- Written by:
- Avrom Reyzen
- Translated by:
- Curt Leviant
- Spring 2020
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2020
Avrom Reyzen (1876–1953) was one of the premier modern Yiddish poets and short story writers. Born near Minsk, Russia, he came to the United States in 1914 and spent the rest of his life in New York. Reyzen wrote hundreds of memorable stories in the Chekhovian mode, mostly about the Jewish poor. His poetry and prose are collected in several volumes. —Curt Leviant
After the several more-or-less lean years that the rabbi, Reb Zerach, had experienced in his shtetl, the first part of his life in America seemed surely like a dream.
Here, food was plentiful. If only in his old age he had an appetite to match, for back home in the shtetl he had already gotten out of the habit of eating. But he was pleased that his second wife, fifteen years younger than he, and the smaller children were no longer wanting and, indeed, were content.
Contrary to his life in the shtetl, occasionally he would sigh: “Too many worldly pleasures . . .”
But the rabbi would have been less troubled had he been secure with his congregational position. This English word congregation was far more difficult for him than a Russian word back in the shtetl. Nevertheless, it was a friendly, homey congregation, named for that same shtetl where he had served as rabbi. The people here were vastly different. True, they all came from the shtetl, but they weren’t the same anymore. They had changed, particularly in their behavior, as if they’d assumed new identities. Even the gabbai of the shul had no beard or mustache. This bothered the rabbi. Back home he wouldn’t even have deigned to speak to such a man, but here he was obliged to talk to him, and politely too, as if with a superior.
Isn’t that considered flattery? Reb Zerach thought, sensing a quiet wave of fear in his heart.
“Rabbi, you’ll have to give a sermon this Sabbath that should be worth the dollars it’s costing us,” the gabbai said to him after a weekday service.
At first the rabbi was startled. “What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, you’re still—if you’ll pardon me—green.” The gabbai, who in America called himself the president of the shul, gave a boorish smile. “I mean,” he explained, “that this Sabbath you must give them a fiery speech that’ll make ’em see smoke.”
Now this Reb Zerach understood, but he was embarrassed at the man’s choice of words.
The rabbi would have wanted to give the president a dressing down, but in his mind’s eye he saw his wife and little children sitting happily at the table, nicely dressed, eating a full meal, so he decided to let the matter pass.
“So it’s a sermon you’re referring to, eh?” Reb Zerach muttered submissively. “With God’s help, we surely won’t embarrass you.”
“Yes, you’ll have to try,” the president said, saying the word try in English.
And the word try rang all day in the rabbi’s ears and confused his thoughts.
In the shtetl, the rabbi’s strength lay not in sermons but in erudition and learning and in his common-sense ability to mediate between two sides who sought rabbinic judgment. But he immediately sensed that here his learning and common sense were superfluous. Here one had to know how to deliver sermons. But that didn’t faze him either. If they wanted Torah learning he had that in plenitude, and he could give it to them even in a sermon. But he felt that a learned discourse wouldn’t work here. In America one had to talk about simple yet worldly matters. He had once heard a rabbi’s sermon here and it didn’t appeal to him. It was too secular. This he would be unable to do. It wasn’t his way.
Reb Zerach’s first sermon, addressed to a packed synagogue, was indeed delivered in a homey fashion and chanted in the traditional way. But his tone was more ingratiating, especially when he looked at his congregants, most of whom were beardless. Only rarely would his glance rest upon someone with a beard. And so the rabbi often became confused and his thoughts jumbled.
After the Sabbath morning sermon he left the pulpit embittered and awaited the reaction of the congregants. But the reaction he expected did not come quickly. Only after the afternoon service did the gabbai approach the rabbi and proclaim like an overlord, “Rabbi, it seems you’re a much better scholar than a preacher.”
Reb Zerach felt the blood draining from his heart. He wanted to say something, but recalling his wife and children, he replied in a subdued voice, “In time, we’ll learn how to do it your way.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. One must adapt, become less of a greenhorn. America loves a fiery speech that makes you see smoke.”
When Reb Zerach came home after the evening service that Saturday night, the lights were on in all four rooms of the apartment that the congregation had rented for him. The lights blinded him. The rebbetzin, in a good mood and without cares, went from one room to another as if preparing herself for a new life.
The rabbi wanted to wish her a good week with his usual greeting—“A gut vokh!”—but somehow this time his tongue didn’t serve him. The apartment was too bright and gay, not the mood he wanted now.
Sighing, he sat down in the large dining room.
“What’s wrong, Zerach? You look worried. Thank God there’s nothing to worry about.” The rebbetzin stopped in front of him, her face radiant and her arms folded on her chest.
“What’s wrong with me?” the rabbi repeated. “I don’t know myself . . . All this isn’t for me . . . They tell me I must adapt, become less of a greenhorn . . . Who knows? Perhaps I ought to shave off my beard,” he said, looking at his wife with a bitter smile.
“They’re not asking you to shave off your beard,” she said earnestly. “But you should remember that you’re not back home. It’s a new world here, Zerach . . . and perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to comb your beard.”
“And buttering up these gruff boors wouldn’t hurt either, right? Isn’t that so, rebbetzin?” the rabbi said in a louder tone than usual.
“Buttering up? God forbid!” his wife said as if frightened. “But you have to be friendly with them. They’re all rich here, may the evil eye spare them. They live like lords.”
“But what happens if they don’t like my sermons? There’s too much Torah erudition for them—so what should I do?” The rabbi almost burst into tears.
“Don’t worry, you’ll catch on! Why don’t you drop in on another shul and listen to their rabbi’s sermon? Throw in a word of English. Remember, the shtetl is gone, and I don’t miss it at all.”
The rabbi wanted to respond, to argue, not to submit, but just then—without even ringing the bell—the synagogue president, accompanied by two other men, entered the apartment.
Reb Zerach rose, expecting the worst.
“Sit down, rabbi, sit,” the president announced, quite pleased with himself. “Sit down. I came with a couple of our members to hear you make Havdalah. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a traditional Havdalah.”
A paralysis seemed to come over the rabbi. Giving Jews the pleasure of hearing a Havdalah would indeed be a mitzvah, he thought. Nevertheless, he felt that they had an ulterior motive in coming, one far more crass . . . He wanted to say something, but his wife, beaming, entered, carrying the wine bottle and the glass kiddush goblet. The rabbi rose, filled the glass to the brim, and with a broken voice, began to chant: “God is my salvation, I shall trust and have no fear.”
These old familiar words strengthened him; encouraged now, he continued on an even more secure course. When he came to the words “The Jews had light and joy,” he thought of the Jews in America. And when he raised his eyes and regarded the electric light, he sang with even greater confidence and concluded on a high note. Turning to the president and the two congregants, he recited the traditional phrase before the blessing over the wine: “With your permission, gentlemen . . .”
And indeed he had these good people in mind when he chanted these words.
After the blessing over the wine, Reb Zerach first took a big sip and then drank most of the glass. This really cheered him up.
And so the guests, the president and the two congregants, none of them poor, were quite pleased with the Havdalah.
“It’s been a long while since I heard such a Havdalah,” the president called out.
Reb Zerach felt disconcerted, like a youngster who has been tested to see how much Torah he has learned. But he also felt much more confident about his rabbinic position. And looking at the beaming rebbetzin and the younger children who stood around the table, well fed, rested, and nicely dressed, the rabbi suddenly remembered his sermon. His confidence vanished and he said submissively: “Today’s sermon was . . . uh . . . what do you say? . . . It wasn’t a success, eh?”
“Too scholarly . . . it’s not for us,” the president admitted.
“You have to explain a bit more,” added one of the congregants.
“Yes, yes,” the second congregant opined. “It should be simpler and with more explanations.”
“And louder too,” the president said, remembering another flaw in the sermon.
“With God’s help, with God’s help,” the rabbi added with a sigh, feeling both uplifted and crestfallen at the same time.
“Don’t sigh so,” the president turned to the rabbi. “I’ve brought you a check.”
“A what?” The rabbi didn’t catch on to the English word right away.
“A check for your wages.” The president took a check from his pocket and waved it in the air.
“Oh, so that’s it. A check! Now I understand.” The rabbi became confused and, afraid to inspect the check more closely, turned to the men and pleaded, “Please give it to the rebbetzin.”
His wife took the check with aplomb, looked at it with an experienced eye, blushed with pride, and placed it on the table.
The eldest child, a little boy of twelve, approached and wanted to take it in his hands, but the rebbetzin pushed him away.
“Don’t touch it. It’s money.”
The boy withdrew very respectfully and gaped with astonishment at the three strangers.
Reb Zerach, who had already decided to submit as much as he could, finally plucked up his courage, took the check from the rebbetzin’s hand, examined it as if it were an object that one didn’t see back home, and quipped, “If it’s not real money, at least it’s worth real money.”
But this remark, said in Hebrew, was over the heads of the president and the two congregants.
The rabbi again felt crestfallen and tried to think of easy, simple words to find favor in the eyes of his new bosses.
Curt Leviant has translated several volumes of works by Sholom Aleichem, Chaim Grade, and other leading Yiddish prose artists. Some of his own ten critically acclaimed novels have been translated into Hebrew and into nine European languages.