SWEETS FOR PURIM
by Sholom Aleichem ( Real name: Shlomo Rabinowitz)
translation by Louis Fridhandler
A story in honor of Purim told in a hurry, on one foot, by a Jew from Kasrilevke, reported word for word by Sholom Aleichem.
I say, you're face is familiar. Have we met before? Seems I've seen you someplace. Maybe not. I see you're in a hurry. Running late? Me too. Everybody's rushing around. What's the big hurry? People think they'll latch onto something; maybe make a little money for Peysekh. In no time, before you look around, it's Purim. Oy, mention Purim, and shalakhmones comes to mind.
Ha-ha- ha! Shalakhmones! I laugh. Some laughter! Vey, vey.
If you like, while we're walking I can tell you a nice story (as they say, on one foot) about shalakhmones. It happened just last year in shtetl Kasrilevke, a little Jewish town. In fact, I come from there myself.
I don't know how it is by you, but with us in Kasrilevke, sending each other shalakhmones is an old custom, dyed-in-the-wool. You see, no argument. Strictly fact. It's as plain as day: when the messiah comes, we give up all customs, everything, but sending shalakhmones will go on. After all, no question: the megile, the Scroll of Esther, you know, makes it very clear: gifts for the poor! Nu, we are all, praise God, honest-to-goodness paupers.
But we're not talking that, we're talking..., shalakhmones is what we're talking.
Ay, shalakhmones! Ay, Purim!
Last year about this time, we had a Purim! Nu, nu! Heaven protect us from it today; it shouldn't happen to a Jewish town. We will have it to remember from generation unto generation. And who is to blame? Nobody but our own Jewish people. Nobody else. We're always in a hurry. We have no time. When a new Police Commissioner shows up (somebody shot the one before, right in the street) the devil grabs them (the Jews), and they try to beat everyone else to give him a welcome. Who asks you? Who pulls you in by the neck? But here, we have a few big wheeler-dealers. Without them, the whole town would fall apart. Me too; I'm one of those "chosen" few.
All of a sudden we had to do it! Couldn't we wait? We had to form a delegation. But who should be the delegation? To tell the truth again, we were: the few, the pick of our town! Who elected us, the "chosen" ones? Where do you go among Jews to get the chosen? We ourselves decided to choose ourselves. That's today's kind of world, more's the pity. Whoever takes the reins in hand, and says "Giddyap!" that's who goes places.
In short, it was settled. We should go see the new big shot, and greet him with bread and salt and a few fine words, as God saw fit. And so began a new fancy business. Again! Who? Who should make the speeches? They picked me. Me? Imagine! Compared to the rest of them, I was the big speechmaker! Where did I learn Russian? Well, anyhow, I can talk better than all of them. Maybe not such good grammar, but as long as they understand me.... Yeah, I talk every time. I don't let the others talk, because it's a shame before God to hear how they talk.
So, what does God arrange for us? Our new Police Commissioner has to arrive exactly on Purim, on the Fast of Esther. Next morning, we have to go give him a welcome. Now, I ask you, what should a person bring to a big shot on Purim? Shalakhmones, of course! (This was really my idea.)
And so we (again us?), heads of the finest families in town, we put a nice tray together. One gave a homentash; so-and-so gave sugar cakes; somebody threw on a pair of cream-puffs; one brought a couple poppy-seed cookies; one an orange; a piece of strudel. What can I tell you? (A little bottle of cognac, also.) We put together a shalakhmones, it would have been no disgrace, believe me, to take it before the tsar himself.
I thought of a few choice words the night before. I was ready to put a whole lecture on the big shot: I was going to compare the way things are today with the way things used to be. I would give him some earful: how we once had a Haman, who really crawled under our skin. But as long as the One above wanted it, Haman's hash was nicely settled, and we are still around. Then I thought more about it. Feh. It's not worth the trouble. In a time of "constitution," less talk is healthier.
Next morning, after prayers, we dressed in our holiday best, and we (us, the chosen ones) started off with the shalakhmones to the new big cheese. We spread everything out in style on a plate: the homentashen on the bottom, the cakes, the cookies, on top; and right in the middle, the bottle of cognac (for a ruble and 30 kopeks, cognac from Palestine, kosher for Peysekh). And all nicely covered with a fine sparkling, red tablecloth. From away off, it had the look of a big red pudding.
And like that, we took a nice walk over to the big shot's place, very early so that no one should know and no one should see. Because you don't know our Kasrilevke. People talk. Let somebody put on a new pair of pants (excuse the expression), the whole town from end to end gets wind of it, and mouths are full of pants for a week. The town itself is not so much to blame as the people (I mean, between you and me, our own Jewish people). Loafers! Hate to see anybody else get ahead!
Even before we left the house, the town brats heard about us. We guessed right! The news spread like wildfire. "They're on the move! A delegation is on its way to the new Police Commissioner carrying shalakhmones!" Behind our backs grew a solid pack of ragamuffins. Driving the gang away was impossible, because the more you shoo them, the more interest they take. Like that, with a noisy tumult, we made our way to visit the new Police Commissioner. Zelig, the shamesh led the way holding high the shalakhmones with both hands. The rest of us delegates trailed after him, and behind us came the clump of kids. Like that, we arrived at the house of Mr. Big. Now that we're there, you think that's it? Job done? No, the real fancy business only got started. Who goes first? Who pulls the doorbell? What a squabble!
"Me? How come, me?"
"Why not, you?"
Our fine Kasrilevke geniuses! With the tongue, every one's an expert. But when you need a job done, nobody's home. "Go to the devil with you and your mother and your father!" says I to them. "What kind of delegates are you? Afraid of a bell! What'll it do to you? Pull, pull the bell, and it'll ring!" "If you're such a professor of bells, you pull!"
Always like that with a Jew. You tell him, one thing. He answers something else. Hard to settle anything with a Jew. But we're not talking that. We're talking shalakhmones.
In the end, we decided: no aristocrats in our crowd! "Everybody! Grab the bell- pull! All together.... PULL!" You should have heard the clang! Suddenly, we heard running around inside, up and down stairs, and the door swung open. Some woman appeared for a moment, gave one look at us, at the shamesh holding the shalakhmones, and she lets out a yell, "Good heavens!" Slammed the door in our faces, and there we were, left standing outside with shalakhmones. Like fools!
So, what are you waiting for, blockheads! About face with the horse-cart, and go home! But no. We had to stand around and consider the whole matter from all possible angles. Who could the woman be? A wife? A sweetheart? And just what did she see in us that made her leave us outside like this? And, as usual, each one poses his idea, and thinks only his idea is an idea. That maybe somebody else's idea is also an idea, that's what a Jew doesn't want to hear. Ay, a Jew!
(Well, I won't make it too long a story for you. I still have to be in three different places.)
Here we are, standing around, wrangling with each other about the lady. We look around.... Hey, where did all those cops come from? Hulking soldiers!UGLY APES! Armed to the teeth, and the top dog himself behind them. And they set up the artillery at us, and the Big Cheese opens his yap and yells out we should this minute put down that, whatever we're holding, darting his eyes at the shamesh and the shalakhmones. If not, says he, he'll give the order to shoot!
I don't have to tell you we obeyed. We put the shalakhmones down, without even taking off the little tablecloth, because he didn't let us get near enough. He said any one who puts a finger on it will be shot. On the spot. You hear that? You have to understand that for such a job, a Russian soldier is always ready. If the man says, "Shoot!" he shoots! How it was with us, at that moment, I don't have to tell you. Scared? That's hardly it! Frightened is when I'm afraid of something yet to happen! But how about when you see the angel of death, himself, standing right there? Right here is your face. Right here, your chin. And right there is the hole of the gun. And not one gun, but a lot of holes of a lot of guns. One shot, and good riddance, goodbye! Now, for myself? I'll tell you the truth. Some life! Joys and blessings? Not enough suffering in this world? Okay, so we live a few more years. We eat up a few more Purim challahs, and a few more pounds of matzoh. But a Jew, after all, a Jew.... A Jew has a wife and children! I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm not afraid of dying. It's just that I don't like it. But we're not talking that, we're talking shalakhmones, so I have to tell you how all this came out in the end.
Telling the rest is, kind of, really extra. Actually, I don't remember. I only know that they took nice care of us, very nice. I mean of us, all the finest, the best people in town; and they led us (with honor) over to the jail. And they held on to us while three weeks went by, slowly but surely. Only then did they take us before the chief.
Lucky, I have (with God's help) the gift of gab, and I know how to talk with a big shot. I had a little chat with him. With reason and logic, I gave him to understand that we meant only the best. I said to him, "Chief," says I, "Shalakhmones, an old, old custom," says I, "In honor of Your Highness, and so on...." Those words, exactly. I'm not exaggerating. Not even by a hair! So what do you think he said to that? Nothing! He just grabbed me by the ear, and said, "Yech..., y' ragpicker; y' chicken-liver!" On top of that, he let me have a fast jab right in the nose.
Thank God for that, because the way things are today, it's easier to get shot with a gun than to gulp down a homentash with poppy-seeds.
By the way, do you know what time it is?