Passover in a Town

Original Author: Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

Adapted by: Tiil Books

Let the winds blow. Let the storms rage. Let the world turn upside down if it must. The old oak, which has been standing since the creation of the world, and whose roots reach to God-knows-where—what does the old tree care about the winds? What are the storms to that old tree?

The old tree is not just a symbol—it is a living being, a man whose name is Michael Polk of Pool. He is a very tall Jew, broad-shouldered, some may say…a giant, even!

The City’s people are envious of his strength, and make fun of him.

“Peace be unto you,” they often said. “Would you say you are healthy Jew?”

Michael knows he is being made fun of. He bends his shoulders and tries to look shorter, and he tries to look more Jewish. But it is useless, always. He is just too big.

Michael has lived in the town for a very long time.

“Our ‘Lachman,'” the peasants call him. They thought of him as a good man, with brains. They respected his option. and followed his advice. “What are we to do about bread?”

Lachman has an almanac, and he knows whether bread will be cheap or expensive this year. He goes to the nearby city, and keeps up with what the world is doing.

It would be hard to imagine Pool without Michael. Not only was his father, Tommy, born in Pool, but his grandfather, Arya. Arya was a clever Jew, and a witty man. He used to say that the town was called Pool because Arya Polk lived in it, because, before Pool was Pool, he, Arya Polk was already Arya Polk. That’s what his grandfather used to say.

The Traditional Jew!

And do you think Arya Polk said this for no reason? No! Arya was not an ordinary man who made jokes without reason. He meant that the catastrophes of his day were Jewish tragedies.

At that time Anti-Semitism was high in many neighborhoods. And the of hatred for the Jews was at an all-time high for his generation. All the Jews fled from their homes, except Arya Polk. It may be that even the governor of the Virginia could do nothing, because Arya Polk fought for the law to protect Jews, he would not be driven out. The Traditional Jew!

. . . . .

Certainly, if one has inherited such a privilege, and is independent, and has come from the same line as Arya Polk, one can laugh at the whole world. What did our Michael Polk care about uprisings, the limitations of the Pale, of Circulars? What did Michael care about the wicked Gentile Edward and the new papers that he brought from the court?

Edward was a short peasant with even shorter fingers. He wore a smock and high boots, and a silver chain and a watch like a gentleman. He was a clerk of the court. And he read all the newspapers publishing rubbish and anti-Semitism messages.

Personally, Edward was not a bad sort. He was a neighbor of Michael and pretended to be a friend. When Edward had a bad toothache, Michael referred him to a dentist, a good Jewish friend.

When Edward’s wife was brought to bed of a child, Michael’s wife nursed her.

But for some time, and only the devil knows why, Edward had been reading the anti-Semitic papers, and he was an altered man.

“Esau began to speak in him,” that’s what people said.

He was always bringing home news of new governors, new circulars from the ministers, and new edicts against Jews. Each time that Edward did sush, Michael’s heart was torn. But he did not let the Gentile know of it. He listened to him with a smile, and held out the palm of his hand, as if to say, “When hair grows here.”

Let governors change. Let ministers write circulars. What concern is it of Michael Polk of Pool?

Michael lived comfortably.

That is, not as comfortably as his grandfather Arya had lived. Those were different times, after all. One might almost say that the whole of Pool belonged to Arya. He had the inn, the store, a mill, a granary. Arya made money with spoons and plates, as they say.

But that was a long time ago.

Today, all these things are gone.

There is no more inn; there is no more store; there is no more granary. The question is why, in that case, does Michael live in the town?

He always laughs and asks, “where then should he live? In the earth? Just let him sell his house, and he will be Michael Polk no more!”

It that were to happen, Michael Polk would be a dependent, a stranger. As it is, he has at least a corner of his own; a house to live in, and a garden. His wife and daughters cultivate the garden. And if the Lord helps them, they have greens for the summer, and potatoes for the whole winter, until long after the Passover.

But one cannot live on potatoes alone!

It is said that one wants bread with potatoes. And when there’s no bread, a Jew takes his stick, and goes through the town in search of business. He never comes home empty-handed. What the Lord destines, he buys—some old iron, a bundle of rags, an old sack, or else a hide. The hide is stretched and dried, and is taken to the city, to Abraham-Elijah the tanner. And on all these one either earns or loses money.

Abraham-Elijah the tanner, a man with a bluish nose and fingers as black as ink, laughs at Michael, because he is so coarsened through living with Gentiles that he even speaks like them.

 

. . . . .

Yes, coarsened. Michael feels it himself. He grows coarser each year. Oh, if his grandfather Reb Arya—peace be unto him!—could see his grandson.

He had been a practical man, but had also been a scholar. He knew whole passages of the Psalms and the prayers off by heart.

The Traditional Jew!

And what does he, Michael, know? He can only just say his prayers. It’s well he knows that much. His children will know even less. When he looks at his children, how they grow to the ceiling, broad and tall like himself, and can neither read nor write, his heart grows heavy. More than all, his heart aches for his youngest child, who is called Tommy, after his father.

He was a clever child, this Tommy. He was smaller in build, more refined, more Jewish than the others. And he had brains! He was shown the Hebrew alphabet once, in a prayer-book, and he never again confused one letter with the other.

Such a fine child to grow up in a town amongst calves and pigs! He plays with Edward’s son, Stanley. He rides on the one stick with him. They both chase the one cat. They both dig the same hole. They do together everything children can do.

Michael is sorry to see his child playing with the Gentile child. It withers him, as if he were a tree that had been stricken by lightning.

. . . . .

Stanley is a smart little boy. He has a pleasant face and a dimpled chin, and flaxen hair. He loves Tommy, and Tommy does not dislike him. All the winter each child slept on his father’s stove.

They went to the window and longed for one another. They seldom met. But now the long angry winter is over. The black earth throws off her cold white mantle. The sun shines; and the wind blows. A little blade of grass peeps out. At the foot of the hill the little river murmurs. The calf inhales the soft air through distended nostrils. The cock closes one eye, and is lost in meditation.

Everything around and about has come to life again. Everything rejoices. It is the Passover eve. Neither Tommy nor Stanley can be kept indoors. They rush out into God’s world which has opened up for them both. They take each other’s hands, and fly down the hill that smiles at them—”Come here, children!”

They leap towards the sun that greets them and calls them: “Come, children!”

When they are tired of running, they sit down on God’s earth that knows no Jew and no Gentile, but whispers invitingly: “Children, come to me, to me.”


. . . . .

They have much to tell each other, not having met throughout the whole winter. Tommy boasts that he knows the whole Hebrew alphabet. Stanley boasts that he has a whip. Tommy boasts that it is the eve of Passover. They have “matzos” for the whole festival and wine. “Do you remember, Stanley, I gave you a ‘matzo‘ last year?”

“‘Matzo,'” repeats Stanley. A smile overspreads his pleasant face. It seems he remembers the taste of the “matzo.”

“Would you like to have some ‘matzo‘ now, fresh ‘matzo‘?”

Stanley asks, “is it necessary to ask such a question?”

“Then come with me,” says Tommy, pointing up the hill which smiled to them invitingly.

They climbed the hill. They gazed at the warm sun through their fingers. They threw themselves on the damp earth which smelled so fresh. Tommy drew out from under his blouse a whole fresh, white “matzo,” covered with holes on both sides.

Stanley licked his fingers in advance. Tommy broke the “matzo” in halves, and gave one half to his friend. “What do you say to the ‘matzo,’ Stanley?”

What could Stanley say when his mouth was stuffed with “matzo” that crackled between his teeth, and melted under his tongue like snow? One minute, and there was no more “matzo.” “All gone?” Stanley threw his grey eyes at Tommy’s blouse as a cat looks at butter.

“Want more?” asked Tommy, looking at Stanley through his sharp black eyes.

Stanley cried, “what a question!”

“Then wait a while,” said Tommy. “Next year you’ll get more.”

They both laughed at the joke. And without a word, as if they had already arranged it, they threw themselves on the ground, and rolled down the hill like balls, quickly, quickly downwards.

 

. . . . .

At the bottom of the hill they stood up, and looked at the murmuring river that ran away to the left. They turned to the right, going further and further over the broad fields that were not yet green in all places, but showed signs of being green soon—that did not yet smell of grass, but would smell of grass soon.

They walked and walked in silence bewitched by the loveliness of the earth, under the bright, smiling sun. They did not walk, but swam. They did not swim, but flew. They flew like birds that sweep in the soft air of the lovely world which the Lord has created for all living things.

Hush!

They are at the windmill which belongs to the town elder. Once it belonged to Michael Polk. Now it belongs to the town elder, whose name is Mr. Bailey—a cunning Gentile with one ear-ring, who owns a “samovar.”

Mr. Bailey is a rich Epicurean. Along with the mill he has a store—the same store which once belonged to Michael Polk. He took both the mill and the store from the Jew by cunning.

The mill went round in its season, but this day it was still. There was no wind. A curious Passover eve without winds. That the mill was not working was so much the better for Tommy and Stanley. They could see the mill itself. And there was much to see in the mill.

But to them the mill was not so interesting as the sails, and the wheel which turns them whichever way the wind blows. They sat down near the mill, and talked. It was one of those conversations which have no beginning and no end.

Tommy told stories of the city to which his father had once taken him. He was at the fair. He saw shops. Not a single shop as in Pool, but a lot of shops. And in the evening his father took him to the synagogue.

His father had “Yahrzeit” after his father. “That means after my grandfather,” explained Tommy. “Do you understand, or do you not?”

Stanley might have understood, but he was not listening. He interrupted with a story that had nothing to do with what Tommy was talking about. He told Tommy that last year he saw a bird’s nest in a high tree. He tried to reach it, but could not. He tried to knock it down with a stick, but could not. He threw stones at the nest, until he brought down two tiny, bleeding fledglings.

“You killed them?” asked Tommy, fearfully, and made a wry face.

“Little ones,” replied Stanley.

“But, they were dead?”

“Without feathers, yellow beaks, little fat bellies.”

“But killed, but killed!”

 

. . . . .

It was rather late when Tommy and Stanley saw by the sun in the heavens that it was time to go home. Tommy had forgotten that it was the Passover eve. He remembered then that his mother had to wash him, and dress him in his new trousers. He jumped up and flew home, Stanley after him.

They both flew home, gladly and joyfully. And in order that one should not be home before the other, they held hands, flying like arrows from bows.

When they got to the town, this was the scene which confronted them:—

Michael Polk’s house was surrounded by peasants, men and women, boys and girls. The clerk, Edward, and Mr. Bailey the town elder and his wife, and the magistrate and the policeman—all were there, talking and shouting together. Michael and his wife were in the middle of the crowd, arguing and waving their hands. Michael was bent low and was wiping the perspiration from his face with both hands. By his side stood his older children, gloomy and downcast. Suddenly, the whole picture changed.

Someone pointed to the two children. The whole crowd, including the town elder and the magistrate, the policeman and the clerk, stood still, like petrified. Only Michael looked at the people, straightened out his back, and laughed. His wife threw out her hands and began to weep.

The town elder and the clerk and the magistrate and their wives pounced on the children.

“Where were you, you so-and-so?”

“Where were we? We were down by the mill.”

 

. . . . .

The two friends, Tommy as well as Stanley, got punished without knowing why.

Tommy’s father flogged him with his cap. “A boy should know.”

What should a boy know?

Out of pity his mother took him from his father’s hands. She gave him a few smacks on her own account, and at once washed him and dressed him in his new trousers—the only new garment he had for the Passover.

She sighed.

Why?

Afterwards, he heard his father saying to his mother: “May the Lord help us to get over this Festival in peace. The Passover ought to have gone before it came.”

Tommy could not understand why the Passover should have gone before it came. He worried himself about this. He did not understand why his father had flogged him, and his mother smacked him. He did not understand what sort of a Passover eve it was this day in the world.

 

. . . . .

If Tommy’s Jewish brains could not solve the problems, certainly Stanley’s peasant brains could not.

First of all his mother took hold of him by the flaxen hair, and pulled it. Then she gave him a few good smacks in the face. These he accepted like a philosopher.

He was used to them.

And he heard his mother talking with the peasants. They told curious tales of a child that the Jews of the city had enticed on the Passover eve, hidden in a cellar a day and a night, and were about to make away with, when his cries were heard by passers-by. They rescued him. He had marks on his body—four marks, placed like a cross.

A cunning peasant-woman with a red face told this tale. And the other women shook their shawl-covered heads, and crossed themselves.

Stanley could not understand why the women looked at him when they were talking. And what had the tale to do with him and Tommy?

Why had his mother pulled his flaxen hair and boxed his ears? He did not care about these. He was used to them. He only wanted to know why he had had such a good share that day.

. . . . .

“Well?” Tommy heard his father remark to his mother immediately after the Festival. His face was shining as if the greatest good fortune had befallen him. “Well? You fretted yourself to death. You were afraid. A woman remains a woman. Our Passover and their Easter have gone, and nothing.”

“Thank God,” replied his mother. And Tommy could not understand what his mother had feared. And why were they glad that the Passover was gone? Would it not have been better if the Passover had been longer and longer?

Tommy met Stanley outside the door. He could not contain himself, but told him everything—how they had prayed, and how they had eaten. Oh, how they had eaten! He told him how nice all the Passover dishes were, and how sweet the wine. Stanley listened attentively, and cast his eyes on Tommy’s blouse. He was still thinking of “matzo.”

Suddenly there was a scream, and a cry in a high-pitched soprano: “Stanley, Stanley!”

It was his mother calling him in for supper. But Stanley did not hurry. He thought she would not pull his hair now.

First of all, he had not been at the mill. Secondly, it was after the Passover.

After the Passover there was no need to be afraid of the Jews. He stretched himself on the grass, on his stomach, propping up his white head with his hands. Opposite him lay Tommy, his black head propped up by his hands. The sky is blue. The sun is warm. The little wind fans one and plays with one’s hair. The little calf stands close by. The cock is also near, with his wives. The two heads, the black and the white, are close together. The children talk and talk and talk, and cannot finish talking.

. . . . .

Michael Polk is not at home. Early in the morning he took his stick, and let himself go over the Town, in search of business. He stopped at every farm, bade the Gentiles good-morning, calling each one by name, and talked with them on every subject in the world. But he avoided all reference to the Passover incident, and never even hinted at his fears of the Passover.

Before going away, he said: “Perhaps, friend, you have something you would like to sell?”

“Nothing, ‘Lachman,’ nothing.”

“Old iron, rags, an old sack, or a hide?”

“Do not be offended, ‘Lachman,’ there is nothing. Bad times!”

“Bad times? You drank everything, maybe. Such a festival!”

“Who drank? What drank? Bad times.”

The Gentile sighed. Michael also sighed. They talked of different things. Michael would not have the other know that he came only on business. He left that Gentile, and went to another, to a third, until he came upon something. He would not return home empty-handed.

Michael Polk, loaded and perspiring, tramped home, thinking only of one problem—how much he was going to gain or lose that day. He has forgotten the Passover eve incident. He has forgotten the fears of the Passover.

The clerk, Edward, and his governors and circulars have gone clean out of the Jew’s head.

Let winds blow. Let storms rage. Let the world turn upside down. The old oak which has been standing since the creation of the world, and whose roots reach to God-knows-where—what does he care for winds? What are storms to him?