Authors: Sholem Aleichem
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
“It’s funny you ask me that, Tevye,” she says, “because that’s just what I was going to ask you.”
“Well, if you were going to ask me anyway,” I say, “suppose I ask you. What do you think we should do with so much capital?”
We thought. And the harder we thought, the dizzier we became planning one business venture after another. What didn’t we deal in that night? First we bought a pair of horses and quickly sold them for a windfall; then with the profit we opened a grocery store in Boiberik, sold out all the stock, and opened a dry-goods store; after that we invested in some woodland, found a buyer for it, and came out a few more rubles ahead; next we bought up the tax concession for Anatevka, farmed it out again, and with the income started a bank …
“You’re completely out of your mind!” my wife suddenly shouted at me. “Do you want to throw away our hard-earned savings by lending money to good-for-nothings and end up with only your whip again?”
“So what do you suggest?” I said. “That it’s better to go bankrupt trading in grain? Do you have any idea of the fortunes that are being lost right this minute on the wheat market? If you don’t believe me, go to Odessa and see for yourself.”
“What do I care about Odessa?” she says. “My greatgrandparents didn’t live there and neither will my greatgrandchildren, and neither will I, as long as I have legs not to take me there.”
“So what do you want?” I ask her.
“What do I want?” she says. “I want you to talk sense and stop acting like a moron.”
“Well, well,” I said, “look who’s the wise one now! Apparently there’s nothing that money can’t buy, even brains. I might have known this would happen.”
To make a long story short, after quarreling and making up a few more times, we decided to buy, in addition to the beast I was to pick up in the morning, a milk cow that gave milk …
It might occur to you to ask why we decided to buy a cow when we could just as well have bought a horse. But why buy a horse, I ask you, when we could just as well have bought a cow? We live close to Boiberik, which is where all the rich Yehupetz Jews come to spend the summer in their dachas. And you know those Yehupetz Jews—nothing’s too good for them. They expect to have everything served up on a silver platter: wood, meat, eggs, poultry, onions, pepper, parsley … so why shouldn’t I be the man to
walk into their parlor with cheese, cream, and butter? They like to eat well, they have money to burn, you can make a fat living from them as long as they think they’re getting the best—and believe me, fresh produce like mine they can’t even get in Yehupetz. The two of us, my friend, should only have good luck in our lives for every time I’ve been stopped by the best sort of people, Gentiles even, who beg to be my customers. “We’ve heard, Tevye,” they say to me, “that you’re an honest fellow, even if you are a rat-Jew …” I ask you, do you ever get such a compliment from Jews? My worst enemy should have to lie sick in bed for as long as it would take me to wait for one! No, our Jews like to keep their praises to themselves, which is more than I can say about their noses. The minute they see that I’ve bought another cow, or that I have a new cart, they begin to rack their brains: “Where is it all coming from? Can our Tevye be passing out phony banknotes? Or perhaps he’s making moonshine in some still?” Ha, ha, ha. All I can say is: keep wondering until your heads break, my friends, and enjoy it …
Believe it or not, you’re practically the first person to have heard this story, the whole where, what, and when of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve run on a little too long and there’s a business to attend to. How does the Bible put it?
Koyl oyreyv lemineyhu
, it’s a wise bird that feathers its own nest. So you’d better be off to your writing, and I to my milk cans and jugs …
There’s just one request I have, Pan: please don’t stick me in any of your books. And if that’s too much to ask, do me a favor and at least leave my name out.
And oh yes, by the way: don’t forget to take care and be well!
aboys makhshovoys belev ish:
“Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart but the counsel of the Lord shall prevail”—isn’t that what it says in the Bible? I don’t have to spell it out for you, Pan Sholem Aleichem, but in ordinary language, that is, in plain Yiddish, it
means the best horse can do with a whipping and the cleverest man with advice. What makes me say that? Only the fact that if I had had enough sense to go ask some good friend about it, things would never have come to this sorry state. You know what, though? When God decides to punish a man, He begins by removing his brains. How many times have I said to myself, Tevye, you jackass, would you ever have been taken for such a ride if you weren’t the big fool you are? Just what was the matter, touch wood, with the living you were already making? You had a little dairy business that was, I swear, world-famous in Boiberik and Yehupetz, to say nothing of God knows where else. Just think how fine and dandy it would be if all your cash were stashed quietly away now in the ground, so that no one knew a thing about it. Whose business was it anyway, I ask you, if Tevye had a bit of spare change?… I mean that. A fat lot anyone cared about me when—it shouldn’t happen to a Jew!—I was six feet underground myself, dying from hunger three times a day with my wife and kids. It was only when God looked my way and did me a favor for a change, so that I managed to make a little something of myself and even to put away a few rubles, that the rest of the world sat up and noticed me too. They made such a fuss over Reb Tevye then that it wasn’t even funny. All of a sudden everybody was my best friend. How does the verse go?
Kulom ahuvim, kulom brurim—
when God gives with a spoon, man comes running with a shovel. Everyone wanted me for a partner: this one to buy a grocery, that one a dry-goods store, another a house, still another a farm—all solid investments, of course. I should put my money into wheat, into wood, into whatnot … “Brothers,” I said to them, “enough is enough. If you think I’m another Brodsky, you’re making a terrible mistake. I’d like to inform you that I haven’t three hundred rubles to my name, or even half of that, or even two-thirds of that half. It’s easy to decide that someone is worth a small fortune, but come a little closer and you’ll see what cock-and-bull it is.”
In short, our Jews—don’t even mention them!—put the whammy on me. The next thing I know, God sends me a relative—and a real kissing cousin too, let me tell you, the horse’s own tail, as they say. Menachem Mendl was his name: a wheeler, a dealer, a schemer, a dreamer, a bag of hot air; no place on earth is bad enough to deserve him! He got hold of me and filled my head with
such pipe dreams that it began to spin like a top … I can see, though, that you want to ask me a good question: why does a Tevye, of all people, get involved with a Menachem Mendl? Well, the answer to that is: because. Fate is fate. Listen to a story.
One day early last winter I started out for Yehupetz with some merchandise—twenty-five pounds of the very best butter and a couple of wheels of white and yellow cheese such as I only wish could be yours. I hardly need say that I sold it all right away, every last lick of it, before I had even finished making the rounds of my summer customers, the dacha owners in Boiberik, who wait for me as though I were the Messiah. You could beat the merchants of Yehupetz black and blue, they still couldn’t come up with produce like mine! But I don’t have to tell you such things. How does the Bible put it?
—quality toots its own horn …
In a word, having sold everything down to the last crumb and given my horse some hay, I went for a walk about town.
Odom yesoydoy mi’ofor
—a man is only a man: it’s no fault of his own if he likes to get a breath of fresh air, to take in a bit of the world, and to look at the fine things for sale in Yehupetz’s shopwindows. You know what they say about that: your eyes can go where they please, but please keep your hands to yourself!… Well, there I was, standing by a moneychanger’s window full of silver rubles, gold imperials, and all sorts of bank notes, and thinking: God in heaven, if only I had ten percent of what I see here, You’d never catch me complaining again. Who could compare to me then? The first thing I’d do would be to make a match for my eldest daughter; I’d give her a dowry of five hundred rubles over and above her trousseau, her bridal gown, and the wedding costs. Then I’d sell my nag and wagon, move to town, buy a good seat in the front row of the synagogue and some pearls, God bless her, for my wife, and make a contribution to charity that would be the envy of any rich Jew. Next I’d open a free school for poor children, have a proper tin roof made for the synagogue instead of the wreck it has now, and build a shelter for all the homeless people who have to sleep on the floor there at night, the kind any decent town should have. And lastly, I’d see to it that that no-good Yankl was fired as sexton of the Burial Society, because it’s high time he stopped swilling brandy and guzzling chicken livers at the public expense …
“Why, hello there, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone say behind me. “What’s new with a Jew?”
I turned around to look—I could have sworn that the fellow was familiar. “Hello there, yourself,” I said. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“From somewhere?” he answers. “From Kasrilevke! I’m an acquaintance of yours. In fact, I’m actually your second cousin once removed. Your wife Golde is my third cousin on her father’s side.”
“Say there,” I say. “You aren’t by any chance Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s son-in-law, are you?”
“You guessed it,” he says. “I’m Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s son-in-law. And my wife, Shayne Shayndl, is Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s daughter. Do you know me now?”
“Do I?” I say. “Your mother-in-law’s grandmother, Soreh Yente, and my wife’s aunt, Frume Zlote, were, I believe, real first cousins—which makes you Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s middle son-in-law indeed. The only trouble is that I’ve forgotten your name. It’s slipped right out of my mind. What exactly did you say it was?”
“My name,” he says, “is Menachem Mendl. Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s Menachem Mendl, that’s how I’m known in Kasrilevke.”
“In that case, my dear Menachem Mendl,” I say to him, “you deserve a better hello than the one I gave you! Tell me, how are you? How are your mother-in-law and your father-in-law? How is everyone’s health? How is business?”
“Eh,” he says. “As far as health goes, we’re all still alive, God be praised. But business is nothing to speak of.”
“It’s sure to pick up,” I say, glancing at his clothes. They were patched in several places and his boots, the poor devil, were a safety hazard. “Leave it to God,” I said. “Things always look up in the end. It’s written in the Bible,
—money never follows a straight line. One day you’re up, the next you’re down. The main thing is to keep breathing. And to have faith. A Jew has to hope. So what if things couldn’t be worse? That’s why there are Jews in the world! You know what they say: a soldier had better like the smell of gunpowder … Not that that has anything to do with it—why, all of life is but a dream … Tell me, though, my good fellow: what are you doing here, right smack in the middle of Yehupetz?”
“What do you mean, what am I doing here?” he says. “I’ve been here, let me see, it’s been nearly a year and a half now.”
“Is that so?” I say. “Do you mean to tell me that you live here?”
“Sshhh!” he says to me, looking all around. “Not so loud. You’re right, I do live here, but that’s strictly between the two of us.”
I stood staring at him as though at a madman. “If you’re hiding from the law,” I said to him, “are you sure that the main street of Yehupetz is the place for it?”
“Ask me no questions, Reb Tevye,” he says. “That’s how it is. I can see that you don’t know very much about our legal system here. If you’ll just let me explain it to you, you’ll understand in a jiffy how a man can live here and not live here at one and the same time …” With which he launched into such a brief explanation, that is, such a long song and dance, about what he had been through trying to get a permit to live in Yehupetz that I said: