Jews in a small town. It is also true that with entrenched corruption an official could easily be bribed. The exaggeration comes into play when the narrator’s grandfather, obeying his Hasidic rebbe’s advice, makes his way into the Czarist capital. This winning fusion of the real and the fantastic was one of the pillars of the great writer’s comedy.
Bribes. Imagine, every single one of them up to Mr. Big; yes, the czar himself takes bribes. Don’t be shocked—Mr. Big accepts them too, if he gets an offer. What’s that? You don’t believe me? You’re all laughing, eh? Well, have fun . . . Ready now? Have you all laughed yourself dry? Now gather round me, brother Jews, and listen to a story that happened a long time ago to my grandfather, may he rest in peace. It happened in the good old days when Czar Nich was boss. Why are you nudging me? What’re you afraid of? You think these peasants sitting here know what we’re jabbering about? They won’t understand a word, blast them. I won’t be obvious, and where necessary I’ll throw in some Hebrew. Just pay close attention, and don’t interrupt me in the middle.
To make a long story short, it happened a long time ago, in the days of Ahasuerus, during the reign of our present Mr. Big’s grandfather, after whom he’s named, may that merit protect him and be to his credit in the next world for all his acts
of kindness toward the children of Israel—his beneficent decrees, salvations, and consolations, amen!
For a long time our grandfathers and then our fathers just couldn’t forget that old Mr. Big. They groaned in their sleep and always spoke favorably of him. That’s how well off they were. Their whole life hung on a thread. We Jews in our shtetl were allowed to exist just by the grace of little Mr. Big, or Buttons, as we called him. This Buttons liked to have his palms greased, and he loved those Friday night snacks of gefilte fish and tumblers of whiskey. So long as this went on, the Jews breathed free and easy, did business, plied their trades, and really had a wonderful time.
But once, something happened. Buttons kicked the bucket. He suddenly dropped dead and was followed by a new Buttons, a Haman, a villain, a rat, the likes of which you’ve never seen! He couldn’t be greased; he just wouldn’t take a thing! They tried slipping him bigger bribes. Still no. They tried the real thing—big money. Still nothing doing. They invited him for gefilte fish. He wouldn’t go. They dropped hints about rare liqueurs. He didn’t drink. Talk of being ethical! He was as clean as a whistle! If you begged him he stamped his foot, kicked you out on your ear, and then did things that just weren’t done. He kept issuing summonses; he slapped one fine after another on you. He didn’t let Jews do business. He didn’t let Jewish teachers teach. If he saw a young woman, he’d rip off her marriage wig. If he saw a young man, he’d snip off an earlock. “That’s what Mr. Big does, too,” he used to say. Then he would beam, get hysterical at his own joke, and shake until the tears came . . .
The Jews seethed with anger. But nothing could be done. So what did our brothers, the children of Israel, do? They sighed softly, called one meeting after another trying to think of what to do and how to get rid of such a Haman, the devil take him. They decided to go to my grandfather, Reb Anshel, may he rest in peace. Grandpa Anshel (after whom I’m named) was rich and came from a fine family. He was a follower of a Hasidic rebbe, a trustee in the synagogue, a big shot with the authorities. In brief, a mover and a shaker. They came up to him and said: “For God’s sake, Reb Anshel, save the town. Tell us what to do.”
My grandfather listened to them and said: “How can I help you, my children? Unless, of course, I can get to see my rebbe, may he live and be well. Whatever he’d suggest, we would do.”
No sooner said than done. My grandfather hated long, dragged-out affairs. He wasn’t lazy, and money was no object. The town could bear the burden. When it came to the public’s welfare, how could there be any excuses?
One hot summer day, Grandfather Anshel got into his carriage, bade the towns-people good-bye, and left for the rebbe’s place of residence. When he arrived, he started telling the rebbe the whole story. “It’s horrible. It’s a catastrophe. We have a man whose hands are clean.” The rebbe closed one eye and made a motion with his hand, as if to say: Hold it! I know everything.
How did he know? Only fools ask such questions. Those rebbes knew every-thing . . . My grandfather wondered about it but didn’t say a word. He waited for the rebbe to speak. A minute later the rebbe called out. “May you be inscribed for a year of health!” This astounded my grandfather. How did happy New Year fit in here? Where was the connection? Here it was the height of summer and Rosh Hashanah was a long way off. Why the New Year’s greeting? But one doesn’t question the rebbe. Grandfather waited patiently. Before bidding him good-bye, the rebbe called him over and said:
“Listen, Anshel,”—they were all on a first-name basis with each other, those Hasidim—he sighed, “go home in peace and good health. Send your townsmen my greeting: ‘Happy new year—may you be inscribed for a year of health!’ When you arrive home, wait for the big fair. When it comes to town, I want you to buy a pair of choice horses, the finest money can buy. I want them to be full-blooded roans. I want both of them to be exactly alike, twins, as if one filly had borne them. And they must be completely spotless. Without a freckle. Then take those horses and hitch them to a carriage, the nicer the better. Drive them to that city where Mr. Big makes his home. It starts with the letter P. When you get there, rest the first day, rest the second day, and rest the third day. The following morning, right after you’ve said your prayers, and the next afternoon, just before sunset, ride around the palace. But sit in the driver’s seat like a lord who’s out for a pleasure stroll. If they stop and ask you “How much do you want for those horses?” you will say that you’re not a horse dealer. Now, Anshel,” the rebbe concluded, “go home, and may God grant you success.”
That’s exactly what happened. When the big fair came, just like the rebbe said it would, my grandfather, Reb Anshel, attended it and bought a pair of full-blooded roans from a gypsy, the likes of which our forefathers never had seen. My grandfather was no connoisseur of horses, but their appearance was made to order. They were exactly alike and spotless, too. Just like the rebbe had predicted. After eyeing those horses, my grandfather just stood there. The gypsy, noticing that the horses had turned my grandfather’s head, naturally put such a price on them it made Reb Anshel’s blood run cold. But there could be no excuses. It was a matter of life or death. The town had to be saved. The Jews had pawned everything they had.
He started bargaining with the gypsy—a ruble up, a ruble down. You can be sure that he didn’t leave without those horses. He bought them, hitched them to a carriage, and immediately set out for that city the rebbe had mentioned. My grandfather fulfilled everything to the letter. He and the horses arrived in P. about a month before the start of Rosh Hashanah. He rested three days and three nights. Then the next morning after prayers and again before sunset, he drove around the palace gates. He rode slowly. He didn’t rush. He had plenty of time and rode back and forth in front of the palace three times. He followed all the rebbe’s commands to a tee.
To make a long story short, he did this one day, two days, three days. But nothing happened, nothing at all. He became depressed. What would come of it all? Still, one mustn’t think too deeply about it. If the rebbe had said something, surely it wasn’t in vain.
So listen to what happened! Once, as he was driving in front of the royal palace, he saw a Buttons approaching him, probably one of the adjutants. The adjutant stopped my grandfather and, whistling strangely right into his face, inspected the horses from all angles, like one who understood horseflesh. Then the adjutant asked him: “Look here, you, how much do you want for these horses?”
Exactly what the rebbe said would happen. Reb Anshel’s heart leaped a bit, and he answered as he was told to:
“I’m not a horse dealer.”
The Buttons looked at him angrily. “How do you come to such fine horses?”
This time Grandfather was quiet. He didn’t know what to say, because the rebbe hadn’t mentioned a question of that sort. The adjutant became infuriated and said: “Perhaps you’ve stolen them, huh?”
Now Grandfather’s heart sank. I hope everything turns out all right, he thought. But he couldn’t say a word. Finally, God inspired him with these words: “Sir. These horses are mine. I bought them from a gypsy at a fair. I have witnesses. A whole townful of Jews.”
“So you have witnesses, huh?” the adjutant said. “I know your sort of witnesses.” Then he started whistling again, looking the horses over. Finally he said: “You know, the czar liked your horses.”
“What’s the drawback?” said Grandfather. “If he likes the horses, then my horses can be his horses.”
Don’t ask me how Reb Anshel hit upon an idea like that. If it’s fated, God gives you bright ideas. Since he was a wise man, as I’ve already pointed out, he under-stood that if the rebbe told him to parade around the royal palace, there was a reason for it, as you’ll soon see.
Well, in a nutshell, they took the horses’ reins and led those full-blooded roans right into the royal courtyard and showed them to Mr. Big himself. As soon as he saw the horses, he couldn’t leave them. Some sort of mystic power was in those animals. He gazed at those horses for about an hour, staring at them and showing them off to his entire court. In short, he couldn’t get enough of them. It was love at first sight. Meanwhile, Grandfather Anshel was standing quietly on the side, watching the goings-on. He recognized Mr. Big immediately; he knew him from his pictures. But never mind. It didn’t faze him at all. He was just a man, like the rest of them. Then Mr. Big approached Grandfather, and as soon as he looked at Grandfa-ther, a chill ran through his bones. And when he spoke with his lion’s voice, Grand-father’s heart froze.
“How much do you want for those horses?” Mr. Big asked Anshel.
Grandfather could hardly speak. His mouth was dry, and he felt his voice shaking:
“I don’t sell horses. But if his majesty has taken a liking to the horses, and if his majesty will not be angry with me, let the horses be led into his majesty’s stables. That’s where they belong.”
He couldn’t say any more, for Mr. Big then looked at Grandfather and his soul left him. Then Mr. Big moved closer to Reb Anshel and spoke to him, at which my grandfather practically turned into a heap of bones.
“Listen here. Perhaps you want some special favor. If you do, tell me right now, with no bluffs, tricks, flimflam, or long-winded Jewish commentary. For if you do, it’ll cost you dearly.”
Well, my dear friends, what do you think went through Grandfather Anshel’s mind at that time? Surely the mother’s milk in him curdled. But since Reb Anshel was a brave man, as I told you, it didn’t faze him. He plucked up his courage and told Mr. Big:
“Your majesty! King! I swear that I have no underhanded intentions, and I’m not the sort who likes to bluff or trick anyone. I don’t ask a thing of his majesty. But I would consider it an honor and the greatest of favors if I could be worthy of having my horses in his majesty’s stables and if his majesty would ride them.”
Naturally, Mr. Big was moved by these words. He now started talking softly. His voice, his manner, his words—all changed. He was a new man. Then the czar left the courtyard and headed for the palace, with Grandfather Anshel trailing behind him. It didn’t faze him a bit, but his knees shook and his heart ticked like a grand-father clock. Can you imagine? Being in the czar’s palace!
Wherever you looked, there was only silver and gold, and everything was carved out of ivory. Crystal above, marble below, and pure amber on the sides. Amber, the stuff from which pipes and mouthpieces are made. All that wealth made Grandfather dizzy, but he controlled himself. Mr. Big walked on, with Grandfather after him. Then Mr. Big sat down and asked Grandfather to have a seat too. He offered Grandfather a cigar, and Grandfather took it and smoked it. It didn’t faze him a bit.
In the meantime, she came in—the czarina herself, draped in satin and silk and covered from head to toe with sparkling diamonds and other valuable stones that glittered before your eyes. She was as beautiful as the Queen of Sheba. So lovely, you couldn’t even look at her face. Seeing a Jew in the king’s company, comfortable and smoking a cigar, naturally she became very angry and looked sternly at him, as if to say: What’s this Jew doing here?
But Grandfather Anshel didn’t let it bother him. He’d become so high and mighty, nothing bothered him. He continued smoking and didn’t so much as glance at her. But she kept staring at Grandfather, looking daggers his way. Mr. Big understood that the guest didn’t please her, but he ignored it. He looked at her and said cheerfully:
“Dushinka, how about some tea?”
She remained silent.
The czar repeated: “Dushinka. Tea!”
Again she remained silent.
At once the czar stamped his foot and roared at the top of his voice: “Dushinka! Tea!”
The windowpanes shook. It was nothing to sneeze at. Treason, you know . . . Immediately, adjutants and generals started pouring into the room. In a flash, a boiling samovar, all sorts of homemade jams, egg bagels, and hard-boiled eggs were ordered. Boiled eggs—for the czar’s court knew that a pious Jew wouldn’t touch anything but boiled eggs. The czar asked him to eat and drink and make himself at home. By and by, he asked Grandfather who he was, what he did, how he earned his living, and how the Jews of his area were doing. He wanted to know everything. And he was so friendly too. Just imagine, Grandfather Anshel answered every single question one after the other. When it came to the question about the Jews, he thought: now’s the time to bring up the subject. Now I’ll tell him, and I don’t care what happens to me . . . Well, he told Mr. Big everything—and Reb Anshel had just the tongue for it.
“Here’s the whole story, your majesty. Your Jews have no complaints. But if his majesty is in a good mood, and if I have found favor in his majesty’s eyes, and if his majesty will not be angry at his servant, I shall tell you the whole truth. I’d like you to know, your majesty, that things are all right in your country and that the Jews live by the grace of Buttons. If he’s just a regular Buttons, it’s fine and dandy. But if, God forbid, he isn’t, then there’s trouble. Not long ago, a new Buttons came into our village—clean as a whistle! And because of that, we’re at the end of our rope! There isn’t another one like him in the length and breadth of your majesty’s entire realm. For a Buttons to be incorruptible is something unheard of. It’s the eleventh plague!”
Mr. Big looked at him and said: “I’ll be honest with you. You’re talking in riddles and circles, and I haven’t got the faintest notion of what you’re trying to say. What do you mean by—clean as a whistle? And what do you mean by a—Buttons?”
“By clean as a whistle,” Grandfather said, “I mean a man whose palms won’t be greased. By Buttons, I mean a little Mr. Big whom you appoint to watch over every little town. Well, Buttons watches those towns and in a few years becomes very rich. Who from? The Jews, of course. They’ve gotten used to it. Because just as Jews know they must pray every morning, they also know that an official must take and a Jew must give. The same idea is found in our holy books. We always kept giving—for sacrifices, for the Temple, here, there. Having been so kind to your servant until now, you will show your grace and hear him out.
“I want you to know, your majesty, that your whole kingdom, from east to west, from north to south, Hodu to Kush, is filled with takers. The only ones whose palms you can’t grease are cripples who have no hands. And even he who has no hands will tell you to slap it down on the table. There’s nothing wrong with that either. You have to live and let live. The Bible tells us to get along with our neighbor. So our commentator, Rashi, says—but if his dog barks, muzzle him.”
Why are you men looking at me? Seems strange, doesn’t it, that a Jew should talk this way to a king? Well, take it or leave it. I wasn’t there—that any child will understand. But this is the story that my father, may he rest in peace, heard from his father. And I assure you that neither my father nor my Grandfather Anshel were liars. The long and the short of it was that my grandfather said good-bye to the czar and went straight to the rebbe, reporting back on his trip.
It was just before Rosh Hashanah. Once in the rebbe’s house, he stood (one always stood before the rebbe) and told him the whole story from beginning to end. It turned out that Grandfather Anshel needn’t have bothered, for the rebbe knew all about it anyway. Then why did he let him keep talking? Because it wasn’t polite to interrupt a man while he’s speaking. You see, those Hasidim are very strict about etiquette.
The next day after the Sabbath service, they all sat around the table waiting for the rebbe to speak. But he decided to talk about a verse that had nothing at all to do with the weekly portion of the Torah. Instead, he expounded on a verse from the Chapter of Admonition against Israel. The people were beside themselves with surprise.
“In the Chapter of Admonition in Leviticus,” the rebbe began with closed eyes, as was the custom, “there is a curse, the simple meaning of which we cannot under-stand. The Bible says that God will send you a nation whose language you will not be able to understand. The question then arises, what sort of a curse is that? Let me repeat it—God will send you someone whose language you won’t understand. How is that possible? That the gentiles (forgive the proximity) don’t understand our language—well, that’s natural; that’s why they’re gentiles. But that a Jew won’t understand what the gentile is talking about? Where’s the connection? Is there anything a Jew doesn’t understand? If so, we have to interpret the verse differently. The phrase “God will send you a nation whose language you will not be able to understand” really means that God will send a gentile whom you won’t be able to talk to. In other words, he’ll be as clean as a whistle. His palms won’t be greasable. And a gentile who doesn’t take bribes is a catastrophe!”
That’s how the rebbe interpreted the verse from the Bible, and the crowd was amazed. They licked their fingers and asked for more. Of course, only my grandfather and those close to the rebbe understood him. As soon as the Sabbath ended, Reb Anshel set out for home and made it just in time for the start of Rosh Hashanah.
Well, listen to this. On the night of Rosh Hashanah—when the Jews were leaving the synagogues after prayers and wishing each other a happy holiday, a year of peace, and good health—a rumor flashed through town that our Buttons, our Ha-man, may he shrivel up, was fired, and in his place the authorities up on high had sent a new little Mr. Big, a man clever and wise, good and kind—in short, a jewel of a gentile, a regular Buttons. He took. He was a taker! But he had one flaw (did you ever see anyone completely perfect?), which was discovered later. He had a mighty dry palm. It had to be greased good and heavy. In fact, he took enough for himself and for the Buttons before him. He took from the living and the dead.
But the upshot was that the Jews had a gay Rosh Hashanah and an even gayer Sukkos. Don’t even ask about Simchas Torah! Then the Jews really had a grand time. It was said that even little Mr. Big, that is, the new Buttons himself, had a few drops and danced with the rest of the Jews. Well, it looks like we’ve arrived at our station. Be well and have a happy . . .
SHOLEM ALEICHEM, the pseudonym of a Russified Jewish intellectual named Solomon Rabinovitz (1859–1916), created many of the most enduring works of modern Yiddish fiction. Born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, he received a traditional education and lived in Kiev and Odessa before immigrating to New York City. Upon his death in 1916, the New York Times published a front-page obituary, memorializing him as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” More than 100,000 people attended his funeral procession, making it the largest New York City had ever seen. His humorous rep-resentations of the rhythms of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish life have had a lasting influence on modern Jewish literary traditions.
CURT LEVIANT is the translator of Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Grade, I. B. Singer, and Avrom Reisen, and the author of ten critically acclaimed works of fiction, the most recent of which are King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son. His novels have been translated into seven European languages and into Hebrew and Turkish. But not yet into Yiddish.