Monday, August 21, 2006

Tales II

On several occasions, I felt called upon to tell stories of my own. Oddly enough, they were stories from the Yiddish tradition, which they could appreciate, as my ancestors, I explained, were also landless laborers, often persecuted, with one of them a cobbler (traditionally among the lowest castes in Indian society.) Following the establishment of our goat program, I told a story about some of the foolish people of Chelm, and how a male goat ended up with a certificate from three rabbis attesting that it was a female, and how the conclusion was that the goat was a female in one village, but became a male when it entered another. The workers were tickled by how a bureaucratic action got in the way of people seeing what was obvious with their own eyes.

But the first tale I told, ably translated by Sekhar, apparently made the rounds for days, and they asked for it again on the night I left. It is a tale I remembered from when I was nine years old, and while I know the literary original by the great Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz, I have my own retelling of “Bontshe Shvayg” (which they had a devil of a time trying to pronounce), dating from my childhood memory:

Bontshe Shvayg

by I. L. Peretz, as retold by David H. Albert

On the day Bontshe Shvayg died, people almost didn’t notice. They knew something was slightly amiss when they came to the synagogue for morning prayers and didn’t find him curled up on the front stairs. So they looked around the side of the building, and there he was, stretched out straight and narrow on the snow, eyes closed, as if already perfectly prepared for his pauper’s pine coffin. He didn’t want to cause the undertaker any extra trouble. Two crows hopped about nearby, oblivious to the fact that the Angel of Death had visited close at hand.

Bontshe arrived, dazed and bedraggled at the gates of heaven. The angels were singing, intoning his name in astonishment and wonder, as if a great guest had just arrived. “He’s here, he’s here, Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe Shvayg!” they chanted, and more gathered, eight and ten deep, just to see if they could get a peek at him through the beating of wings. “Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe Shvayg”, they whispered to their angelic children, who spread celestial rose petals before him. Bontshe didn’t look up, but shuffled slowly, confusedly toward the open court that stood before the great gates.

You see, it is custom in heaven that before one is allowed to enter, a trial is held to ascertain if one is worthy. Seated in the center on His great throne, two steps above everyone else, was Lord God Himself, the Judge of all, lines on His forehead furrowed from all His cares for the world, and pulling on the ends of His cloudy white beard, frayed from worry. And there, on His right, a step down, a flaming sword on his large desk together with mountains of books, papers, and scrolls, and a permanently frozen half-frown/half smirk barely concealed behind a pencil-thin moustache, was the prosecuting angel. On the left, behind a smaller desk, swept clean except for one small piece of paper, was the angel prepared to speak for the defense.

The angel for the defense rose (for in the courts of heaven, it is the custom for the defense to say its piece first).

“This is Bontshe Shvayg,” he began, as the angels leaned in to hear. “He has had a long and difficult life.”

“On the day he was born, his mother cursed him as just another mouth to feed. His father deserted them all, ran off with the chimney sweep’s wife. His mother was a drunkard, and beat him every morning before breakfast, when there was any and what there was of it, and, one day, she too ran off with the village rag peddler, leaving the children to fend for themselves. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. His brothers left what little gristle they gave him in the dog’s bowl, so he and the dog could fight over it, though Bontshe never fought. But the dog grew to hate him nonetheless and finally ran off, food bowl and all. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained.

“At the synagogue, in exchange for his lessons, he followed the sweeper on his hands and knees, picking up the little wafts of dust and grit left behind by the broom. His teachers covered his knuckles and shoulders with bruises from their switches and yardsticks. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. They married him off to the miller’s wife (she had already gone through six husbands), and they had two daughters, who used to kick him and belittle him, until all three – his wife and two daughters -- ran off to America, never to be heard from again. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained.

“He slept in ditches and in goats’ pens, and shared the leavings of meals with the pigs. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. He ran odd jobs for the beadle and the beadle’s wife, and half the time they forgot to pay him, and he never complained. And even at his death, he saw to it that he didn’t cause anyone any extra trouble.

“My Lord,” he concluded, “This is Bontshe Shvayg. Let him be judged according to Your Will.”

And the defending angel sat down. The prosecutor rose to make his statement, and the angels shivered, for the prosecuting angel knew all, and his eyes were unforgiving. He looked down among his papers and books and scrolls, glanced over at the burning sword, and then at Bontshe Shvayg, and, in an uncustomarily weak voice, said, “I have nothing to say against this defendant,” and sat back down.

A great murmur rose among the angels; nothing like this had ever been seen in the courts of heaven. All around, one could hear the whispers, “Bontshe Shvayg. Bontshe Shvayg.” knowing that he soon would be admitted to their company.

And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave off feeling through His beard for the woes of the world, and rose from His Seat of Judgment, came down the two steps, and lifted Bontshe Shvayg from the floor before the throne by his elbow.

“Bontshe Shvayg,” He said, in His Godly weariness, “The courts of heaven cannot judge you, for, with your life as it was, what is there left to judge? Now the gates are opening to receive you. And what’s more, because you have borne a life hardly worth bearing, and have never even once complained, I hereby stand ready to grant your every wish, every boon. My Kingdom and all that is within My Dominions are yours. Ask and you shall receive it.”

And, stunned, Bontshe Shvayg looked up into the tired eyes of the Most High. The angels were hushed. The prosecuting angel looked down at his scrolls, and the defending angel folded his hands in front of him And Bontshe Shvayg said, still unsure of himself, “If it isn’t too much trouble, perhaps, if it could be arranged without it being a problem, and please don’t go out of Your way for me, maybe I could have a warm roll with a little bit of butter every morning?”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But David, you've forgotten the end! The story can't end until the Prosecutor laughs, and the defense angel weeps...

It's such a pleasure to be reading again.


12:39 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger David Albert and Aliyah Shanti said...

No, Dane, I didn't forget it, although I do indeed know how the story as Peretz wrote it ends (I also left out the section on how, had he cried out, his tears would have brought down the wrath of heaven.) That is because my memory comes from having seen the tv version on December 14, 1959, of the play written by Arnold Perl.

My memory did also play tricks, I have now discovered, now that I actually own a tape of the performance. I actually added some details that aren't there. But not on the ending.

P.S. Jack Gilson was amazing!

8:50 AM, August 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to hear from you again. Glad you've been reading. I'll try to remember to email you soon.


1:34 PM, August 23, 2006  

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