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Sholem Aleichem: Pity for Living Creatures

Yankl Stillman
March 12, 2015

Thoughts of a Silly Boy

by Sholem Aleichem

Translated by Yankl Stillman

Originally published in the January-February 2009 issue of Jewish Currents

Carp'IF YOU WANT to be a good little boy, you can help us grate horseradish, until we get done preparing the fish for the holiday.”

That’s what my mother said to me, half a day before Shevues. Together with the cook, she was preparing the dairy meal and scraping scales off the fish — the still-living fish, who were wriggling and flopping around in a glazed tub full of water.

More than any of them, a poor little carp was doing the wriggling. It had a fat belly, a round little mouth, and little red eyes, and it really wanted to get back into the river. So it tossed, it tried to jump right out of the tub, it opened its little mouth and slapped the water with its little tail, splashing my face. Little boy, save me! ... Save me!

I wiped my face and got to work grating horseradish for the holiday. You poor little carp! I thought. I can’t do anything for you. Soon they’ll start working on you — you’ll have your scales scraped, your little belly slit open, your little guts ripped out. Then you’ll be cut into little pieces, and stuck into a pot, and salted and peppered, and fried on the fire.

“It’s a pity,” I said to my mother, “a pity for a living creature.”

“A pity for whom?”

“The little fish.”

“Who told you this?”

“The rebbe.”*

“The rebbe?” She and the cook looked at each other and burst out laughing. “You’re a fool, and your rebbe is a bigger fool. Grate the horseradish, grate it!”

That I’m a fool, I know. My mother always tells me that. So does my father and my brothers. My sister too. But that the rebbe is an even bigger fool — that was news to me.

RoosterI HAVE A FRIEND Pinyele whose father is a shoykhet. Once I went to visit him and saw a girl who brought a big rooster, his legs tied together with string. My friend’s father was sleeping, so the girl sat by the door and waited.

The rooster, a lively rascal, tried to free himself from her hands. He kicked her in the stomach with his sturdy legs, pecked her hands, each time letting out a ko-ko-ko from his throat to protest as much as he could. But the girl was no slouch, either. She tucked the rooster’s head under her arm and thrust her elbow into him, each time, saying, “Sit there and suffer.”

He obeyed and sat there suffering.

Later, the shoykhet got up, washed his hands and took out the slaughtering knife. With a nod he asked for the rooster. I saw the rascal come to life. He must have thought they were going to untie his hobbled legs and let him go free, back to his hens, his chicken feed, and his water trough. Instead, the shoykhet grabbed him, shoved him between his legs, bent his little head back with one hand, plucked out several feathers, did him the honor of pronouncing a blessing, and sssssslit — drew the slaughtering knife across the bird’s throat. Then he drained a bit of blood into the ashes, and flung the rooster so hard, I thought the body would break apart.

“Pinye,” I said to my friend, “your father is a goy !”

“How is he a goy?”

“He has no pity for living creatures.”

“I never knew you were such a sage,” my friend said, giving me the finger right under my nose.

CatOUR COOK had one blind eye. She was called Frume with the Blind Eye. A woman with no heart. Once she whipped the cat with a bunch of nettles because she thought the creature had stolen a chicken liver from the salting board. Later, when Frume recounted the chickens and livers, it turned out she made a mistake. She had thought that seven chickens had been slaughtered, so, according to her calculation there should have been seven livers. But only six chickens had been slaughtered, so there should have been only six livers. A divine miracle! The cat had been suspected for nothing.

You’d think that Frume would take this to heart and try to make it up to the cat. Never! She forgot! She forgot and the cat forgot. A few hours later the cat was sitting politely on the hearth grooming herself as though nothing had happened. No wonder they say “a memory like a cat’s.”

But I didn’t forget. No, no, I didn’t forget. “You whipped the cat for nothing,” I said to Frume with the Blind Eye. “You took a sin upon yourself — no pity for living creatures. God will punish you.”

“Get away from here before I slap your face with this dish towel!” That’s what Frume with the Blind Eye said to me, and added: “Lord of the universe! Where do such foolish children come from?”

DogTHIS ONE is about a dog that had a pot of boiling water spilled on him — by her, the very same Frume with the Blind Eye. Oy, was that dog in pain! He screamed, he yelped, he barked for all he was worth. The whole town gathered to watch the crazy scene, and they laughed and laughed. All the other dogs in the town answered him, each in his own way, as if they’d been asked. Later, when the boiled dog had screamed his fill, he began to whine and whimper, licking his wounded fur and crying quietly.

My heart went out to him. I went over to pet him. “There, there, Sirko...”

As soon as he saw my raised hand, he jumped up, as if he had been boiled again, and went off with his tail between his legs.

“Stay, Sirko!” I tried to quiet him with soft talk. “Why are you running away, silly? You think I want to hurt you?”

But a dog is a dog, a dumb animal. He doesn’t know about pity for living creatures.

My father saw me hovering around the dog, and he gave it to me: “Get to school, you dog beater!”
So now I was a dog beater.

THIS ONE is about two little birds — two plain little nestlings killed by two gentile scamps, a bigger one and a smaller one. When those two nestlings fell to earth, they were still alive, shivering and trembling allover, with their feathers puffed up.

“Move, you fool!” said the bigger boy to the smaller, and they picked up the two little birds and beat their heads against a tree — beat them the way we beat willow branches against a pulpit during hosannas — until they both died.

I couldn’t control myself and ran over to them. “Why are you doing that?’’

“What’s the problem? They’re only swallows!” Only birds, just birds.

“So what? Aren’t they entitled to mercy? What about pity for living creatures?”

They looked at each other — and then, as if they had planned it beforehand, they began to work me over.

When I returned home, my torn coat told the whole story. My father executed judgment on me according to my deserts.

“You tattered fool!” he yelled.

All right, I can forgive “tattered fool” — but why did I have to be slapped?!

WHY DID I have to be slapped? Didn’t the rebbe himself say that all creatures are dear to the One Above? Even a fly should not be molested, he said, because of “pity for living creatures.” We should not even kill a spider, he said — when it’s time for the spider to die, God Himself will do it.

Fine. But a question arises: Why are cows killed — and calves and sheep and chickens — every day?

And not just cows and chickens. Don’t people kill each other? Here, during the pogrom, weren’t little children, babies, thrown off the roof? Didn’t they kill our neighbor’s little girl — Perele was her name — oy, the way she was killed!...

I loved that child. And she loved me! “Uncle Bebebe,” she used to call me — that’s how she pronounced my name, Velvele — and she’d pull my nose with her thin, sweet little fingers...

Because of her, everyone called me “Uncle Bebebe.” “Here comes Uncle Bebebe. He’ll carry you, Perele.”

Perele was a sick child. She was basically all right, but she couldn’t walk. She couldn’t walk and she couldn’t stand. She could sit. So she had to be carried outside to sit in the sand pile in the sun. She loved the sun, she was crazy about it. So I used to carry her around, and she would embrace my neck with those thin, sweet little fingers. She would nestle close to me with all of her little body and place her little head on my shoulder, and say, “Love Bebebe.”

Our neighbor Kreni says that to this very day, she cannot get “Uncle Bebebe” out of her mind. As soon as she looks at me she remembers her Perele. My mother gets angry with her because she cries. “No crying, no sinning,” says my mother. “One has to forget. Forget...”

That’s what my mother says, trying to fool Kreni while chasing me away. “Keep out of our sight,” she tells me, “so folks won’t be reminded of things they’re not supposed to remember!”

Ha! How is it possible not to remember? As soon as I think of that little girl, my eyes fill with tears...
“Look at him. He’s crying again, the sage!” says Frume with the Blind Eye to my mother. My mother glances at me and bursts out laughing.

“The horseradish got your eyes, hm? A plague on me! It’s such a strong horseradish, and I forget to tell him to keep his eyes closed... Here, take my apron and wipe your eyes, silly boy, and while you’re at it wipe your nose, too...”

Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Sholem Rabinowitz) was the rock star of the Jewish world at the turn of the 20th century, his popularity so great that he became a living legend, a culture hero, and a fixture of Jewish life. He wrote with shrewd humor and deep compassion, and gained a readership that spanned all levels of Jewish society. His stories, plays, and novels have been translated into scores of languages, and millions of copies of his work have sold around the world. “Sholem Aleichem” means “hello” and “peace be with you.”

Yankl Stillman was a longtime member of the Jewish Currents editorial board and a Yiddish translator whose works included writings by Mendele Mokher Sforim in Volume One of The Three Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature, among many other publications.