When I was a little boy, owning a flag for Simchat Torah—and I mean a real flag in the full sense of the word: a lit candle in an apple and the apple on top of the flag—was such bliss, such joy, I hardly dared dream about it. There were other things to dream about! There were some boys in school who had money for penknives, purses, and little canes. There were those who ate candy and cracked nuts every single day. Not to mention bagels and latkes. There were even those who ate challah not only on Sabbath but on weekdays too.
But me, Kopel, I never tasted challah on weekdays. I was happy if I had my fill of black bread, for we were—God spare you such a bitter lot—a bunch of paupers, despite the fact that everyone in the family worked his fingers to the bone. Father, may he rest in peace was the assistant shamesh of the basement prayer-room annex of the Butchers Synagogue; Mother, God rest her soul, was an expert at baking honey cakes; and my sisters mended socks. And me, I never had the feeling of being full. Believe me, there wasn’t a meal which I couldn’t have begun all over again.
I’m not even talking about having a kopeck in your pocket, a kopeck to call your very own. Of that I never even dream. But once I suddenly became rich and got 44 kopecks to do with as I pleased.
You think a miracle happened? That some rich man’s loss was my gain? Well, you’ve guessed wrong. Or perhaps you suspect I simply nabbed those kopecks from a charity box? God forbid! I swear I earned them honestly. I worked like a horse for them with my own two … feet.
It happened during Purim. Father sent me to distribute the Purim sweet platters among the members of the basement prayer-room annex of the Butchers Synagogue. One of my older sisters usually had this job, but now that I was getting bigger my father said it was high time for me to make myself useful.
So I went from house to house carrying a saucer and some fruit-cuts to distribute. I slogged through the cold slippery muck barefoot, and changed the small coins I was given as tips into a silver 40-kopeck piece—and I still had 4 kopecks left over.
Having come by such a fortune, I strolled about wondering what to do with so much money, knock wood.
Then, suddenly, my Good Impulse and my Bad Impulse appeared and began to torment me.
Said my Bad Impulse: “Why hold on to those few kopecks, you dummy? Buy yourself something, Kopel. Buy sweet poppyseed squares. Or get some good fruit-cuts sprinkled with honey crumbs. Or at least a frozen apple. And then you’ll be as happy as can be.”
But I replied: “What? Cater to my belly? Then in one day I’ll squander all my money. No sir!”
“Right you are,” said my Good Impulse. “It’d be much better, Kopel, to lend those few kopecks to your mother. She can certainly put them to good use.”
“Some brain you are,” I said. “Then it’s as good as lost. How will she ever repay me?”
“She works her fingers to the bone, poor woman,” said my Good Impulse, “and pays for your schooling.”
“What do you care about schooling?” my Bad Impulse interrupted. “You’d be better off buying yourself a sharp two-blade penknife in a brass box or a purse with a neat little lock.”
“Listen to me,” cried my Good Impulse. “Give the money to the poor. Give it to charity and you’ll have a mitzvah for doing a good deed. Some paupers are starving, poor souls.”
“Paupers?” my Bad Impulse turned to me. “You yourself are a pauper’s son. Always hungry. Everyone’s always generous with the next guy’s cash. Why didn’t anyone ever give you anything when you were broke?”
One day, Yulik, the rich man’s son offered me all kind of things—in the future, like use of his prayerbook, candies, nuts, his penknife, and a little nail too—if only I would give him my silver 40-kopeck coin, but I didn’t fall for his trick.
So I held on to my money. You know for what? When Sukkot came,
I bought myself a large, yellow, two-sided flag. Painted on one side were two beasts with catlike faces—lions, really, with wide open mouths. Their long tongues were decorated with some sort of rams’ horns, for the biblical phrase, “With trumpets and rams’ horns” was printed next to the lions, and beneath them were the lines, “The flag of the Tribe of Judah” and “The flag of the Tribe of Ephraim.”
The other side of the flag was even nicer, for it had true-to-life portraits of Moses and Aaron, and between them a host of Jews was crammed holding Torah scrolls in their hands. They all seemed to step forward and sing: “Be joyous and merry on Simchat Torah.”
Now having the flag, my next step was to get a stick for it. I went to Reb Zyama the joiner, who cast aside all his work, took a piece of wood, whittled it once, twice—and it was finished.
Next I needed an apple and a candle. When it came to wax, when anyone wanted it, he came to me. For after all, my father was the assistant shamesh of the basement prayer-room annex of the Butchers Synagogue, and whatever remained of the Yom Kippur memorial candles belonged to him. That was his income. He melted the leftover wax and made Hanukkah candles, Saturday night Havdalah candles, and plain wax tapers. Whatever was left over from those he gave to me. That was my income.
For Simchat Torah I took my flag, stuck a red apple on the tip, put a lit candle atop the apple and set out for the shul to dance with the Torah during the Torah circuits. I was in high spirits, feeling like a happy prince, a child of royalty.
I imagined I was already in shul, sitting next to the eastern wall with all the rich children. The lights were kindled. My flag was the most beautiful. My apple redder than all the rest. My candle the biggest of all.
The shul was packed, the heat unbearable. Many women and girls came to kiss the Torah. Reb Melekh the cantor, his prayer shawl outspread, led the procession of men like a field marshal. His metallic voice quavered as he sang:
“Hel-per of the poor, sa-a-ve us!”
The women and girls pressed forward to kiss the Torah and shrill into his face: “Live and be well till next year at this time.”
“The same to you and yours,” Reb Melech replied.
But before the Torah procession reached our little basement shul it had to pass many other bigger shuls. These were not scattered all over town like in the big city of Yehupetz. That was one wonderful thing about our Kasrilevke. In our town all the shuls were in one section of the same street, practically in one courtyard, known as the shul courtyard.
In fact, our entire shul courtyard could have been considered one big synagogue. Summertime, when the windows are open, a passerby would hear so many different prayers, wafting down from different sections of the service. In one shul, they were just starting the Morning Service; in another, they were reading the Torah; in a third, they were concluding the davening.
But the liveliest time of all came just before the Torah circuits began, when the children of all the Talmud Torahs gathered with their flags. They grouped according to grades—the older ones here, the younger ones there. Everyone sized up everyone else’s flag. Whose stick was longer? Whose apple redder? They ribbed one another, gibed, cracked jokes, giggled, played tricks. If Yankel blew out Moishe’s candle, the latter would in turn sneak up and take a bite of Yankel’s apple. So Yankel made some nasty comment about Moishe’s ancestors and kicked him in the pants, besides. Finally, everyone separated and went to his own shul.
When I entered our basement shul carrying my flag, the gang greeted me with: “A fat big welcome, Mister Jew, you’re looking good and nuts to you.”
I took stock of all the other flags, then looked back at my own. What a contrast. Theirs weren’t even fit to hold a candle to mine. My flag was the most successful of all, for who had as much wax as me? For who else was slapped and cuffed when my father found me under the bench in the basement shul foyer collecting pieces of wax from the melted down Yom Kippur memorial candles?
I compared my flag with all the others and my chest swelled with pride. I was growing taller and taller, I imagined. I felt light on my feet. I felt like laughing, shouting, screaming, dancing for joy.
“Come on, lemme have a look,” rich Yulik said in amazement as he stood next to me. He examined my flag. I examined his. There’s a flag for you, I thought. Some stick. Bent like a bagel. I saw he was furious, but I pretended not to notice and busily examined my shoelaces.
“Kopel,” he said. “Where’d you get such a fine stick?”
“What’d you say?” I asked, looking up.
“I said, where’d you get such a cute little stick?”
“Why do you ask? Wanna swap it for your nail?”
Yulik got my dig. Eyes gleaming, he sniffed, put his hands into his pockets and went away. I watched him, beaming with ever increasing joy. He called Nekhemya, the lame little boy, whispered something into his ear, and winked in my direction. I noticed this but pretended not to. A moment later Nekhemya limped up to me, holding Yulik’s flag with the bent stick.
“Gimme a light,” he said. “Mine went out.”
“This isn’t your flag, is it?” I asked, holding my candle to his. “You can’t fool me. I know quite well whose flag this is.”
But before I had a chance to blink, Nekhemya touched his lit candle to my flag and gave the light right back to me. My flag flamed, sputtered and—wwwsht—no more flag.
Had a stone fallen from the sky and struck my head; had a wild beast attempted to devour me; had a corpse dressed in a tattered shroud made an attempt to choke me, my fright would not have been as great as it was when I saw my naked stick and burnt-out flag.
From deep down within me, I cried, “Woe is me, my flag, my flag, my flag.”
I burst into tears. Everything became dark. The stick, the apple, and the candle fell from my hand and I began to wander around aimlessly. I walked on without direction, the hot and bitter tears streaming from my eyes. I wrung my hands and bemoaned my flag, as one does a dead man. I came home, alone, without a flag. I found a dark corner and sat down, my head between my knees, and wept softly so that no one would notice. And I asked God a question:
“Is it fair? O Eternal Lord! Did I deserve this? Why did you do this to me?”
Children, you know that all stories either have sad or happy endings.
For the most part, Jewish stories have sad endings. According to one of our proverbs, a Jew, especially a poor one, is not destined to have pleasure. Much can be said about this. When you grow up, you’ll understand. But, meanwhile, I must tell you that the story you just heard did not quite end there. That flag caused me much anguish, and I fell ill, burning with fever. I saw extraordinary sights—fiery-tongued dragons and serpents and wild beasts in the shape of men. I heard the wild, unnatural calls of cats and vipers. I tossed and turned, ranted deliriously, had one foot in the grave. They had no hopes for my life. In the basement prayer-room annex of the Butchers Synagogue they even began reciting Psalms for me. I was at death’s door.
But since today is erev Simchat Torah we have to be merry and happy, and so I’d like to end this story on a happy note.
First of all, thank heaven, as you can see, I recovered.
Second of all, for your information, the following year my flag was even nicer, my stick more beautiful, my apple redder. In fact, I sat way up by the eastern wall with all the other rich men’s children. The lights burned. My flag sparkled. Jews danced around the shul with the Torahs. Reb Melekh, the cantor, his prayer shawl outspread, led the procession like a field marshal. His metallic voice quavered as he sang out: “Hel-per of the poor and weak, sa-a-ve us!” As endless streams of women and girls pressed forward to kiss the Torah and shrill into his face, “Live and be well until next year at this time.”
And Melech replied, “The same to you and yours.”
Dear children—and the same to you and yours. Gut yontev!
Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant.
Sholem Aleichem, (Shalom Rabinovitz; 1859–1916), is one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature.