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Mameloshn: The “Four Questions” of an American Boy

Barnett Zumoff
March 24, 2013

by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Barnett Zumoff

Sholem Aleichem“Daddy, I want to ask you four questions. The first question I want to ask is: ma nishtane halayle hazeh — why is this night different from all other nights in the whole year?

Shebkol haleyles — for on all other nights in the year we eat whatever we want: a Jewish steak, pork chops, fish with horseradish, oysters, noodle pudding, or pumpkin pie. Halayle hazeh — on this night of Passover, we eat only matse and bitter herbs. And if we want to eat something non-peysakhdik, my mother has told us, we can go to a restaurant on Broadway, because in her house, she says, things are strictly peysakhdik. Everywhere, in every corner, things are kosher and clean. The house shimmers and sparkles, and we have just bought brand-new dishes from the store. The furniture has been redecorated, the doors have been washed, the windows have been cleaned, and the woodwork has been revarnished. Sadie the maid has been koshered. An odor of heavily peppered fish rises from the kitchen. There’s a smell of goose-fat. They’ve made pancakes and blintzes with the soup, and home-style kneydlekh, khremzlekh, and falirtshikes. They’ve suddenly told us to put on our hats, seated us at the table, and put in our hands little prayer-books and hagodes for us to look into. So we sit like dummies and watch, like the rooster in the Bnei Odom prayer.

“What sort of comedy is that? What’s the name of that play?

“Now I’ve asked you one question, Daddy, and I want to ask you the next question:

“Why did Mama send our Christian cook away for all of peysakh? Why are we so ashamed of our holiday?

“Are we ashamed that we freed ourselves by our own efforts from our exile in Egypt, and that from slaves, Gypsies, we became a people?

“Are we ashamed of Moses’ Bible?

“Are we ashamed of our Holy Temple, which was, they say, a temple, a house of God for all people?

“Are we ashamed of our kings, who distinguished themselves not only with war and bloodshed? They, it is said, also wrote unusual books and sang lovely songs, the Psalms.

“Are we ashamed of our prophets, who didn’t hesitate to point out the errors of even the greatest person, even the king himself, and to tell him the truth right to his face?

“Are we perhaps ashamed that our parents allowed themselves, they say, to be slashed and cut to pieces, burned and roasted, hanged and drowned, and to watch as their children were killed before their eyes, and to jump into the fire to sanctify His name, all the while shouting, ‘Hear, O Israel . . . !

“Is that what we are ashamed of?

“Now I’ve asked you two questions, Daddy, and I want to ask a third question:

“Why did you send us to a school to learn only English, and forget to teach us Yiddish, our own language, or Hebrew, the language in which the Bible was written, the language that the prophets spoke, the language in which, they say, there is a rich and beautiful literature?

“Why did we memorize the history of all peoples, the old ones and the new ones, but omit the history of one people — our own Jewish people?

“Why are we clear about the geography of the whole world, but cannot describe the land of our ancestors, Israel?

“Now I’ve asked you three questions, Daddy, and I’ll ask you the fourth question:

“Why do we know when it’s Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday, Decoration Day, and Thanksgiving Day, but we don’t know when it’s khanike, what purim is, when it’s sukes, and what peysakh means?

“Why do we know who Shakespeare, Milton, Longfellow, Dickens, Thackeray, Poe, and Mark Twain were, but not who Yehuda Halevi, Gordon, Levinson, Abramowitz, Bialik, and many other poets and writers of ours were?

“Why and why and why? Why should I have to ask you any questions at all?

“I’ve asked you four questions, Daddy. Now I ask you to give me an answer to my questions. And if you can’t give me an answer to my questions, I’ll give you the answer myself: We were slaves . . .”