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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My latest Yiddish translation: A preamble by Mendele the Book Peddler

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Mendel Moykher Sforim's first book; we read it in Paris this summer at the Medem Bibliotheque and it was my favorite piece by far. I finally had the time to translate it for my own pleasure and, I hope, for yours.

A preamble by Mendele the Book Peddler

On the occasion of his coming forward into the world with his very own stories, published for the first time

"What's your name?" That's the first question one Jew asks another, a complete stranger, the minute he meets with him and rattles off a how-do-you-do. When this happens, it wouldn’t occur to anybody to give a response like, "What's it to you, brother, that you should know my name? So we're going to marry our children to each other, then? I have the name I was given, and leave me alone!"

On the contrary, the question "What's your name?" is completely natural, it lies as easily in one's nature as it does to finger someone’s new caftan and ask: "How much did it cost you? How much was this fabric by the yard?" - as it does to take, uninvited, a cigarette from someone else's open pack - as it does to stick a finger into their tobacco pouch and take from it a pinch of snuff - as it does to ask somebody, suddenly, out of the blue, about his business and to outline for him your suggested improvements although he hasn't any urgent need for them at all and can do quite well without them, as indeed he can also do without you.

Such things are natural by us Jews, this is just how the order of things has been since the dawn of time, and to take a stand against it would amount to insanity.

I know quite well that now, at my first, initial arrival, during my first foray into Yiddish literature, or as you might say, with my stories, certainly the public's first question will be: "What do they call you, uncle?"

My name's Mendele! Thus, gentlemen, was I named - after a great-grandfather on my mother's side, Reb Mendele the Muscovite, of blessed memory. Back in the day he was given this name because, as the story goes, he did actually get all the way to Moscow once, in point of fact, trading for Russian goods, and he skittered back here again lickety split, in the blink of an eye, before they had the chance to come around and throw him out of there. Anyhow, that's not what I'm getting at. What foolishness!

Nevertheless, he actually was in Moscow, with Tsar Fonye as they say. This procured for him a good name and reputation in his little corner. Everyone considered him an experienced, sophisticated man, who'd been around the world, and when there was trouble, or when there was need of writing an official letter, they'd ask his advice. But that's not my point either.

With this alone, though, the ritual is not complete. After the aforementioned first question, Jews generally start up gushing all kinds of questions like, for instance: Where's he from? Is he married? Does he have kids? How's he make his living? Where's he traveling to? Ha!, more and more such questions, this is accepted wherever Jews have settled throughout the diaspora, and if you want to have a decent name for yourself among people, to show that you are, praise God, a fine person, someone who’s been around, not just a bookworm benchwarmer, then you're going to have to answer properly, just as a greeting of "Good Sabbos" must be answered with "a Good Year."

I'm not going to pick a quarrel with the world; I'm ready to answer all these questions of yours - quickly and succinctly, if possible.

Myself, I was born and raised in Tsvuetshits (Hypocrite), it's a good-sized town (no Evil Eye), in the Teterivker district, famous for its goodness and piety the way Glupsk (Stupid), for instance, is known for its wisdom, Kaptsansk (Poverty) for its wealth, and Tunyadevke (Do-Nothing) for its factories. Beautiful places, with such merits, praise God, as have prevailed and influenced the Jewish condition in our little corner of the exile... but that isn't my point.

My passport states my age most efficiently, but in truth, how old I am - as is often the case with Jews - isn't easy to say. My parents, rest in peace, strongly disagreed on the reckoning of my years, but they agreed I was born at the lighting of the first Hanukah candle during the terrible fire that burned the stores (let it not happen again)...

It was around the time the red cow calved, and by the last day of Hanukah her milk was so abundant she made milk varenikes for half the village, varenikes that made folks lick their fingers and with a taste that still lies on the tongues of some of our old Jews to this day... but that isn't what I was getting at either...

My features as stated in my passport are as follows: height, middling; hair and brows, grey; eyes, brown; nose and mouth: average; a grey beard, the face unscarred, and as for "distinguishing marks" - none. That is to say, altogether nothing special, a man of the usual kind, like the majority of men, not an animal, God forbid!

So the question is, a simple straightforward passport completely without distinguishing marks simply shows one is human! Because since when do animals have passports? The answer is, however, that there's no point in asking questions. Listen, this description doesn’t properly show what kind of face I have.

And in point of fact, let's not deceive ourselves, what good will it do you to know, for example, that my brow is a high one with a lot of wrinkles; that my nostrils are very big and somewhat strange; that my face at first glance will seem a bit angry; that when I’m rapt in thought I have a near-sighted squint; and that when I purse my lips it seems a mild, wry smile swims on them.

Foolishness, upon my word! Even my wife didn't interest herself in such trivialities before our marriage. She took me sight unseen, not a glimpse of my face beforehand, and - it turned out all right.

Anyway, now you know, gentlemen, that I'm married. And as for children, no need to discuss it. It's understood, naturally, that I have (no evil eye) quite a few of them. What else, then, does a Jew have? But that's not my point.

My business, as you can see by looking at me, is holy books. I've had more than enough different livelihoods in my life, they threw me all over the place, as usual, until at last I waved my hand and said, "Ah, to the Devil with all these rackets!" and I took to the holy book trade, and that's precisely what I've been living by to the present day.

Hearing that, one might believe, on the face of it, that book peddling is the finest profession, and that I'm rich! And on that basis, Jews - yearning after a fine livelihood, poor things - will follow each other, one after another - they’ll throw themselves, like locusts, onto the book business! I swear to you, Jewish children - I'm a pauper!

Well, if that's the case - if my life is a shlepping, wandering, beggarly one - then the question is, how the Devil did I drag myself into the holy book business? And what holds me to my wares to this very day? It's not easy to answer - it's simply that I had no choice ...

Gentlemen, I confess to you! From childhood on I've had a certain weakness (may it not happen any other Jew) which in the language of the goyim is called 'love of nature.' That is to say, a love of everything that grows, that sprouts, that lives, everything that's found in this world. It pulls me - it pulls - I hope it never happens to you. It gets to me from time to time: a trinket, a pretty little face, a picture, an image, a little blade of grass, a little branch, a little rose, a little bird.

How can it be, people will say, why aren't you ashamed, a Jew with a beard, with responsibilities, married, a father of children, who should by all rights be worrying ...

Oy, well I know that such things are not suitable for a Jew, but what can I do, seeing as how this is my born weakness - my Evil Inclination from the very start, may it not happen to you - that draws me to itself like a magnet.

And so the Evil Inclination (may it not happen to you, my children) muttered to me: "Mendl! Book handling is made to measure for you. Pawn, even if only temporarily, your wife's bit of jewelry; buy a horse and wagon, pack it up with books, and let yourself go forth into the world. If you earn, if you don't earn, it's all the same, the point is the journey, the pleasure you'll have from the beautiful things which will reveal themselves and be heard along the way.

"Traveling the road you'll lean back, lounging like a king on your wagon, and you'll look all around you at every tiny piece of God's artfully beautiful handiwork, and his creatures in mountains and valleys, in fields and forests. Your little horse will pull you slowly, slowly, and you'll look all around, you'll look... That's how it is on the road, and then, coming into little villages and towns, you'll see all sorts of Jews: beautiful faces, fine creatures, strange characters, every manner of being, crooked backs, stuck up noses, sticky-fingered long-armed scoundrels, this kind and the other kind, from the old cut and the new - you'll have a lot of stories to tell about them, to sing and narrate."

Now do you understand, children?

And today, after I've spent a goodly time traveling around in the world, the Evil Inclination mutters to me again. "Publish your stories," he mutters, "the stories you have to tell about Jews after all this time you've spent roaming among them."

OK - they can listen, then - it won't hurt them, God forbid! OK, I thought to myself, all right, with pleasure, let it be so! And so it seems I’ve said my piece..

Incidentally, I'm only human. If I've perhaps forgotten something - no promises, but I’ll try my best to put it into one of my later little books. And, furthermore, if someone has no time and wants to know everything quickly, all at once, may he be so kind as to write to me, he'll quickly receive a clear response.



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