The Day of Judgment: Reflections on Sholem Aleichem’s “A Yom Kippur Scandal”

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On Erev Yom Kippur (the Eve of Yom Kippur), it makes sense – at least for me – to ask how Sholem Aleichem, perhaps the most well-known and celebrated of all writers on the schlemiel – approaches Yom Kippur by way of fiction.  With this in mind, I thought of one piece that has Yom Kippur in its title, a piece which the literary critic Irving Howe believed illustrated the darker side of Aleichem’s work: “A Yom Kippur Scandal.”

Aleichem’s story begins with a “man with round eyes, like an ox” who, “sitting in a corner” of a synagogue, “overhears stories about thefts.”  In response to hearing them, he screams out “That’s nothing!”

He has a story that will top their stories, one which will astonish them.

The storyteller begins by pointing out that in Kasrilevka (Aleichem’s Chelm – his imaginary town where schlemiels come and go) there is no thievery. And that is because, quite simply, no one has any money.  But, in truth, he says, a “Jew is not a thief by nature.”  Jews don’t break into houses brandishing knives or guns.  If they steal, and they don’t often do so, they do in an indirect, clandestine manner: “He will divert, pervert, and subvert and contravert as a matter of course; but he won’t pull anything out of your pocket.”  (This, of course, plays on the difference, stated in the Talmud and familiar to Jews of Aleichem’s time, between the Ganev (thief who steals openly) and the Gozlan (the thief who steals indirectly).

However, he tells us, he witnessed one case that was unusual; and that case happened on Yom Kippur.  He tells us that a wealthy man came from out of town and, upon coming to the synagogue, he generously gave charity to the poor in the synagogue.  Following this, the community makes room for the charitable guest at the front of the synagogue for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

The guest takes his seat, prays deeply, “standing on his feet all day,” and, right after the final shofar blasts of Yom Kippur, he screams out that his money has been stolen:

Help! Help! Help!

He looses consciousness and falls on the floor.  When he comes to, he tells the congregants that a large sum of money had been stolen from him while he was praying.  First of all, in traditional Judaism, it is well-known that on Yom Kippur (the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths”) one doesn’t carry money.  And this man, who appeared very pious, was violating this prohibition on the very day one would be careful not to carry money.  Nonetheless, this is not addressed.  Rather, the theft is.

The man tells us that the stolen money wasn’t even his own.  He was a clerk, a poor man with a lot of children.  He couldn’t face them know and he openly ponders ending his life.  In response, the “crowd stood petrified.”  And the Rabbi, observing the scene, orders the doors to be locked.

Following this, he addresses what just happened and communicates his awe as to how, on a day like Yom Kippur, someone could stoop so low as to steal (and in a synagogue)!

I cannot believe it is possible.  It simply cannot be.  But perhaps – who knows?  Man is greedy, and the temptation – especially with a sum like this… is great enough.  So if one of us was tempted, if he were fated to commit this evil on a day like this, we must probe the matter thoroughly, strike at the root of this whole affair.

He orders everyone to empty their pockets.

Everyone does so except for a gentleman named Lazer Yossel, “who turned all colors and began to argue that, in the first place, the stranger was a swindler…No one had stolen any money from him. Couldn’t they all see that it was all a falsehood and a lie?”  At this point, the “man with round eyes” (the story teller) tells us that the congregation, upon hearing this, became very suspicious of Lazer.  The crowd orders that he be searched.

Lazer pleas desperately with them:  “He begged them not to search him.  He swore by all that was holy that he was innocent.”  After saying this, storyteller notes how he was a young and learned man (he even calls him “our prodigy”) but, in lieu of the story, he notes that, nonetheless, there was reason to be suspicious of him.  To be sure, the reasons he brings up are odd (they aren’t really reasons so much as rumors) and they show how, in a given situation, one can dig up anything to make a good man look evil.

The man is thrown on the ground by the crowd and searched.  But what they find is not what they expected: instead of finding money, they find “a couple of well-gnawed chicken bones and a few dozen plum pits still moist from chewing.”

The story ends in shame and disillusion.  And the money, the “man with the round eyes of an ox” says, was never found.  The last words of the story say that it was “gone forever.”   But before saying these words, we learn that the narrator turns to the widow “unconcerned” and “resumed smoking.”   He is indifferent.

Reflecting on this story, I think that Irving Howe, to some extant, is right: this story exposes us to something dark about Jewishness.  But what is it?

What struck me most is the presence in this story of judgment and the fact that it all happens on the day of judgment.  What Aleichem wants us to consider is how we judge each other and how we are judged. To be sure, the storyteller wants us to understand how we look at people and judge them based on who we think they are.  Moreover, he shows how, given this or that rumor, our judgment of them may always turn sour.  We saw this with the scholar, and, as readers, we thought that his words incriminated him.

But what we thought he was guilty of was incorrect.  Yes, he was guilty, but we had no idea he would be guilty of eating on Yom Kippur instead of fasting.  Regardless, we are astonished and, by the end of the story, the difference between appearance and reality is put into the foreground.  We are left with a sense that those who we think are pious may not be and that, at the same time, we are also guilty of falsely judging them.  In this story, everyone is guilty of something.  And, of all days to see this, it is on Yom Kippur.  It seems as if everyone is keeping it, but concealed in their pockets are things that are forbidden on that day: such as money (which may or may not have been stolen) and food (which was eaten).

And perhaps that is the point.  We all seem to be hiding things and the veneer of holiness may only serve to conceal sin.  This thought is very cynical,  And the last words of the story “gone forever” seem to amplify this cynicism.  They seem to hint at something, besides money, which is “gone forever.”  Given the cynical tone of the story, what seems to be gone forever is not the money but true piousness and trust.   And this, I believe, is what bothers critics like Irving Howe.

But is honesty really gone forever?

This, I think, is the question or rather the challenge that Aleichem wants to leave us with.  The last words – and the story – can be a judgment upon humankind, that is, if we let it be.   On Yom Kippur, the tradition is that one wears a white kittle (garment) the reason being that, on Yom Kippur man aspires to be close to the angels.  I just want to underscore the word “aspires.”  If it is to be honest, the cynicism in this piece brings out what is at stake and helps us to realize how easy it is to falsely judge the other and, at the same time, how what we take for good may not be.  Nonetheless, the possibility of goodness doesn’t thereby disappear; rather, it is complicated.

And this is where the schlemiel comes in.  As Aleichem knew, the schlemiel was often subject to the negative judgment of the community for no other reason than that he is good or hopeful in a time that lacks hope or goodness.  Nonetheless, he exists.  And he exists in the face of the crowd which, more often than not, lives on rumors and lies.   But as “A Yom Kippur Scandal” suggests even the most pious may be hiding something from sight.

These pious people, in this story, were.  But they aren’t schlemiels.  And even if a schlemiel, like everyone else stands in judgment on Yom Kippur, we need to ask whether or not he is hiding anything.  Doesn’t he wear everything on his face?

Regardless, as we know from the stories I have discussed on this blog, no one – not even the schlemiel – escapes judgment (even if he is hiding nothing).

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