King for a Day

by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Curt Leviant

He had snow-white hair and curly sidelocks, which he covered with an old-fashioned Napoleon-style hat. He was always seen holding a long thick staff with a carved ivory handle and carrying a sack on his bent back. On Friday afternoons and the eves of holidays he always went from house to house collecting challahs for the poor Jewish prisoners.  

That was Old Dovidl, almost 100 years old; a town celebrity better known as David, King of Israel. Since everyone knew the old man, and knew that he just wanted bread for the poor prisoners, no one quibbled over it with him. There were those who had bread and the will to share, as well as those who had neither. But Old Dovidl did not take it amiss if he was turned away empty-handed. If everyone had bread and the will to share, he asked, who would be left to take it? And without givers and takers, what would become of compassion, righteousness and mitzvahs? Then what need would there be for the World-to-Come and Paradise? And if there would be neither World-to-Come nor Paradise, where would the righteous souls go? 

Such were the questions that ran through Old Dovidl’s mind. His view was that whatever God did was right; there had to be takers and givers, haves and have-nots, prisoners and free men who cared for the prisoners by collecting challahs on Friday afternoons and on the eves of holidays. 


Who was Old Dovidl—or David, King of Israel? What did he do during his first hundred years and before he began collecting bread for the poor Jewish prisoners?  

No one knew.  

What means of support did Old Dovidl have? How did he earn his living? Exactly how old was he? Where were his children and grandchildren?  

No one knew that either. The answers were a well-kept secret. There simply wasn’t a man who could remember. And if you asked Dovidl himself he wouldn’t reply. In fact, you’d be much better off if you didn’t even try to find out. If you got to talking with him, he’d ask you to contribute something for his poor prisoners. For he always managed to steer any conversation to his favorite subject: 

“Reb Dovidl! Where did you sleep last night?”  

“God be praised, at least it wasn’t in the prison. Do you by any chance have some old clothing for my prisoners?”  

“Reb Dovidl! Where have all your children and grandchildren gone to?”  

“God be praised, they’re scattered all over. Over here, the other over there, spread over seven seas. Some have died, some are alive. Some are well off, others not. So long as they’re not in prison, God forbid. Do you by any chance have, excuse the expression, some underwear for my prisoners?”  

“Reb Dovidl! May you live to be one hundred and twenty, exactly how old are you?”  

“God be praised, I’m no youngster. May it be God’s will that you too reach my old age. But I wish you better luck. And most of all, may you never see the inside of a prison as long as you live. By any chance, do you have a pair of tattered boots lying around for my prisoners?”  

Such a man was Old Dovidl—David, King of Israel.  


Why was he called David, King of Israel?   

Because once a year during Simchas Torah he became a king, the King of the Jewish children.  

At Simchas Torah you would not recognize Old Dovidl. His bent back was straight, his beard and side curls were combed. His Napoleon-style hat was turned at a jaunty angle. His broad white collar was smooth and neat, and he no longer carried his staff and sack. Today Old Dovidl was transformed. His face shone, his eyes sparkled. Having taken a drop of liquor in honor of the holiday, Old Dovidl became spirited and gay. He became a new man with a reanimated soul.  

He gathered all the children from the synagogues, lined them up around him in a circle, and stood in the midst of it, stretched his hand heavenward and sang:  

“Holy little lambs!”  

“Baa-baa,” replied the youngsters.  

“Tell me now who’s leading you?”  

“Our King David, baa-baa.”  

“What’s his full name?”  

“David, King of Israel, baa-baa.”  

“Then shout it out, Jewish children, with a pretty tune: David, King of Israel, is still alive!”  

“David . . . King . . . of Israel . . . is still . . . alive! Baa-baa!”  

“Once again. Holy little lambs!”  


“Tell me now who’s leading you?”  

“Our King David, baa-baa.”  

“What’s his full name?”  

“David, King of Israel, baa-baa.”  

“Then shout it out, Jewish children, with a pretty tune: David, King of Israel, is still alive!”  

“David . . . King . . . of Israel . . . is still . . . alive!” More children joined the troupe. The cavalcade grew. The crowd of onlookers swelled. The sound of tumultuous voices filled the village. David, the King of Israel, stopped at every sukkah, where he was given a drink by the householders and a piece of cake by their wives. He drank the whiskey and distributed the cake among the children, singing:  

“Holy little lambs!”  


“What have I got in my hands?”  

“Honey cake, baa-baa.”  

“What blessing is said over it?”  

“Blessed is he who creates various kinds of food. Baa-baa.”  

“Tell me now who is leading you?”  

“Our King David, baa-baa.”  

“What’s his full name?”  

“David, King of Israel, baa-baa.”  

“Then shout it out, Jewish children, with a pretty tune: “David . . . King . . . of Israel . . . is still . . . alive! David . . . King  . . . of Israel . . . is still . . . alive!  


You might wonder what harm was there in a poor old centenarian's taking a drop of liquor once a year on Simchas Torah, becoming cheerful and gay, and posing as a king, while young merrymakers trailed after him bleating, “Baa-baa”?  

But here's what happened:  

Just before Rosh Hashanah, during the season of the Penitential Prayers, a new police chief was sent to our village (the old one had dropped dead). As usual, the new police chief, sporting a personality all his own, instituted brand-new procedures. First of all, it was said that he was a scrupulously conscientious man—too conscientious, in fact. Meeting a Jew, he would straightaway ask him: “What's your name and where are you from? Got a passport?” Secondly, his palms were absolutely ungreasable. He took nothing. Neither cash nor goods. He was clean as a whistle. The news spread like wildfire through town. Bad business! A rat! A Haman!  

The next morning he was already strolling through the village. He scuttled through the marketplace, inspected all the stores and butcher shops, poked his nose into the synagogue courtyard, sniffed here and there . . . but, poor fellow, what illicit business could he have found during the holiday season? The schoolchildren were on break, and counterfeit money was not our stock in trade. So, we dismissed the police chief from our thoughts.  

But God provided him with grist for the mill. The holiday of Sukkos! Just listen. He didn't like the way the Jews built sukkahs. Said they were a fire hazard, dangerous to life and limb. Get the picture? For thousands of years Jews have lived in these sukkahs and feared absolutely nothing. Now all of a sudden there was a fire to worry about!  

“Well, your lordship, what exactly is it you want?”  

“I don't want you to build your sukkahs that way, but rather like so . . . ”  

Of course, they paid as much attention to him as Haman does to the Purim grogger. And everyone began building their sukkahs in the age-old traditional way. So the police chief got wind of this and had them torn down.  

A delegation was sent to him. “Your lordship,” they said, “how can we celebrate Sukkos without our sukkahs?”  

“Nothing doing,” he said.  

So go knock your head against the wall. For if you really insisted, he'd demand to see your passport and take down your name.  

To make a long story short, we were in hot water. We all kept a low profile. Several families shared one sukkah scared to death lest—I don't have to spell it out for you! But the good Lord had mercy on us and most of the holiday passed by without incident. All our fears had been in vain. But then came the final day of the holiday, Simchas Torah.  


On the last day, Simchas Torah, Old Dovidl and his troupe of merrymakers came into the synagogue courtyard.  

“Holy little lambs!” he called out in his usual fashion.  

“Baa-baa,” replied the little lambs.  

Suddenly the police chief materialized as though out of nowhere. He gazed at the scene in utter amazement, apparently seeing such a show for the first time. Since Old Dovidl had no fear of the new police chief, he continued:  

“Tell me now, Jewish children, who's leading you?”  

“Our King David!”  

“What's his full name?”  

“David, King of Israel.”  

“Then shout it out, Jewish children, with a pretty tune: David . . . King . . . of . . . Israel . . . is still . . . alive!”  

“David . . . King . . . of Israel . . . is still . . . alive!”  

The police chief then demanded an explanation. What did all this mean? Who was the old man? And what were the youngsters singing?  

Reb Shepsl the teacher, who had a reputation for his knowledge of Russian, stepped forth. He tucked his side-curls behind his ears and volunteered to be the interpreter.  

“He is David, the Jewish Czar, and the children are his serfs,” said Reb Shepsl in Russian.  

At this the police chief clapped his hands in glee and began to laugh. But do you think he just chuckled? He clutched his sides and laughed so hysterically he almost went into convulsions. David, King of Israel, did not stop singing, “Holy little lambs!” and the holy little lambs did not stop shouting, “Baa-baa.” After a while, the police chief got sick of the performance. He chased the troupe of children away, and, in his usual fashion, took David, King of Israel, to task.  

“Where are you from?” he demanded. “Got a passport?”  

It turned out that the old King of Israel himself did not know where he was from. And so, alas, he was sent to jail, where he joined his poor prisoners.  

“He'll sober up there,” said the police chief, “that old sot!”  

A year later, Jews dwelled in their sukkahs, as usual. They made merry at Simchas Torah as they did every year. But one element was missing. David, King of Israel, was gone. And his little song, “Holy little lambs,” which elicited the reply, “Baa-baa,” was heard no more.  


Sholem Aleichem (born 1859 in Russia; died 1916 in New York) loved the Jewish holidays. He wrote stories about the entire cycle of festivals, always with his traditional humor, but occasionally, as in "King for a Day,” with pathos and a touch of sadness.  

Curt Leviant has translated five volumes of Sholem Aleichem’s works. Leviant’s most recent novel is Katz or Cats; Or How Jesus Became My Rival in Love. His European best-seller, Diary of an Adulterous Woman, has been translated into eight languages and will soon appear in a Bulgarian translation.  


Read the original Yiddish version of "King for a Day" in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.