The Esrog

by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Curt Leviant

“This year we’re going to buy an esrog,” my father declared, and I imagined my father coming to shul, like a respectable householder with his own esrog and lulav and not using the congregation’s as did other poor people in town.

When I heard this news, I could no longer restrain myself and told everyone in kheyder that this Sukkos we would have our very own esrog. But no one believed me.

“Look who’s getting his own esrog!” some of my pals snickered. “That pauper is going to buy himself his own esrog! He probably thinks it’s a cheap lemon!”

***

Well, Father did buy one and his hands quivered with joy as he held it. He called Mama and smilingly pointed to it, as though it were an expensive necklace.

Mama approached silently and slowly stretched her hand to take hold of the esrog, whose heavenly fragrance spread to every corner of the room.

“Oh, no,” he said. “Look, but don’t touch.  But if you want to sniff it, you may.”

But I wasn’t even offered that much. I wasn’t even allowed to get too close to it. Not even to have a peek at it. For it was too risky.

“Uh-oh! Look, who’s here,” said Mama. “If you let him come close he’ll bite off the stem.”

“God forbid,” said Father, wary of the evil eye.

Father handled the aromatic esrog like a priceless object given to him for safekeeping, and which upon pain of death he dare not lose or damage. Wrapped in flax like a newly swaddled only child, the esrog was comfortably bedded down in a finely lathed, round, and painted wooden box. Before the lid was closed, the esrog was padded with some more flax. The box was then placed in the cupboard, the glass door closed, and the esrog was bid good-bye. Mama took me by the hand and dragged me away from the cupboard.

“I’m worried,” she said. “The little rascal’s likely to make a move for the cupboard, God forbid, and bite off the stem.”

But, alas, I hovered around that cupboard like a cat that had got a whiff of butter and restlessly paced back and forth, plotting what to do next. I looked through the glass door and kept ogling the esrog box until Mama spotted me. “The little devil’s got an urge to make a move on the esrog,” she told my father.

“Back to kheyder, you rascal,” Father yelled. “May goodness-knows-what not happen to you.”

In other words, they were telling me to beat it. I bowed my head, lowered my eyes, and went back to kheyder.

***

Mama’s remark that I might bite off the esrog’s stem was a venomous potion that seeped into my bones. From then on, the stem invaded my consciousness and didn’t leave my thoughts for a minute. At night I dreamed of the stem. It teased me; it urged me on.

“Don’t you recognize me, silly? It’s me. The esrog stem!”

Moaning, I awoke, turned over on the other side, and fell asleep again. Then the torment began once more.

“Get up, silly. Open the cupboard. Take out the esrog and bite me off. What ecstasy that’ll be!”

I rose in the morning, washed my hands, and, rushing to go off to prayers, took some breakfast with me. Passing the glass doors of the cupboard, I quickly glanced at the esrog box. It seemed to call to me. “Come here…come over here, little boy.” 

But I turned on my heels and took off for kheyder.

***

When I awoke one bright morning, the house was still. Father was at work, Mama was at the market. I washed my hands, then peeked through the cupboard’s glass door at the esrog box.  I opened the glass door, removed the box, and lifted the cover. Before I even unwrapped the flax, the esrog’s pungent and heavenly fragrance pierced my nostrils. A split second later the esrog was in my hands, and the stem leaped toward my face.  

“Want a thrill? A taste of paradise? Here. Bite me off. Don’t be afraid, silly. No one will know. Not a living soul will see. No little bird will tell on you.”

Would you like to know what happened? Did I bite off the stem, or did I control myself? What would you have done if people had warned you a dozen times not to dare bite off the esrog’s stem? Wouldn’t you have wanted to know what it tasted like?

***

Our neighbor, Zalman the carpenter, helped us build the sukkah. Since his wife had recently died, leaving eight orphaned children, Mama baked the holiday challah for them and helped the eldest daughter, Tsviya, make gefilte fish—for Mama made the best gefilte fish in Kasrilevke. And of course, Zalman would also have use of our esrog.

“How many more days to Sukkos?” everyone asked, eagerly counting the days.

***

On the eve of Sukkos, a thought kept pecking at me. What would happen if, God forbid, Father would inspect the esrog and discover that the poor thing’s stem was bitten off?

It’s true that I immediately stuck it back on with spit. But who knows if spit would make the stem stick? Oh, God, what would happen? What excuse would I make? How could I look my parents in the eye and swear that I didn’t know a thing about it? Who would believe me? Why had I done this? What had I gained by it? What sort of taste did the stem have? To tell the truth, it was—phoo—bitter as gall, terribly nauseating. I had spoiled such a lovely esrog for no reason, rendered it unfit for ritual use. Why had I done such a thing? I thought of myself as a murderer. I had taken a living thing, bitten its head off, and taken its life. Why? What for? What good had it done me? The bitten-off stem swam before my eyes—yellow as wax, lifeless, a dead esrog, a corpse.

At night, I dreamed about the esrog. It vexed me, tugged at my sleeve, and woke me up.

“Did you have anything against me? Why did you bite off my stem? Now I’m not kosher anymore, completely unfit for use.”

I turned over on the other side, groaned, and dozed off until I was disturbed once more.

“Murderer! What did you have against my stem? My stem? My stem?”

The first day of Sukkos came. After a night of frost the sun rose in a clear blue sky and covered the earth with a lovely light that filled every heart with an odd sensation, an inexplicable yearning for the summer gone by. The sun gave light, but no warmth. Like a stepmother, as they say in Kasrilevke. Gone was the summer heat. Gone were the birdcalls and everything green.    

That day Father rose early to review the holiday Torah portion, chanting the beautifully familiar festival melody. Mama too rose early to prepare the holiday fish, the farfel and the carrot tzimmes. That day Zalman the carpenter also rose at the crack of dawn. He wanted to be the first to make the blessing over the esrog, after which he would be able to relax with a glass of tea and milk and enjoy the festive atmosphere.

“Reb Zalman wants the esrog and lulav,” Mama told Father.

“Open the cupboard, and remove the box gently,” Father replied. He stood on a bench, brought the lulav down from the top of the cupboard, then took both the esrog and lulav to the sukkah and offered them to Reb Zalman the carpenter.

“Here, say the blessing,” he told Zalman. “Be careful with the esrog. For God’s sake, hold it gently.”

Zalman the carpenter, God bless him, was a solidly built man with a healthy pair of paws.

Into these hands fell the fragrant and delicate esrog. So Father had good reason to tremble when Zalman grabbed the esrog, squeezed it right well, recited the first benediction, and mercilessly shook the lulav.

“Gently, gently,” said Father, concerned for the esrog. “Now turn the esrog upside down, stem downward, and say the second blessing, ‘Blessed art thou . . . who has permitted us to live and sustained us to this day.’ . . . but gently! For God’s sake, easy does it!”

Suddenly Father lunged forward and emitted an unearthly shriek:

“Oy!”

Hearing his yell, Mama came dashing into the sukkah. 

“What’s the matter, Moshe-Yenkel? What is it?”

“You savage! You boor!” Father yelled at the carpenter, ready to kill him with a glance. "Such a clout? Is an esrog an ax? You’ve just cut my throat without a knife. You’ve mangled my esrog. Look! There’s the stem, you savage! You clunk!”

We were all thunderstruck. Poor Zalman the carpenter stood motionless, unable to comprehend how such misfortune had befallen him. What could possibly have caused the stem to sail off that way? He was certain he had held the esrog gingerly, with the tips of his fingers. What a terrible calamity!

Father, too, was stunned; he turned white as a corpse. He hadn’t yet gone to shul with the esrog, hadn’t even said the first blessing. And here it was already ruined. Why had he put such an expensive and delicate fruit into such rough hands? Couldn’t Zalman just as well have made the blessing over congregation’s esrog in shul?

“You brute! You lout!” 

Mama, wringing her hands, was also stupefied. 

“A ne’er do well,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “ought to bury himself alive. Sink into the earth while he’s hale and hearty.”

I, too, stood there petrified and trembling. I was pained by my father’s sorrow, my mother’s tears, and Zalman’s humiliation. I didn’t know whether to leap for joy because God had performed a miracle for me and saved me from such trouble and catastrophe; to weep over my father’s sorrow, my mother’s tears, and Zalman’s humiliation; or to embrace Zalman the carpenter and rain kisses on his coarse hands for being my good angel, my deliverer, my redeemer.

My glance went from Father’s white face to Mama’s tears to Zalman’s hands. Zalman gaped at the esrog on the table, lying there as dead as a doornail, yellow as wax. Stemless, lifeless, a corpse.

“A dead esrog,” Father said, and his voice broke.

“A dead esrog,” Mama repeated with tears in her eyes.

“A dead esrog,” Zalman said and looked at his hands, as if to say: “What a pair of paws—may they wither away!”

***

Curt Leviant’s most recent books are his ninth and tenth novels, the widely praised King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.

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