Lately I’ve been working my way through Selected Stories by Sholom Aleichem, whom I’ve never read before but am greatly enjoying. In his story “You Musn’t Weep – It’s Yom-Tev”, a young boy struggles to maintain the innocence of childhood while his father is slowly dying from an unnamed disease (probably pneumonia) and his mother and older brother desperately strive to keep the impoverished household together. In this vivid domestic scene, the father’s holy books are sold off to (I think) a peddler.
The books were sold to Michal, the baggage-man, a man with a thin beard which he was constantly scratching. My poor brot her had to go with him three times before he brought him to the house. My mother, relieved and happy to see him at last, put her finger across her lips to show him that he must speak softly so my father shouldn’t hear. Michal understood, raised his eyes to the shelf, scratched his beard and said to her, “Well, show us, what have you got up there.”
My mother beckoned me to climb up on the table and take down the books. I didn’t have to be told twice. I jumped up so eagerly that I sprawled over the table and my brother, snapping at me to stop jumping like a crazy fool, pushed me aside. He climbed up on the table himself and handed the books down to Michal who scratched his beard with one hand, while with the other he leafed through the books and found fault with each one. This one had a poor binding, that one had a worn back, another was simply worthless. And after he had looked through half of them, examined all the bindings, felt all the backs, he scratched his beard again:
“If it was a complete set of Mishnayos, I might consider buying it…”
My mother turned pale, and my brother on the contrary became red as fire. He leaped angrily at the baggage-man, “Why didn’t you tell us in the beginning that all you wanted to buy Mishnayos? What did you have to come here and take up our time for?”
“Be quiet!” my mother begged him, and a hoarse voice was heard from the next room where my father lay.
“Who is there?”
“Nobody,” my mother said and pushing my brother Elihu into my father’s room, began to bargin with Michal herself and finally sold him the books, apparently for very little, because when my brother came back again and asked her how much, she pushed him aside, saying, “It’s none of your business.” And Michal snatched up the books quickly, shoved them into his bag and disappeared.
The story is simply heartbreaking, yet in a quiet and understated way which never resorts to melodrama. As his family crumbles, the boy poignantly hides behind childish facades (playing with the neighbor’s calf, pretending that a pile of logs is a palace and himself a prince) to avoid harsh reality. Even his closing admonition to his mother – that she shouldn’t weep over her dead husband, because one must be joyous during yom-tev (a religious holiday; here, specifically Shevuos or Pentecost) – is itself a form of denial. The story is really a standout of this collection, and is much more serious and powerful than Aleichem’s generally lighter and humorous tales, which are also greatly rewarding in their own way. Highly recommended.