_The Mendele Review_: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to _MENDELE_)
Contents of Vol. 04.015
27 October 2000

1) a. On Sholem-Aleykhem's "Hodl" (ed.)
   b. Y.-Kh. Ravitski remembers Sholem-Aleykhem (ed.)
2) "The First Years of My Friendship with Sholem Aleichem" (Ravnitski)
3) "der reyekh fun a yidn" and other olifactory matters touched on in
   the last issue of TMR with comments by David Assaf (ed.)

Date: 27 October 2000
From: ed. 
Subject: On Sholem-Aleykhem's "Hodl"


"Hodl," integral to _Tevye der Milkhiker_ as a whole, is also a rich
story in itself, or rather several stories, each one of archetypal
force.  There is the story of a romantic love, defined against the
crumbling institution of arranged marriage; there is the story of the
social idealism of youth, its romantic radicalism.  Two young people
follow their hearts in the face of conventional familial and societal
demands and expectations, clearing untread paths, unmindful of pragmatic
needs.  Hodl and Feferl represent, too, all idealistic youth who would
remake the world in a more attractive image (though whose chosen means
may subvert their effort).  Simultaneously, "Hodl" is the story of
filial and parental grief and pain at parting.  And yet, somehow, this
is a comic -- that is, life-affirming, as well as a tragic story.

Some readers may wish to read the Yiddish text alongside an English
translation -- the basic aim of Project Onkelos is to make this
possible.  Project Onkelos, as has been announced earlier (see _TMR_
4.002) proposes to provide the original Yiddish texts of all the stories
in the well known anthology _A Treasury of Yiddish Stories_, edited by
Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.  The translation of "Hodl" in the
Howe and Greenberg collection is by Julius and Frances Butwin and first
appeared in their _The Old Country_ (1946).  A more recent translation
by Hillel Hankin can be found in his _Sholem Aleichem; Tevye the
Dairyman and The Railroad Stories_ (1987).  All English translations of
Sholem Aleichem are listed in Louis Fridhandler's compendious online
"Guide to Sholem Aleichem Translations" at

"Hodl" in Yiddish: http://www2.trincoll.edu/~mendele/onkelos/hodl.pdf.


The Ravitski memoir in this issue of the _TMR_ gives us a glimpse
into the soul of the author of "Hodl," a far more complex figure than we
may have thought.  The master of "laughter through tears" experienced
many of life's common difficulties -- poor health, penury -- and a
special order of problems stemming from an uncommon love for Yiddish.
We are grateful to Louis Fridhandler for making this not very well known
memoir available in a faithful English rendering.

Date: 27 October 2000
From: Louis Fridhandler 
Subject: "The First Years of My Friendship with Sholem Aleichem"

      "The First Years of My Friendship with Sholem Aleichem"

                      by Y.-Kh. Ravnitski(1)

            [written late summer or early fall, 1917]

                translated by Louis Fridhandler

[Translator's introduction:  Sholem Aleichem [Yiddish:  Sholem-Aleykhem]
died in New York on May 13, 1916.  Shmuel Niger and Y. Tsinberg shortly
thereafter organized a memorial publication which included this memoir.
Anecdotes and letters bring vivid images of the young Sholem Aleichem.
The role of the strange and destructive Yisroel Levi in Yiddish
publication history is described by Ravnitski.  At the end, Ravnitski
quotes a letter that is probably the most pain-filled letter Sholem
Aleichem ever wrote.  Ravnitski did not quote the whole letter.  I
therefore resorted to a fuller version published by his son-in-law.]


When my close relationship with Sholem Aleichem began (almost thirty
years ago), we had already been corresponding regularly for a couple of
years.  As everyone knows, Sholem Aleichem loved to write letters.  I
dare say no one has ever written so many letters with such tireless
enthusiasm.  He never put off a reply, never waited patiently for an
answer, but prompted and prodded his correspondent, writing again and

"And I, Sholem Aleichem," the young man wrote me, "am not like other
people.  I answer on the spot."  In another letter:  "You presume to
complain about me?  Come, come!  I think you owe me about fourteen
letters!  Am I mistaken?"  Another letter:  "I send off three, four,
five, six letters a day.  That's how I've been, from way, way back."
When he was ill, late in life, he wrote from [a sanitarium in] Nervi
[Italy]:  "You scold me?  How charming of you!  You claim I don't answer
your letters?  What a laugh!  There's not a blockhead on earth who would
believe that Ravnitski and Byalik write, but Sholem Aleichem (that idle
good-for-nothing) is too shiftless to reply.

His unique, beguiling comic style became famous through his
publications, but every letter proved that the spirited humor was no
artifice.  A gift of nature, it gushed as though from a heaven-blest
font, spontaneously, not forced by the sweat of his brow.  No wonder,
then, a letter from him would make the recipient laugh out loud, first
while reading it to himself, then when reading it to close friends who
laughed along.

Collaborating with a good friend in 1886, I was preparing a collection
of essays to be published as _Der Veker_ [The Awakener].  Our aim was to
spark a love for Zion in Jewish hearts.  As the title page announced, M.
Lilyenblum was the nominal editor.  However, Lilyenblum merely lent his
name to a project dear to his heart.  Until publication, he read not a
line of any manuscript other than his own.  I had to correspond about
_Der Veker_ with all our well-known writers of that time, including
Sholem Aleichem.

He had been writing Yiddish for only three years after an earlier start
in Hebrew.  Still, he was already a celebrity, being one of those most
fortunate of writers who become well known soon after they appear. _Di
Ibergekhapte Briv_ [The Intercepted Letters] had already been published
along with many other stories that delighted his readers.  We wanted to
gather many contributions, and Sholem Aleichem's was among those at
the top of our list.  In early 1886, I asked for "some kind of piece"
for _Der Veker_.  He immediately replied:

On you I would lavish dramas, satiric vignettes, humorous novellas,
piercing needles, biting gnats, etc., etc.  However, you propose a
journal according to your taste, and bid me write....  Working "to
order" is no good....  I can't persuade others to believe that in which
I have rather scant faith....  No less than you, I want your idea to be
well received.  But what can I do if I know my people, the children of
Israel, very well, and I can't believe they will take it to heart.

He ended his long letter with:  I have no talent for serious novels, but
see here:  I can mock, laugh at, poke fun at people, crawl under their
skins, and still give pleasure to the reader.  I can make him like me
even as I heap scorn.  For all of that, you see, I have the knack.  I'm
a scamp, a past master at that.  All you'd ever want.  Is it my fault
that in everything, in everyone, I immediately see the worst side?

A few weeks later, he answered another letter of mine with a sizable one
on the same topic.  In his very own style, he wrote:

My friend, you tell me that I can write any way I like, wherever my
talent leads, but then you set conditions, steering my course for me.
For example:  that I should depict the truly foolish assimilationist and
his ilk.  You say the nose should be long, the eyes bulging, the face
swollen.  He should have a portly belly, short bow legs, etc.  You dub
him "assimilationist" and to that Sholem Aleichem retorts:  I am neither
assimilationist nor do I aspire to move to Palestine.  I am a Jew who
loves Jews because I am a person who loves people.  People like us tend
to latch on to an idea, no matter how sacred, then massage it until it
looks crumpled, foolish and ludicrous.  And then we can ridicule both
the assimilationist and the one who longs for Palestine.

Sholem Aleichem then reminded me that three years earlier, he himself
was devoted to that noble aim, heart and soul.  "Before the fog settled
over us," he had been moved to write a complete novel in Russian,
_Vpered_ (Onward), an idyll in a Palestine colony.  Then he added:

The novel lies well hidden among my manuscripts.  I recently read the
last chapter, and my eyes filled with tears.

(In a P.S. he remarked that it seemed my letters, feeble things, crept
rather slowly on their way from Odessa).  Rather striking was the fact
that in the very first letters I felt a warm, comfortable tone, as
though he was writing to a close, intimate friend.  There's no sign of
the nose-in-the-air affectation so common among writers lucky enough
to be recognized as soon as they begin to toot their horn.  Some time
later, I took the liberty of telling the newly famous Sholem Aleichem
that his latest pieces seemed hastily written, too much like
caricatures.  He was not offended.  On the contrary, he answered in a
sober, open-minded tone:

(In Yiddish) You do show me the weakness in my writing.  (Continuing in
Russian):  O, God!  Is there perfection anywhere?  I agree with you.  I
often drift into caricature and chatter.  Do you know why?  Because of
laziness, dear friend.

He went on to blame the laziness on the colleagues with whom he happened
to work closely, citing a list of sickening "sweet things" served to the
readers by the _Yidishe Folks-blat_.  At times the whole to-do made him
so disgusted that weeks went by before he could again take pen in hand.


A consuming, natural love for our folk tongue and folk literature comes
through in many of his letters to me during the early years of our
friendship.  His exclamation (in Russian), "Zhargon [the common name for
Yiddish at the time]!  That is my passionate obsession!" comes across as
no idle declaration.

In this connection, a letter written near the end of 1887 is of special
interest.  First he stresses how hard he is working for the _Folks-blat_
to which he devotes particular attention.(2) He writes further:

On top of that come demands from other journals: _Hoyzfraynd_ (House
Friend), _Familienfraynd_ (Family Friend), _My Dear Friend_, plus
_The-Devil-Knows-What-Kind-Of Friend_ to whom I have promised
contributions.  I must keep my word.  No one has bought me, nobody has
the right to tell me what to do.  However, my love for Zhargon is more
powerful than any lord or master.  When it comes to that, I am ready to
cooperate with everyone.  Whenever I hear two men or two women speaking
Zhargon, I'm right there in the middle!  Rabinovitsh [Sholem Aleichem's
real name] is more Sholem Aleichem than Rabinovitsh.  For four hours a
day, Rabinovitsh is a big shot on the stock exchange, a wheeling and
dealing crafty trader, a bit of an ace, thank God.  From five o'clock to
three or four in the morning I am Sholem Aleichem.  I am now writing two
novels, a short story, a feuilleton, a comedy, three editorials, a
critical study, and something else.  But, then, don't we need readers?

It seems it was only for the sake of appearances, but he finally sent me
a relatively short and unimpressive piece.  After a long and difficult
incubation, our collection appeared.  To make it more kosher, His
Highness the censor himself changed the title to _Der Yidisher Veker_.
In a long letter, Sholem Aleichem expressed his lack of enthusiasm for
the collection.  He dealt critically with each and every piece, and did
not spare his own.  About his own feeble contribution, he wrote:

That there idler, pampered by luck in all his endeavors, for whom good
fortune enters through every portal, deserves to be forced to lie down
and take lashes, one after the other.

When he dealt with the story entitled "Aheym" [Going Home], the only
fiction in the collection, he wrote:

Your devoted servant also once fashioned such a story entitled
"Natasha".(3)  I would now give a thousand rubles to have it forgotten
and erased from our young Zhargon literature.

Needless to say, _Der Yidisher Veker_ failed to satisfy Sholem Aleichem.
As discussion, it was too biased.  As literature, it was too
lightweight.  Apparently, neither did Spector's _Hoyzfraynd_ (then
beginning to appear) provide Sholem Aleichem with the outlet he was
seeking.  And so he began to prepare (1888) a purely literary collection
entitled _Di Yidishe Folks-biblyotek_.  It was a labor of love for which
he fervently toiled with boundless energy.  He searched out every writer
who enjoyed any kind of reputation in either Yiddish or Hebrew
literature.  An unending stream of letters flowed, and he did not rest
until he finally obtained a piece for his _Biblyotek_.  The honoraria
offered were substantial.  Jewish writers of that time could not even
dream of such high pay.  He never stinted.  I was among those contacted,
and he proposed that I take on the bibliographic section of the
_Biblyotek_. "It's all right," he wrote me, "You are not above working
right alongside all my colleagues of whom you have probably already
heard." I eagerly accepted Sholem Aleichem's proposition, and we
henceforth became even closer friends.  As ever, he continued to write
many letters, often announcing gleefully his receipt of a fine, new
piece of "goods" for his _Biblyotek_, a project dearer to him than
anything else, devoting his heart and soul to it.  For example, he wrote

O, my!  Rabbi Kotzin!(4) A poet greater than Frug(5) has appeared.  His
name is David Frischmann [Dovid Frishman].  Soon you will see a poem by
this rascal which will drive you to distraction.  A new Heine, a Jewish

In a note, I suggested that the editor of the _Biblyotek_ seemed a
little overexcited, tending toward overstatement.  He immediately

I swear, you are absolutely right!  It's true.  I am a little (or
perhaps much?) too impassioned, just like Ben-Ami.(6) A fault it is, but
not too great a fault.  But neither is it any good to be a cold thing,
cold as ice!  I don't like cold graves.  After death, we shall be cold
soon enough.  As long as a person is alive, he should live!  Still,
Frishman's poem is written in the style of Heine, and I swear Frug
possesses not half the poetic talent of Frishman.

Sholem Aleichem devoted a great deal of time to corresponding with many
types of writers, and editing others' works.  In addition he contributed
his own pieces.  His writing changed, becoming more serious, more
respectful of his own talent.  The following is from a letter he wrote
me toward the end of summer 1888:

My wife is not well, my three(7) children are sick, and I myself now
have a little brat on my hands who must make a good impression on my
readers, and stir up my critics, who, sorry to say, can't tolerate my
talent.  Now I talk like Shomer.(8)  Don't you agree?  I know I have
talent.  That is my misfortune.  Long ago I told our best Zhargonist,(9)
whom I appreciate more every day that we upstart whelps need whipping.
And what a whipping!  Perhaps that will make something of us.  Until
now, I have never rewritten anything, as you know, and almost never
reread that which I wrote.  Wrote, sent off, printed, and that was that.
With my latest work, not so.  I polish, I hone, etc.

A few days later, in another letter he suggested that criticism is my
metier, and complained bitterly:

Nobody ever told me what my assignment ought to be, so I went off and
wrote a review of Shomer's rubbish. Then off I went and wanted to
build a tower higher than the sky entitled _Blank_.  I mean all three
novels:  _Reb Sender_, _Marcus Blank the Second_, and _The Last of the
Blank Family_ which I'm still writing.  Composing long novels is really
not my trade.

By "the little brat" Sholem Aleichem meant _Stempenyu_, a new "Jewish"
novel.  To it he devoted a great deal of love and the essence of his
artistic aspirations.  Ultimately the novel was included as a supplement
to his _Biblyotek_.  To save time, he sent it to me so that I might
print it in Odessa as a separate project.  When I picked up the
manuscript at the post office, the postmaster wondered why such a little
packet was valued at one thousand rubles, like an expensive jewel.  How
could I explain that it was far more precious to the author than the
finest gold?  Sholem Aleichem had sent me detailed instructions on how
to print his novel.  To my surprise, he granted me full authority to
amend, delete and add words on condition that I first read the whole
manuscript, and advise him of my appraisal right away.  "If time
permits," he added, I will revise it.  However, if the whole work is not
any good, then too bad, it's too late."  In another letter:  "Fighting
about a word here and there is unwarranted.  On the contrary, toss out
any unnecessary word."  After extensive discussion of the types and
characters in the novel, he wrote in yet another letter, "Erase, add,
mince, hack, as long as you let me see what's going on."


I first met Sholem Aleichem face to face while printing Stempenyu.  A
young fellow entered my printing shop and asked where he might find
Ravnitski.  The typesetter pointed to me.

"I've just arrived from Kiev," said the man, "And I bring you warm
regards from a close acquaintance."

"Must be from Sholem Aleichem."

"Right you are."

I began to inquire about Sholem Aleichem.  The gentleman answered some
but not all questions explaining that he knew him only from casual
encounters almost every day at the stock exchange.

All the while he revealed no trace of a smile.  The answer to one
question exposed the prank, and I realized that this was Sholem Aleichem

I must admit that at first I was somewhat disappointed.  I did not like
the joke, and this was not at all how I had imagined Sholem Aleichem.
So debonair?  Was this Sholem Aleichem, the famous writer, this nattily
dressed, flashy young chap with the round little hat off to one side,
appearing to be half stock trader, half artist?  Then he immediately
took me to his wonderful hotel where we spent quite some time.  Sholem
Aleichem kept asking me about _Stempenyu_, and told me about all the
fine pieces he was acquiring for the _Biblyotek_ with great effort,
pieces to make us very proud of our still meager folk literature.  He
longed for two things:  to see the Black Sea, and (even more) to meet
the beloved Zeyde [grandpa] who drew Sholem Aleichem's heart and soul to
Odessa.  Nowadays, everyone knows whom we mean by "the Zeyde."  At that
time, however, that was a brand new name bestowed by Sholem Aleichem.
It was he who had crowned our beloved Mendele Moykher-Sforim with that
affable nickname which has persisted to this day.  Sholem Aleichem spoke
of the Zeyde Reb Mendele the way a zealous hasid talks of his rabbi.
During our first long chat, he kept asking about him, wanting to know
everything I might be able to tell him.  I knew very little because I
was not then well acquainted with the Zeyde.  It struck Sholem Aleichem
as very strange, considering that I lived in the same city.  That
evening Sholem Aleichem spent a good deal of time with Reb Mendele at
his home near the local Talmud Torah.  The Zeyde with his youthful
temperament, keen and witty talk, rapid-fire ideas made a tremendous
impression on his Kiev "grandson."  Sholem Aleichem later frequently
reminded me of how much he envied me because I had the honor to live in
Odessa where I could often see and listen to the Zeyde!  When he
returned to Kiev, Sholem Aleichem placed a picture of the Zeyde on his
writing desk.  While writing, he would look at it often, asking himself,
"Would the Zeyde like this or not?"

The first volume of _Di Yidishe Folks-biblyotek_ soon appeared, and
caused a huge stir among readers all over.  For the fine gift he had
conferred on Yiddish literature, Sholem Aleichem received many letters
of thanks and praise from other writers as well as ordinary readers.

A number of people, however, resented Sholem Aleichem;s great
achievement for Yiddish literature.  Yisroel Levi, publisher (at that
time) of _Di Yidishe Folks-blat_, led this group.  He persistently
agitated against Yiddish and its literature in his paper.  Levi was a
strange character with idiosyncratic notions, peculiar attitudes and
erratic whims.  It was only by mere chance that such a person had gained
control of the only Yiddish weekly.  Alexander Zederbaum [Aleksander
Tsederboym] was forced to hand _Di Yidishe Folks-blat_ over to Levi in
settlement of a debt.  Levi took charge at the beginning of 1888.  The
paper's editor was officially Y-.L.  Kantor, but it was Levi who ran it,
and ran it ragged.  He nurtured a deep hatred toward Yiddish (or
Zhargon), as did many earnest maskilim in those days (1880s).  As fate
would have it, an enemy of Yiddish became the publisher of a Yiddish
paper who then stumbled upon a shrewd idea:  to remove as much Yiddish
as possible from Zhargon, and substitute Hebrew words and expressions.
For example, instead of simply writing _died_ [geshtorbn], he insisted
on a Hebrew-Yiddish construction, meaning (roughly) "departed from life"
[shavak khayim lekhol khay geven].  Everyone had to change _Yidish_ to
_Yehudish_, and other such foolishness.  On top of that, Levi's
_Folks-blat_ loved to heap scorn, ridicule and shame on the hapless
field of Zhargon.  Sholem Aleichem, who so loved our folk tongue, took
this deeply to heart and was severely aggravated.  "For heaven's sake!"
he wrote in a letter to me, "Zhargon!  O, Zhargon!  They are out to
destroy Zhargon!"  At the beginning of 1889 he sent me an interesting
letter in answer, apparently, to my letter scolding him for again having
his work published in Levi's _Folks-blat_:

You've dealt me a blow, and you are entirely right, yes indeed, seven
times in the right!  The third feuilleton, "Funem Veg," was sent off
when I was still in Yalta [Sept. 1888].  I wish I could forget that
crazy Litvak [Levi] as completely as I had forgotten that my feuilleton
was in his hands.  But you don't know under what circumstances I wrote
that feuilleton.  My niece was then almost at death's door in Yalta.  It
was late at night but I was not sleepy.  I am cursed with a kind of
pestilence called "feuilletonomania," and from my mouth there comes an
endless stream of material for feuilletons.  May you be spared such a
fate!  The way my material flows reminds me of a magician pulling out
endless lengths of colored ribbons.  Wake me up in the middle of the
night and tell me, "My dear Sholem Aleichem, write a feuilleton," and
one will be created.  That you are concerned for my honor is of no
consequence, but the only paper available to Zhargon is being ruined,
and that breaks my heart.  God help us!  Can the _Biblyotek_ all by
itself rescue Zhargon from the rascals?


Sholem Aleichem continued to pursue his own interests.  He labored
mightily to compile the second volume of _Di Yidishe Folks-biblyotek_.
At the end of summer, 1889, he wrote:  "O, my good friend, what a
collection here!  When you see this Biblyotek, you'll be crazy about

For this volume, Sholem Aleichem undertook to write a second lengthy
"Jewish" novel.  At the same time he wrote feuilletons (pulling out
ribbons, as he himself put it), in a great hurry as usual, on one foot
so to speak.  He was quite as devoted to this novel as he was to
_Stempenyu_.  Perhaps, even more so.  He completely revised it several
times.  Then he wrote me:  "The censor has just released my novel, but
I have chewed it up and swallowed it.  I now write it anew." Sholem
Aleichem faithfully heeded the Zeyde's advice that a writer must toil
and sweat over a work, and hone each word.  When I wrote to warn him
that too much revision may be harmful, he answered:

In general, the second volume of the _Biblyotek_ will put the first to
shame in all respects.  That goes even for my _Stempenyu_.  Don't worry
that my revisions (six times) might spoil the work, because I'm not
correcting anything.  I write a completely new work.  I finish these
things rather quickly, but this piece of work is something special.
Because of it, _Stempenyu_ may be shown the door, told to take his
violin and go away.

He soon sent me the new novel which was supposed to overshadow
_Stempenyu_.  It was _Yosele Solovey_ [Joey Nightingale].  He wanted me
to print it in Odessa for inclusion in Volume Two of _Di Yidishe
Folks-biblyotek_.  I wrote him that I found the novel occasionally
imitated Reb Mendele.  He answered:

I swear, on my word of honor, I was not aware of that.  If you really
find the work echoes Mendele, then I beg of you, remove those parts or
change them.  In any case, let me know all about it without fail.

As to my opinion that he did not succeed well in describing nature, he

I realize that I'm weak, alas, in that art.  But what can I do?  I must
reveal one way or another that nighttime is not daytime, early morning
is not late.  Tell me what to do!  Truth to tell, I wanted to describe
nature well, but I was afraid it might look as though I was dancing to
the Zeyde's tune.

Levi, the eccentric publisher of the _Folks-blat_, did whatever suited
him.  He waged unending war against Sholem Aleichem and me.  I once
dared to criticize rather sharply his "ideas" in his own paper, the
_Folks-blat_, and now he was insulted by a review of mine in the first
volume of _Di Yidishe Folks-biblyotek_.  He used every section of his
_Folks-blat_ to mount his attacks.  Even in his "Political Section" he
would occasionally stop in the midst of discussing the politics of this
or that European diplomat, and suddenly, viciously and mercilessly
assail us and our political opinions.  Levy had plenty of help from
some minor writers who did their bit for his war.  He occasionally
inserted his own text into some other author's article, or even into a
story, heaping abuse upon his "opponents." This was a frequent ploy of
his.  No one dared to step out of line to offer their opinions.  Levy
was the big boss, and no one could afford be too scrupulous.  War is
war.  What an aggravation for Sholem Aleichem!  He longed to shed this
affliction, and wrote to me in frustration:

If you are real mentshn, men of the world, a group of you would get
together (needless to say, without Levi's a..-lickers) to send a joint
letter to Kantor.  Make it clear to Kantor that he is letting those
people besmirch his name.

Some time later, Sholem Aleichem, thinking it over, decided it would be
better to ignore the _Folks-blat_ and its peculiar publisher as though
they shavak khayim lekhol khay geven [had died] and had left this world.
He wrote me:  "The best punishment for that lunatic Levi is to say not a
word about him, not even half a word."  Volume Two of _Di Yidishe
Folks-biblyotek_ appeared and was received by the public at least as
enthusiastically as the first.  Sholem Aleichem immediately applied
himself vigorously, as was his way, to preparing a third.  But here
Solomon Rabinowitz [Sholem Rabinovits] blocked the path of Sholem
Aleichem.  While Sholem Aleichem the writer was enjoying success after
success, Solomon Rabinowitz the stock-trading businessman (who had
always harbored some traits of Menakhem-Mendl) suffered financial blow
after blow.  His life turned upside-down, he lost all his money, and
became a pauper.  Forced to abandon his writing and publishing plans, he
left Russia while his family moved from Kiev to Odessa.

Sholem Aleichem wandered a few months in foreign parts.  None of us
heard from him, and we had no idea where he was.  Unexpectedly, I
received a letter from somewhere, not Russia, dated November 10,
1890.(10) It began in Hebrew, then continued in Yiddish, as did his
first letters to me:

My friend Ravnitski,

Your friend Sholem Aleichem still lives, although his life is no life at
all.  If not for love of the one and only beloved of my heart on this
earth, my wife, and for the love of my daughters and only son, if not
for them, I would have long ago put an end to my life.  This life has
become disgusting!  Still, I shall go on living.  I am compelled to
live, as my punishment.

Then he switched to Yiddish:

O, believe me, it is now so hard for me to write a Yiddish word.  I am
beaten.  I feel butchered.  But I am not annihilated.  I feel in my soul
that the hearts of my best friends are no longer near but have moved
far, far from me.  They must wonder if they ought to still consider me a
friend.  Right now, I am entitled to nothing more.  From you I seek no
letter, no favors.  Take no pains on my account.  Just have a quiet
talk with Ben-Ami, two or three words.  He and I are now equally rich.
His fortune may be a little greater than mine.  I cannot write to him
myself; and to my own family, of course not.  You tell him to send my
family the few rubles that happen to be in his possession.  He knows
which rubles and how many.  Believe me, they will come in very handy
now.  They may support my family for half a year!  These few lines cost
me blood, and I hope you will remember how I have always been ready to
serve others.  Please do this with care, and I expect to hear soon that
a few more rubles have turned up.  As for me, I repeat, I live.  That's
all!  On one occasion, before I left, I recall sitting with the Zeyde
complaining about my health.  He said, "O, well, now you'll be all
right." Can you appreciate the depth of that insight?

Your old, old, Ahasuerus.(11)

A short time later [Spring, 1891], Sholem Aleichem returned from his
foreign travels, and rejoined his family in Odessa.  He became a close
neighbor of mine, and we spent some time together almost every day.


1. From the Yiddish in _Tsum Ondenk Fun Sholem-Aleykhem_ [In Memory of
Sholem Aleichem], ed.  Sh.  Niger & Y. Tsinberg, Petrograd:  Y.-L.
Perets Fund, 1917, pp. 43-56.

2. [Ravnitski's footnote] Here he [Sholem Aleichem] used _utshastiya_,
Russian for "special notice."  Early on, Russian words would
occasionally slip into his writing.  In time, he avoided that.  A few
years later, he lectured me in a letter:  What's that all about?  Using
Russian to write, 'Talk over!'  Have you already forgotten the zeyde's
instruction, that in Zhargon there should be no trace or reminder of the
language of _fonye_ [a pejorative term for a Russian]?

3. Later entitled "Taybele."

4. Ravnitski's pseudonym for his reviews in _Di Yudishe
Folks-bibliotek_.  _Kotzin_ means big shot or officer.

5. A contemporary Yiddish poet.

6. A Jewish writer of volatile temperament.

7. The original is numbered 8, apparently a typographical error.

8. A popular writer of Yiddish potboilers whom Sholem-Aleichem attacked
savagely and not altogether justly.

9. Mendele Moykher Sforim.

10. I rely here on a version of the letter more complete than that given
by Ravnitski.  This is a translation from the memoirs of I.D. Berkowitz
[Y.-D.  Berkovits]: _Undzere Rishoynim_, Tel Aviv:  Hamenorah, 1966,
Volume 5, page 30.

11.  Y.-.D.  Berkovits in _Undzere Rishoynim_, Tel Aviv:  Hamenorah,
1966, Volume 5, p. 31, explains that Ravnitski did not know why Sholem
Aleichem signed this letter "Ahasuerus."  Berkovits suggests it refers
to an elaborate banquet once given by Sholem Aleichem for Jewish writers
of Odessa when he still had his money.  Presumably the allusion is to
the extravagant banquets given by King Ahasuerus (Book of Esther).

Date:  27 October 2000
From: (ed.) 
Subject: "der reyekh fun a yidn" and other olifactory matters touched
on in the last issue of TMR with comments by David Assaf

David Assaf was kind enough to comment on the expression "der reyekh fun
a yidn" and related matters.  David Assaf is the translator and editor
of Volume One of Kotik's memoirs in Hebrew.  (See _The Mendel Review_
vol. 3. no. 7 [14 April 1999]).  Assaf's edition is richly annotated --
its three thorough indices (of persons, places and subjects) make it a
useful reference source for the many subjects discussed by Kotik.  An
English edition is soon to be published.

Assaf writes as follows on our problematic expression, "the smell of a
Jew":  "I am sure that in the phrase 'reyekh fun a yidn' (note, in the
original:  _yidn_, not _yid_) Kotik means the smell of typical Jewish
cooking, and not the typical smell of the Jewish body, a term which only
anti-semites -- or extremist critics of the shtetl -- would use.  Kotik
was neither."

I was puzzled by the expression, "reyekh fun a yidn," and would be happy
to accept Assaf's explanation.  But I have never encountered the
metonymic equation Jew = Jewish cooking.  A single citation at the least
would be reassuring.  Moreover, I wonder if "Jewish cooking" in eastern
Europe a century ago smelled so differently from that of co-territorial
non-Jewish cooking.  Jewish cooking was certainly subtly different
because of kashrut -- especially the non-use of pork and blood, the
extensive use of dairy dishes, holiday associations, local traditions,
etc.  But was the "smell" of this food utterly distinctive?  In the
matter, for instance, of onions and garlic, their use was general.

That one would have to be an antisemite to use the expression in
question is contestable.  Marcus Aurelius criticized Jews for
the smell they gave off as a result of eating garlic -- Jews in Roman
times were conspicuously self-identified as garlic-eaters --, was he
necessarily being anti-semitic?  After all, halitosis was even a cause
for divorce in Jewish law (Ket. 75a) and women chewed ginger, cinnamon,
and other substances to sweeten their breath (Shab. 65a).  Moreover,
what is plain bigotry when spoken by an outsider can be mere playfulness
when uttered within a group.

Regarding the Rebbe of Lakhovitsh's saying, Assaf points out that "Kotik
wrote:  'az es iz faran a bazunder eyver [alef, bet, reysh] ba a idn,
vos hot nor hano'e fun tsibele um shabbes' [p. 16].  Now, _eyver_ means
'penis', but this is not just a dirty joke!  According to the sages,
Ezra ha-Sofer made this rule of eating GARLIC on Fridays to improve
sperm count (the Talmud recommends that scholars have intercourse on
Friday night).  So, Kotik has probably confused the onion with garlic,
and made this mistake, or maybe he understood Hebrew _shum_ to mean
'onion'?"  Assaf has a strong case regarding confusion of onion and
garlic, since the onion's aphrodisiacal qualities were said to be second
only to those of garlic.  Also, the onion and garlic belong to the same
genus Allium.

Chapter Two of Volume Two of Kotik's memoirs in the Yiddish original is
archived in both romanized and Yiddish-letter form.  Yiddish-letter text
at:  http://www2.trincoll.edu/~mendele/tmr/kotik1.pdf.  Romanized Yiddish text
of Vol. 2, Chapter 1 at: http://www2.trincoll.edu/~mendele/tmr/tmr04002.htm. For an
indeterminate period, a draft of Lucas Bruyn's translation of the entire
second volume of Kotik's memoirs can be viewed at:
End of _The Mendele Review_ 04.015

Leonard Prager, editor

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