Here’s the conversation my father had with Azriel the Shamesh a few days before Pesach:
“Reb Yonah, I have a guest for you for Pesach. I guarantee you’ve never seen anyone like him. No run-of-the-mill visitor, but a gem, a peach of a man.”
“What do you mean a peach?”
“I mean he’s top-notch. All class. A man of distinction. But he’s got only one fault. He doesn’t understand Yiddish.”
“Then what language does he understand?”
“The holy tongue, Hebrew.”
“Is he from Jerusalem?”
“I don’t know where he’s from. But he speaks with a Sephardic accent—whatever he says is full of ‘aahs.’”
I was curious to see this peach of a man who spoke no Yiddish but only Hebrew with lots of “aahs.” In shul, I had noticed an odd-looking creature in a fur cap, wearing a Turkish cloak with yellow, blue, and red stripes. All the kids surrounded him and gaped. For this, Azriel the Shamesh raked us over the coals: It’s a terrible habit kids have poking into a stranger’s face.
After prayers the entire congregation greeted the newcomer with Sholom and wished him gut yontev.
A sweet smile spread over his gray-whiskered red checks; however, instead of our Sholom, he replied, “Shalom, shalom.”
His shalom caused us youngsters to double over with laughter. Which annoyed Azriel the Shamesh. He chased after us, ready to dole out smacks. But we dodged him and sneaked up to the newcomer again to hear him say again, “Shalom, shalom.” Once more we burst into hysterics and ducked away from Azriel’s raised hand.
Proud as a peacock, I followed my father and the odd-looking character, sensing that all my friends envied me for having a guest of such caliber for the holiday. Their glances followed us from afar, and I turned around and stuck my tongue out at them. All three of us were silent on our way home. When we entered the house, Father called out to Mama, “Gut yontev!”
The guest nodded, and his fur cap shook.
I thought of my friends and stuck my head under the table, trying hard to keep a straight face. I kept glancing at our guest. I liked him. I liked his Turkish cloak with its yellow, blue, and red stripes; his apple-red cheeks edged with a round gray beard; his beautiful black eyes that twinkled beneath his bushy gray eyebrows. I felt that my father liked him too. Father was delighted by his presence. He himself prepared the cushioned chair for our guest, and Mama considered him a holy man. Yet no one said a word to him. Mama, assisted by Rikl the maid, was in a dither preparing for the Seder. Conversation first began when we were ready to recite the Kiddush over the wine. Then Father spoke to our guest in Hebrew. I brimmed with pride since I understood almost every word.
Here is what they said in Hebrew, word for word:
Father: “Nu?” (Meaning in Yiddish: Please recite the Kiddush!)
The Guest: “Nu, nu!” (Translated, this means: You recite it.)
Father: “Nu-aw?” (Why not you?)
The Guest: “Aw-nu?” (And why don’t you?)
Father:“Ee-aw?” (You first!)
The Guest: “Aw-ee.” (First you!)
The Father : “Eh-aw-ee” (Please, you say it!)
The Guest: “Ee-aw-eh!” (You say it, please!)
Father: “Ee-eh-aw-nu?” (Does it really matter to you if you say it first?)
The Guest: “Ee-eh-aw? Nu, nu!” (Well, if you insist, then I’ll say it!)
The guest took the Kiddush cup from Father’s hand and recited a Kiddush the likes of which we had never heard before and will never hear again. First of all, his Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation, full of “aahs.” Second, his voice, which came not from his throat but from his striped Turkish cloak. Thinking of my friends, I imagined the giggles that would have broken out and the blows and smacks that would have flown had they been here for the Kiddush. But since they were not with me, I controlled myself, asked Father the Four Questions, and we all recited the Haggadah together. I was proud as could be that this man was our guest and no one else’s.
May he forgive me for saying this, but the sage who suggested silence during mealtime had no knowledge of Jewish life. When else does a Jew have time to talk if not during mealtime? And especially at the Pesach Seder, when we talk so much about the Exodus from Egypt? Rikl handed us the water for the ritual washing of hands, and then we recited the blessing over the matzo. After Mama had distributed the fish, Father rolled up his sleeves and got into a long Hebrew conversation with out guest. Naturally, Father began with the first question that one Jew always asks another:
“What’s your name?”’
The guest’s reply was one full of “aahs,” rattled off in one breath, as quickly as Haman’s sons’ names are dashed off during the reading of the Purim Megillah.
“Zyxw Vuts Rqpon Mlk Jihg Fed Cba,” said our guest.
Father stopped chewing, and looked with open-mouthed amazement at the guest who bore such a long name. I fell into a fit of coughing and stared down at the floor.
“Careful with the fish,” said Mama. “You could choke on a bone, God forbid.”
She looked at our guest in awe, obviously impressed by his name, even though she didn’t know what it meant. And since Father did know, he explained:
“His name, you see, contains all the letters of the alphabet backward. Evidently, it’s one of their customs to name their children in some alphabetical fashion.”
“Alphabet! Alphabet!” The guest nodded. A sweet smile played on his apple-red cheeks, and his beautiful black eyes gazed at everyone so amiably, even at Rikl the maid.
Having learned his name, Father was curious about the land he had come from. This I gathered from the names of towns and countries that I heard mentioned. Father then translated for Mama, explaining almost every word. Each word impressed Mama. Rikl too. And with good cause. It was no small thing for a person to travel 10,000 miles from one’s homeland. To reach it one had to cross seven seas, trek 40 days and 40 nights through a desert, and climb an enormous ice-capped mountain whose peak touched the clouds. But once one safely passed this wind-whipped mountain and entered the land, one saw before him the terrestrial Garden of Eden filled with spices and condiments, apples and pears, oranges and grapes, olives and dates, and nuts and figs. The houses, built only of pinewood, were covered with pure silver. The dishes were of gold (while saying this, our guest glanced at our silver goblets, spoons, forks, and knives), and gems, pearls, and diamonds lay scattered on the streets. No one even bothered to bend and pick them up because they had no value there. (The guest now peered at Mama’s diamond earrings and her pearl necklace.)
“Do you hear that?” Father said to Mama, beaming.
“Yes,” said Mama and asked, “Why don’t they bring all that treasure here? They would make a fortune. Ask him about that, Yonah.”
Father asked and translated the reply into Yiddish for Mama’s benefit. “You see, if you travel there, you can take as much as you like. Fill up your pockets. But when you leave, you must return everything. If they shake anything out of your pockets, they execute you.”
“What does that mean?” Mama asked, frightened.
“That means they either hang you from the nearest tree or stone you to death.”
The more our guest spoke, the more interesting his stories became. Once, after we had eaten the matzo balls and were sipping some wine, Father asked him:
“Which man possesses all that wealth? Is there a king there?”
He immediately got a precise answer, which he joyfully translated for Mama.
“He says that all that wealth belongs to the Jews who live there. They are called Sephardim. They have a king, he says, a very religious Jew with a fur cap named Joseph ben Joseph. He is the Sephardim’s high priest and rides around in a golden chariot drawn by six fiery steeds. And when he comes to shul, singing Levites come to greet him.
“Do Levites sing in your shul?” Father asked him wonderingly. He immediately got an answer, which he translated into Yiddish for Mama.
“Imagine!” he said, his face shining like the sun. “He says that they have a holy temple with priests and Levites and an organ—”
“How about an altar?” Father asked, then told Mama what our guest had said.
“He says they have an altar, sacrifices, and golden vessels. Everything as it once used to be in ancient Jerusalem.”
Father sighed deeply. Mama looked at him and sighed too. I didn’t understand why they sighed. On the contrary, we should be proud and happy that we had a land like this where a Jewish king reigned, where there was a high priest and a holy temple with priests and Levites and an organ and an altar with sacrifices. …
Beautiful and bright thoughts snatched me up and carried me away to that happy Jewish land, where all the houses were made of pinewood and covered with silver, where the dishes were of gold, and where gems, pearls, and diamonds were scattered on the streets. Suddenly I had an idea. If I were there, I would have known what to do and how to hide what I had found. They wouldn’t have shaken a thing out of my pockets. I would have brought Mama a fine present—diamond earrings and several strands of pearls. I looked at the diamond earrings and the pearl necklace on Mama’s white throat and had a strong desire to be in that land. I fancied that after Pesach I would travel there with our guest. Naturally, in absolute secrecy. No one would know a thing. I would reveal the secret only to our guest, pour out my heart to him, tell him the whole truth, and ask him to take me with him, if only for a little while. He’d surely do that for me. He was an extremely kind and pleasant man. He looked at everyone so amiably, even at Rikl the maid.
So ran my thoughts as I looked at our guest. It seemed to me that he read my mind, for he looked at me with his beautiful black eyes, and I imagined that he winked and addressed me in his own language:
“Not a word, you little rascal. Wait till after Pesach, and everything will be all right.”
All night long I was beset by dreams. I dreamt of a desert, a holy temple, a high priest, and a lofty mountain. I climbed the mountain. Gems, pearls, and diamonds grew there. My friends clambered up the trees and shook the branches, bringing down an endless supply of precious stones. I stood there, gathered up the jewels, and stuffed them into my pockets. And, amazingly enough, no matter how many I stuffed there were always more. I put my hand into my pocket and instead of gems I took out all kinds of fruits—apples, pears, and oranges, olives and dates, nuts and figs. …
This terrified me, and I tossed from side to side. I dreamt of the holy temple. I heard the priests chanting their blessings, the Levites singing, and the organ playing. I wanted to go into the holy temple but could not. Rikl the maid held my hand fast and didn’t let me go. I begged her; I yelled; I wept. I was scared to death and tossed from side to side.
Then I awoke—
Before me were my parents, half-dressed, both as pale as death. Father’s head was bowed. Mother wrung her hands, and tears brimmed in her beautiful eyes. My heart sensed that something awful had happened, something terribly dreadful, but yet I was unable to comprehend the extent of the disaster.
Our guest, the stranger from that faraway land, from that blissful land where houses were made of pinewood, covered with pure silver, and so on—that guest had vanished. And along with him a host of other things as well. All our silver goblets, all our silverware, all of Mama’s meager jewelry, as well as all the cash in our drawers. And Rikl the maid had taken off with him too.
I was heartbroken, but not because of the stolen silver, or Mama’s jewelry, or the cash, or Rikl the maid—the devil take her. I was heartbroken over that blissful land where precious stones lay scattered about, and over the holy temple with the priests and Levites, the organ, altar, and sacrifices, and over all the other good things that had been taken from me—brutally, brutally stolen.
And I turned to the wall and wept softly to myself.
Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
Sholem Aleichem, (Shalom Rabinovitz; 1859–1916), is one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature.