“The Esrog” - A Short Story
by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Curt Levian from The Yiddish - 1910?
You may read today’s story here.
1859 Born in The Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire
1916 Dies in New York City, then part of The U.S.A. His funeral is attended by 250,000
To most people, certainly me a few years ago, Yiddish writers were divided into two categories, Sholom Aleichem and a bunch of authors I have never heard about that I would never have read were it not for Yale University Press giving me a full set of The Yale Yiddish Library. These nine volumes, introduced by top authorities in Yiddish Studies, include some of the great classics.
Among the works were two totally marvelous novels by Sholom Aleichem. All of the works were pre-Holocaust, written in Eastern Europe and Russia. All were by men. As Yiddish speakers left Europe, mostly to NYC then Toronto and Montréal women writers like Blume Lempel and Chava Rosenfarb began publishing in Yiddish. I have talked a bit about the history of Yiddish Literature (running from around 1875 to maybe 2004 with the passing of the last of the emigrated writers) in prior posts. My perception is most seriously into Yiddish Literature, a huge treasure trove of Short Stories, are “heritage readers” seeking ties with the world of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. Behind it is also a powerful message to those who would destroy Jewish Culture, you lose, we win. I read in this area because it is an incredibly wonderful literature. The stories range from heart breaking to funnier than a Mel Brooks movie. Yiddish scholarship has very strong support and thanks to the internet, and maybe especially The Yiddish Book Center, interest is rapidly growing. YouTube has lots of good videos and readings of stories.
Anyway Sholom Aleichem is by far now most known Yiddish writer. He is most famous from the movie Fiddler on the Roof based on his Tevye Cycle, centering on a Russian dairyman and his relationship with his daughters.
In order to appreciate this story you need to understand the import of the Esrog (sometimes translated as “Ettog” i. Ashkenazi tradition .
“Etrog (Hebrew: אֶתְרוֹג, plural: etrogim; Ashkenazi Hebrew: esrog, plural: esrogim) is the yellow citron or Citrus medica used by Jews during the week-long holiday of Sukkot as one of the four species. Together with the lulav, hadass, and aravah, the etrog is taken in hand and held or waved during specific portions of the holiday prayers. Special care is often given to selecting an etrog for the performance of the Sukkot holiday rituals.” - from Wikepedia
Here are opening line, showing Sholem Aleichem skill at quickly creating character through dialogue:
“ This year we’re going to buy an esrog,” my father declared, and I imagined my father coming to shul, like a respectable householder with his own esrog and lulav and not using the congregation’s as did other poor people in town.
When I heard this news, I could no longer restrain myself and told everyone in kheyder that this Sukkos we would have our very own esrog. But no one believed me.
“Look who’s getting his own esrog!” some of my pals snickered. “That pauper is going to buy himself his own esrog! He probably thinks it’s a cheap lemon!” “
You can feel the excitement in the family when the proud father shows his family the esrog:
“Well, Father did buy one and his hands quivered with joy as he held it. He called Mama and smilingly pointed to it, as though it were an expensive necklace.
Mama approached silently and slowly stretched her hand to take hold of the esrog, whose heavenly fragrance spread to every corner of the room.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Look, but don’t touch. But if you want to sniff it, you may.”
But I wasn’t even offered that much. I wasn’t even allowed to get too close to it. Not even to have a peek at it. For it was too risky.
“Uh-oh! Look, who’s here,” said Mama. “If you let him come close he’ll bite off the stem.”
“God forbid,” said Father, wary of the evil eye.”
The father puts it in a cabinet and tells his son do not touch the sacred fruit. Of course he cannot resist the temptation.
I will leave the rest of this marvelous story for you to discover