A Strand of Hair

 

A Strand of Hair

By Mendele Mokher Seforim

Translated from Hebrew by Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler

 

Translators’ Introduction:
 
We sometimes forget that the current generations of Jews are not the first to worry that our descendants may not be Jewish. More than a hundred years ago, while living in Odessa in the last period of his life, Mendele Mocher Seforim (named after his character, the itinerant book seller) began a series of Hebrew stories on the Jewish holidays, of which he completed five. (This is the third to appear in Jewish Fiction .net). These are unlike anything else in his oeuvre in Yiddish or Hebrew, as they are not satires. They are attempts at constructing a viable world of Jewish belief and commitment, rather than deconstructing the existing social structures through irony and ridicule. We offer you this story that revolves around Passover as a poignant example of how tradition and modernity collided a hundred years ago, even as they continue to collide around our Seder tables.
 
 
As spring arrives, work increases in the world of the Holy Blessed One! Every living thing from crawling animals to four-legged ones, from birds to human beings comes out for its tasks, builds and repairs, cleans and sets up nests and homes in caves and in holes, in fields and in forests, in hamlets and in villages. At such a time, the female rules the home. By her order, windows are opened which had been closed during the rainy season; by her word, the household furnishings are moved about. She changes the places of the tables and chairs, the benches, beds and wardrobes, and rearranges them at her will. And woe to the person who resists and angers her, for she can burn him with the exhalation of her breath. At such times, a wise husband sits apart and is quiet.
 
Gabriel Karpas, who is both a wise man and a wise husband, sat alone in his room on the fourteenth day of the month that marks the Spring, close to his writing desk, with bent head and furrowed brow, glancing up at intervals toward a battered, much-diminished bookcase in the corner. He seemed in great distress and sunk in difficult thoughts. Many movables this case had held from the time it had been brought to the Karpas home until it wound up in this room, where it had been standing for several years, like a poor person, behind other finer cases, and hidden from the eyes of the esteemed lady of the house and from the eyes of her honored husband, who distanced his mind from it as if it did not exist and had passed out of this world.
 
On this day, Mrs. Karpas would come through to oversee the purification of her home, appearing as the Arbiter of Law to pass judgment on this case, consigning it to the legal status of “neither to be seen, nor found,” to be cast into oblivion in the cellar as a filthy, broken utensil would be, untouchable because so despised. Now Karpas remembered it, and its imminent departure was very difficult for him. But what could he do? The decrees of his wife could not be controverted. Even though he had not respected the case and had even abandoned it, now he was sorrowful and tortured all day long. Karpas sat alone and brooded with his head uncovered, as if in mourning. He suddenly got up from his place, walked over to the case, as one who wants to say goodbye to a friend who is leaving. He opened it and took out a big, thick book from among the books that were sitting in the bookcase, pressed together, dusty and decaying. He peered at it, shook his head and put it on the table. When he sat down, opened the book before him and looked inside it, he trembled, got up from his chair astonished and confused as if he had been bitten by a snake, and began pacing distractedly in one direction, then another, so that he did not even notice that just then someone was coming into the room.
 
“Karpas!” the entering person called, after he had been standing in the doorway for some time, silently amazed.
 
Karpas started up on hearing the voice of the caller, turned his face to look at him, became excited and responded, “Zarchi, my dear friend, welcome, beloved guest!”
 
“Are you well, Karpas, my dear?”
 
“When did you come and from where? Why stand in the doorway?”
 
“I am en route and just arrived. My business brought me to your city.”
 
Karpas and Zarchi were from the same city, beloved friends from their youth. The two had learned Torah together until they were grown. Then they both followed the path from Jewish to secular studies, from the tents of Shem to the schools of Japheth. They left school adorned with manners and scientific learning, forgetting their people and their Jewish learning and occupying themselves in this-worldly lives. Each married in the place where he settled, raised children, and succeeded. Karpas’s father had been a pure and reverent Jew, learning and upholding the Torah in love. When he died in his hometown, he left his furnishings and his bookcase as an inheritance for his son Gabriel. The furnishings were welcomed and constantly used in Gabriel’s house, but the bookcase was unwanted and caused to wander from place to place, until it ended in a corner, forgotten by all. In his manner of living, in raising his children and managing his household, Karpas behaved like any other citizen: from his Judaism, all that remained to him were a long nose, curly hair, a sharp mind, a case of nerves, and an excitable temper. Since Karpas was already excited and trembling in awe, his friend’s arrival was like the coming of the Redeemer and he greatly rejoiced over him.
 
“You did well in coming, my friend,” said Karpas, hugging and embracing him. “Sit on my right and take this footstool for your feet. Just so. Now tell me about you. What’s going on with you?”
 
“What is this?” asked Zarchi in surprise, as he looked at the book open on the table. “The Way of Life is before you! Are you studying the laws of Passover? You? You?”
 
Karpas became confused and did not know how to respond.
 
“Are we not like brothers?” asked Zarchi with an affectionate laugh. “You don’t have to be embarrassed before me. Since when have you returned to the faith?”
 
“Since when, you ask. Today, this very evening! And this is what caused it.” Karpas wrapped himself in courage and pointed at the book to show his friend. “Look at this, look at what’s before you!”
 
“I see a pressed bug,” said Zarchi. “One of the insects of the preceding generation that found its grave here and has been resting in peace for many years.”
 
“And this, what is this?”
 
“It’s a hair, a strand of hair from an old man.”
 
“It is a hair from my father’s beard, may he rest in peace,” said Karpas with feeling. This hair fell from his beard when he was teaching me as a child the laws of Passover from this book and has been preserved until now, these thirty years. This hair now glows before me, at a time when the embers of the Judaism that remain to me are in danger of being extinguished, with no remembrance left in my home. I am speaking of these holy books, of the love of Israel that is in this bookcase, which my father left me. As you know, God did not grant him wealth and possessions; his whole portion in this world were these vessels of love, dearer to him than pearls, and these he left to me, for his descendants to come. And now look at this bookcase, which no longer conforms to the taste of our generation, abandoned for many years with no one using it, deserted and deteriorated—and, today, its sentence was decreed; it goes on the eternal ash heap. My wife says that neither it nor its contents belong in a pleasant apartment among pleasant things, but rather in a cellar, among rags, and no words of mine, neither tender nor stern, could annul the decree, so I’ve been moping about it all day long. In truth, it’s been fifteen or even twenty years since I turned away from these books, but when they were sentenced to destruction, my heart turned back toward them and I remembered that they were my inheritance, a legacy of the generations. And I remembered my father and my childhood and the place of my birth, and I came over to this case, almost without knowing it, and took out this book that is before you, and when I opened it, I found this hair. I was astonished and my thoughts became disordered. The sight was amazing, and what appeared to me since then is even more amazing. But —” and here Karpas broke off what he was saying. “Excuse me, my dear friend, for spilling out my soul and babbling like a woman, which is neither polite nor appropriate to a guest. A dear guest like you comes to my home and I don’t talk to him about his affairs, but only of my own. Please speak, my dear guest, and tell me about your life.” 
 
“I will tell you, my friend, I will tell you all, but only after you go back to your story, not hiding anything from me, for you cannot give me more pleasure than the pleasure I’m taking from your words. Please go on and I will be quiet and listen. You stopped when you said: ‘What appeared to me since then is even more amazing.’”
 
“Indeed,” Karpas began, “very amazing, so that my flesh was on fire and my mind torn apart. Even a person who listens only to the judgment of his reason and his feelings is at times carried away by events that excite him beyond his reason, and he sees and hears not with his eyes and ears, but feels things that are not stamped by the hands of men. This hair, as I soon as I saw it, began growing and spreading before me and here was the beard, and here was the human form, and here was my father standing on his feet! His hand was stretched toward the bookcase and his eyes were raging and staring at me with such a look — part quarrel and part rebuke, part insult and part warning, a look of pain and suffering, a look that has in it the chains of hell, the agony of a soul being punished. Sparks and shuddering and sharpened arrows —  and an awful look! He looks, and I hear the lesson of my shame. My heart knocked within me; all my deeds from my youth to the present came before me. I see myself as a child in my parents’ home and in the schoolrooms of my teachers and in synagogues and study houses, and all my doings, my pastimes and my pleasures, my holidays and Sabbaths, are before me. I see and I am seen as I am. These visions and events did not appear to me chronologically, but all at once, in one glance. There is no time and no boundary in the visionary world. If I were to narrate all those visions, it would take many hours for you to hear them all. They are all so heartfelt, showing the greatness of God, the revelation of the divine Presence, the glory of Israel, yearnings, feelings of holiness, and the outpourings of the soul. How beautiful was this vision.
 
“Winter passed, the snow melted, the time of Passover arrived, and the voice of geese was heard in our birthplace, and you and I and our friends were sitting before our teacher and chanting aloud the Song of Songs with its melody and commentary: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth… This is the song sung by the Assembly of Israel in her exile and widowhood, as she yearns for her beloved, the King in whom is Peace, and confesses her sins. Black am I, yet comely. I may be black in my own deeds, but beautiful are the deeds of my ancestors. Look not upon me that I am swarthy. Don’t look at me with scorn for being impure, for my darkness and filth are not mine from birth. My mother’s sons were incensed against me. The rabble enticed me with their invitations to folly, making me keeper of the vineyards. There I was blackened and my own vineyard, which I had from my ancestors, I did not guard. Her lover answers her: If thou know not — my holy congregation, how will you save yourself from the oppressors, so that your children not be lost go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, study the ways of your first forefathers, who accepted My Torah, remembered Me and kept My commandments, and go walk in their ways, and feed thy young goats, your children, beside the shepherd’s tents, the shepherds of Israel.
 
“How pleasant and becoming was this song of love: you, the Assembly of Israel, the divine partner, are a compassionate mother; the shepherds, these are your wise men; and we little ones, the flocks, your beloved and holy sheep! As if within this song, I heard the song of my mother, when she put me to sleep in my cradle and sang to me with a sweet, quiet voice:
 
Underneath the cradle, tender child,
Stands a sheep so clean and white.
You will study Torah with eyes grown bright,
A pure Jew, meek and mild.
 
My heart filled with song as the sea and my longings were like the fathomless deep. While I was thus reveling in the divine Assembly of Israel, full of feeling and longing, this despised and desolate bookcase trembled in front of me, coarse hands grasping and harming it, dragging it to its hiding place, raked and scarred, and the sound of its scarring was like a sharp needle raking my flesh. The dusty books shouted their complaint against me, ‘Woe to the kids that became rams!’ And my father rubbed his hands, pulled at his beard and hair, shook his head at me – and disappeared.
 
“I confess to you,” Karpas finished his story, “that as I recount these things, I suspect that you will ridicule me: how worthless must be my sanity that can be overthrown by a strand of hair.”
 
“You may rest easy, my friend,” said Zarchi. “I too have been thinking of returning to our faith, as I have experienced something similar. But what you saw in a vision happened to me in reality. What came to you through your father, came to me through my son, and there was also a miracle at work.”
 
Karpas faced his friend, inviting him with a nod of his head to explain his words, so Zarchi began as follows:
 
“Padai, that’s my oldest son from the moment of his birth I have tried to educate the human being in him, so that he would be prepared not for a constricted life in the circle of his people and religion, but rather for all of life, with no difference between holy and profane, between the people of Israel and other peoples. Better, I thought, never to have to bear the burden of Judaism at all than to have to assume it and throw it off later. To load it and to unload it is wasted work, which I, his father, had to struggle with until I finally released myself from it. What a cost to the Jew called Feibush, whose name was changed to Fabnutia! This mixture of names introduces confusion in his business dealings and causes much loss and even scorn and anger. And would it not have been better for him and for the world if he had been called among Jews by the name Fabnutia since birth? So my Padai grew up without knowledge of the Torah and the Jewish religion, speaking and acting like anyone else from the nations of the world.
 
“Padai was a good-hearted and happy lad, never sad a day in his life. He learned a great deal from his tutors, male and female, who taught him at my home until he was, in good time, ready to enter high school. The day he entered was a holiday for me. I forgot all the efforts I had made on his behalf, the many oppressive stratagems and arrangements, until I brought him to their school; I swallowed my pride and rejoiced. And my wife of blessed memory, whose way, like that of other women, was to cry at times of joy, poured out her tears on that day as she recalled how much pain and trouble she had endured for the sake of this happiness.
 
“Days passed and I saw that my son’s appearance had changed, and he seemed distressed. I was heartsick over it. I could find no reason for this, either in his body or in his studies. He was healthy in all his limbs and still showed promise in his studies as at first. So I attributed the change in him to that difficult stage between boyhood and manhood, that time of great changes inside a person, so I put my mind at ease.
 
“After some time, my son began to confront me with such questions as, ‘Father, from what people do you come?’ ‘Father, am I a Jew?’ ‘Father, what is a Jew?’ ‘Are Jews eaters of garlic and onions?’ I saw that the hand of my brother Esau was in the middle of this, and that he was revealing to a descendant of Jacob what his father had hidden from him, making him taste the bitterness of exile and uprooting his spirit and his life. I said to my son whatever I said, pushing him off with light answers, but in general, I advised him to keep his head high and not listen to idle words. I sweetened my advice with Krilov’s parable of “The Elephant and the Pug,” and drew from it the moral that a person of intellect must be one of those who suffers insults, like the elephant, who takes abuse from the pugs of the world, but does not reply. Apparently, the son did not take heart from the teachings of his father, since his sorrow grew more extreme by the day, and he would keep apart from our household, especially from me, as if he were angry with me, and sit silently brooding in his room.
 
“One time he came home from school sad and greatly disturbed, and hurried into his room. My wife, who was an invalid, was lying at that time on her bed in her room and did not sense what was happening. When it came time for supper and our son did not come down, I went to his room and found him stretched on his bed, with his face buried in the pillows. I thought he hadbeen taken ill and I was full of compassion for him. I called him and he did not answer me. I was crushed to see him so low. I called him a second time with a pleading voice; he turned his face to me. How awful was his look at that hour! His face was burning and his eyes were all tears.
 
“‘What’s going on with you, my son?’ I asked him with feeling.
 
“With a sigh full of anger, he said, ‘Why are you asking me? Don’t you know that I sit there among enemies? Up till now there were many that mocked me, but today they attacked me over the eating of blood on the festival of matzot, the Passover of the Jews, which they say takes place today.’
 
“I heard, but my mind emptied and all words left me. Diverse feelings — feelings of pity and of shame, of comfort and regret — beat inside me like waves of the sea. My soul was pulled from wave to wave and was greatly agitated.
 
“I saw my beloved son’s anguish and my heart pounded. I said to myself: ‘Your son’s sorrow has come from your own hand. You severed his soul from its people so that it might enter the general pool of humanity, something that does not actually exist as an independent entity, but emerges only as an amalgam of all the nationalities in the world. It is like one who says: What do I care about trees? I am only interested in the forest! And even if one assumes that you are right, that the path to becoming a fully realized human being lies through that of another nation, not through that of your people, as if it were, God forbid, a path of darkness and shadow — this son whose happiness and good fortune you sought outside of your people — look what has happened to him! Where is his happiness? Where is his joy? He has been uprooted from his nation, and the other nation does not absorb him. He finds himself weakly suspended in a darkened world.
 
“Boys of his age who grew up among their people and were nourished by the well of Israel have a store of fine memories of customs and deeds from family and community that regulate life and temper its bitterness into dignified old age. Remember the days of your youth; remember the Passover Seder in your parents’ home. A graceful, pleasant spirit enveloped everything there: the set table and its serving pieces your father and mother and their other children seated around the table, and you yourself sitting there, sated with celebration and joy. Remember how much you rejoiced in your holidays and how much delight each one brought to you at its appointed time. And now, now you treat your holiday like a weekday and your son became aware of Passover only because others told him. Oy, what shame! What disgrace! Your son is cursed, for to the strangers he is a Jew, and doubly cursed, for to Jews he is a stranger.’
 
“What can I tell you, my friend, it was an evil and bitter moment for me. My son lay prostrate on his bed before my eyes, sickened because of my sins, groaning and inarticulate while I, shamefaced and sorrowful, blamed myself for this sacrifice.
 
“When I look back on it, I am amazed at myself. How could I not have been concerned for my honor and that of my son, and not rushed to repair what I had ruined regarding his education? Financial calculations drowned out my thoughts of repentance and everything went on as before. But what I did not do myself was brought about by the passage of time.
“An incident occurred. That Haman of a teacher was expounding on Ancient History when an evil spirit descended upon him and he remarked: ‘I smell garlic.” All eyes turned toward my son who rose up flushed with shame and rage, shouting at the teacher. He was expelled from school. After he was expelled, I decided not to plead  his case with bribes and entreaties, as was my custom, but to have him complete his studies at home in preparation for entrance to university. I arranged a pleasant apartment for him so that he could study in comfort and with an open mind.
 
“My son’s roomsbecame a gathering place for his friends, where they spent their free time enjoying one another’s company in the way of young people everywhere. At first, his friends were few, but over time their number increased and they met regularly to exchange ideas, loudly debating and philosophizing. Among these friends were secular students yeshiva students, and assorted youths — a mixed multitude. But I was not pleased with this gathering, worrying that they might be rabble-rousers who might bring harm upon me. For I still remember the youths of our generation, those who met and discussed, and what happened to them. Some of them were seized and imprisoned, some were exiled and some of them scattered, and, hungry and thirsty, wandered the world. And you and I, my friend, sometimes found ourselves in their company and were almost caught as well.
 
“Now when I saw the youth of this generation coming and going at my son’s apartment, I was constantly beset by fear. Every small echo sounded like footsteps to me and I thought to myself, Police and officials are coming for me. They’re coming to search my home! I didn’t want to forbid my son’s gatherings for he was already grown and he stood up for his opinions. If I tried to pressure him, he would not listen to me. It already seemed as if he were less attached to me and felt some resentment. And then, I told myself, ‘Better his friends should come to him than that he should go to them.’ I concluded that I would watch over him in secret and began to delve into his affairs and to follow him stealthily.
 
“One time, when my son was out with friends, I went into his room and checked the books in his bookcase. They were all respectable. I glanced over at his desk. Three books and an open notebook lay there. I looked and I was astonished. I never would have expected what I found there! Two of the books were holy texts and the other was a Hebrew grammar. In the notebook were lists of Hebrew words translated into Russian —in my son’s handwriting! Padai was studying Torah in the holy tongue! But where did this come from? Who had guided him, and who was teaching him? I was astonished and didn’t know what to make of this. It required further study and investigation.
 
“Not many days later my son came to me with a request that I allow him to invite some of his honored friends to his room in our home the following evening. It happened to be Chanukah. I gladly fulfilled his request. What’s more, I promised to welcome them with food and drink. I thought: Let them play cards as Jews do in these days, at this time of year. Meanwhile, I’ll watch them and all their actions and I’ll see who they really are. My wife agreed, preparing a generous and sumptuous feast. What can I tell you, my friend? There was never such joy in my household as on that evening! They werea cross section of our young people, men and women, scholars and yeshiva boys, rich and poor. All were beloved, all happy, with eager, shining faces. As befits a good host who puts himself out for his guests, I did not take my place at the head of the table. Rather, I rushed back and forth, making sure that all was prepared as it should be. So I was surprised when I entered the room and couldn’t figure out why the guests were applauding so excitedly. I stood there for a short while and became even more amazed. Padai was holding forth and they were all cheering him on with ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ I was fortunate to hear the end of his talk.
 
“Padai enthused, ‘The Messiah! Mashiach is the basis of our nation; Shechinah, the indwelling spirit of God, strengthens the nation and transports her soul. Mashiach is a fount of life and light, eternal justice, happiness and peace. In short, what the sun is to the earth, the mashiach is to the Jewish people. The earth, as is well known, does not stand still, but rotates around the stationary sun that pours out its abundant light upon the earth. There was morning; there was day. Even though we say that the sun rises and sets, this is only an illusion, for it is the earth, not the sun that comes and goes. So it is concerning the mashiach and the nation. A nation that stands still waiting for the mashiach, doing nothing — even if it is a good sign that some small spark of life remains within and that she is open to rebirth — yet that nation is still not alive until the moment that she arises and acts, gets up and walks toward the mashiach. All the nation’s efforts to repair her affairs and make known her special talents help to overcome obstacles and lay out a clear path for the revival of her spirit. In so doing, she elevates herself, and thus the mashiach — her Redeemer — arrives. There are many proofs of this in the annals of humankind. Any nation will rise if she dedicates herself to uplifting her most gifted. And we too, the people of Israel. Our Redemption and that of our people will come only when we reveal our power and the spiritual talent of our nation for its exalted purpose. Proof of this can be found in today’s holiday as well, which commemorates the power of the Hasmoneans’ deeds.’
 
“Padai had barely concluded his remarks when the house was rocked by cheers and applause. My wife took great pleasure and pride in witnessing the honor given to our son, for everyone praised him saying, ‘How fortunate is she who bore him!’ I too gained honor through him — many surrounded me, clasping my hand and saying, ‘How fortunate are you to have sired such a son. May there be many more like him among the people of Israel!’ I stood there amazed and thought to myself: How great are Your deeds, Master of the Universe, and how wondrous the miracles You cause in Your world! Who could possibly have imagined that Padai, this son of mine, assimilated from the womb, who did not recognize his people, did not know his religion and had never in his life seen the form of a Hebrew letter—that he would arouse the zeal of all Israel, that he would preach beautifully, would champion Judaism in his speech, and redeem his people with his words!
 
“Others rose to speak that evening. The revival of the Jewish people was the goal toward which each one directed his words. Each one held his own opinion and tried to prevail over his comrades. They shouted passionately, their words like fiery coals. One of them, urgent and impassioned, who still retained the mannerisms of the yeshiva, a peppery pedant speaking in a sing-song voice and punctuating with his thumb, disputed with my son, saying, ‘Have you not said, Padai, that our Redemption and that of our nation will only come through bringing to light the spiritual talents of our people? But if one asserts that the essential strength of our people resides in elevating our national spirit, can’t this be done anywhere and not necessarily in Zion? Therefore you should speak of Jewish nationalism and not Zionism.”
 
“Another joined in and said, ‘In order to rescue the Written and Oral Torah, which form the basis of our national identity, we Jews do not need our own state, but on the contrary, we should continue to reside in the diaspora. The yishuv in Israel, a cultural nation, cannot currently be based on laws and teachings that were suited to a past way of life, which differs so greatly from life today. Therefore, most of the teachings of Israel cannot be actualized and will be forgotten along with the Torah itself, as well as many of the sayings and customs regarding worship, prayer, and communal and family life. These form the scaffolding that supports the nation’s spirit. They will be abandoned and made obsolete — and the spirit along with them. It is possible that the revival of the land will mean the death of Israel. If we believe that Israel will indeed end up living upon her land, then a new Israel would arise there, without a written Torah, without customs and without any of the feelings or heart stirrings that now support her humanity.’
 
“So you see that this evening was not spent in laughter, card playing and frivolity. Rather, they were engaged in arguments and discussions regarding how to reform the people of Israel. I don’t care whose words were the truest; they all pleased me for they came from the heart and were all lovingly directed to their nation.
 
“Now I knew who Padai was and who were his friends. I realized that I had suspected them in vain. They did not desire to repair the whole world, but rather only their own nation renewing her spirit, bringing self-knowledge, dignity and hope for the future. They also wanted to revive her language, the eternal language of its Torah and Prophets.
 
“They did not come to destroy, but to rebuild Israel, and plant her firmly in the land of her ancestors. They were a new type of Jew, the likes of which had not been imagined before our time. They want to draw in the youth, the dangling branches of the tree of Judah, and bind them to their nation in love, affection and fellowship, through books, language, and the tales of Israel. Those among them who know Torah teach those who do not, and spread some of their spirit upon them. These were the people who had captured Padai’s soul and the souls of various students and others of the people Israel scattered among the nations. They had designated times for Torah study and my son’s rooms had become the setting for discussions and deliberations and clarifications of issues.
 
“Look at the beauty of my son’s strength,” concluded Zarchi. “For he has returned to his nation with his whole being. For young people who, though schooled in the religion, spirit, and Torah of their people from early childhood, have became apostates as adults, there is a remedy. Because of the merits of their ancestors and what they had learned in their youth, they can return. But what of those whose own parents strayed and led them astray, from pleasant pastures to the fields of others? When they return to their people, it is truly a miracle beyond the everyday! All the more so in Padai’s case, who both returned and brought me back as well. Just as my son’s change of heart is worth more than mine, since he was not raised in the holiness of Judaism, so too is yours. For it took many degrading experiences and the hard work of many insulting teachers and Jew-haters to bring about my repentance, while all you had to do was see this strand of hair — your father’s hair — and immediately you returned. It took many, many years of indignities and insults to effect within me the transformation that this hair brought about within you in a moment. The glory is yours, my friend! Praise to your father’s hair!”
 
Karpas responded with feeling. “The praise and glory belong to your son and his friends, the heralds of the springtime and revivers of our nation’s youth!”
 
A gentle, refreshing breeze from the garden stole in through a window. The two friends ceased their conversation and sat enjoying the garden’s glory, this vibrant glory that spring brings to the world after the deep, long winter’s sleep. They almost saw the harvest, the new flower buds and the green of trees that had not yet come into leaf, a song of revival that filled the land! Birds were singing this song today from out of the bushes, the frogs from the lakes and bodies of water, and flies and bees were buzzing in their hives. The sun has come out in its glory, turned its countenance to the earth, and kissed it with the warm kisses of a bridegroom for his bride: Spring is coming! Spring is coming!
 
Zarchi stood up and prepared to take leave of his friend. “I invite you to dinner tomorrow evening,” said Karpas, extending his hand in farewell.
 
“Dinner, you say, not the Pesach Seder?”
 
“Indeed it is so, my friend. I am very unhappy about it, “ said Karpas after an uncomfortable silence. “I wish with all my heart that I could lead a Seder, correct to the letter of the law, for my sake and that of my son, as there is nothing that brings more enjoyment to family life and better implants Judaism within the hearts of children than festivals and holiday celebrations. But what can I do? The wife is mistress of the home and, as you well know, my wife is not one of those who reads techines. She makes light of the religion of Israel.”
 
“Do not distress yourself, my friend,” said Zarchi. “I’ll go to your wife today and instruct her in the basics. Trust me, I’ll convince her, and we’ll eat matzah, maror, charoset, fish, and all the other Jewish delicacies. I invite you, my good friend, Karpas, to a Seder at your place, in your home.”

 

A Seder was held in Karpas’s home, as Zarchi had promised. The table was properly set. Karpas, the king, sat in state; on his right hand, his wife, the queen, and on his left, Zarchi, his second-in-command. The house was filled with light and joy. The little ones asked each other in astonishment, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They wanted every night to be like this. The older ones told about the Pesach of the Exodus from Egypt, and taught and asked questions about the great Pesach to come in future times. And they concluded with “Next year in Jerusalem!”

         

 

Translation copyright © Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler 2019

“A Strand of Hair,” in Hebrew was published in Ha-Shiloach, 1905, Vol. 16, pp. 409-418, as “Ha-se’ara.” It was published in Yiddish as “Gruya haar, “ Der Veg, 1905, 20, 38, 48.

Mendele Mokher Seforim (the author) (Mendele the Bookseller in Yiddish ) is the pen name of Shalom Yakov Abramowitz (1835-1917). Although known as the “grandfather of Yiddish Literature”, he is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern fiction in Hebrew as well as Yiddish. In fact, he began his career as a Hebrew writer, later writing in Yiddish as a way to reach a wider audience. In addition to stories that portrayed Jewish shtetl life with honesty and without judgment, Mendele wrote essays and drama in both Hebrew and Yiddish throughout a life spent mostly in Russia.

Herbert Levine and Reena Spicehandler (the translators) have contributed translations of Agnon’s stories to two volumes of the Agnon Library: A City and Its Fullness and An Outcast and Other Stories (Toby Press). They are currently translating secular Israeli poems found in prayer books of congregations in Israel that are working to encourage a new Israeli Judaism to emerge. Reena taught Hebrew literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, was an editor of the Kol HaNeshamah prayerbook series and served several congregations as an interim rabbi. Herb is the author of Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English and Sing Unto God a New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms. Their translation projects have grown out of their chevruta studying Hebrew literature.



 

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