_The Mendele Review_: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to _MENDELE_)
Contents of Vol. 04.010
30 June 2000

1) The Curious Publication History of the Text of the Russian
   Constitution of 1905 (Aharon Ariel)
2) THE NEWBORN, OR RASL (Sholem Aleichem)

Date: 30 June 2000
From: Aharon Ariel
Subject: The Curious Publication History of the Text of the Russian
         Constitution of 1905

Louis Fridhandler's lively translation of Sholem Aleichem's little-known
satire on the Russian constitution of 1905 gains in interest when we
look at its publishing history.  The feuilleton mocks the element of
secrecy in the Russian government's handling of the public announcement
of the constitution.  There was, of course, no reason for the secrecy --
the tzarist regime was simply not used to sharing its business with its
subjects.  Astounding as it may seem, the text of the constitution was
first publicized in Hebrew in the Hebrew journal _Hazman_, edited by the
writer and journalist Ben-Zion Katz (1875-1958).  In his
autobiographical _Al itonim vaanashim_ ('On Periodicals and People')
[Tel-Aviv:  Tcherikover, 1983, pp. 56-58], Katz tells us that the London
_Times_ and other major newspapers announced the news of the
constitution on the basis of its publication in the Vilna Hebrew daily
_Hazman_!  The fact that a Hebrew translation preceded the Russian
original was keenly felt in several quarters.  The Russian antisemitic
journal _Novoye Vremia_ expressed its amazement that "the paper of the
zhids" knew about the constitution and they did not.  Having been doubly
"scooped", the Russian government finally printed the original Russian
text.  The constitution itself, and not merely the secrecy surrounding
it, invited the scorn of Sholem Aleichem, as well as of all Jews.  They
knew that the constitution would do nothing to alleviate the oppressive
laws and edicts under which Russian Jewry lived, and that it was never
intended to do so.

Katz writes about the censor, Yehoyshue Shteynberg, who approved the
publication of the text of the constitution.  He generally cooperated
with editors and publishers:  "hatsenzur lo garam lanu tsarot" -- 'The
censor caused us no problems'.  He was, however, pedantic regarding
Hebrew grammatical correctness.  For example, he disapproved strongly of
the use by one writer of the word _arelit_, recognizing only the
masculine form _arel_ 'uncircumcized person; gentile (pejorative)'.  The
feminine form, however, was good enough for Sh.-Y.  Agnon, who used it a
few years later.  [Yiddish _areylis_, of course, is an alternative form
of Yiddish _orlte_/_erlte_].

_TMR_ readers will be interested in Katz's statistics of the Hebrew and
Yiddish press in Russia in 1905 -- almost a century ago.  The three
Hebrew dailies together -- _Hatsefira_, _Hatsofe_ and _Hazman_ -- had a
little more than 20,000 subscribers, mainly intelligentsia, Zionists and
Hebrew-language lovers [khovevey sfat-ever].  Each issue, Katz notes,
had many readers.  The sole Yiddish daily _Fraynd_ had many more
subscribers than all three Hebrew papers combined.  The total Jewish
population in Russia then numbered over five million and Katz claims
that more than 200,000 of them "knew Hebrew well," implying "well enough
to read a Hebrew newspaper."  Women did not know Hebrew and read either
Yiddish or Russian.  _Fraynd_ had the advantage of being a paper that
both husband and wife could read.

Date:  30 June 2000
From:  Louis Fridhandler 
Subject:  THE NEWBORN, OR RASL (Sholem Aleichem)

                      THE NEWBORN, OR RASL

                       by Sholem Aleichem

                 Translated by Louis Fridhandler

>From the Yiddish "Dos Naygeborene oder Rasl" by Sholem Aleichem, in
_Felyetonen_, Tel Aviv:  Bet Shalom Aleichem, I.L.Peretz Publishing
House, 1976, pp. 94-101.

Translator's introduction:  This satirical allegory focuses on the
difficult "birth pangs" that the tsar apparently suffered until
"delivering" a promised constitution.  The piece contains no reference
to the tsar, but there may be a hidden pun here.  In Yiddish, _tsar_
means 'sorrow', 'anxiety'.  "Der tsar fun trogn" refers to the anguish
and distress of carrying (a pregnancy).

The piece (bearing the title _Rasl; maasiya khadasha_ 'Rasl; a new
tale') first appeared in a Hebrew version (available in Sholem Aleichem:
_Katavim ivriim_ ['Hebrew Writings'], selected and edited by Khone
Shmeruk, Jerusalem:  Bialik Institute, 1976, pp. 322-330).  Under the
title, Sholem Aleichem added a note:  "This story may be read by whoever
wants to, except little boys and big girls."

Khone Shmeruk adds (p. 322):  The story appeared in _Hazman_, no. 94,
16 May 1905.  No other publication of the Hebrew text has as yet been
located.  Seven months later, the Yiddish version (under the title _Dos
naygeborene, a siper hamayse_) was printed in the Warsaw paper, _Der
Veg_, 15 Dec. 1905, p. 74.  The staff added the following note (in

This feuilleton was sent to us three months ago, but the censor drew
certain implications:  that Rasl(1) meant Russia, Anzi and Franzi stood
for England and France, Rive-Leyetshe (the midwife) represented
revolution [in Yiddish, revolutsye], the newborn child meant the
constitution, etc.  Consequently, we were not able to print it until

If we rely on the notations by the staff of _Der Veg_, it seems that the
Hebrew text was passed by the censor due to the good connections with
the authorities enjoyed by Ben-Zion Katz and his paper.  After the
October revolution, the 1905 constitution was granted.  Only then was
publication of the Yiddish text permitted when Sholem Aleichem was
already out of the country.  It is therefore quite possible that Sholem
Aleichem was unaware of the publication in _Der Veg_.  The story
appeared in an unidentified Am erican Yiddish paper with a note given by
I.D.  Berkowitz in _Dos Sholem-Aleykhem Bukh_, p. 365.  The information
there is incomplete and erroneous.  (Translated from Khone Shmeruk's
Hebrew text by the late Harry Gonda, M.D. who survived the Holocaust
with the help of Raoul Wallenberg.)

[Translator's comments resumed] Sholem Aleichem and his family left
Russia at the end of 1905 shortly after the widespread pogroms in the
wake of the newly granted constitution.  Besides his disgust with the
state of affairs in Russia in general, he may have perceived a directly
personal threat to his safety.  His brother, Vevik Rabinovitch, wrote a
biography of Sholem Aleichem [_Mayn Bruder, Sholem-Aleykhem_, fun Vevik
Rabinovitsh, Kiev:  Melukhe Farlag far di Natsyonale Minderhaytn in
USSR, 1939].  On page 137, Vevik shows a photograph of a document from
the files of the Russian secret police, social division, dated October
14-15, 1903.  Orders were issued to maintain surveillance and to file
systematic reports on the acquaintances, relatives, meetings, and
occupation of Solomon Naumovitch (as Sholem Aleichem was known, Russian
style to Russian authorities).  On page 135, Vevik quotes Sholem
Aleichem, "Who knows?  Maybe a shadowy stranger now follows me"
indicating his apprehension of being closely watched by police.  Thus,
in the face of the 1905 pogroms, Sholem Aleichem was not only fed up
with chaotic Russia, but fearful that something in his background might
single him and his family out for special "treatment."  Sholem Aleichem
could not have expected that the publication of this satire (as well as
his satire on the Russo-Japanese war) would endear him to the Russian
regime.  For several reasons, it was time to leave.

In addition to the political allusions quoted in Shmeruk's introduction
(above), we may draw allusions probably obvious to Sholem Aleichem's
contemporary readers:  the "big family" meant Russia; "papa and mama"
were the authoritarian rulers; the annoying " children" ever underfoot
were the Russian populace; the "cheeky rhymester" was Sholem Aleichem
himself.  Now to the story.

1. Our family is a big family, great and famous.  You want to know what
makes it famous?  "Its drunken skunks and thieving punks; haughty clods,
and pious frauds; moneyed frumps and highborn lumps; brawling toughs
with filthy scruffs; and...."

That's what some relative said of our family.  But then, he's a writer,
a cheeky rhymester, a sly mischief-maker.  Who can tell what a versifier
might think of next!  So who cares?  Actually, the way I remember it,
our house was pious, observant and honor able.  We skipped no prayers
and blessings.  We washed before meals.  God forbid that anyone speak
loud at the table, or burst out laughing, or go where they're not
supposed to, or speak of matters not allowed.  Only at the risk of life
could you stick yo ur nose into house affairs, or question management,
or try sniffing out what the cooks were up to.  In a word, respect was
sternly enforced through fear:  "If you know what's good for you, you
will do what God commands, what papa and mama demand, what all good,
pious people demand."

Now can you imagine this disgrace?  Our Rasl, our sister Rasl, a grown
girl, modest, devout, fell suddenly ill.  Nobody knows why or how (may
we be guarded and protected from that).  She remained strong and healthy
in body, but a sort of melancholy came over her, and she could find no
place of rest for herself.  Couldn't sit, lie down, walk, or stand.

"What's the matter, Rasl?"
"I don't know."
"Where does it hurt?"

Papa and mama took her to a well-known wonder-worker, laid cash on the
table, and told the story.  "She won't eat, can't sleep, can't rest.
She's just not her old self at all any more!"  The man of miracles gave
her an amulet, and suggested remedies to guarantee complete and perfect
recovery.  Nothing helped.  Day by day, poor Rasl got worse.  Not the
way she used to be!  As she didn't eat or sleep, and had no rest, she
should have shrunk, become thin.  The only miracle, however, was that
poor Rasl beca me fatter and wider, instead.  In desperation they sent
for the sorceress and paid her to try exorcism.  She conjured spells by
moonlight, and advised that Rasl be rolled about wrapped in cold sheets,
and bound with ropes.  Did it help?  Like the snows of yesteryear.
Rasl, alas, worsened every day.  Didn't eat or drink or sleep or rest.
Not the Rasl we knew!

2. Our family, as I already told you, is a big one, but dependable.  For
example, if one of us suffers ruination the others come to pay a sick
call.  When Rasl took to bed, along came all the uncles and aunts, the
cousins and second cousins, asking about Ras l (not out of pity but
simply to find out).  "What's with Rasl?  How come we don't see Rasl
around these days?"  More eager to know than everybody else were Auntie
Anzi and Auntie Franzi.  It occurs to me that I ought to introduce you
to those two aunties.

Auntie Anzi is tall and skinny as a palm twig.  She's a rich aristocrat,
but (may she forgive me) a cunning hypocrite.  My mama says, "May half
of what she wishes us happen to her!"  Auntie Anzi is vain and proud.
We don't expect her to visit except maybe on a holiday; but when Rasl
began ailing, she turned into a devoted auntie, coming over every day
asking, "What's up with Rasl?  Why don't we ever see Rasl these days?"

So different from Auntie Anzi is Auntie Franzi:  petite, full of cheer
(in fact, a bit too jolly); paints and powders herself; pirouettes this
way and that.  She wears a large, fine-feathered hat, and claims to be
our only tried and true friend.  "My heart aches so," she said, "For
your Rasl, poor thing."  That's what she said, slyly casting glance
after glance at Rasl, all the while nodding her head and smiling
strangely.  "If you'd take my advice," said she, "You'd pay a visit to
the doctor.  I myself once had the same disease."

"Really?  Just what kind of disease was that?" asked mama.  "Whatever it
was, that's what it was, as long as I'm done with it."  So said Auntie
Franzi as she peeked at Rasl, nodding her head while smiling strangely.
Auntie Franzi badgered us with "doctor, doctor" and tried our patience
until mama took Rasl to the doctor who asked where it hurt.  "No place,"
answered mama.  "But she won't eat or drink, sleep or rest.  She's not
the same Rasl any more!"

After he examined her, the doctor told Rasl to leave the office, and
asked mama to stay.  He had something to tell mama that no one else
should hear.  What he told her, nobody knows, but when she came home,
mama's face was fiery red.  She called papa aside, locked herself up
with him in their room, and they whispered secrets for a long, long
time.  Both were flushed with anger when they came out.  In a burning
rage they favored us, the youngsters, with a few fine smacks, shoves and
jabs, twisting our ears, yelling, "Why are you children always
underfoot, tangling our legs?"

That evening, they summoned the religious teacher and the tutor (in our
house we had both) to settle accounts.  Then those two were sent
packing, and politely told to go away, the farther the better, the
sooner the better; and they were asked to forget they were ever here.
It broke our hearts to see this pair go.  Sadly, we youngsters ushered
them out.  On the way out, we caught a few jabs from our parents, as
usual.  "Children shouldn't always be underfoot, tripping us."

3. After that, Rasl could not leave the house.  They didn't let her see
the light of day, kept every living soul away from her, except some old
woman, dark as a gypsy, with blazing, black, beady eyes.  Looked like a
witch.  Nobody knows what the witch was doing there.  All we heard were
shouts, weird groans and crying.

We had to watch our step as things got very strict at our house.
Everybody sulked, walked about seething with anger.  Papa and mama
snapped at each other, and both were exasperated with the whole world.
They took out their bitterness on us, the children , as usual.  For just
one unbidden word, we were ripped apart, beaten up and scolded.
"Children shouldn't always be underfoot, tripping us up."

Later, they didn't even call poor Rasl to the table at mealtime.  They
didn't let her out of her room, or let us get near her.  Her name was no
longer mentioned as though Rasl had never existed.  How strange!  The
more they hid Rasl, the more we wanted to see her.  We were drawn to her
like a magnet.  An idea popped into our heads, and we wrote her a
letter.  Our relative, that luckless ne'er-do-well, that writer we told
you about, wrote it for us (in rhyme, of course).  We held on to the
letter for a few days, not knowing how to deliver it.  Then we turned to
the witch (that was our only name for her), and told her she could do us
a big favor.  The witch listened to us attentively with a very amiable
smile, and promised to help.  "O, with the greatest of pleasure!
Children ask?  Sure!  Why not?"  She took the letter and promised to
fulfill our plot in utmost secrecy.

That very night, papa invited us into a separate room, made us lie down,
and (begging our pardon) rendered judgment and punishment in the
old-fashioned way.  He assured us that should we ever dare to write such
letters to Rasl again, we'd get much more of the same, in double

Of course, we soon conveyed news of this to our penniless relative, that
hapless writer.  He burned with indignation, gripped pen in hand, and
dashed off a few verses about our family.  The poem, I recall, began
like this:

A noble family did fall,
Its high repute dismissed by all:
One evening with no chaperone
Their pious daughter walked alone,
But as she walked without a light
Distracted from her path that night,
She trod with care as though through jelly,
And then developed quite a ....

I don't remember what came after that, but we copied and memorized those
verses, howling with laughter as we rehearsed them.  Our parents noticed
the bits of paper stuck all around us and heard the hearty laughter we
enjoyed.  They began to search us, and shook the fine little poem out of
our pockets.  Before any other ceremony, they delivered as many blows as
we could stand.  Then they locked us in the calf's stall for the night
with a warning that death would be the least we'd suffer if we ever met
with that poor relative again.  That sorry good-for-nothing!  They sent
a message to the poet that should he ever set foot on our terrain, he'd
learn what it meant to have arms and legs broken.

4. The family kept coming to call.  As usual, Aunties Anzi and Franzi
came more often than any other relative.  They asked, "What's with Rasl?
Why don't we see Rasl anywhere these days?"  Auntie Anzi all at once
became attached to us with great warmth and compassion.  Each day she
sent someone to ask if we needed a piece of ice or a bit of jam, or this
or that.  Once she condescended to come herself, and proposed something,
whispering into mama's ear.  Mama flew into a rage.  "Who asked you?"
she yelled.  "Don't offer us any of your favors!  Go, in the best of
health.  We know plenty about you and your kind favors!"

Auntie Anzi left in a huff, but later sent diapers, swaddling clothes,
and children's leggings.  We didn't understand at all why anyone should
be so irritated by a gift of leggings.  Anyhow, we got our fill of
smacks that night.  "Why must children always be underfoot?"

Auntie Franzi (whom we all considered our only friend, tried and true)
came over once wearing her fine hat and a pretty veil.  She sat for a
while, and kept on sitting with us, as she glanced slyly and peeked
coyly, until she finally said to mama with a friendly smile, "If you
like, I'll send over Rive-Leyetshe.  She is a wonderful jewel!  Her
hands have such a light touch.  If not for Rive-Leyetshe," said Auntie
Franzi with a syrupy smile, "I don't know what would have happened to me
that time, when I was...  (God forbid it should ever happen again)."
Mama somehow didn't like that syrupy smile, and answered with a dig,
"For your kindness, may the One above repay you double, but there is an
old saying:  God, please defend me from good friends; I can protect
myself from enemies."  Auntie Franzi figured out which way the wind
blew, got up, and went off smiling her same old sugary smile.

5. A frightful tumult, an uproar awakened us one night:  doors banged,
feet stomped up and down stairs, many, many people jabbered noisily.
Wild, unearthly yells came from Rasl's chamber, as though somebody was
being murdered.  It was dark in the house, and bedlam ruled the street.
We youngsters were afraid to get out of bed.  Our teeth chattered as we
dug our faces into the pillows.  Then a strange hush fell over the
house.  We heard an occasional groan, and finally, an odd shriek.
Open-mouthed, we strain ed our ears.  What was it all about?  Then we
heard a familiar voice, papa's, say, "Well?"  Mama's voice answered,
"It's over."

                             * * *

It was a bright and lovely summer day.  The sun gently warmed every nook
and cranny.  Faces, too, were summery, warm, bright and cheerful.  Even
the servants in the house walked about with heads held high.  Everything
had been turned upside down in our ho use.  Mama and papa were not angry
with each other, nor with us youngsters.  No more were we carried by our
hair.  They didn't twist our ears, or jab us in the belly so that
"children shouldn't always hang around underfoot."  In our house,
everything had turned around.

What brought about this transformation?  Apparently from whatever
happened in Rasl's room; because every time mama came out, her face
shone, and her moist eyes seemed lightly covered by a thin, transparent
veil.  In that room lay Rasl, softly groaning and moaning, "Oy."  The
turnaround had come from a newborn little creature whose voice was also
heard.  It was a little girl named....  Can you guess what name she was

1) The name _Rasl_ is clearly Litvish _sabesdik losn_ (= _shabesdik
loshn_) for _Rashl_, a diminutive of _Rokhl_ 'Rachel'.  [There is a
character named Beyle-Rashe in Yekheskl Kotik's _Mayne zikhroynes_ (Vol.
2, chapter 1 and passim)].  _Rashe_ is either a back-formation from
Rashl or Rashl is a diminutive of Rashe.  [_roshe_ 'evil person' has /o/
and not /a/; Louis Fridhandler has mentioned to me seeing a pun on
_roshe_ in one of Sholem Aleichem's letters.] The alliterated initial
consonant /r/ itself is probably enough to alert the reader to the
allegorical sense, given the total context of the feuilleton.
_Rive-Leyetshe_ is a transparent and cleverly comical play on
_revolutsye_, whose two initial unstressed syllables many Yiddish
speakers would indeed pronounce /rive/.  The diminutive _tshe_ mocks the
high-sounding but too often insidious "revolutsye."  A midwife called
Rive-Leyetshe sounds real; the party of revolution often employed the
midwife metaphor.  [L.P.]
End of _The Mendele Review_ 04.010

Leonard Prager, editor

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