A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”

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In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?

On the other hand, one of the most celebrated images of trains in the early 20th century can be found in Buster Keaton’s film The Goat (1921) where he escapes the police by way of unhitching a train and drifting away.

The train can be the schlemiel’s best friend. Ten years before Buster Keaton put out his film, Sholem Aleichem put out the Railroad Stories (1911). In his story, “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah,” the main character, a schlemiel named Berl Vinegar – much like Buster Keaton – averts a disaster by way of a train. But he doesn’t do so by way of his will so much as by virtue of…chance.

Sholem Aleichem prefaces this story with a chapter entitled “The Slowpoke Express.”   This train, Aleichem tells us, is built for the type of speed that Eastern European Jews (before the Holocaust) or rather schlemiels like to travel into modernity – slowly.

Would you like to know what the best train of all is? The best, the quietist, the most restful?

It’s the Slowpoke Express. (Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad Stories, 184)

Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Sendrl, the train doesn’t often reach its destination and is never on time. It’s a schlemiel-train:

The Slowpoke Express is no ordinary train. In the first place, you needn’t ever worry about missing it: whenever you arrive at the station, its still there….I’ve been riding the Slowpoke Express for several weeks now, and I’m still practically in the same place. I tell you, it’s magic! Don’t think I’m complaining, either. (184)

Regarding this train, the Jews in the town (the Bohopolians, Aleichem calls them) feel that the train is so much better than other trains because “there’s no danger of the accidents that occur on other lines. The slower the safer, they say”(185).

Playing on this claim, Aleichem, the narrator, makes his own. Namely, that he has it, “on good faith,” that “the Slowpoke was indeed involved in an accident, a veritable catastrophe that sowed panic up and down the line and set the who district by the ears.   The incident was caused by a Jew and – of all people – a Russian priest”(186).

Aleichem tells us that the “great train accident” happened on Hoshana Rabbah.   The holiday marks the end of a span of time in which the Jewish people can plea for a good new year (which spans Rosh Ha’shanna – the Jewish New Year – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – and Sukkoth – the festival of the tabernacles). On Hoshanna Rabba one puts in one’s final kvitel (a final, personal note to God for mercy and a good year).

Aleichem tells us that after praying at synagogue and putting in his kvitel, “a Jew” went to stand by an “unchained locomotive.” He was simply curious and wanted to see if anyone would go to the Slowpoke Express that morning. But, what, the narrator wonders, does he expect to see?

Just what does he hope to see that’s so exciting – another Jew like himself from Teplik? Or a Jewess from Obodivke? Or a priest from Golovonyevsk? Jewish pleasures! But it was the custom to go, and go this Jew did. And in those days, don’t you know. The railroad was new; we weren’t used to the Slowpoke yet and were were still curious about it. (188)

At the station, the Jew runs into a “Russian priest from Golonovnyevsk.”   The priest insults the Jew by calling him “Yudko” and asking him what he’s looking at. The Jew “retorts angrily” and tells him that his name is Yudko, its Berko (a nickname).

This comical exchange leads to the topic of how a train works. Since “Berko” is a schlemiel of the luftmensch variety (he makes a sells vinegar but has no formal education) he acts “as if” he knows how the train works (because, after all, he knows how to make vinegar).   The priest insults Berko again and says that he doesn’t know anything about the train. He forgets the Jews name again, but Berko reminds him and this prompts him to be more bold in his assertion of knowledge.

Berko then proceeds to get on to the train with the priest and show him that he knows what he’s talking about.   After tinkering with a few switches, the train starts moving. The schlemiel, excited, thinks he has pulled one over on the Priest. Meanwhile, the onlookers are astonished that the Slowpoke Express is actually moving:

I hardly need to tell you what pandemonium broke out among the passengers in Sobolivke station when they saw the uncoupled locomotive mysteriously take off on its own. (189)

The whole won panics. Meanwhile, the Priest and Berko (“Berl Vinegar”) realize that Berko doesn’t know how to operate the train and can’t stop it from hurtling itself to disaster.

To bring out the difference between perspectives as a topic in the story, Aleichem notes how the people imagine the worst and make up stories about its disaster or what was going on inside of it…while it was still traveling along the tracks!

That’s when the real shindig started. What could be the meaning of it? A Jew and a priest in a runaway locomotive? Where were they running away to? And why? And who could the Jew be? (191)

When they learn that it is Berl in the train, they take the schlemiel for a shlimazel and see a tragic rather than a comic ending. However, what happens flips their tragic expectations on its head.

As they near their impending death, an argument between the Priest and Berl over death and judgment.   Berl has the last word by arguing that on Hohsana Rabbah he accepts whatever God decides.   He prays for the best to happen but…it may not happen if God so decides.

After saying this, a miracle happens: the train runs out of steam.

Berl takes this miracle as a lesson about man: “If he doesn’t get anything to eat…” he “runs out of steam and kaput”(194).   But that seems to be the wrong lesson. If the train didn’t run out of steam the schlemiel and the priest would be dead.   His insight may be off, but it shows us what matters.

The schlemiel’s happiness is contingent on chance; and more often than not, he averts disaster and gets lucky.   And like many a schlemiel, Berl got himself into this mess by thinking that he knew better.   Even so, since he is a good, simple soul, who lives a life based on chance, he survived.     But the real issue is the outcome. The people expected a disaster and the priest looked down on the Jew and his lack of intelligence. In the end, goodness and not negativity and tragedy win.

On this note, Aleichem tricked his reader by announcing – at the outset of the story – that there was a train disaster. He lied because he knows that people are more naturally interested in tragedy than comedy.   The point, for Aleichem, is not to increase our natural cynicism but to challenge it. That way, we can experience the wonder of possibility.   In any situation, something good can always happen and that, in a world full of tragedy (remember Aleichem was writing when the Pogroms were in full swing and Jews were fleeing Eastern Europe for America and other destinations), its harder to entertain this possibility since its not the way of things. Nonetheless, that’s were salvation (hoshana) comes in.   For Aleichem, it’s “Jewish” to believe that good things can happen…despite the fact that reality – like a predator – looks back at you with contempt.

Lest we not forget, all of this happens on a train, on the Slow Poke express.  The irony is that schlemiel – and not a well-trained conductor – gets the train going.  Perhaps that’s what Aleichem dreamed of…a schlemiel at the head of the train. But that dream, it seems, can only come true in fiction….unless we are schlemiels like Berl. If so, perhaps we also get lucky because…the train is speeding fast into the future and it doesn’t seem like it will lose steam. A schlemiel can’t stop the train.   Perhaps, nothing short of a miracle can save us from crashing.  But why imagine the worst? That’s too easy.

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