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Wednesday Night Fiction: “All About America,” by Sholem Aleichem
Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
‘AMERICA is a land of bluff. Americans are bluffers . . .”
That’s what foreigners say. But these greenhorn creatures, they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about. The fact is, when it comes to bluffing, America can’t even hold a candle to Kasrilevka. And our own Berl-Isaac could put all American bluffers into his side pocket.
Now just imagine, this was the very same Berl-Isaac who went to America and spent quite a number of years there before returning to Kasrilevke -– just picture the wonders he related about that country:
“First of all, the land itself. A land flowing with milk and honey. People make money left and right. They scoop it up with two hands. They rake in gold. And there are so many shops there –- in English they call it business -- it makes you dizzy. You do whatever you please in America. Want a factory -– it’s a factory. Want to open a little store -– fine. Want to push a pushcart -- push. Or you can become a peddler or work in a sweatshop. It’s a free country. You can swell from hunger, stretch out and die on the street, no one will bother you, no one will say a word . . .
“And the size of the cities! The width of the streets! The height of the buildings! They have a house called the Woolworth Building. The tip of its chimney scratches the clouds and then some. They say it has several hundred floors. How do you get to the attic? With a kind of ladder they call an elevator. If you have to see someone on the top floor you board the elevator on the ground floor very early in the morning and you only reach your floor at dusk, around minkha time.
“Once I was curious to find out, just for the fun of it, what it was like up there, and I’m not sorry I went. What I saw there I’ll never see again. And how I felt up there can’t even be described. Just imagine, I stood at the top and looked down. Suddenly, on my left cheek I feel something strangely cold and smooth, like ice. Actually, not so much like ice but like chilled gel, slippery and nap-like. I turned my head slowly to the left and looked. It was the moon.
“And their way of life, all hustle and bustle. Running full speed. ‘Hurry-up’ is what they call it. They do everything fast. They even rush when they grab a bite. They dash into a restaurant and order a shot of whiskey and something to eat. I myself saw a man served with a plate that had something fresh and quivering on it. And before he had a chance to cut it, half of it flew off to one side, half to the other, and that put an end to that man’s meal.
“Still, you ought to see how healthy they are. Strongmen. Made of steel. They have a habit of fighting in the middle of the street. Not that they want to kill you, bash your eye in, or knock out a couple of your teeth like they do here, God forbid! They fight just for the fun of it. They roll up their sleeves and slug away to see who beats whom. Boxing is what they call it.
“One day, while strolling in the Bronx and carrying some merchandise, two young roughnecks approached and started up with me. They wanted to box. ‘No, sir,’ I said. ‘I don’t box.‘Well, we argued back and forth, but they wouldn’t let me go. I thought it over: if that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll show you a thing or two. I put my package down, took off my jacket -- and they beat the daylights out of me. I barely escaped with my life. There were two of them and only one of me. Ever since then, no money in the world will get me to box.
“And the respect we Jews have there! No people are as honored, exalted and glorified there as the Jew. There a Jew is a big shot. It’s a mark of distinction to be a Jew. On Sukkos you can meet a Jew carrying an esrog and lulav on Fifth Avenue. And he’s not even afraid of being arrested. If I tell you they love Jews there it has nothing to do with the fact that they hate a Jewish beard and payess. ‘Whiskers’ is what they call them. If they see a Jew with whiskers, they leave the Jew alone but tug away at his whiskers until he has to remove them, shave them off. That’s why most of the Jews don’t wear beards or mustaches. Their faces are as smooth as plates.
“It’s hard to tell who’s a Jew and who isn’t. With no beard and no language to indicate a Jew, you can at least recognize a Jew by his hurried walk and they way he talks with his hands. But aside from that, they’re Jews down to the last drop. They observe all the Jewish customs, love all Jewish foods, celebrate all the Jewish holidays. Passover is Passover! Matses are baked all year round. And there’s even a separate factory for kharoset. Thousands upon thousands of workers sit in that factory and manufacture kharoset And Jews also make a living from the bitter herbs and the parsley used for the seder. America is nothing to sneeze at.”
“YES, BERL-ISAAC, what you say is all very well and good. But just tell us one more thing. We’d like to know, do they die in America like they do here? Or do they live forever?”
“Of course they die! Why shouldn’t they die? When they drop dead in America, they drop dead by the thousands each day. Ten and twenty thousand. Even thirty thousand. Entire streets collapse. Cities get swallowed up like Korah in the Bible. They just sink right into the ground and disappear. America’s nothing to sneeze at.”
“Hold it! Then what’s the big deal with America? In other words, they die just like us.”
“As for dying, sure they die. But it’s how you die –- that’s the thing. It’s not just the dying. Dying is the same all over. It’s death that kills them. The main thing is the burial. That’s it. First of all, in America it’s customary for everyone to know where he’s going to be buried. While he’s still alive the man goes to the cemetery and picks out his own plot. He bargains for it until the price suits him. Then he takes his wife to the cemetery and declares, ‘See, my darling? That’s where you’ll be buried. That’s where I’ll be buried. That’s where our children will be buried.’ Then he goes to the funeral office and orders -– for one hundred twenty years later -- whichever class funeral he wants. They come in three classes -– first, second, and third.
“The first-class affair is for the truly rich, the millionaires. The funeral costs a thousand dollars. That’s what I call a funeral! The sun shines, the weather is lovely. The coffin lies on a black, silver-plated catafalque. The horses wear black harnesses and white plumes. The religious functionaries –- the rabbis, cantors, sextons -– are dressed in white-buttoned black outfits. Carriages follow the coffin, carriages without end. All the children of all the Hebrew schools step forth and at the top of their voices they slowly sing the verse from the Psalms: Righeousness . . . goes . . . before. . . Him. . . as. . . He. . . sets. . . out. . . on. . . His. . . way. . . ’ This chant reverberates all over town. It’s no trifle! A thousand dollars!
“The second-class funeral is quite nice too. It only costs five hundred dollars, but can’t compete with the first-class affair. The weather isn’t too peachy. The coffin also lies on a black catafalque, but it isn’t silver-plated. The horses and the religious functionaries are dressed in black –- but no plumes, no buttons. Carriages follow, but not as many as in first-class. Children come, but only from a few Hebrew schools and they don’t stretch the verse out as much: ‘Righteousness goes before Him as He sets out on His way.’ And they use the mournful Psalms melody as befits the five-hundred-dollar rate.
“The third-class funeral is a miserable one and costs only a hundred dollars. The weather is cold and foggy. The coffin has no catafalque. Two horses all told and two religious functionaries. Not a carriage in sight. The children from one lone Hebrew school step out and dash off their line without a tune. ‘Righteousness goes before Him as He sets out on His way.’ They mumble these words so softly and so sleepily you can hardly hear them. After all, it only costs a hundred dollars. What can you expect for a hundred dollars?”
“Yes, but what does a man do, Berl-Isaac, who doesn’t even have the hundred?”
“He’s in hot water. Without money it’s bad all over. The pauper is half dead and buried anyway. But don’t get any wrong ideas. Even in America they don’t let a poor man lie around unburied. They give him a free funeral. It doesn’t even cost him a penny. But it’s a pathetic funeral, to be sure. There’s no ceremony whatsoever. No hint of a horse or a reverend. It rains cats and dogs. Only two sextons come, the first sexton on one side, the second on the other, and in the middle, the corpse himself. Then all three of them drag their feet, poor souls, over to the cemetery. Without money -- do you hear me? -- it’s better not to be born. It’s a lousy world. . . ! By the way, can anyone here spare an extra cigarette?”
The 150th anniversary of the birth of the beloved Yiddish humorist, Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) is being commemorated this year. Curt Leviant, author of the comic A Novel of Klass, has translated five volumes of Sholom Aleichem’s works.