Read an Excerpt
By Sholom Aleichem, Aliza Shevrin
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Really a Sukkah!
During the fall harvest festival of Sukkos, meals are eaten in a home-made shed or lean-to which is covered with leafy branches and is built behind the family dwelling.
THERE are people who have never learned anything but who can do everything, who have never been anywhere but who know everything, who have never given a thought to anything yet understand everything.
"Golden hands!" That's the name given these people, and the world envies and respects them. Such a man lived in our town of Kasrilevka, and he was called "Really Moishe."
We called him "Really Moishe" because whenever he saw or heard or made something, he was fond of saying, "That's really something!"
Supposing we had a good cantor in our shul. "Really a cantor!"
Supposing we bought a big turkey for Passover. "Really a turkey!"
Supposing a frost was expected. "Really a frost!"
"My friends, you see before you a poor man—really poor!" And so for everything.
Moishe was—I can't quite tell you exactly what he was or how he lived. He was a Jew. But how he earned a living would be hard to say. He survived as thousands, shall I say tens of thousands, of Jews survived in Kasrilevka. He hung around the big landowner in town; well, not exactly around the big landowner himself but around those Jews who hung around the small landowners who hung around the big landowner. Whether or not he actually made a living was another story because "Really Moishe" was a person who hated to boast about his successes or to complain about his failures. He was always happy, his cheeks were always rosy. His moustache was lopsided, his hat tilted to the side, and his eyes were kind and smiling. Although he was always busy, he could be counted on to walk ten miles to help someone.
That's the kind of man our "Really Moishe" was.
There was not a single thing in the world that "Really Moishe" couldn't fix—a house, a clock, a machine, a lamp, a top, a spigot, a mirror, a bucket, a cage—you name it.
True, no one could point to the houses or the clocks or the machines that he had repaired, but we were all convinced that Moishe could have done it. Everyone used to say that if only he had tools, he could have turned the world upside down. Unfortunately, he had no tools. (Actually, I mean the opposite: it was really lucky he had no tools and the world was not turned upside down.)
It was a wonder that Moishe wasn't pulled apart by all the people who demanded his services. A lock jammed? To whom did one go? To Moishe. A clock stopped? To Moishe. A plugged-up samovar? To Moishe. Cockroaches, beetles, and other nuisances crawling around the house? Whom did one ask? Moishe. A fox stole into the chicken coop and was killing the hens? To whom did one turn for advice? To Moishe. Again Moishe, always Moishe.
True, the jammed lock was eventually tossed aside and forgotten in a closet somewhere, the clock had to be taken to the clockmaker and the samovar to the coppersmith. The cockroaches, beetles, and other nuisances apparently were not terribly frightened of Moishe, and the fox went on doing whatever foxes must do. But "Really Moishe" remained the one and only "Really Moishe" as before—still "golden hands." I suppose there was some truth in it; the whole world can't be wrong. Here's proof. How come people don't go to you or to me with jammed locks, broken clocks, spigots, cockroaches, beetles, other nuisances, or foxes? Not everyone is alike and talent is, apparently, rare.
It was with this same "Really Moishe" that we became very close neighbors, living in the same building under the very same roof. I say "became" because before then, we lived in our own house. But our luck suddenly changed and we came upon hard times. Not wishing to impose on anyone, we sold our house, settled our debts, and moved (it was the night before Rosh Hashanah) into Hershke Mamtzes's house. It was an old ruin of a house, without a garden, without a courtyard, without a porch, without life or soul.
"Let's face it, it's a shack," my mother said with a bitter laugh, and I could see the tears in her eyes.
"Be careful," my father said to her, his face drawn and dark. "Thank God for this."
Why for "this" I don't know. Because we weren't living out in the street? I would rather have been living out in the street than here in Hershke Mamtzes's house. I considered it a great injustice on God's part that He took our house away from us. But even more than the house, I missed the sukkah we had there, a permanent sukkah, one that stood from year to year. It had a flap at the entrance that could be raised and lowered and a beautiful ceiling made of green and yellow branches laid out like Stars of David. Of course, our friends tried to comfort us, telling us that one day we would be able to buy our house back or that, God willing, we would build another one, bigger, better, and handsomer than the old house. But they were no more than words of consolation, cold comfort, just like the words of consolation I heard when I broke (accidentally, of course) my tin watch to bits. My mother had honored me with a spanking and my father dried my eyes, promising to buy me a new watch, bigger, better, and handsomer than the old one. But the more my father extolled the new watch he would buy for me, the more I wept for the old one. Unobtrusively, so my father wouldn't notice, my mother pined after our old home while my father sighed. A black cloud settled over his face and deep creases were etched in his broad white brow. I considered it a great injustice on God's part that He took our house away from us.
"Tell me, if you don't mind, what are we going to do with a sukkah?" my mother remarked to my father a few days before Sukkos.
"I suppose you really mean to say, 'What are we going to do without a sukkah?'" my father answered, trying to make a joke of it, but I could see that it was painful for him. He turned away so we couldn't see his face, which had become dark and gloomy. My mother blew her nose in her apron, hiding her tears, and I stood there looking at them both. Suddenly my father turned his face directly toward us and said animatedly, "Wait! Don't we have a neighbor, Moishe?"
"You mean 'Really Moishe'?" my mother added, and I couldn't tell whether she was joking or serious. Apparently she was serious because within half an hour the three of them—my father, Moishe, and Hershke Mamtzes, our landlord—were outside the house looking for a spot on which to put up the sukkah.
Hershke Mamtzes's house was not too bad a house as houses go, but it did have one fault: it stood too close to the road and had no yard at all. It looked as if someone had misplaced it. Someone had been walking along and lost a house, without a yard, without a real roof, the door on the wrong side, like a coat with the vent in the front and the buttons in the back. If you gave Hershke a chance, he could talk forever on the subject of his house—how they tried to condemn it, how he went to court over the house, how he won his case, and how the house finally remained in his hands.
"Where, Reb Moishe, do you figure on putting the sukkah?" my father asked "Really Moishe," and Moishe, hat tilted to the side, was concentrating like a great architect deliberating over an important project and making measurements with his hands from here to there and from there to here. He let it be known that had the house not been placed so badly and had it had a yard, a sukkah with two walls could be built in one day. Did I say one day? In one hour! But since the house had no yard, and four walls would be required, it would take a little longer, but as a result, it would be a sukkah—really a sukkah! But most important, the proper material would be needed.
"Material we'll get, but do you have tools?" Hershke asked him.
"Tools can be found, but do you have lumber?" Moishe asked. "Lumber can be obtained, but do you have nails?" Hershke asked.
"Nails are available, but do you have green fir branches?" Moishe wanted to know.
"Somehow you're very organized today," remarked Hershke.
"Me, organized?" responded Moishe.
They looked at one another and burst out laughing.
When Hershke Mamtzes delivered the first few boards and a pair of wooden posts, Moishe predicted that, God willing, it would be really a sukkah. I was very curious to know how he would make a sukkah from these few assorted boards and a pair of wooden posts. I begged my mother for permission to watch Moishe build the sukkah. She agreed and so did Moishe. Not only did he allow me to watch but in fact said that I could be his assistant, which meant I could hand him whatever he needed and hold things for him.
I was in seventh heaven. Imagine, I was helping build a sukkah! And I helped quite a lot. I helped by puckering my lips while Moishe hammered. I helped by joining him for lunch. I helped by shouting at the other children who were underfoot. I helped by bringing him his hammer when he needed a chisel and bringing him his pliers when he needed a nail. Another person in his place would have thrown the hammer or the pliers at my head for that kind of help, but Moishe was a person without malice. No one had ever had the opportunity of seeing him angry.
"Anger," he would say, "is as useful as idol worship. Just as idol worship helps, so does anger help."
Deeply engrossed as I was in the work, I never noticed how and by what miracles our sukkah came to be finished.
"Come, see the sukkah we've built!" I said to my father, pulling him outside by the coattails. My father beamed at our work. Looking at Moishe with a little smile, he said to him, pointing to me, "Reb Moishe, was he any kind of helper at all?"
"He was really a helper!" Moishe said, looking up at the roof worriedly. "If only Hershke would hurry up and bring the fir branches, it would really be a sukkah!"
* * *
Hershke Mamtzes was giving us trouble over the fir branches. He put off bringing them from one day to the next till finally, with God's help, the night before Sukkos he rolled up with a wagonload of thin twigs of fir branches mixed with some reeds that grew in the mud on the other side of our pond, and we got to work covering the sukkah. What I really mean to say is that Moishe himself covered the sukkah and I helped drive off the goats which were attracted to the twigs and branches as if they were rare delicacies. I'll never know what they saw in those bitter green stalks.
Since Hershke Mamtzes's house stood all by itself, the goats came from all directions. No sooner did I get rid of one goat than another turned up. I would chase that one away and aha! here was the first one all over again! I drove them away with a stick: "Off with you! Silly goat, are you here again? Off with you!"
The devil knows how they found out we had fir branches. They must have notified one another. How else would all the town goats know to assemble around our house? And I, all alone, had to wage war against them.
With God's help, all the branches were finally on the sukkah roof. Like idiots, the goats stood still, looking up with bewildered eyes, stupidly chewing their cuds. I had triumphed and called out to them, "Why don't you eat the branches now, you silly goats?"
It appeared they understood me because one by one they went off, searching for some new tidbit to eat. Now we got to work decorating the inside of the sukkah. First of all, we spread yellow sand over the ground, then we draped the walls with blankets belonging to the three families who would share the sukkah. When we ran out of blankets, we used shawls, and when we ran out of shawls, we draped a tablecloth or a sheet. Only then did we bring out the tables and benches, the candlesticks and candles, the dishes and silverware. Each of the three women lit her candles and made the blessing on moving into the sukkah.
My mother, blessed be her memory, was a woman who loved to weep. The Holy Days of Mourning were for her a favorite time. From the time we were forced to give up our house, her eyes were never dry. My father, who himself went around in a daze, would not tolerate her tears and told her she should not sin before God because things could be worse, thank God for that. But there in the sukkah, while blessing the candles, she could cover her eyes with both hands and cry quietly so that no one would see that she was crying. But I wasn't someone you could fool. I saw perfectly well how her shoulders were trembling and how the tears trickled through her slender white fingers, falling on the tablecloth. I even knew why she was crying. Luckily for her, my father was preparing to go to shul and was putting on his threadbare Sabbath silk coat and wrapping his woven belt around his waist. He thrust both hands into the belt and with a deep sigh said to me, "Come, let's go. It's time to go to shul to pray." I gathered the daily and High Holiday prayer books, and we went off to shul leaving my mother to pray at home. I knew exactly what she would do first: She would cry. She would have a chance for a good cry! And so it was.
On returning from shul, we entered the sukkah with a big "Happy holiday!" greeting. As my father chanted the blessing over the wine and then sang the kiddush with its beautiful holiday tune, I noticed my mother's eyes, which were plainly red and puffy. Her nose was shiny too. Nevertheless, to me she looked as beautiful as the Matriarch Rachel, or Abigail, or the Queen of Sheba, or Queen Esther. Looking at her, I was reminded of all the beautiful daughters of Zion I had studied about that morning in cheder. As I looked at my fine mother with her pale, pure face, set off by her pretty silk holiday kerchief, with her lovely, large, worried eyes, my heart grieved that such lovely eyes needed to cry so much, that such lovely white hands needed to do the cooking and cleaning. I was disappointed with the Lord above for not giving us enough money. I prayed to God to bring me good luck so that I would find a treasure trove of gold and precious gems. Or let the Messiah come and then we could all go to Israel where it would be wonderful for everyone.
My thoughts carried me far, far away to the place of my dearest dreams which I wouldn't trade for all the wealth in the world. My father's beautiful holiday tune poured into my ears:
Ki vanu vacharta
I understood the meaning of these words:
Because You have chosen us
And You have blessed us
Above all the nations
That's no small thing—to be a people chosen by God, to be special like an only child. My heart became light and happy because we were the blessed chosen people. I imagined that I was a prince, yes, a prince, and the sukkah was a palace where the Divine Presence resided. Here sat my mother, the great beauty, the Queen of Sheba, and tomorrow, God willing, we would recite the stirring benediction over the best of all fruit, the esrog. Oh, who could compare himself to me? Who could compare himself to me?
After my father's kiddush, "Really Moishe" had his turn. It wasn't my father's kiddush but it was all right. And after him the landlord himself, Hershke Mamtzes—an ordinary Jew, an ordinary kiddush. We went to wash our hands and then recited the blessing over the bread. The three women started carrying in the food—the tasty, warm, fresh, seasoned, wonderful-smelling fish—and everyone sat with his family at his own table. There were many loaves of twisted fresh white bread, there were many hands dunking the soft bread in the hot fish broth, there were many mouths eating. A breeze was blowing through the thin, frail walls of the sukkah and through the sparse fir branches. The candles flickered as we all ate, thoroughly enjoying the holiday feast. In my imagination it was still a palace, a stately, brightly lit palace, and we, Jewish princes, aristocrats, the chosen people, were feasting and living in luxury. Blessed be Israel. May you always prosper, O Jews! I imagined myself saying. No people are as fortunate as you. How lucky you are to have the rare honor of sitting in such a fine sukkah, bedecked with green branches and strewn with golden sand and draped with the costliest tapestries in the world. On the table, the holiday loaves and delicious holiday fish were fit for a king.
Suddenly—Cr-ra-aash!! The entire roof of green fir boughs dropped right on our heads, followed by the walls one after the other. A goat came flying through the air, landing right on top of us. Suddenly it was dark, the candles blown out, the tables overturned, and all of us, together with the dishes and goat, sprawled in the sand. The moon shone and the stars twinkled above us. The frightened goat sprang up on its spindly legs, looked around with its guilty eyes like a culprit, and scampered off, leaping impertinently over tables, over benches, and over our heads, bleating "Me-e-eh!" All the candles were out, the dishes shattered, the loaves covered with sand, and all of us frightened to death. The women shrieked, the children cried. A shambles! Really a shambles!
"That's some sukkah you put up," said Hershke Mamtzes, the landlord, to us afterward, his voice sounding as if we had made him pay for the sukkah, "that one goat could wreck it. Some sukkah!"
"That was really a sukkah!" said "Really Moishe," looking dumbfounded, trying to figure out just how this all could have happened, "really a sukkah!"
"Yes, really a sukkah!" mimicked the landlord, and everyone joined in, "That was really a sukkah!"
Excerpted from Holiday Tales by Sholom Aleichem, Aliza Shevrin. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.