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The World Goes Backwards: A Screenplay by Sholem Aleichem

December 6, 2015

For a Silent Movie, written in 1913

Translated by Mickey Hartman Flacks

Reb Avremele Veirach Blesses the Khanike Candles

30471902_On the screen: a rich house in an old-fashioned style. Old-fashioned — but expensive: furniture; old-fashioned pictures including Napoleon I, Tsar Alexander, also old Jewish heroes and sages; sconces on the walls with candles. Through the glass of an old cabinet can be seen gold and silver plates and utensils — among them an old goblet, an old spice-box.

In the immediate foreground by the door, a big Khanike menorah with filigree work, suspended between two lions, with birds with strangely twisted heads on top. Everything is in readiness for blessing the Khanike candles.

The Master himself, Reb Avremele Veyrakh, a wealthy young man, a father, stands ready with the shammes candle; he waits for his wife and the servants to come in from the kitchen to hear the blessing.

The door opens and his wife enters: Nekhama Veyrakh, a beautiful woman, wearing much jewelry. She is followed by a child of 7 or 8, wearing a silk shirt and a gold- embroidered yarmulke. Then come the servants: an old Jewish woman who is the cook, a young chambermaid, a young steward with fat cheeks, and an interesting old teacher in a long coat of satin with a fur hat on his head.

Reb Avremele Veyrakh says the prayer, bends over and lights the candles one by one; everyone says “Amen.” All the faces glow with joy, all the eyes sparkle. Reb Avremele Veyrakh takes out his purse and gives Khanike gelt to the child. The servants exit.

Activity on the screen: Guests arrive — relatives, neighbors, or simply other householders of the town. All greet the Master and Mistress and give Khanike gelt to the child. The guests sit at small tables around the room; some play checkers, others chess. The dining table is readied, chairs are set out; the Master sits at the head, the Mistress calls the crowd to the table. The servants bring in large platters of latkes, shmaltz, and griven, and other delicacies; wine flows like water. The child, Itzik, runs off periodically to play dreydl; the letters of the dreydl are visible on the screen — nun, giml, hey, shin. The crowd is charmed by the child; they toast and drink: l’khayim!

Khanike Menorah Lighting at Isak Abramovitch’s

On the screen: the same house, refurbished (new owners). In the features of the Master can be seen the child, Itzik. He has grown up; he is himself a rich man, a very rich man. His name is now Isak Abramovitch. His wife is a great aristocrat, Cleopatra Davidnova is her name. She runs the house with a swagger, very aristocratically. The house is the same one but with different furniture, different ornamentation, in a modern style. There is no trace of the old spice box, the old pictures are gone, replaced by new, modern pictures. Guests are awaited; small, green, felt-covered tables are arranged, readied with decks of cards, slates, and chalk — all the paraphernalia. In a corner by the door is the old silver Khanike menorah, for appearances sake, for the old father, an old tradition, left over from years ago.

Isak Abramovitch’s only son, Yashenka, is off somewhere playing with a (non-Jewish) governess. He keeps running in but the governess chases after him and takes him off. One by one, the guests gather: aristocratic gentlemen and their aristocratic wives. Cleopatra Davidnow gathers the guests together. From a side room, the Master’s father enters: Reb Avremele Veyrakh, quite aged. He goes to the menorah by the door, leans over and lights the candles. Little Yashenka bursts in. Cleopatra Davidnow gives the governess an angry look and the governess drags him out.

For a minute, the crowd dons hats. The old man finishes the blessing and leaves. The crowd breathes a relieved sigh: they have survived, thank God... They remove their hats, sit down around the green tables, and get down to business...

On screen: a child’s room, many toys and games. In the corner stands a Christmas tree, nicely decorated with lights and flocked with “snow.” Yashenka is trying to get out the door; he wants to go to where the guests are. The governess restrains him. He pulls and she pulls harder. “Yashenka mustn’t see the menorah lighting, mustn’t hear the blessing!” — so has Cleopatra Davidnova ordered!

Who Knows What Else We Shall Live To See!

On screen: the same large room. Isak Abramovitch Veyrakh has by now also aged. Cleopatra Davidnova is the same Cleopatra Davidnova, but not quite so swaggeringly as earlier. A quiet melancholy is on their faces, and on the faces of the guests, who arrive not with the zest of previously and do not lunge so for the tables. It is apparent that each carries worry, in the heart, deeply concealed. The old silver menorah is still in its place by the door, but it is not the old Reb Avremele Yeyrakh who approaches to bless the Khanike candles; the old Reb Avremele Yeyrakh is long gone to “the holy place.” His portrait is hung, draped in black — a grey, grizzled man, with worried eyes. The Khanike candies are being lit by a young man, a student with rosy cheeks. In his face one can recognize Yashenka, now grown up. A few other students are around him are, all with covered heads. By their faces and manner, one can see that some guests are surprised, some are happy.

Someone whispers: “Veyrakh’s son is a Zionist...” The parents look at each other, somewhat ashamed. Cleopatra Davidnova blushes — she never imagined that their son would come to this! She shrugs, wrings her hands and looks worriedly at her child and at her guests, half smiling, half ready to beg forgiveness — as if she had sinned against someone. Her eyes say: “The world goes backwards! Who knows what else we shall live to see?!”

Mickey Hartman Flacks is a Yiddish translator, Jewish cultural activist, and community organizer in Santa Barbara, California. This translation was originally published as the 2010 Jewish Currents Khanike Supplement.