From the introduction to Collected Works
By Mendele Mocher Sforim, translated by Miriam Udel
- Written by:
- Mendele Mocher Sforim
- Translated by:
- Miriam Udel
- Summer 2021 / 5781
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2021
S. Y. Abramovitsh (1835–1917), closely identified with his narratorial persona Mendele the Book Peddler (Mendele Mocher Sforim), was a foundational figure in modern Yiddish and Hebrew prose. He began writing in Yiddish with the 1864 novella Dos kleyne mentshele (The Little Man), though he subsequently used the fictional Mendele figure to put distance between his Hebrew literary reputation and the “jargon” of Yiddish. He eventually embraced Jewish bilingualism, claiming that writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish was like breathing through both nostrils. His output of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and scientific writing was staggering. In 1888, Sholem Aleichem memorably dubbed Mendele the “grandfather” of Yiddish letters.
Over the course of his long life, Abramovitsh reworked, translated, and reshuffled earlier compositions. The piece of text translated here is one of several etiological explanations of the Mendele character, variously narrating how the itinerant book peddler had gotten established in his trade or had chanced upon a particular story. This fragment became seamlessly integrated into a longer essay and occupied a prominent place at the beginning of Abramovitsh’s collected works.
Abramovitsh’s work bridged doctrinaire fictional expositions of Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) principles and fully developed Yiddish and Hebrew modernism. His preferred mode was satire, and he often recruited the folksy, unassuming Mendele to act as a mouthpiece for ideas Abramovitsh wanted to set at an ironic distance. A core tenet of maskilic (Enlightenment) thought was that the Jewish body politic was ill and that it was particularly diseased or malformed by its alienation from nature. In order to heal this malady, practicing Jews should attend to their senses and notice how some religious rituals were already enmeshed in the natural world.
The peddler is sincere (with maybe a hint of a wink), while his creator is baldly ironic in proclaiming that Mendele suffers from the foreign malady called love of nature. This constitutional weakness, we are told, dictates his choice of occupation and so sets into motion the journey of Jewish literary modernism.
Gentlemen, I confess! I’ve had a weakness since childhood—I wouldn’t wish it on any Jew—which in their language is called “love of nature.” That is, a love for everything that grows, that sprouts, that lives, that exists in the world. It just draws me; may it never be said of you. Every so often into my mind creeps some delight, a pretty face, a picture, an image—a blade of grass, a dear little tree, a sweet little rose, a birdie. I know, I know, how is it even possible? And well might one ask, aren’t you ashamed? A Jew with a beard, a needy Jew, a married man, a father of children, who naturally ought to be full of cares . . . pondering, mulling over practical matters. Even besides all that, aren’t you ashamed as just a plain old Jew to be dwelling on such wanton folly, such mischief, as nature-shmature?
Oh, I know full well that such things aren’t befitting of a Jew, yet what on earth should I do when I have—as you never should—such an inborn weakness, such an evil urge, which draws me to it like a magnet? And just when exactly does this happen? As if to get my goat, it comes on when I’m into something serious, important, something Jewish, for example, or something to do with my livelihood. So imagine, I’m right in the middle of kidesh levone, the blessing over the new moon—smack-dab in the thick of that gabfest and swaying up a storm along with everyone else when boom! It draws me upward to the beautiful, starry blue sky with the brooding, sorrowing, waxing moon. The thoughts think themselves, and of God knows what—radiant faces, beautiful, burning, pensive eyes, a whole lot of sighing, and thick, dense-boughed linden trees. And then I don’t have the slightest idea what nonsense my own mouth is babbling. Somebody greets me with a “Sholem Aleichem!” and I reply “Lekha doydi likres kale!” (“Go my beloved, toward the Sabbath bride!”) It’s the same thing at Sukes, the harvest festival, with the esrog, the lulav, the hoshanes. I forget the commandment itself, the “proper intent” of the thing: the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and the Divine Presence are set aside, and I’m off enjoying how beautiful, how fresh, how they smell like pure pleasure . . .
And as for going to do tashlikh, such a serious Jewish ritual, to cast off our sins—for me it becomes a scenic stroll. When I’m supposed to be reciting all those words, I stare at the river and let my mind wander over to the green marsh that extends all the way off into the distance. I see before me a running, babbling brook, geese swimming proudly. A breeze blows gently; tall reeds whisper their secrets; the brook burbles and reflects a weeping willow, its branches bending into the water . . . The sky is clear, the air fresh, a Godly silence is in the valleys, hills, and groves all around. Something draws my soul, it longs, craves—Oh, Master of the Universe!—I myself don’t know what for . . . I live for these walks. In field and forest, I am not at all what I am in the city: I’m free, slipped from the yoke. What is “wife” to me, or “child,” or “Jew,” or “worry”? I take pleasure, lose myself in delight at the Almighty’s creation; I give myself over with all my senses and get drunk on the beauty of God’s world!
That same evil urge—which I wouldn’t wish on you, Jewish children—grumbled within me: Mendl! Selling holy books was made to order. Pawn a little something for a deposit—your wife’s bit of jewelry—buy a horse and cart, pack it with books, and set out into the world. Whether you earn money or not doesn’t matter; the main thing is the traveling around, the joy of seeing and hearing your fill of lovely things along the way. On the road, you’ll travel like a king in your wagon, observing every bit of God’s clever, beautiful work and his creatures. Over hills and valleys, fields and forests. The horsie will trudge along, clippety-clop, and you’ll just lookety-look. And so: on the road and in towns and cities, you’ll observe many kinds of Jews, beautiful faces, fine creatures, strange characters, all manner of people, hunchbacked, broken-nosed, long-handed, sticky-fingered, every kind, both old-fashioned and new. From them, you’ll get something to tell stories about, to sing and to speak.
Now do you understand, Jewish children?
Miriam Udel is associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Emory University. She holds an AB in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and a PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University. She is the author of Never Better! The Modern Jewish Picaresque (University of Michigan Press), winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Modern Jewish Thought and Experience, and of Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (New York University Press, 2020). She was a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2013 and 2019.