Friday, December 12, 2008

Mendele the Bookseller

Sholem Yankev Abramovich (1836-1917) was a Hebrew and Yiddish writer, seen as one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature. He was born in Kopyl, Lithuania, and spent his childhood studying traditional Jewish texts. He became involved in the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) and wrote in Hebrew about politics and natural science. He became most famous, however, for his fictional Yiddish writing, which he published through the mediation of a complex literary devide he called "Mendele the Bookseller." Mendele's role shifted over the course of Abramovich's literary career, and he was sometimes a protaganist, sometimes a co-author or a publisher, sometimes a narrator, and sometimes an editor. His character, who was inside the culture of the small Jewish town and at an equal standing with its residents, but was worldly because he was well read and traveled widely, allowed Abramovich to successfully bridge the gap between his own Enlightened world and the small town world about which he wrote. Mendele was able to criticize both the Englightened world and the small town world, and to make each of these world accessible to the other. The writing had a sharp humor and was critical, and affectionate toward traditional Jewish life, the Jewish upper and lower classes, and history. Sholem Abramovich is often conflated with his literary creation Mendele, though they are by no means the same person.

In my class on Mendele, we are reading a selection in which Mendele Mocher Seforim (Mendele the Bookseller) introduces himself to the reading public. I couldn't find an English translation, and left with th option of reading the selection in Hebrew or Yiddish, I chose Yiddish. What follows is my rough translation, which I am posting because I am inordinately proud of it. The parts in parentheses were bits that I'm not sure I understood:

"What's your name?" This is the first wuestion that a Jew asks another complete stranger, as soon as he meets him and greets him with a handshake. (No one goes out at a bisy time entirely with his thoughts directed upwards, as they must call out in this manner), "What are you, sir, in order that you want to know what m name is? We want to become connected via marragie? I am called what people call me, and leave me alone!" No, of course not, the question "What's your name" is a completely naturl thing, it's found in nature, exactly like pulling on someone's new kaftan with a question, "What's the price? How much does 28 inches cost?" or like asking for a cigarette a the time when someone opens up their tobacco pouch, or like sticking your finger in someone's tobacco pouch and taking a pinch of snuff, like dipping your feet into someone's bath, immersing your grimy kerchief in it and rubbing it on your body, (like looking around for something in the prayerbook and revising it in a respectfut way, and turning the page when someone had not properly spoken the words of the prayer), like interrupting a conversation between two people to stick your ear in to overhear their conversation, or like asking if the cracks in someone's light skin are concerning, outlining some advice for him, although no one had ever thought of this with any urgency, and they could go on not knowing, and also he could not know, very well. The same and similar more of these things are, for us Jews, all common. Such is the order of the world from eternal times and to say otherwise would seem completely, really, clearly crazy, something strange and absurd, entirely unnatural...and not just in this world, but here in our world an angel first asked "What's your name, sir", the angel, who had wresteled with Jacobm wasn't different from the order of the world, and he soon really, as it goes, gave a question, what was his name. So is an angel, even today is a simple even a sinning man, of flesh and blood. I know very well, as in my first departure into Jewish literature, as they call it, with my stories, what the first question will be, "What's your name, uncle?"

Mendele is my name! This, gentlemen, is the name they gave me from my old grandfather from my mother's side Reb Mendele from Moscow, may his memory be for a blessing. Moscover was the name of his side because people said that he once was really in Moscow to sell there Russian wares and (safely found luck/happiness) and before he had looked around he moved out from there. A pity as I've never been there - silliness! But in Moscow, by the Russians, he was, and so he was called. Thus he procured in that shred a name of honor. Everyone thought him to be a gentleman, worldly man, who has been all over the world, and without ever a care, (a very honerable man) they used to ask his advice...But that's beside the point.

(Therefore we are done with that now) After this first question Jews continue to pose all kinds of other questions, like a father-in-law: where is this Jew from? Is he married? Does he have kids? What is he selling Where is he heading? So on and so forth, all kinds of questions, which are asked like this by every Jew of the Jewish people, so if you are going to meet with people, you should heretofore know, that I am, Thank G-d, a person, a worn down one, no (bank squeezer) and what one must even so answer, just like saying "A Gut Yor" after someone's "Gut Shabbes" or "Gut yuntif" I will not pick a quarrel with the world and I will answer these same questions quickly and succinctly, if I still may.

I am only a (?) from Tvuetsitz, a small town, a little city, Keyn ain hore, in the province of Teterivk, filled with goodness and religiosity, like Glupsk's father-in-law, with it's wisdom, Kabtzansk with its wealth, and Tuneiodevke with its factories - beautiful places - with such merits, Thank G-d, which impacted and continue to impact the Jewish condition in our corner here in the Diasopora...but that's beside the point.

In my passport my birth year is written clearly but thruth be told, I, like many a Jew, don't know my age and can't determine it. My parents, peace be with them, differed greatly in their reckoning of my age. According to both of them, I was born to the first light during the great fire of the store, which isn't remembered today. So according to my father's calculations this was during the great chill that came to our corner, exactly in the time when his parents, may their memory be for a blessing, passed away. And my mother used to say that it was really two years after the first turmoil (refers to the time when Jewish children were being taken away to the Russian army) which Jewish children don't remember anymore. An omen even, the red cow clung to us, and that Hanukah she produced for cheese-filled dumplings fpor half the town, for which one licked one's fingers, and the taste stays with a few of the old Jews to this day. One must have time and be quite skillful to prime themselves for such kidns of calculations of Jews from Tunieodevke, wise men...But tht is beside the point.

What's written in my passport is thus: average size, hair- brown and gray, eyes - brown, the nose, the mouth - middling, the beard - gray, the face - clean, (primitive??) personage, particularities - none. This means that I am entirely ordinary, nothing special, a man like many and most people, no beast, G-d forbid. You may ask, if there is a question uneventful as a passport which without these factoids would also be the same information, that a person is a person! Then where do animals get their passports? The justification is, though, that asking questions has no rationale. You know, the whole reason is just this, here are my factoids and you still don't know what kind of face I have...and really though, let's not fool ourselves, that when I come around you will still know, a father-in-law, that my forehead is high with a lot of wrinkles, that my nostirls are very big, and a bit unusual, that my face at first sight looks a bit sinister, that I look, I think, a bit nearsighted because of my small eyes, and as I tighten my lips, it seems there hovers on them a small, mild, sharp, pointy-lipped smile, sillyness, my goodness! My wife even for our wedding was not interested in such little details. She was attracted to me like a blind etrog, not looking at my face and - so-so! They told her: Mazel Tov, bride, you have a groom. And enough. What concern is it then that he has such a nose, such a face? What's the big deal and why does it matter? Pity, I know better now, my friends, that I am married and from my children I have nothing to boast. So you understand that I have, no evil eye, many children. What else does a Jew have?...I'm just like the rest.

I sell my wares, as you can tell, I sell books. I've had, in my life, all kinds of jobs. It (throws me, like a father-in-law is, for Jews, on all sides, to the end I make a living with my hands, in the whole earth allof these Jews!) And I was drawn to the books, and from that do I continue to make my living today.

You know, from my face you could think that books ar a really wild occupation. I will become rich! And from that basis will Jews - who yearn foolishlky for a job to support themselves and do one thing or another - scramble to the books like a swarm of locusts. Believe me Jewish children, that I am a Jew, a (? and to boot?) these are what I sell: chumashim, siddurim, machzorim, apologees, lamentations, supplications, bentschers, and the like, are as necessary, as they say, as water on buckwheat groats. And I must bring with me talit - ktanim from Herset, Talitot from Dobnav, tzitzit, leather phylactory straps, shofars, mezuzahs, wolf teeth, seashells, childish shoes, yarmulkes, and sometiems brass and copperware. How such brass and copperware goes with books I have no idea. But that is still our custom, just like Jewish writers must somettimes also be matchmakers, a Polish beadle in a small synagogue must have a small tavern there, a (community-man?) must sometimes during the celebration of fine skilled people cook fish an serve it, like a rabbi in a small town must be drawn to make a living as a midwife. An afer all thse things it's hard for me, I have no money to call my own. A miracle, to trade in books like mine when you need not rend a stockroom with the (?) Enough, moreover, whithout such a road I wouldn't have such a horse to ride on. My horse is old and weary, limps a little when he plants his feet, unassumingly, he is tolerable. One doesn't need to race arolund when carrying potash. So one carries all this stuff on his way, covered, as it were a booth, and one carries oneself healthily. (A bell rings excessively, one gets away with a squeak from the talkers??? Standing at inns in a separate number travel together with pomp and one doesn't need anything else, turn quickly into the shady horse.) These always stay in the synagogue. The unhitched horse stands, eats (shitskse) bu it didn't have any more, from (?) spread between the high, erect shafts of the cart. (You may ask what young boys sneak and quietly tear him from the strings?) That is also no accident, that it seems entirely without a tail, (with the fashion) you may ask what, an unfortulate animal? By all means! My shlimazel of a horse stands completely still and calm, it doesn't begin to bother him. He would sometiems therefore drop his lower lip, drooling, and furthermore he laughs with his teeth, completely like by comparison a person. He did this once, he had nothing to eat, he stood comtemplatively with perked ears, lookign around the booth at the boos, I could have sworn that he understood very well with his horsey brain and reacted with might and main, something just like a secular scholar, really...but that's bside the poing.

Never mind, the horse is supplied with the school yeard, and alone one finds a place in the study house. By day, in front of the community, one sprawls all of the books on a long dirty table which is by the entrance next to the oven and at night one lays on a bench there like a faher in a wine-house, and one sleps on that which the rest of the world stands. And this very whole piece of the world, poor and poor, gives this for fre and with great honor.

(If so, but yes like this, but sleeping wandering around and ? therefore is the question), why did I decide to go into book selling? And what do I think, no evil eye, is this kidn of work? It is hard to answer that question, it still isn't clear to me...

Friends, I confess! I have a kind of (exquisite weakness from a small distance), Heaven preserve us, which in their language they call: love for nature, this means for everything which grows, which sprouts, which lives, which is found in the world. (It makes me tremble, if only this were to become true.) Oce something crawled into my head, a pretty face, an image, a shape - a blade of grass, a tree, a ?, a bird. How come, how come, men will say, how is a Jew with a beard not ashamed of this, a Jew ?, a married one, a father of children, why does he need to talk of the way of nature...think, contemplate prayer things, and even aside from them, how is one not ashamed purely and simply as a Jew to be up to stupidity, nature, watching ? things? I know this very, very well, that this isn't fitting for a Jew, but what will I do, as this si for me, and not you, an inborn weakness, an evil impulse, which draws me forth like a magnet. And what then? I should do something in spite of this with an employer, something serious, important, as with Jewishness, a father - in- law, and with a way to support myself. (In there with the holy moon I put myself up whereas in properly speaking shaking beween the world/community - I stretch toward the beautiful starry sky wiuth my thoughts to the melancholy moon, charming, I think, G-d knows what, some light troubles, beautiful, burning, thoughtful eyes, a sigh, a poetic, two-embroidered, gentle tree. And ask me, I don't have the slightest idea - what my mouth mumbles about htis. Someone says to me "Sholom Aleychem" and I say to him "Lecha dodi likrat kalah" this is equal with the etrog, with the lulav, with the willow twig (for Hashanah Rabbah) and forget the mitzvahs, the oneness of G-d, which indoors,) the holy one belssed be G-d with the Shkhine at his side, gives us pleasure from beauty, freshness, with the smells an enjoyment. The point of going to Tashlich, a serious Jewish thing, releasing us from our sins, is for me a beautiful walk, as I say. I look with my eyes at the river, the green muck which shivers on one side far away. And it seems to me a wind murmers on the water, proudly swimming as though an animal, it blows in a corner, it whispers among high-growing berries, it rinses itself, it plays in a willow tree, beding with the twigs in the water. Pure is the sky, the wind is fresh, a divine silence in the valley, hills, and fields, around and around. It shivers a little in the soul, it loings, desires, oh Master of the Universe, (alone not to know what)... I go for walks in my life. In fields, in forests, (I am still not this, which in a town, I am free.) I shed years, what care have I for wife, children, Judaism, worries. I derive pride from the overflowing creation, I give myself over to my senses, as anyone who drinks in G-d's beautiful world!...

This evil impuls,m Heven prserve us, Jewish children, grumbled inside of me, Mendl! Your trade of books is fitting for you. Make a pledge, sell your wife's little jewlery and buy a (fourth-and-trail), pack it with books and go out into the world. Whether you earn money or not, it's all the same, the point is to travel around, (you must not envy what you get from conspicuousness), hear a lot of nice things along the way. (Blame the way that you are located) lay out like a king on the wagon to look around at each little shred of G-d's stunning beautiful work and his creations, in hills and valleys, in fields and forests. This horse will carry you slwoly, slowly, and you will look and look. This way - on the way, and coming to towns and cities, will you see many different kinds of Jews, beautiful despairs, fine skil;ls, strange mean things, all kinds of souls, twisted backs, haughty noses, long hands, shrew fingers, different faces of old and new varieties. You will get them to tell stories, to sing and to talk.

Now do you understand me better, Jews?

At present, for a considerable time I've traveled in the world, and my evil impulse continues to grumble within me - so it goes - it grumbles - go print the stories that you have heard Jews tell for the whole time you (have wandered between them)!

Go! - I thought to myself - alright, let it be so.

It seems that everything says that I should do it. Incidentally, I am more like a person. Maybe I have forgotten something. I will, remembering it, say it, though I'm not promising anything, in one of my books that are being published. And furthermore, if someone really wants to know something that I haven't said, may he take the trouble to write me and he will soon get an answer from me.

My address is: Mendlo Yudelvitzcho the book seller. And the following: Garodi, Tvietschizsi. The title Gosponido Verrio you don't need to write. No matter - who neds to know.


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