Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the Newby Adam Biro, Catherine Tihanyi (Translator)
"Somewhere between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Morey Amsterdam."—Kirkus Reviews
Two Jews were on a train: "All Eastern European Jewish jokes start this way, or almost," says Adam Biro, who has assembled this rich volume of such stories, tales in which—thanks to a masterful translation by Catherine Tihanyi—we can hear the voices of/i>
"Somewhere between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Morey Amsterdam."—Kirkus Reviews
Two Jews were on a train: "All Eastern European Jewish jokes start this way, or almost," says Adam Biro, who has assembled this rich volume of such stories, tales in which—thanks to a masterful translation by Catherine Tihanyi—we can hear the voices of generations using humor to teach about the delicacy, anguish, and unpredictability of life itself.
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Two Jews on a Train
Stories from the Old Country and the New
By Adam Biro
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Good Catch
Kohn was the matchmaker in a small village in Poland. He was a
shadchen. Well, to say "matchmaker in a village" is a misnomer. A
matchmaker can never stay in one place; his profession forces him to
travel from village to village, he has to be constantly on the road to
gather news as a thistle gathers dust, to glean all the marvels, the
horrors, the murders, the adulteries, the lottery winnings, the shameful
births, the happy death, the examples to follow, and the examples to
avoid. He has to draw the inventory of eligible parties, of the couples to
assemble, of the young and not so young people he'll join for life.
Kohn practiced an important profession, the most important after that
of God. He was arranging life.
You're going to tell me: "how about love?" You're going to speak to
me about leaning, attraction, choice, affinity, desire, election,
erection. You make me laugh! Marriages are made in heaven. And the
matchmaker knows what decisions are taken there. Because those who decide
down here on the basis of "I looooove her/himand she/he loooooooves me,"
well after ten years, or rather after five years ... just ask them, they
who gave themselves flesh and heart to the other, ask them if their soul
still desires mingling their body with the adverse, inverse, body after
three years of common snoring-grunting under the same eiderdown comforter?
Kohn says: those who don't chose each other have nothing to regret.
It's possible that they'll come to curse me. But who can tell where I
might be on that day?
Kohn says: let those with life experience, those who have lived, have
become parent, have taught, let them decide. And the one whose job it is.
Kohn says: don't think that at age eighteen you know what you want;
and that what you want is good for you. Couples are molded by marriage.
They come together, the spouses take on each other's shapes. They become
one, intrinsically inseparable.
So that's the shadchen. And from what does this personage, second
only to God, live? He is given a part of the dowry. That's why he likes to
fix up the poor with the rich. If he only united the rich among themselves
he would lose half his income.
One day, Kohn comes across Strauss, the poor shoemaker, in the
street. He tells him as an aside, with an air of indifference:
"Strauss, I have a great match for you" (when they say "for you" that
means "for your daughter, for your son").
Strauss is all ears. His daughter, his only child ... What a
burden. She is over thirty years old and has no husband.
"Please tell me, tell me!"
Kohn waits a long minute so as to heightens Strauss's eagerness.
"Let's go to your house-no need to entertain the whole village with
Once comfortably installed in the parlor of the little house-Strauss
is not rich, as I said,-Kohn has Strauss offer him a glass of vodka and
latkes. Then not wanting to make the poor Strauss languish any longer, he
hits him with:
"He's twenty-three years old, six feet tall, blond, blue eyes, speaks
three languages, and has a high rank in the navy."
Strauss has trouble catching his breath. He empties two glasses of
vodka before he is able to speak.
"Kohn, this must be a dream. And what faults does he have? Why wasn't
this admiral engaged years ago?"
Kohn ignores the question and adds:
"I forgot to mention his parents are immensely wealthy and he is an
only son. He is not an admiral but it's a family tradition for them to be
an officer in the navy."
Strauss suppresses the urge to throw himself at Kohn's feet.
"Kohn, I beg you, arrange a meeting with his parents as fast as
Kohn promises and leaves. As he opens the door he turns toward
Strauss and tells him:
"He has a tiny flaw, nothing important. He isn't Jewish."
Strauss falls back on the arm of the chair, which breaks.
"What! A small flaw you say? Kohn, have you gone mad? It's totally
impossible. To give my daughter to a goy? But I'd rather die, Kohn. It's
even worse than my death. It's the death of my daughter that you propose,
and you even joke about it. Aren't you ashamed?"
Kohn answers very calmly:
"You are the one who should be ashamed. It is said in the Talmud that
your first duty is to insure the marriage of your offspring. A Jewish
woman must marry and have children. It is written. And now that I bring
you the best match you could ever dream of you keep on sinning, you keep
on not wanting to marry your unfortunate daughter who wishes it so
Strauss is not well versed in the skill of pilpul. He runs short of
"But to a goy, really!"
"Strauss, did you take a good look at your daughter Rebecca? Allow me
to be frank, just between you and me. She is in her thirties; she is
sickly, she squints and limps, is flat butted and flat chested ... No,
don't get up, don't be angry, I'm a matchmaker, I'm only doing my job, and
you, you're the father, you have obligations. So, don't make trouble. I
repeat, she has nothing to fill a man's hand-nor his pockets for that
matter as you are as poor as Job, and you can't give her any dowry. You
see, I am doing this out of friendship, because you won't be able to pay
"But the others, since they are wealthy, they'll pay you ..."
"They'll give me nothing, since you don't want their son!"
Strauss puts his head between his hands.
"Kohn, you are torturing me."
He stands up, sways, paces round and round in the room, then
suddenly, he stands up straight and declares:
"The answer is no! She will remain an old maid rather than abjures
the faith of her ancestors!"
"As you wish," replies Kohn, who is outwardly relaxed but a maelstrom
of agitation inside. It's your life, your daughter. Shalom."
And he leaves.
The shadchen is barely in the street when Strauss catches up with
"Don't go so fast. There's no hurry. Come back, have dinner with us,
we can talk in peace."
"What you want to talk about? You have made up your mind. You are a
good Jew in keeping your daughter in the religion of her ancestors. You
only cause a very little bit of her immense unhappiness and yours along
with it; she will never know a man, she won't have children, you will
never hold adorable grandkids on your lap, your Rebecca, your daughter
will become an old maid, irritable, grumpy, sad, she'll remain sickly,
will even become very ill-and you, you who believes yourself to be a good
Jew, you'll realize you're a bad Jew, because you are not respecting
divine prescription. I would not blame you for absolutely wanting to give
your daughter to a Jew if she were eighteen years old, if she was as
beautiful as Spring, as Perlmutter's daughter for whom I found a
magnificent match last month, and if your name was Rothschild. But none of
this is important as long as you are happy with yourself.".
Strauss goes crazy. He doesn't know what to do, how to respond, what
decision to make. So yes, he'll give his daughter to this young goy so
suitable in other respects, and on the eve of this shameful wedding he'll
go away, leave the village. He'll take to the road as a traveling
shoemaker. But then, who would take care of my poor wife who is so often
bedridden? Well, she'll just have to come on the road with me ... Oh, no
I don't mean this, I am not going away. This is my village, my house, my
work, the people here know me, my life is here.
They sit down to eat. Kohn fills his belly, eats and drinks, raises
his glass to the health of the Strauss family more and more often. As
Rebecca is serving the meal, Kohn keeps on giving meaningful glances to
the father. To his chagrin this latter realizes the extant to which his
daughter is unattractive. He has never looked at her the way a man looks
at a woman; how could he have dared? She's his daughter. But now things
are serious. He looks at her discreetly: everything Kohn said about her is
true. And moreover she's over thirty years old. She'll never marry. And
suddenly, almost miraculously, there is a possible husband. It's the first
time, and certainly the last. He must agree. After all, who knows, perhaps
he'll want to become Jewish?
"Say Kohn, do you think this young goy would agree to convert to
"Frankly Strauss, I don't think so. We could try to ask the question
to his parents, but it seems to me to be difficult, not probable."
"But who are the parents?" asks Strauss.
"The king of England, and the young man is the Prince of Wales"
There's an astounded silence.
Strauss is as if dumbfounded, overcome. One of the biggest fortunes
in the world. Of course, the Prince of Wales is an officer in the British
navy. The greatest navy in the world. And England is the greatest naval
power. Of course, in those circumstances ...
"You know Strauss," remarks Kohn, "that the English royal family
claims to be descended from David? Did you know this? From King David,
thus they are Jews."
Of course, in these circumstances. But really ... David, that was a
long time ago. And then ... surely they don't eat kosher every day. Do
they respect the Sabbath?
Kohn senses the fish is biting. He keeps on going, this is not the
time to let go. He gives it some slack, then pulls again, then more
slack-he makes him drunk, drowns him with words, with true and false
arguments, as many as possible ... all the science, the mastery of the
matchmaker is revealed in moments like these. Like a fisherman. Like a
toreador-but corridas are getting scarce in Poland in those years. Kohn
exerts himself. He breaks into a sweat. It's now that he's truly working.
He doesn't give Strauss time to catch his breath, or think. Then when Kohn
feels he has reached Strauss's psychological breaking point, a point when
nothing more should be said, he suddenly turns silent.
The meals ends in silence. Kohn is exhausted. As for Strauss ...
The English royal family ... that, he hadn't expected. He asks to think
it over for the night, which Kohn gracefully grants him, but not more.
I won't describe to you Strauss's night. Hell in comparison to this
night would be like a tour on a row boat in a sunny lake in the shade of
weeping willow trees. I won't describe this night, as you have all
experienced similar ones, you who are pious and more attached to ancestral
values than to reason, or even worse, to feelings. I'll only remind you of
the terms of the equation: on the one side, the Prince of Wales, on the
other, Jewish law. The choice is horrendous, and I don't wish it upon you,
in spite of the nights of insomnia you've all spent pondering identical
But since we are speaking among ourselves, and we have a bit of time
while Strauss tussles with himself, you might ask me what does the hapless
Mrs. Strauss thinks of all this? Strauss is a domestic tyrant, and his
gentle and miserable wife has only the right to say yes and amen. And
don't think for a moment that this is only appearance, that she organizes
everything in the shadows, like so many of her sisters in fate are doing.
No, she simply doesn't exist. But that's another story ...
The next morning, or rather, at dawn, Strauss runs to the inn where
Kohn stays when he is at the village. He runs to announce his decision to
the matchmaker. It's yes! He does agree. His daughter's happiness has
prevailed over his attachment to the faith. He wants to see the parents
immediately, so that the deal can be concluded. Where are they? In whose
house are they staying? What if someone swipes his Prince of Wales? Kohn
appears at the door of the inn as if he had been waiting for him.
"Kohn, my answer is yes. I can't tell you how hard this is on me, but
my daughter's happiness comes first, even if it must be a bitter
happiness. All right, since that's the only way, I'll accept the British
Kohn sits down on one of the steps that leads to the inn. He pulls
out an enormous red and dirty handkerchief from his pocket, as if to wipe
off the sweat from his brow caused by so much work, and says in a very low
voice, with his eyes vacantly looking straight ahead:
"Whew! The most difficult is done, now all I have to do is convince
the king of England."
Excerpted from Two Jews on a Train
by Adam Biro
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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.
Meet the Author
Adam Biro is a French publisher and author who was born in Hungary. His previous books include Dictionnaire général du surréalisme et de ses environs (coedited with René Passeron) and Tsigane.
Catherine Tihanyi is a research associate in the Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University.
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