Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: A Variety of Paupers and Some Fools

Mendele Mocher Seforim (“Mendele the Bookseller”) is the pseudonym of Shalom Yaacov Abramovitch (1836-1918), who virtually singlehanded created modern Yiddish letters, transforming the despised “jargon” into a vehicle for a forceful, vivid literature. Reverenced as the “Grandfather” of modern Yiddish and also modern Hebrew literature, he exerted an enormous personal and literary influence on men of such diverse talents as Ahad Ha-am, Bialik, and Sholom Aleichem.

Mendele is perhaps best known as the satirist of the ignorance, the social degradation and poverty, of life in the Jewish Pale in 19th-century Russia. His satirical novellas and stories are openly didactic, aiming to castigate the superstitious follies of the Jews and, by encouraging education, to help eliminate the evils of poverty and pauperization. These themes, and many of his literary devices, were also those of Mendele’s predecessors and contemporaries of the East European Haskalah. But to the general task of enlightenment Mendele brought his unique literary genius.

The two selections which I offer in translation below appear in English for the first time. The first is from Fishke der Krumer (“Fishke the Lame”), the Hebrew version of which is known as The Book of Paupers. The second is from Dos Vinshfingerel (“The Wishing Ring”), in Hebrew known as The Vale of Tears.

—Moshe Decter

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Typology of Paupers

These are the species of Jewish pauperdom: foot paupers—those who drag themselves around on foot; and horse-drawn or wagon paupers—those who drag around the countryside in wagons. The foot paupers are divided into two sub-species: wandering paupers—a riffraff that is constantly on the move; and the sedentary or home-town paupers.

The wagon paupers are also divided into sub-species: domesticated paupers—those who were born in a house in some city, generally in Lithuania or Poland; and the wild paupers—those who were born inside a wagon in a field and who come from a long line of wagon paupers. All of these paupers are Jewish gypsies. They wander from one end of the Jewish world to another; they are born and reared, they marry, multiply, and die—always on the road. They are “free” people who like birds on the wing accept no authority and are not subject to any social obligations, taxes, charity, prayer, or precept; they have, in fact, no overlord, human or divine.

Among the home-town paupers are the following:

Ordinary paupers: men and women, and boys and girls too, who carry their packs around from house to house on Rosh Chodesh [the celebration of the New Moon], and even during the middle of an ordinary week, and beg pennies and bread. Many of them are in the habit of chasing after everyone they encounter on the street; they grab hold of a person’s coat and can’t be got rid of until you reach into your pocket and give them something.

Communal-personage paupers: the honored poor of the synagogues, the poor Cabbalists and idlers who collect fees for studying the Mishnah, reciting Psalms, and repeating the Kaddish at a mourner’s home or at the cemetery. In this category are shofar-blowers and ritual inspectors of books, phylacteries, mezuzoth, and other such objects.

Paupers for the Glory of the Torah: for example, ascetics who forsake their wives and children in order to go off and bury themselves in the synagogue of some town to study the Talmud at the community’s expense; and yeshiva boys who kill time scratching themselves near the oven and daily look forward to the free meal they may get at someone’s table.

Good-deed paupers: all sorts of community semi-officials, who go about with their handkerchiefs spread wide, ostensibly collecting money for some worthy cause.

Hidden paupers: respectable people who have been ruined and impoverished without anyone’s knowing about it and miserably eat behind closed shutters the charity they receive in secret.

Part-time paupers: such as the many Talmud Torah teachers who teach part of the time and the rest of the time go from house to house rattling an alms-box; rabbis, judges, cantors, beadles, and the like. Every one of these is partly what he seems to be and partly like all the rest of the beggars with their packs.

Holiday paupers: those who, with the approach of Passover, on the eves of holidays, on Chanukah and Purim—times when Jews are generally lighthearted and gay—gird themselves with joy and go about collecting money, not for themselves naturally, but for other unfortunates.

Loan paupers: who all their lives accept charity in the form of a loan; they constantly assure you that they will return the “loan” with thanks. . . .

There are many other kinds of paupers: “grandsons” and sons of Hasidic rabbis (who live on the alms they receive for the sake of their name); Jerusalemites (who collect money to feed and clothe the poor and starving Jews in Jerusalem); fire bankrupts; people with papers signed by doctors attesting to their stomach ailments and ruptures; paupers clamoring for charity to dower a bride; widows; deserted wives; authors; and cantors who have lost their voices. . . .

Finally, there are the banker paupers. A banker pauper carries a special book listing all the households in town. Against the name of each household he has entered a fixed sum, the assessment that enables the “banker” to know exactly how much income he can expect through the year from that particular house. The households, he would say, are all mine; I assess them a certain tax, which comes to me in the form of alms, as it were. . . . Haven’t you heard of the pauper from Foolstown who married off his daughter to the son of a pauper from another town, and as dowry gave all the households of Foolstown?. . .

In short, all Israel is—One Pauper.

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Foolstown and Pauperville

It’s a miracle for Pauperville that there is such a place as Foolstown to rely on as a source of livelihood and a market place for its goods. Pauperville’s merchandise is human beings; it regularly sends to Foolstown Jews of every conceivable type and variety: cheder teachers and their assistants; Cabbalists and idlers; distinguished Jews and bridegrooms whose board at their in-laws’ has run out; Jews with documents proving their poverty; distinguished-looking Jews with various illnesses such as ulcers, piles, and ruptures; shofar-blowers, prayer-chanters, and their like.

Also Jewesses of every sort: pious ones who can read the special women’s prayer books for the less literate womenfolk; Jewesses who know how to prescribe for every illness and for birth-pangs—these are ancient ones long past their fertile years; women with eggs and goose-fat to sell for the Passover; feather-pluckers and sock-knitters—and as many other types as might be expected to result from assiduous obedience to the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Then there are whole crowds of boys and girls, servant-girls, men-servants, nurses of all sorts, etc.

All this human merchandise is in great demand in Foolstown and is made much of. And Pauperville, which produced this merchandise in the interests of all, is quite vain and proud of it. That’s why every citizen of Pauperville considers himself a man of great prestige. And if you should happen to chance upon a Jew who is mad with vanity, you’ll know that he’s a Pauper. . . .

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