Jewish family of the Kelme shtetl
Elyohu Ha-Novi (“Elijah the Prophet”)
by Sholem Aleichm (1908)
It is not good to be an only child, fussed over by one’s parents. “From seven, only one remains.” Here–don’t stand. There–don’t go. This–don’t eat. That–don’t drink. Your head–cover. Your neck–wrap. Your hands–put away. Your nose–wipe.
Oy, it’s no good, no good to be an only son. And the son of a rich man besides! My dad is rich. He is a moneychanger. He goes about with a sack of small change to all the shops. He changes silver into small change and small change into silver. That’s why his fingers always look black and his fingernails are broken. He toils very hard. Each day, when he comes home he is exhausted and broken. “No feet,” he complains to Mama, “No feet, not a sign of feet.”
No feet, perhaps. But he does have a fine parnuseh [“job” or “living”]. So everyone says. They envy us because we have parnuseh and more parnuseh. My mother is pleased. Me too. “Paysach at my home this year for all good Jews, Ribono shel Oylum.” So Mama says and thanks God that we should have such a Paysach. I do too. But when will we see it already, this Paysach?
We scarcely could wait to see Paysach, lovely dear Paysach. They dressed me in kingly raiment as is fitting for a rich man’s son. But what did I get out of it? I must not leap about in the outdoors lest I catch cold. I must not fly about with all the beggar’s children for I am a rich man’s son. Such fine clothing but with no one before whom I could show it off. A pocket full of nuts but no one with whom to play.
It’s no good to be an only son, fussed over, the sole survivor from seven and a rich man’s son besides.
Daddy put on his best kapoteh [ritual prayer garment] and went to daven in shul. Mama says to me: “You know what? Lie down. Get some sleep. Then you can sit through the Seder. Then you can ask Daddy the Fir Kashyas [“Four Questions”]. What, am I meshugeh? I should go to sleep before the Seder? “Remember this, on Paysach one must not sleep at the Seder. If God forbid you should fall asleep at the Seder, then Eli Novi goes about and looks for those sleeping at the Seder and takes them away in his sack.” Ha, ha. I should fall asleep at the Seder? Me? If they should sit the whole night? Even if it were till the light of morning? What happened last year mama? “Last year, you went to sleep right after Kiddush.” “Then why didn’t Eli Novi come for me then with his sack?” “Then you were a kleinitschke. Now, you’re bigger. Tonight, you must ask daddy the Four Questions. Tonight, you must say with Daddy, Avodim Hayinu [Passover passage from haggadah]. Tonight, you must eat fish and soup and kneidlach with us…shah, Daddy’s coming back from shul.
“Gut yontof.” [traditional holiday greeting]
Thank God. Daddy finished up the Kiddush. Me too. Daddy drank up the first cup. Me too. A full one too and to the very bottom. “Look, to the very bottom,” says Mama to Daddy. She says to me: “A whole cup of wine? You’ll fall asleep.” Ha, ha. Me? If they should sit the whole night? Even till the light of morning? Ah, nu, ask Daddy, how did I rattle off the Four Questions? How did I say the hagodeh? How do I shuckle over the siddur and sing with Daddy Avodim Hayinu? Mama keeps her eye on me, smiles and says to me: “You’ll fall asleep, fall asleep.” Ach, Mama, Mama. It seems to me that even with eight heads, one would still fall asleep from these words alone. Ah, nu, let them sit down by you and sing in your ear: “Fall asleep, fall asleep.”
Naturally, I fell asleep.
Fell asleep. I dream that Daddy’s in the middle of Sfoch Chamascha [prayer called “Pour Out Thy Wrath”]. Mama rises from the table goes to open the door and welcomes in Eli Novi. It would be nice if Eli Novi, takeh, would come like Mama says with a sack on his shoulder and say to me: “Come bochur.” Who then would be at fault if not Mama with her: “Don’t sleep, don’t sleep?” Just as I was thinking these very thoughts-sha-I hear the door creak and Daddy stands up and calls: “Boruch ha-Ba [a greeting]!” I give a look at the door-yes, it’s him. He come, he comes. Slowly, so that one scarcely hears him. A fine Jew, Eli Novi. An old man with a great gray beard down to his knees. An old face, yellow, wrinkled endlessly, fine and good. And eyes-such eyes. Good tender friendly loving and faithful eyes. Stooped over a great, great cane with a sack on his shoulders-and sha shtill, he comes wordlessly straight to me.
“Nu, yingeleh get into the sack,” says the old man to me so softly and sweetly.
I ask him: “To where?” He replies: “You’ll see afterwards.” I don’t want to go.” He tells me again. I ask him: “How can I go with you? I’m a rich man’s son.” Says he: “So you’re a rich man’s son, what yichus [family connection] is that? By me, you’re not an only son.” Say I: “Fussed over, from seven the sole survivor. They’ll find out that I’m gone and they’ll not be able to bear it. They’ll die, especially Mama.” He looks at me, the old man, softly and sweetly like earlier: “If you don’t come with me, sleep well, but sleep forever.” I begin to cry: “Does that mean that I will die? They’ll not be able to endure it, especially Mama.” “You don’t want to die? Then come with me. Separate from your parents and come.” “What do you mean? How can I go? I’m an only son, from seven the sole survivor.” He speaks up more strongly to me: “For the last time, yingel, choose one of the two: either separate forever from your parents and come with me or remain here and sleep forever. Forever.”
When he finished these words he took a step away from me and turned to the door. What should I do? Go with the old man God knows where, to oblivion–and my parents would die? An only son, from seven the sole survivor? Or remain here and sleep forever? That means that I myself would die. I hold out to him both my hands with tears in my eyes: “Elyohu HaNovi, good, loving Elyohu, give me a moment to think.” He turns to me his fine old yellow wrinkled face with the great gray beard down to his knees. He looks at me with his fine good loving faithful eyes and gives me a smile: “One minute I give you to think, my child, but no more.”
The old man leans on his great, great cane and waits.
The question is: what could I devise in that minute so that I needn’t have to go with the old man or sleep forever. Ah, nu, who can guess?
This story is a ‘children’s story’ (as S. Aleichem notes in his subtitle) only in the sense that some of best and most chilling fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Peter and the Wolf for example) are children’s fairy tales. On one one level, these can be deeply distressing stories that ponder issues at the heart of a child’s world and the fears that a child confronts. At the same time, they can be a great read and rousing read for children and adults alike.