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A new translation by Curt Leviant
MY GANG OF PALS always called me Dunderhead. Was it because I refused to study? Well, that wasn’t the only reason. Truth is I didn’t want to study. Who does? Did they dub me Dunderhead on account of my wooden head? Maybe. Truth is I was a numbskull. Nothing penetrated, my teacher complained. I had to work my head to the bone before I understood anything.
But, on the other hand, my memory, knock wood, was pretty weak too. I couldn’t remember a blessed thing. In one ear, out the other. Absolutely nothing sank in.
DURING the Eve of Passover I’m going to tell you about, my father’s joy knew no bounds. What was the big occasion? Mazel tov. I had become engaged.
My father-in-law was a merchant. He was even offering a dowry. Not much, though. My father was giving twice as much. But in turn, they were giving me a bride.
And what a bride! I myself hadn’t met her. But those who had, couldn’t stop raving about her. Mama declared she was beautiful. My sister said she was smart. My brother in law insisted she was good-natured. He said, her face was kindness itself.
But my father said whatever she was, I wasn’t worthy of her.
And I yearned for Passover like a pious Jew yearned for the moshiakh. For I was going to spend the entire eight days of Pesakh as a guest of my future in-laws.
MY PARENTS told me to be on my best behavior –- to stand and sit and eat properly and not talk any nonsense.
“In brief,” said Father, “don’t let them get wind of the fact that you’re a dunderhead... Say, wait a minute, do you know the holiday kiddush?”
It turned out that I did not. How should I know it? Remember it from last year? And this year the second night of Pesakh fell on a Saturday night. Which made it doubly disastrous! For on that night one had to recite not only the kiddush over the wine but also the tricky havdoleh, the prayer of separation as well.
Listen to this: “Blessed art thou, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has made a distinction between the holiness of the Sabbath and the holiness of the festival; the seventh day above the six working days hast thou exalted; distinguished and exalted thy people hast thou with thy holiness.”
There you have “exalted” followed immediately by “distinguished and exalted.” Some piece of work, eh?
“Never mind,” said Father. “You’ll learn it. You still have three weeks till Pesakh.”
BUT FATHER wasn’t banking on my abilities. He got a Hebrew teacher to study the kiddush with me. So that I’d get to know it backwards.
After three weeks I can proudly say I had the kiddush down pat. But the havdoleh still tripped me up. I mean the havdoleh itself went like a song. But only up to a certain point. Up to the first “exalted.” There things went haywire. The man who thought up that prayer apparently had nothing else to do. So he popped in the word “exalted,” and right at its heels, “distinguished and exalted.”
Couldn’t he have just used either “distinguished” or “exalted”?
Why cause trouble?
“HOW’S THE KIDDUSH coming along”? Father asked me just as I was about to leave before Pesakh. “Do you know it by heart?”
“Like I know my name.”
“All right. Let’s hear it.”
I recited it, going eighty miles per hour. But when it came to the tricky part the express slowed down. “The seventh day above the six working days hast thou exalted; exalted and distinguished hast thou thy people...”
My father caught this. “Not ‘exalted and distinguished’, you dunderhead, but ‘distinguished and exalted’. I want you to repeat ‘distinguished and exalted’ two hundred fifty times.”
I wandered around the house like a lunatic, softly muttering “distinguished and exalted” until my eyes grew bleary and my head began to spin. At my wit’s end, I sank into the sofa, more dead than alive.
“What’s with you?” asked Mama.
“Nothing,” I said. “Distinguished and exalted. Exalted and distinguished.”
“Did I hear ‘and distinguished’ again?” asked Father. “Where did you get ‘and distinguished’ from, you dunderhead?”
“Don’t you think it’s high time to put a stop to this?” said Mama, God bless her. “You’re going to get him so confused the poor child won’t know if he’s coming or going.”
AS I SAT in the coach on my way to my fiancee’s house, I recited the kiddush by heart. When I came to the words “exalted, distinguished and exalted,” I made a sign for myself.
Since the horse on the left looked like such a noble steed, I labeled him “exalted.”
And since the horse on the right kept throwing his head up so proudly, I labeled him “distinguished.” The key was left-right-left. “Exalted; distinguished and exalted.” And so it burned itself into my memory.
Now no force on earth could knock that pattern out of my mind.
I arrived safely at my fiancee’s house on Friday afternoon, Erev Pesakh, and I got a quick glimpse of her. Not bad. Not at all ugly. Whether she was smart or not, I couldn’t say. But as far as I could tell, her face wasn’t “kindness itself,” as my brother-in-law put it.
If a cluster of little pimples scattered all over one’s face was a sign of kindness, then she should have been a saint!
WE CAME HOME from the synagogue, wishing every one ”Gut yontef,” and sat down at once to begin the seder. The bride responded to the greeting and immediately blushed, red as a ripe watermelon. My mother-in-law beamed, decked out with an assortment of gems, looking like God’s grandma.
The first seder went well, for the Friday night kiddush is a snap. But then came Saturday night and the second seder. My father-in-law chanted the long kiddush and then signaled his future son-in-law to get up.
I rose, took the wine goblet in hand, and dispatched the courier express. Loud and pretty. On tune. Quick as a flash. Till I came to the tricky Hebrew phrases. Smack into the swamp. Then I slowed up, literally crawling along.
“Thou hast made a distinction... between the holiness of the Sabbath... and the holiness of the holiday.... The seventh... day... above... the six... working... days... hast . . . thou... exalted....”
At once I thought of the horses, the one on the left, exalted; the one on the right, distinguished; but, forgetting which was which I sang: “Extinguished and desalted hast thou thy people...”
EARLY IN THE MORNING of the third day, my father-in-law was composing a letter to my father. I was already packed, all set for the return trip.
“Here,” he said, handing me a sealed letter. “Regards to your father. Give him this note and have a nice trip home.”
While riding on the wagon, I was curious to see what he had written and why they had sent me packing so soon. When I opened the envelope, out fell the marriage contract and the note. In the letter my ex-father-in-law begged my father’s pardon and declared: “Don’t be angry, but the match is off. May the Almighty send your son his destined mate and my daughter hers.... The dowry and all the presents will be divided and we’ll part best of friends.”
Luckily, he didn’t say a word about my fine kiddush, God bless him.
But hold on! As soon as I set foot in the house my father promptly greeted me with a couple of smacks. “Extinguished and desalted, huh? Where did you dig that up all of a sudden, you apostate? I’ll give you extinguished and desalted!”
How did he find out so quickly? And do you think it was only my father? Everyone in town knew it. And no longer was I called Dunderhead.
I got myself a new nickname.
From then on everyone called me “Extinguished and Desalted.”
Sholem Aleichem needs no introduction; he was the most beloved of the classic Yiddish writers. Among translator Curt Leviant’s ten critically acclaimed works of fiction the most recent are the novels King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.