For Yom Kipoor, A Respite – Some Culture, Some Yiddishkeit, Some History
A few years back, my life partner bought me some Sholem Aleichem books, with the excellent Hebrew translation of Arie Aharoni. Among the books a rare find, a novel saved by Aharoni from oblivion, called “The Bloody Joke” (Der Blutiker Schpas). The play written more or less by the influence of this novel, a play called “Hard to be a Jew”, has become famous, but the original novel has been completely forgotten. Tip of the Week: to get hold of the Yiddish, Hebrew (“Mahatalat Ha-Dam”) or English (if it exists) version of this book and read it.
The novel is like a piece of news: the plot occurs at the same time it was written, 1912-1913 (it appeared as an ongoing feature in a Yiddish newspaper), mostly in the city of Kiev in the Ukraine. The heroes are Grisha Popov, a Russian of noble descent, and his high school mate Hirschel Rabinowitz, a Jew. The two trade identities, because Popov thought his friend was exaggerating with his complaints about “the Jewish Fate”. In the end… I won’t tell you, but I will bring here some excerpts from the beginning of the novel. In those days, Jews needed a “permit of stay” in order to live in Kiev. Popov, disguised as Rabinowitz, rented a room with the Shapiro family, who possessed such a permit.
A small comment: the translator (who did his work in the 80’s or early 90’s) was well aware of the hard-to-digest implications of this story to present-day Israelis, and he writes about it in the translator’s preface.
Enough. Let Sholem Aleichem have the stage.
A few days after tenant Rabinowitz has registered as a dentistry student, a catastrophe occurred at the Shapiro home. One of these common catastrophes – as of late, even very common, almost a daily affair – in the university town where our wondrous novel takes place.
It was long past midnight when the bell rang at the Shapiro door. But such a ring that could raise the dead: Din-din-din-din-din-din ceaselessly. Another one instead of Shapiro would have fallen off the bed, or jumped out the window. But Shapiro, as we already know, is an experienced man, and he is well versed in such rings. He knows that this ring could only mean that the house is on fire and lives are to be saved, or that Jews are being hunted; in police talk they call it: “Inspection of the Un-Registered”.
Call it what you wish – hunt, inspection – but they ring you thus, that you must open the door. And when you open the door, in pour guests: police officers, detectives, policemen, whatever, and you are ordered to wake up the entire house, young and old, small and big, and display your documents. Documents are examined and registered, people are surveyed and counted, and if everything’s in order – they leave you alone and scatter off, and you can then do as you wish: place the kettle for some tea, or go back to sleep, if you can, and dream sweet dreams…
But if, God forbid, your documents are not in order, or if God forbid you possess some un-Kosher, smuggled merchandise – that is, a Jewish soul without a “Permit of Stay” – you are being asked to dress up “as fast as possible”, and go with the guys over there… there they will interrogate you, and write in red “to be deported within 24 hours” on your passport, or perhaps they will send you to your town of birth, where you will be able to see all your aunts and uncles, whom you haven’t seen for so long…
- How many are you here? David was asked by a tall, wide-shouldered official, with thick-lusty lips and red sleepy eyes, who unleashed a noisy sigh, of a healthy man needing some more sleep.
And the official… winked to his aides, to run an Inspection, and the aides got right to work. Beds and closets, tables and chairs were checked several times over. Siomka’s blanket was whisked off, and the torch drawn near his face, so much so that he laughed out of shame. The very same thing was supposed to be done to Betty, too, but she jumped out of bed, angrily wrapped herself in a sheet, and remained standing, eye to eye with the sleepy official, the lusty-lips who ran his red eyes from daughter to mother and back, probably imagining which of the two he would choose for himself…
- I’ll be damned if I know which of the two is prettier! – he thought, - Both are beautiful, but the little one is gorgeous! Venus… Junona… Aphrodite… strange names from novels sprang into his memories. From all these names, he forgot one that would have been most appropriate at this occasion for beautiful Betty, with her fair face, her shapely nose, her lustrous black hair, her bushy eyebrows and her large brown eyes, burning at that moment with a fire of sorrow and rage.
Judith was the name.
- …Wake up, please, the police are here, Rabinowitz! Rabinowitz! Rabinowitz!!!
This last expression seems to have done the waking job.
- “Permit of Stay”? Aha! Now I know. So where is it?
Only after this sentence, and seeing a detective at the door, did Rabinowitz fully understand what’s going on, and started to remember where in the world he is…
For the first moment, he did not fully grasp what was happening. Okay, an Inspection is an Inspection. But why should the two ladies stand here half naked?... and what the _ _ _ _ is this creature staring at them with such eyes? He flared up with rage at this creature with the lusty lips, because he came in just when this official asked for Betty’s age.
- Eighteen, answered the mother on behalf of her daughter, and the official cut her short:
Ever since the official has dealt with Inspections, he has yet to hear a Jew dare raise his voice in such a way… For a moment he stood frozen and looked at the youngster, so shocked that he was unable to utter a word. Then he drew some air and turned to this wise guy:
- You… who are you anyway?
The official put down his arms, and a twisted smile appeared upon his thick-lusty lips. He glanced at his aides and commanded:
- Take him!
When you are woken up in the middle of the night, in the prime of your sleep, and then taken for a walk through some dark streets, up and down alleys and back, and you wade in the autumn mud with a whole gang of soldiers speeding you up and harassing you, and your ears fill up with such talk and such curses, that you have never heard in your life, and you are brought to such a smoky stinking place, that does not see the light of day, and you are being jailed together with drunks and thieves, and God knows who else, and you want to sit and there’s no place, except the slippery slimy floor, and you want to protest – but there’s no one to protest to save the four walls, - if you’ve gone through all this, you ,lose your courage – and you start thinking about things you’ve never cared to think about until now.
…. What his eyes had seen and his ears had heard in jail, and what he had learned there in one single night, he would not had learned during a whole year in freedom…
Once in a while the door opened, and a new transport of prisoners was thrown in, most of them Jews, confused as rabbits, depressed and shabby, dejected and humiliated. What intrigued him was, that the “veteran” prisoners met each new Jew-transport with jeers, laughs and jokes, and often with curses, threats and shoves…
- What kind of Nation is this? – he asked himself,…. – what kind of Nation is this, whose people can live in such conditions, eat, drink and sleep, negotiate, study, recite, go to theater and concerts, dance and be merry, while anyone can come upon them in the middle of the night, “hunt” them down, like one does to thieves or animals, and behave towards them with a violation of all the human and Godly laws?