by Sholem Aleichem and Y.D. Berkovitz, translated by Larry Rosenwald. (Illustrations by Daniel Krall)
Sholem Aleichem passed away before finishing his novel, Motl, the Cantor's Son. What follows is the opening of a new chapter in Motl's adventures, and an explanatory note by Sholem Aleichem's son-in-law and literary executor, Y.D. Berkovitz. A portion of this translation originally appeared in Pakn Treger (Summer 2016). You can download a pdf of the story at the bottom of this page.
In America there’s a custom: you moofe. That is, you pack up from one apartment to the next. From one street to the next. From one biznes to the next. Everybody has to moofe. If you don’t moofe of your own free will, then they make it so you have to.
That is, if you don’t pay the money for your apartment (here it’s called “rent”), they make a complaint and then throw you out. That’s called “moofing you out.” So you shouldn’t be surprised when they ask you, “When are you moofing?” And if they ask you, you have to answer. For refusing to answer, my brother Elye got such a scolding from a customer of ours, who comes in for matches (what we call shvebelekh). That is, every week he gets a box of matches at our stand, without paying. Here they give you matches for free. You don’t even have to wait till they give them to you. You just go over and take them.
The customer I’m telling you about is a strange guy. Maybe I should draw him for you. Who he is, what he is―we don’t know. Where he lives and what his bizneses are―we don’t know that either. A rich man clearly he isn’t. That much you can see from his threadbare coat, which he never changes, from his worn-out hat, from the patches on his shoes. But he’s a very precise kind of man. He arrives every day at the same hour, the same minute. He picks up the morning paper, has a look at the first and the last pages, has a look at the first and the last pages, takes a look in the middle of the paper, and puts the paper back down. As for buying, well, he hasn’t bought anything at all from us. Except that every day he takes a box of matches for free. And that every day he reads the morning paper. Which probably annoyed my brother Elye. Once a joke, twice a joke, but not a joke forever. So one time Elye thinks it over and says to him:
“It costs a penny.”
The customer does what he does; that is, he reads the first and the last pages of the morning paper. My brother Elye raises his voice:
“It costs a cent.”
The customer takes a look at the middle, folds the paper, and puts it away, just where it was before.
[A note by Y. D. Berkovitz:
At this point Motl, the Cantor’s Son breaks off. “We Moofe” was the last thing, the last lines, that Sholem Aleichem ever wrote, a few days before he departed from us, already lying on his deathbed. He had also put down a large, block-print gimel [the letter G, indicating a part 3], but after the gimel there are only empty white pages, so that the unknown customer, without a name, is still unknown to us, and all the other images and types of Jewish-American ghetto life that may have aroused the ever-alert imagination of our great portraitist in his last days remain locked and sealed away from Yiddish literature forever.
Something about this final chapter of Sholem Aleichem’s creative work (and perhaps also about the previous, penultimate chapter of Motl Peyse dem khazns in Amerika) we, the members of his household, were as it happened able to hear from his own mouth. Tuesday, May 9, in the evening—that is, four days before his death—I was called away from my work by a telephone call and informed that Sholem Aleichem was asking me to come soon. I had heard from the doctors, and was also confident myself, that the patient’s situation was not serious and that it would be only a few days until he was well again. But the whole way from the Lower East Side to the Bronx a strange, heavy unease was weighing on me. I was calm again only when I saw the window of Sholem Aleichem’s room, with a quiet, untroubled light streaming from it.
I found Sholem Aleichem in bed when I came in, cheerful and even somewhat animated. They had administered nourishment by artificial means, because the doctors believed he had a nervous stomach. A few hours previously, that afternoon, I had been with him in the room; now, though, he said it seemed to him that he had not seen me for several days. With a weak smile on his exhausted face, he recounted what a wonderful effect the artificial nourishment had had on him—it had literally opened his eyes, and he saw before him the whole bright world. Among other things he asked me whether they knew in the offices of the Varhayt (for which he had recently been writing) that he was sick, and he told us that tonight (that is, the Monday night before Tuesday) he had been writing, ignoring his considerable suffering, which gave him not a minute’s relief. “I lie here like this, I lie here a whole night,” he recounted, all the while drawing breath with difficulty. “I can’t sleep, my thoughts drift. . . . What’s the use in just lying here? I say to Momma, ‘What, am I going to get better from just lying here? It’s still a long time till dawn, so give me a pen and a folder of paper, at least I’ll be able to write.’ Writing is for me much easier, since in any case my thoughts are wearing me out; they won’t leave me in peace. . . . And just like that, bit by bit, I wrote a few chapters of Motl.” . . . And all the while his weary, sky-colored eyes, which in the last days gave out a strange blue, as pure and distant as the blue of heaven, were shining with a childlike, creative inspiration.
Those were the last lines of Sholem Aleichem’s creation, and the last words he said about his writing. In the morning his condition had become grave, the doctors were at a loss, and the calamity was coming near, like a dark cloud.
His last manuscript, “We Moofe,” though in Sholem Aleichem’s characteristic fine and clear penmanship, has clearly not been written by a healthy, easy hand. The letters are somewhat quavery and aslant, are not everywhere even but instead are larger here and smaller there, are not so pearly-clear and well-turned as Sholem Aleichem’s celebrated hand was typically.1 There are also, in this last manuscript, almost no erased or interpolated lines to be seen, though it was always his custom to considerably edit and polish his works. The few small chapters are apparently a first draft, waiting for a few days for their master to tidy them up in his way—but waiting for that moment in vain.]
1. Getokter perel-ksiv. It’s a bit tricky for the translator, because Berkovitz’s sentence has some awkward repetitions. Un zenen shoyn nit azoy pereldik und getokt, vi der barimter getokter perel-ksav fun sholem-aleykhem. The rendering in the text eliminates those repetitions, at the cost of some fidelity to the original.