Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
A RESOURCE FROM JEWISH CURRENTS’ SCHAPPES CENTER FOR CULTURAL JEWISH LIFE. Sponsored, in part, by the Kurz Family Foundation.
BENNY POLKOVOY was my best pal. I liked him more than any of my friends in kheder or in town. I adored Benny because he was the best looking, smartest, and cleverest of the boys. He was loyal and generous to me and always took my part. Benny was also the oldest boy in our group as well as the richest boy in kheder.
Benny was a chubby, freckle-faced fellow with yellow prickly hair, bulging white cheeks, gap teeth, popping fisheyes where a shrewd smile always lurked. The minute we met — during my first day in kheder — we became fast friends.
I GOT my first glimpse of the rebbi when my mother brought me to his kheder.
The rebbi, a man with thick brows and a pointy skullcap, was studying Genesis with all his pupils. Without the slightest hesitation the rebbi told me: “Move to that bench over there—between those two boys.”
I squeezed in between the boys and was immediately accepted.
“Remember now, study diligently,” Mama said, standing by the door. She turned and looked at me with a feeling of mingled joy, love, and compassion. I understood Mama’s look quite well. She was happy that I was studying in the company of respectable children, but her heart ached that she had to part with me.
Sitting there among so many new friends, I must admit I felt happier than my mother. I sized them up; they sized me up. But the rebbi wouldn’t let us sit idle for long.
He rocked back and forth and yelled in a loud singsong voice, while we all repeated after him, one outshouting the other. But at one point the rebbi caught me talking to Benny. He saw that my attention was not focused on Genesis. Suddenly, he began to question: “Say, you there, whatever your name is! Do you know whose son Cain was? And what Cain’s brother was called? Why are you gaping at me like that?” the rebbi asked. “Didn’t you hear me? I’m simply asking you to name the father of Cain the son of Adam and to describe the relationship between Cain and his brother Abel, the sons of Eve.”
All the boys were smiling and choking with laughter. I couldn’t understand why.
“You silly goose,” Benny whispered to me, poking me with his elbow. “Tell him you don’t know because we haven’t learned it yet”
I obeyed and repeated each word like a parrot. Once again the class exploded with mirth. What are they laughing at? I thought.
BENNY AND I became good friends. He always stood up for me. Once, when he caught the kids picking on me he took each boy by the ear and gave it a right good twist, chanting with a Torah melody, “Now you know what you’ll get for picking on an orphan, a widow’s son.”
After that the boys never pestered me again.
In kheder I was known as the Widow’s Son. Why the Widow’s son? Because my mother was a widow. She supported herself by the sweat of her brow, running her own little grocery. I couldn’t understand why Mama always complained that she barely made enough to pay for the store rent and for kheder tuition. “Since God took my wonderful husband from me and left me a lonely young widow, the least I want for you, my son, is to be well-versed in holy lore.”
What do you say to that? She always went to my kheder to find out how I was progressing. As for prayers, she made sure that I said them daily. She tried to talk me into becoming at least half the man my father was, may he rest in peace. Whenever she looked at me, she would declare, “You’re the image of him, may you live and be well.” Then her eyes would fill with tears, and a curtain of gloom would cover her face.
No one could say that the Widow’s Son was a poor student. I did not even trail my friends by a hair. However, I wasn’t as good when it came to praying. All children are alike, and the Widow’s Son was no less a scalawag than the others. Like them, I loved to fool around. It was my pal Benny who taught us all sorts of game of chance like odd or even, in which we lost our breakfast and lunch money. At gambling Benny was a master, and he outwitted us all. He beat us down to our last kopek, then wiped his lips, and pulled a disappearing act.
THERE WAS only one week during the year when we were permitted to gamble. What am I saying permitted? It was a moral obligation, a pious duty to gamble. That week came during Khanike, when we played, gambled, and made bets with the dreydl. Of the four letters on the dreydl’s four sides, N stands for nothing, G for gather money, H is for half the pot, and S for settle accounts. The dreydl is like a lottery. The lucky one wins. For example, take Benny. No matter how often he spun the dreydl it always landed on G.
“That Benny is really something,” the boys said, putting more money in the pot. But Benny didn’t care. He was a rich man’s son and took them all on. He kept displaying his artistry and skill until he had taken away every last kopek from us. We all went home, distressed and ashamed. There each of us had to concoct a different lie.
I too had my own cock-and-bull story. I told Mama some fairy tale and got another round of Khanike money. With these seven kopeks I went straight to Benny, who relieved me of my money in five minutes flat. And I played with Benny every day until the last day of Khanike. And then I began to sell everything I owned. My knife, my purse, my buttons. And after every sale I ran to Benny’s house, where I lost again. I left his house heartbroken, depressed and vexed. But not at Benny, God forbid. I had nothing against him. Was it Benny’s fault that he was lucky at dreydl? Had the dreydl landed on G at my turn, then I would have won.
Actually, I was angry at myself for having squandered so much money -– Mama’s hard-earned money –- and all my possessions besides. I even sold my little siddur, my favorite prayerbook.
DEAR CHILDREN, I grey up and became a young man. Benny, too, grew up and became a young man with a yellow beard. He developed a big paunch, which he draped with a golden chain. Once he had been a rich man’s son; now he was a rich man himself.
We met on a train. I recognized him at once. We embraced and kissed and began recalling good old times.
“Benny, do you remember that Hanuka when you had so much good luck with the dreydl. It always landed on G.”
I looked at Benny and saw him turning colors, exploding with laughter. “What’s the matter, Benny? Why the sudden laughter?”
“Oh.” He waved his hands. “Don’t mention that dreydl. That was some dreydl. Oh, what an amazing dreydl that was. With a dreydl like that it was was hard to lose.”
“What kind of dreydl was it, Benny?”
“It was a dreydl -– ha, ha, ha – with no…other…letters…only G’s.”
Curt Leviant’s most recent books are his ninth and tenth novels, the widely praised King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.