Skip to:


James Adam Redfield
Published on 
August 15, 2021


I. It's Burning[1]

            You think I have any idea how I made it out of there? Damned if I know. Jews were running and so did I. Forget about our businesses; it was all we could do to save our skins. How I survived—Lord only knows![2] Me, I'd have stayed and put myself in God's hands. But my wife and children? Even a war is only between soldiers. How does it go? But the women, and the little ones[3]—they stay at home. Back there, though, the enemy attacked everyone, just as it says: to kill, and to cause all to perish . . .[4] to wipe out the Jews, tear us up by the roots . . .

            Back in the day, you know, they passed plenty of decrees against us Jews. They dragged us down in the mud and beat us to a pulp—don't get me wrong. But we managed. Whenever one of those "proclamations"[5] was going around, we went straight there and did what we could. The police commissioner and chief of police are just as fond of a ruble as their superiors, so at least we could buy back our lives . . . but now they come in broad daylight, beating and murdering, while the constables stand around and watch without lifting a finger.

            That's not all. They say we have to swear in shul[6] we'll stay faithful to the tsar! Don't we already recite Who gives salvation[7] on his behalf, every shabes[8] before afternoon prayers? Even in his capital city, it seems they're ordinary human beings after all. How they slaughter us—brutal, cold-blooded murder—never, never in your life have you seen such a thing.

            In your area they hate Jews too, don't they? Sure they do. Soon as we start doing well, soon as we're making a decent living, we have those "anti-Semites"[9] to deal with. Ay, let the dogs bark: Jews need a reminder we're in exile now and then.[10] But does it have to be as bad as it is in our area, where our lives hang by a thread? Just like that, they turned perfectly healthy people into cripples. People who sweated their whole lives for a little house or shop—stripped down to their last shirt. Why, I ask you? What for? How does the government profit when hundreds of towns become the poorest of the poor? When citizens lose everything, it hurts the government too. Don't they sell licenses to our stores? Don't we pay them taxes like everyone else?

            An ugly business all around—God is punishing us, we have to admit, seeing as we're not so pious (and God forgive me for saying so). You know how Jews live in our area. But we haven't earned ourselves the death penalty! So a man can't always dedicate himself to prayer and study. Should he have to pay with his life? With the lives of his wife and children? If God's as merciful as they say, then why does he always vent his rage on us Jews? The goyim certainly don't learn toyre; don't pray like us, either.

            Scratching your head about it won't get you anywhere. For now, I'm stuck here in Prussia. I was lucky they let me over the border. Not that it didn't cost my last penny. Show me anyone trying to get out of Russia these days who can come up with the proper papers. And here in Prussia, when I handed over my money for their papers, what did the zhendar[11] get out of it? It wasn't nothing—you can be sure of that . . . people are the same all over, as I live and breathe. Back home, I used to think everyone in Prussia went around with his nose in the air. Now what do I see? Shops like anywhere else. Just people, buying and selling. Money changing hands every second; you can find a buyer for anything. You can't recognize Jews in public around here, but in the big cities back home, you can't either. How does the verse go? The earth has a single trunk:[12] yes, the world's the same everywhere. Basically, the difference is, no one lays a finger on me here. I can walk around in my kapote[13] and no one says a word. Even the constable on the street speaks to me in a way I can understand, and if I ask him where to go, he'll address me politely and say, Geyt ahin, geyt aher.[14]

            Of course I asked around for the Jewish community center; I'd heard they were handing out tickets to Hamburg, where you could get passage on a ship. Believe me [here, he gives a deep sigh], I never once asked for help back home, but since I was traveling with a wife and four kids, and they'd taken seventy-five rubles off me at the border, what choice did I have? A man has to set aside his family's long line of distinguished scholars and let someone else help him for a change.

            So I go off to the community center. First, they keep me waiting about half an hour. Then the fellow sitting behind the desk looks up, and you know what he says? Eh. What do you want. Before I can answer—I'm speechless—he grabs a coin and sticks out his hand. I clap mine shut and jerk it away like I've had an electric shock: it never occurred to me to take charity. But when I try to tell that to him, I can see he's not listening. He buries his head and goes back to writing. I'm standing there heartbroken. The whole thing feels disgusting. I want to tell him something else, but I can't. I want to leave, but I can't. Imagine: a man like me, forty-five years old, and I'd have broken down crying if I weren't so ashamed. And to think, that clean-shaven dog, he's a Jew himself—supposedly—who holds office in our community. While even the pastor in the Germans' synagogue knows full well that it is written: Love ye therefore the stranger . . .[15]

            I'm telling you: to be in a situation like mine with a family to look after, in a foreign country, not knowing where to turn—no one can envy me. What about Galicia? A man can still make a living there if he can't make it to America, am I right? Not here. And anyway, they won't let me stay here. Even if I could, I have no idea what I'd do. Over in America, I have relatives. Over there, I'm sure anyone with hands and feet who's willing to work can provide for his wife and children . . . My young nephew tried talking to me about this Zionism business. But even my nephew said: For the time being, go to America. There are Zionist organizations there too. I'm going, I'm going already. Just one question: how do I get there? Perhaps you could offer me some advice? You're one of our own, I know you are . . . they say you're from our area . . .


II. Fear and Trembling

            Me, I'm from quite a small town, not far from Polinitse.[16] Where I'm from, they didn't actually attack Jews. But the fear and trembling. The terror. You, sitting here in your house, scribbling away; you can't imagine what it's like when any moment the door can swing open and a couple dozen drunk goyim can bust in and shatter and tear up everything you own 'til it's in ruins. And that's a man talking; what'll they do to your wife and children? I've heard Jews in a lot of other towns around here tried to shoot at them. You know what that spells: trouble.

            Twenty years ago, a pogrom started in the city and it went on all summer, all over our area. But did it even compare to what's happening these days? Back then, you could still make it out alive. Take the goods to thyself,[17] as the verse says! But now they've started slaughtering Jews. It's a bloodbath, like a battlefield; only the enemy they're killing isn't the Turk, or the Greek, but the Jew. The Jew! Who stays in his little shop or his house and hasn't laid a finger on a living soul . . .

            Around here, there's a few shkotsim[18]—bums, really—who hammered it into people's heads for weeks on end that we Jews deserved "equal rights." Some of them even got together and announced we should form an "assembly." Yes, I know what went on around here last winter! It's no Love of Zion society[19] like those Zionists have. It's not another Friends of the Hebrew Language.[20] These aren't the sort of young men who used to subscribe to Ha-melits or Ha-tsefirah.[21] No. They're no more than boys. Boys who've somehow convinced themselves they can solve problems with their fists.

            What can I tell you? For that reason alone, we were a thousand times more terrified. Back in the day, you know, we Jews had enough sense not to get involved. We're in their land, that's all there is to it, and we should thank God if they let us live and don't bother us. We're the minority and they're the majority, isn't that so? How far back should I go:[22] the six days of Creation? Titus the Wicked?[23] You know I'm right: we Jews are no more than little kapores hens,[24] since time immemorial. Don't you know what it says in our laments? In our prayers for forgiveness? Well? We're serving out a long sentence. We have to be beaten black and blue. Why? As it is written. That's why.

            And now they start talking "equal rights"—knee-deep in a river of Jewish blood. Ever hear of Bopoli and Holta?[25] Two little towns, right next to each other, like two sisters, with pretty little houses. It was a joy to go there and see how Jews were living, doing very well for ourselves. They tore them up by the roots. Set fire to both cities, burned them to the ground. Been to Uman? I suppose you have. Then you must know about everything that went on there, in the old and new cities. People around here are saying it's sure to be another Gonta[26] and Khmelnitski, and in the end it'll be another 20th Sivan,[27] with great and terrible lamentations . . .

            Me, I'm going to Argentina. I've got a brother-in-law who's lived there a long time. His first letters said it wasn't such a breeze; he'd squeeze three or five rubles out of me every time. But now he's writing and telling me to come. I can pay my way, thank God, since I managed to sell everything I owned—even the feathers in the pillows. But when I get to thinking, I can't help but ask myself: what'll become of us Jews? Do we have a future?

            Look here. You've had an education, I know that. And I know you educated people have all kinds of ideas, you have answers for everything. But this—this sort of thing eats away at you inside. It's not me who's asking, you understand. It's the community. Things are bad for the whole community these days, terribly bad. And I don't know where it will go from here. Of course, if the exile came to an end and we were truly in our own land, we'd be better off. But how can it end, if that's not the will of God? Ever since we went into exile, we've been looking for the exit in the dark.[28]

            Yes, it's one of those times. A time when, in the evening, you say: If only it were morning![29] A time when you're not sure if you'll survive from one day to the next. Wild beasts have pounced on the Jews all of a sudden. It's not like in the days of Haman and Ahaseurus, when they wrote to every province to strike down the Jews, but Esther came along and stopped them. Here, they started striking even before anyone gave the order. Here, they killed Mordecai too: they didn't even spare Lieberman[30] and Ephrati,[31] the greatest tycoons of them all. So? What can I—Khatskl, son of Shimen—possibly have to say for myself?

            You tell me you'd like to know about our town in detail, but I can't remember any details. There was such horror in our town, it's like everything in my head got wiped clean away. You simply can't imagine how it is, sitting in your little house peeking out the window every few seconds to see if they're coming. The goyim with their rakes and crowbars, they're already gathering in the middle of the square . . . How we managed to buy them off, how we avoided a pogrom, I still can't say. Personally, it cost me a whole ten rubles—even though I give a ruble to the "wheat fund"[32] every year. The police chief was taking money from the living and the dead.

            Now I have a question for you. When you go from America to Argentina—is that over the water too? Argentina, that's on the other side of America, of course. Why Baron Hirsch[33] sailed so far away, I still have no idea. Argentina, then. So be it. But how can I make it there and finally rest my aching bones? A month now I've been drifting around with a wife and four kids. My oldest son, Yosl, he was in the service, he was in the war in Manchuria and he got killed [he inhales sharply]. Don't ask me to say any more about him. It crushed our souls. Picture that: a fine boy, everyone envied me—even God, in a manner of speaking—and then they had to start a war with Japan and take away my son. And how'd they make it up to me? Pack your bag, old man, go off to Argentina. If only I'd gone there with Yosl two years earlier, when I begged him to come along with us.

            When another Jew pours out his heart to you, please, don't take it the wrong way. You have a Jewish soul yourself. I see it in your eyes: you feel what I'm feeling too, deep down, in your heart.


III. Empty Pockets

            Here's a man standing before you with nothing but a pair of empty pockets to his name. No, I couldn't even manage to pack my tales[34] and tfiln.[35] You have no idea what it's like, sneaking over the border. They make you show them so many papers—even your wife's wedding contract. My wife! If only she were still alive . . . but no, she went and caught a cold on rosheshone[36] and died. And they killed my son—an unmarried boy of eighteen. I'm telling you: it's a valley of the shadow of death, our area.

            Making a living? Out of the question, but that's nothing new. I swear as I stand before you, I've said my goodbyes to Russia forever—even if people around here say better times are coming, that things will settle down. I'm not so sure. The police chief in our area was always a real son of a bitch, and now things have started to completely fall apart. Now that they're saying there won't even be a police chief anymore—he's a hell of a lot worse. You don't know what it's like having to deal with him when he flies into a rage. They always hated the Jews. But now most of all.

            Where am I going, you ask? Where else is a Jew to go? To America. I don't have a penny to pay my way, and they told me the ticket for the ship alone costs sixty rubles. Still, I know in a few weeks, I'll be in America, just as sure as I know that I'm standing here talking to you in your home right now. A Jew is never truly alone, and the Lord will always bring us help in our hour of need.

            Ah, but what am I going to do in America, you ask? I'll make cigarettes. My boy—like I was saying, the one who was shot with a pistol, after that manifesto—learned how to make cigarettes, and he was already earning four rubles a week. I didn't learn, myself, but I paid close attention to how it was done. I've got eyes in my head, don't I? It's no great secret, is it? I'll start once I get to America; a man of my age, you know, going around with a little box begging everyone to buy a box of matches or a shoeshine . . . that's my boy's—ahem—I mean, that's more of a boy's work, isn't it now? But they say in America, they don't pay in rubles, they pay in dollars, which is a lot more.

            Why was my boy killed, you ask? I ask myself the same thing. I told him a thousand times:

            "Don't get involved, Yankl. What's it to you if they have some fight with the authorities?"

            But he goes on and on about how, right now, he starts work at six in the morning and doesn't stop until ten at night and sometimes he even works 'til eleven or twelve and what does he get but sixty-five kopek a day and wouldn't it be so much better if he worked just eight hours and could stop in the afternoon and he earned a whole ruble a day, and so on and so forth. So I say to him:

            "They'd be crazy to let that happen."

            And he says:

            "They won't let it happen, they'll have to."

            Then and there, I knew no good would come of this. But these days, you try telling one of your own children anything at all, once he's grown.

            And then one fine day that piece of paper with the manifesto arrived from Petersburg.[37] Some folks said Jews wouldn't be conscripted anymore. Others said just the opposite: Jews and everyone else will be equal; there won't be any more difference between a Jew and a goy. The first thing they did was hold a demonstration. They went through town with banners and a sort of a canopy: you should've seen it, like when they install a new Torah scroll in the synagogue. My son was there. Me, I stayed home. I don't have much faith in Petersburg. Even if an angel came down from heaven and said, Yea, let there be a light unto the Jews[38]if it was an angel from Petersburg, I wouldn't believe it.

            I'll give you the short version: the dancing turned into beating. I mean, they started beating the Jews who were demonstrating, and when people tried to fight back, they started shooting. Three men, a small child, and my son were killed. We paid for that piece of paper with five sacrifices: a burnt offering, a sin offering, and a guilt offering. Where the last two fit in, I'm sure I don't know. Who was the peace offering?[39] Couldn't tell you. All I know is, I—Berl Padutser, who doesn't even have his own seat in the prayerhouse—I had to pay the whole burnt offering myself.


IV. A Relic

            I had the mill in a village near Khonorod for fourteen straight years and it did well, thank God. I always had enough to mill and I made enough—not just for myself, either—even after the local squire took his share. I never wanted to live for myself alone; I kept my door open for anyone passing through, not to mention the workers at the mill. You can ask anyone in town: did I ever once refuse them a favor? I treated them right, Jews and goyim both.

            My wife, God rest her soul, was the same way. She had the sweetest nature. She made me a better person, I'm sure of that. She had a soft spot for every goy in the village. They thought more highly of my Yente from the mill than they did of the squire's wife: they could always borrow from Yente, interest-free. When a goy got in a fight with his wife, she talked them down, made peace between them. She gave medicine to sick people, and when she saw someone in real danger, she gave money so they could call a doctor. She was something, my Yente; you can't imagine. A heart of gold! Her modesty; her piety, let's not forget; the way she could cheer someone up when they were feeling low. When she went to town, people used to rush over and gather around her: the poor or men and women who ran the local charities. She'll drive you broke with all her generosity, some of the rich men used to tell me, but I just laughed. I knew if I went broke, it wouldn't be God's fault. And I knew no one ever ended up poor by giving to people in need, by helping them out.

            Ah, who had it as good as me? When shabes or a holiday came around, and God blessed me by bringing me a couple of guests, or a whole minyen[40] filled my home, what more could I possibly have wanted? Maybe that was my sin right there: things were going too well for me. Not that I forgot about God. But I know a man who's poor, who suffers more, cries out to God in a very different way. Summer or winter, it was always summer in my heart: I went to sleep in peace, woke up in peace. When the Days of Awe[41] came around, what did I really have to pray about? I'd always gotten what I wanted, tied up in a nice little package, and I thought it would always be that way.

            And then, last rosheshone, as I heard myself saying, Who by fire?[42], I felt a lump in my throat. Am I losing my mind? I don't have a son in the army. The goyim around here are so quiet, I'd never heard about someone getting killed. Still. Who by fire? It pressed on my heart like a stone. Later at the station, when I was coming back from shul, I was so melancholy, I wasn't myself at all. My wife even asked what was wrong. In the white silk kerchief, her face shone like the sun.

            Imagine. You're on your way home. Autumn is in the air. All of a sudden you feel sure that hard times are on the way. We don't read the papers, but in the district, it was beginning to be common knowledge: the goyim are going around saying they don't have enough land. They're on edge—giving them land won't help. The shkotsim[43] who work for me at home, the workers at the mill, they'd never looked like that before. I didn't know what, but I had a feeling something was about to happen.

            What then? First a crowd gathered in front of the local squire's place. He was a real son of a bitch, can't deny it: even today, if a goy stole wood from his forest, he's the type who'd have him laid out and put twenty lashes on his bare hide 'til the blood was spurting every which way. Well, they stormed his estate, torched his manor, and set his granaries on fire. He ran for his life. After that, they turned on the Jews . . .

            My home, everything I owned: there wasn't a scrap left, nothing survived. They cut the belts at the mill, ripped the teeth out of the wheels, hacked up all the floodgates and let the water loose. And my wife, my dear, sweet, good Yente, my wife, who meant everything in the world to me—we never had children—they murdered her. Three weeks after the funeral I was still staggering around like a madman. More than once I was ready to throw myself in the river.

            But now—now, when it's black as night for every Jew, for me, for our entire community—now has to be the time when all God can say is: Live! Now, more than ever! Live!


V. A Ruin

            Me, I'm from Horoditsh, myself, but I'd have lived in Kiev if they'd only let me. So it's a miracle I wasn't there during the revolution. And when it was over . . . you've been to Kiev, haven't you? Khreshchatyk Boulevard,[44] the Podil quarter . . .[45] it's one of those cities that are certainly worth a visit, and I had no trouble making good money; all in all, I enjoyed dealing with people in Kiev. But when it was over, when I came back . . . As I left town, they were singing so loud the walls shook. Now it looked like the darkness of Egypt. Big shops all smashed up, houses too; a couple hundred people murdered; millions of rubles in ruins. They had tried to turn the richest men into beggars. You can't imagine what it was like, another Destruction of Betar.[46] It went on and on for three days and nights as the very same goy who'd have to spend ninety days in jail if he stole from one of his own people was allowed to slit our throats and rob us blind in broad daylight with a smile on his face while they stood by and let him, as if he were merely crumpling a sheet of paper in his fist.

            Once I finally had a moment to ask myself how all this could happen, I was really at a loss. They'd been threatening Jews for a long time: even during the war, everyone knew it couldn't end well for us. Jews are always the scapegoat; you know that same as I do. Whether they win or lose, we're the ones who pay the price.

            As for myself, you know, I'm a man with nothing but business on his mind. My whole life I've been focused on practical things; I don't indulge in idle speculation or what-ifs. Still, I had to ask myself . . . beating up the Jews every which way since the beginning of time with no end in sight . . . there must be some hidden meaning in all this, I said to myself. What about our intelligentsiya, can't they explain it? True, making a living has to be the priority for us Jews—a man can't live without a living, can he? But a whole nation needs more: it needs some way to preserve what it has, what it is . . . sooner or later, the day will come when we won't have to go to them and bow down to them. I swear, the way things are now, even the richest man in our community has to bow and scrape in front of the governor like a slave. There's not a Jew in the world who doesn't rely on them for protection. What kind of a way is that to live? You have to ask yourself.

            Never mind—I'm taking too much of your time. You must be sitting over there biting your lip to keep from laughing at this Jewish merchant dipping his toe in such profound subjects. Just take my word for it: if we could write, if we could only express our ideas properly, people would see we're no fools—even if we are up to our ears in merchandise, nothing but rubles on the brain all day. Anyway, you can't possibly understand what it's like being a Jew in business. Thrashing around day in, day out like a poisoned mouse; head pounding, every fiber in your body straining to get your hands on that twenty-five-ruble bill. When you get back home, who's got time to eat? Pray? Say a few kind words to your children? Your head's spinning like a waterwheel; you're constantly afraid your credit will dry up and the wheel will grind to a halt . . .

            Yet even then, in the middle of all that, comes a time when your thoughts turn to the Jewish community. And in that moment, you'd give anything in the world—anything—for someone to tell us what we should do.


VI. A Man from Derazhne

            I'm from Derazhne, but I lived near Mezhbizh. Have you heard of our shtetlekh[47] up in Volin?[48] Not your territory, I know. We don't have your rye or wheat. Around there, the goy barely scrapes by; wealthy folks like yours simply don't exist. Wealthy? Forget it. You join the crush of people in the street and slave away 'til you've squeezed out your daily crust of bread. Squeezed, I'm telling you! You call that a living? If the barracks weren't nearby, so a man can set up a little shop or a tavern for the soldiers, we'd die from hunger ten times a day. And as soon as you do set up shop, so does Khayim, so does Yoykhenen, and every other Jew in town, 'til they're tearing that crust of bread from your mouth. Really it's no surprise that everyone's been going off to America the past few years—everyone who can, so long as they can pay their way. One shtetl is emptying out after another. Who can think of studying toyre,[49] let alone offering a son-in-law free room and board so he can study full time? Our greatest scholars are wandering around like everyone else, nothing to eat from one day to the next.

            Remember how things used to be! Where did it all go? Ah, but who has time for memories, when at this very moment your head's spinning as you sit behind the counter staring straight ahead for hours in case a customer comes in 'til your eyes are about to pop out of your skull, and meanwhile you have grown children at home—all the drama of finding a match for your daughter, not to mention looking after your son's future—without a penny in your pocket.

            Let's say this morning you'd arrived in our Derazhne, our pretty town with the rivers running through it: you wouldn't have recognized the place. The yellow clay on the walls is crumbling; people can't afford to paint their houses anymore; they can't even afford to fix the roofs that are falling in left and right. Back then, people wouldn't have been caught dead dressing in public the way they do now. A town full of paupers and beggars without a single man you can point to and admire and say: He's made it, that one. Everyone shuffles around as if he had a boulder on his chest. The prayerhouse and study-house are empty; people even turn a deaf ear to the latest news. So what if a few of our young people used to talk about this "Zionism" back then? Where did that get us? Go ahead, pick up that beggar on the corner and head off to the Land of Israel to collect your donations from us here at home . . . which are no longer arriving, by the way . . .

            No, you can hardly imagine how brokenhearted we are. Back then, at least we had our faith. We had hope: if this year was bad, we hoped next year would be better. We truly believed it was all in God's hands. But today? What is there to hope for? How could things possibly be better? It's an uphill battle just to stay a Jew. Who cares about fulfilling commandments like we did back then? Who still worries about what "fear of heaven" really means? If a book peddler passes through town, he leaves with his sack as full as it was when he arrived. Who can afford to buy himself a holy book or prayer book? We make chintzy fringes on our taleysim[50] to avoid having to buy new ones. When did you see anyone take the trouble to build a nice suke[51] or buy a fine esreg?[52] No one even travels to see the ruv[53] any more, let alone sends money to his court; they're too busy pawning their silver and haven't owned a horse for quite some time. Like I said, you can't possibly imagine our situation. Derazhne's streets are filled with corpses, walking corpses, one and all. The shops are a cemetery of empty shelves without a customer in sight. Young or old, merchant or craftsman, everyone's fallen flat on his face. Not one of us can find work. We walk around empty-handed.

            And still they resent us, begrudge us even our miserable existence. Imagine! On top of everything else came the days of the pogroms. They beat and killed us Jews, stole all we had—not that we had anything to steal, needless to say!—as curses rained down on our heads. Let's say a Jew used to have a little corner where he could prop himself up and rest his head—well, now that was gone too.

            Go, go to a shtetl they've plundered. Go and see. The houses shattered, half of them burnt to the ground, not a bench left standing, not a pillow. Men, women, and children living in the streets in the dead of winter. Babies suck at dry breasts. I'm telling you, it takes a heart of stone to see such things without being driven out of your mind from pain and sorrow. Riboyne shel oylem, please, Lord of the Universe, what do you want from us Jews? Tell me— what?


VII. Revolutions

            If I had a thousand years, if I had a thousand tongues, if I had a thousand nights and days to tell you, it wouldn't be enough to explain everything we've been through, everything we've suffered in the past few months, since this nonsense about "elections" and "revolution" started brewing. Things were quiet around here, believe it or not, 'til one day they found a corpse on the side of the road—murdered. Going on a year now, they've been holding endless commissions and investigations, even for petty thefts or minor lawsuits. We, we have to run back and forth from one lawyer to another, one courtroom to another. Meanwhile, they loot and kill and burn us to the ground and no one does a damn thing. Police chief? District attorney? Empty titles. They're just as terrified as we are! Tramps break into a store, steal the cash and merchandise, murder the owner, and stroll right out the door. If you've got one that hasn't been looted—yet—then they come knocking and order you to close up shop. Not for a holiday, either, but right in the middle of the week; as if they were the police, when they're just a couple boys from some "worker's council."[54]

            And suddenly my sniveling little assistant—I never hesitated to give him a good slap when he earned it—suddenly he starts talking to me like he's the boss. Me, I stay in the shop 'til ten at night, but as soon as six o'clock rolls around, he says, Worked enough! in his broken Yiddish and he's off. Have you ever heard such a thing? If I fire him, though, I'm putting my life at risk! It's really what we call a topsy-turvy world[55]—inside and out! People around here aren't the same as they were a few months ago, and the country's going straight to hell.

            How the mighty have fallen, wouldn't you say? In the capital, the powers that be are at each other's throats; they can't keep order anymore. One day they're commanding soldiers to open fire; the next, they're promising the mob a mountain of gold. They're off fighting a losing war[56] while mutineers[57] shell Odessa from the harbor. I'm asking you, who'd want to be alive at a time like this? Who can do business, lend money, look after his child's schooling, when he goes to bed every night not knowing if they'll grab him in his sleep and drag him off to jail? Trust me, it's enough to drive a man out of his mind.

            Still, he has to go on living. Why? I'll tell you why. All the mouths he has to feed have never heard of the "constitution" or "equal rights." They keep on yelling one thing, one thing only: Bread!


VIII. When All Is Said and Done

            And what do you suppose will happen to us Jews, when all is said and done? I know you've had an education, so I'm sure you've thought this over. All right then, tell me. I'm all ears. People say it's just our luck, always being the lamb for the burnt offering. But that can't be all there is to it. How can one people keep on suffering for thousands of years like no other nation ever has? Is that the only reason we, and we alone, were given the Torah and we keep the commandments? Does that make any sense to you? Then perhaps you can help me to comprehend why it would be that I—a man who gets up in the morning; who washes his hands, prays, and says blessings before and after every meal; who works hard to pay for my kids to study, donates to the prayerhouse, and supports our community (not to flatter myself! I'm simply a Jew trying to hold on to what it means to be Jewish as best I can)—yes, why I, of all people, should be the one to fall on hard times, lose my store and my home and everything I own, and have to go who-knows-where with my poor wife and children?

            If it had happened only to me, I'd have said I must've sinned. Even if I'd experienced worse things, I'd have accepted God's judgment with love.[58] I never would have dared to question God. I'm a mere mortal, after all; how can I know His ways? If He punishes me, I'm sure He has His reasons. But if it isn't only me . . . if it's our whole community . . . and if it isn't only now, in our own time, but in every time, in every generation, that they've been beating up the Jews . . . even in the times of the Ari[59] and our other righteous sages . . . then what could it possibly mean? Why do things have to be so hard for the community of Israel? God chose us. He gave us the Land of Canaan, yet we're still in exile. And what do I mean by exile? I mean spending your entire life under God's curse.[60]

            Perhaps you'd like to know how I, simple man that I am, ended up asking God questions like these. I'll tell you how. May you never come to any harm, but let's just say you'd never left home and your house had been destroyed and you'd been forced to take your staff in your hand and leave. Believe me, you'd be asking the same questions. That's how we human beings were created: so long as we're not personally affected, so long as our skin's in one piece, we suppose the situation is only temporary. But when you yourself are among the exiles,[61] stripped bare, huddled together in a train car, and you can see the misery, and you're a part of the misery . . . then you start asking one question after another. There on the train, you put on your tales and tfiln and start to pray. Next to you, his back turned, you hear a boy saying kadesh[62] for his murdered father. May His great name be exalted and sanctified . . . how can you stop yourself from breaking down in tears, crying out to God:

            "Why, riboyne shel oylem, why? Why did you bring down this punishment on our heads?"




[1] "Writers could and did express through the fire metaphor a very general sense of vulnerability and the proximity of disaster which for them marked the shtetl experience. Characteristically, in the 1880s and later, the literary reaction to pogroms would almost inevitably involve the employment of the fire metaphor" (Dan Miron, "The Literary Image of the Shtetl," Jewish Social Studies 1, no. 3 [1995]: 16). In his journal entry of 30 November 1906—just a few months after this piece appeared—Berdichevsky himself juxtaposed a factory explosion in Dortmund, Prussia, with the violent counterrevolutionary reaction in Russia. He reports the two events side by side, as if they were related.

[2] A Slavic expression.

[3] Deut. 20:14 (KJV; see also Deut. 3:6). In both verses where this exact phrase appears, it is in a very different context: the Israelites' annihilation or capture of Canaanite women and children. By contrast, in Esther 3:13, the similar phrase little ones and women refers to Haman's thwarted "pogrom" against the Jews. The speaker is clearly thinking of the latter context, as he continues by quoting Esther 3:13 (see following note). The author, however, may intend to call our attention to this contradiction between Jews-as-victims and Jews-as-persecutors by slightly misquoting the phrase as it appears in Deuteronomy, while also alluding to the Deuteronomic institution of the "ban" (herem, or total annihilation) in the speaker's opening statement "Damned if I know" (Fregt mikh b'kherem).

[4] Esther 3:13 (trans. modified). This canonical depiction of genocide was also quoted by the prosecutor in the opening statement of the Eichmann trial. See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin, 2006), 19.

[5] ukaz (Russian).

[6] Synagogue (Yiddish; literally, "school").

[7] A traditional prayer for the welfare of the government, based on Ps. 144 (v. 10: "It is He that giveth salvation unto kings"). It is thought to have originated in the sixteenth century, but the notion is much more ancient. See, e.g., Mishnah Avot 3:2: "Rabbi Haninah the Deputy of the Priests says: Pray for the well-being of the empire, for if it did not cause fear, each man would swallow his fellow alive."

[8] The Sabbath (Yiddish).

[9] A fairly new term at the time, as a self-designation of political groups like the Antisemiten-Liga (founded 1879). The term "Semitic" was coined a century earlier (1781) by the German polymath August Ludwig von Schlözer, as part of a linguistic rather than a racial taxonomy. See Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[10] The Ukrainian idiom "Don't let a dog bark in vain" puns on the verbs "bark" and "tell a lie," meaning that there is a grain of truth in every lie ("Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater"). This idiom is referenced elsewhere in Berdichevsky's Yiddish work, as well as in the work of Sholem Aleichem. See Kenneth Frieden, ed., Classic Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L. Peretz (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 82n16. From a Jewish perspective, the idiom must also recall Ex. 11:7 (KJV: "But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue"), one of the miracles of the Exodus. Here, combining these two associations, the speaker suggests—in good prophetic company!—that, rather than mere events to be disregarded by Jews, the "barking" (persecution) of Gentiles is a periodic "reminder" of their exile. Hence, it holds a kernel of theological truth.

[11] Policeman (from French, gendarme).

[12] Not a verse but a vernacular Jewish saying, quoted (in an unrelated context) in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Batra, folio 67a, in the name of Shmuel.

[13] Caftan or gabardine; a long cloak, usually black silk with a sash, traditionally worn by observant Jewish men.

[14] "Go that way, go this way." The phrase that the speaker is hearing in German (Geht hin, geht her) uses a less formal register and more abrupt imperative for this period (softer would be Geht ihr hin; more formal would be Gehen Sie hin). But in Yiddish, where those register distinctions are not marked in the same way, it sounds formal. Perhaps he blithely misunderstands the German policeman as more polite than he actually is.

[15] Ellipses in original. The verse concludes: "for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19, KJV).

[16] Possibly Polonne in Ukraine, then located in southern Volhynia, roughly fifty miles southwest of Zhytomyr.

[17] Gen. 14:21 (KJV). The speaker is alluding to the first part of this verse, Give me the persons, where the king of Sodom implores Avram to release captives in exchange for property. In other words, he is saying that in the earlier pogroms, one could at least save one's family, if not one's possessions. That is no longer the case.

[18] Yiddish. Plural of sheygets (abomination). Insolent Jewish boy or young non-Jewish male. Fem., shikse.

[19] A number of late nineteenth-century organizations by the same name were founded in Europe.

[20] Organization of maskilim (Jewish freethinkers) founded in Königsberg, 1782, which led to the publication of the important newspaper Ha-me′assef.

[21] Also well-known newspapers that were popular with maskilim.

[22] the six days of Creation?: In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta'anit, folio 25a, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat debates with God about whether God should "return the world to the beginning" of Creation, in order to save R. Eleazar from his suffering. God concedes that, even then, his suffering may not be alleviated, so he declines. We find roughly the same idea here: Jewish suffering is a permanent feature of human history, not an accident that one can change.

[23] Roman emperor who destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, 70 CE.

[24] Ritual for the Day of Atonement (Yiddish, yomkiper). One selects a rooster or hen as a surrogate and circles it overhead while reciting prayers of expiation. It is then slaughtered as a charitable donation.

[25] Small towns in southwestern Ukraine which merged in 1919 into present-day Pervomais'k. (The Yiddish original misleadingly transliterates Holta as "Balte," an entirely different town.)

[26] Ivan Gonta, head of a Cossack rebellion that led to a 1768 pogrom in Uman, Ukraine.

[27] On this date in 1648, the Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnitski led a massacre against Jews in Poland (depicted in Sholem Asch's novel Kiddush Ha-Shem: An Epic of 1648, trans. Rufus Learsi [Philadelphia: JPS, 1926]). This date was instituted as a fast day to commemorate the events (and other tragedies on this date in the medieval era).

[28] The Hebrew words galut (exile) and ge’ulah (redemption) are orthographically similar, a coincidence exploited by this speaker ("exile" → "exit") and by many rabbinic commentaries and mystical works.

[29] Deut. 28:67 (trans. modified). Appears in a list of divinely inflicted curses. See also note to VIII.

[30] Ukrainian Jewish sugar dynasty, based in Kiev.

[31] Ukrainian Jewish grain and oil dynasty, based in Kiev.

[32] Annual drive to raise funds for the poor in the weeks leading up to Passover.

[33] Maurice de Hirsch (1831–96), German Jewish philanthropist who sponsored Jewish migration to Argentina.

[34] Tasseled prayer shawl, traditionally worn by Jewish men.

[35] Phylacteries; boxes containing scrolls, traditionally put on by Jewish men for certain prayers.

[36] First day of the Jewish New Year.

[37] The October Manifesto of 1905 issued by Tsar Nicholas II; see my introduction.

[38] Paraphrase of Esther 8:16 ("The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor"). This verse marks the end of Jews' persecution by the government—the opposite of the situation described here.

[39] Translator's addition. There were four general categories of offering in the Temple, three of them listed by the speaker. He then says that he cannot tell "where the last two [victims] fit in" to this sacrificial schema, highlighting his omission of the "peace offering" (ironic, in this context, and probably implied by the author).

[40] Traditionally, a quorum of ten adult Jewish men is required for certain prayers and rituals.

[41] rosheshone (see note to III) and yomkiper (see note to II), the first week of the New Year.

[42] From the piyyut (liturgical poem) for the Day of Atonement, "Let us declare the might" (U-netaneh toqef).

[43] See note to II.

[44] Kiev's most modern and glamorous thoroughfare; see a colored photo from the period.

[45] Old and established neighborhood in central Kiev; see a colored panorama from the period.

[46] The last fortress to fall in the Jewish revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian, 135 CE. It was memorialized by the Hellenistic Jewish historian Josephus and by rabbinic sources, including the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin. See my introduction.

[47] Market towns in the Russian Empire's Pale of Settlement with a significant Jewish population (singular, shtetl).

[48] The Russian imperial Governorate of Volhynia (Yiddish, Volin) was north of the Governorate of Podolia, the location of Mezhbizh (Berdichevsky's birthplace). Hence, the speaker identifies as (originally) "a Derazhner" who is arriving (more recently) "from near" Mezhbizh. This is confusing, because there was also a Derazhne near Mezhbizh, in Podolia. But he means the Derazhne in Volhynia, northwest of Rovne (Rivne). I thank Philip Schwartz for clarifying this quandary.

[49] Not only the written Pentateuch but also the oral tradition of its interpretation by rabbis and their predecessors.

[50] Plural of tales (see note to III).

[51] Tabernacle, booth. The temporary dwelling erected by Jews to fulfill the commandment (Lev. 23:42) associated with sukkes, the fall festival by this name following the Days of Awe, which begin the Jewish year.

[52] Citron, similar to a lemon. One of the four species prescribed for fulfilling the festival of sukkes (Lev. 23:40).

[53] Yiddish, from Aramaic rav, with the same meaning as Hebrew "rabbi" (my master, my teacher). Refers, in this cultural context, to a Hasidic teacher with authority over a particular community, belonging to a dynasty, and resident at a court to which the faithful were supposed to make regular pilgrimage and financial contributions.

[54] Yiddish khevre, "association," probably a translation of the new Russian institution of the soviet.

[55] Allusion to a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (tractates Pesahim, folio 50a; Baba Batra, folio 10b) presenting a dystopian vision of a world in which the Jewish elite (i.e., rabbis) are dominated by their inferiors. This image of the world upside down (mundus inversus) was widespread in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

[56] The Russo-Japanese War, 1904–5.

[57] Translator's addition. The reference is to June–July 1905 revolutionary activity aboard the battleship Potemkin, such as the firing of shells at a theater in Odessa. These events were made famous, in part, by Eisenstein's 1925 film.

[58] Suffering is sometimes represented by rabbinic tradition as an expression of God's love rather than only of God's displeasure. Some rabbis therefore hold that one should also accept suffering with love and will receive further rewards for doing so. See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot, folio 5a.

[59] Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–72), to whom is attributed a broad system of kabbalah, or Jewish mystical tradition.

[60] Alluding to the curses in Deut. 28, a passage to which Berdichevsky returned throughout his work, e.g., his Sinai und Garizim: Über den Ursprung der israelitischen Religion [Sinai and Garizim: On the origin of Israelite religion] (Berlin: Morgenland, 1926), 497–501.

[61] Ezek. 1:1 (modification of the KJV's translation, "among the captives"). The reference is to the population that was exiled to Babylonia following Nebuchadnezzar's 597 BCE invasion of Judea—a paradigm for subsequent Jewish persecution.

[62] Prayer in Aramaic which praises God, also recited as a memorial prayer for the dead.