Here (in America) Purim Comes Every Day: Sholem Aleichem’s Insider Joke

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Motl the Cantor’s Son is Sholem Aleichem’s last novel.  Though unfinished,it  is substantial. It tells the story of Motl – the orphan of a Cantor who died back in Europe (in fact, on the same day as the Baal Shem Tov was said to have tied – the second day of Shavuot) – and his family’s journey to America.   Motl is the child narrator and, as Sidrah DeKoven-Ezrahi argues, he is a schlemiel.  While his perspective is steeped in the religious life of Eastern Europe, he thinks constantly of moving to America.  And once he goes on the journey he can’t stop imagining what it will be like.  His imagination is comical.  Nearly every thought he gives over has a punch line.  His wild imaginings of America are full of punch lines:

I don’t care what I become in America – just let me get there.  (I’m so eager to get there!) I promise myself that in America I’ll learn how to do three things – swim, write, and smoke cigars.  I can do all those things right now, but not as well as they can in America.  I know I could be an expert swimmer, but at home we had nowhere to swim.  In our pond it was impossible…In America, they say, there’s an ocean. There, if you lie down in the water on a tube, the water will cary you as far as the eye can see. (249)

What makes Motl’s account so interesting is that, through him, Sholem Aleichem suggests that this text – Motl’s story – is more like an image, a drawing, than a text.  Since he draws (writes) in a slow manner, he is able to show us things about America and his journey that we, American readers,  may miss because we are, as Motl imagines, always in a hurry.  For this reason, his writing becomes image (it is itself and other than itself, as the thinker and literary critics Maurice Blanchot would say):

I can write too, though no one has taught me.  I copy the letters from the prayer book. The letters I copy are hard to recognize.  I don’t really write – I draw.  I’d love to write fast, but I don’t know how.  In America, they say, they wrote fast.  Everything is done quickly, in a hurry.  Americans have no time.  (249)

When Motl arrives in America with his family, they are all in a hurry to catch up with Americans and make a living.  Motl is not melancholic about how his imaginings don’t totally match with reality.  He is excited.

But what happens to Motl’s Jewishness when he comes to America?  How does he draw out the new state of affairs?

In one scene, the Jewish holiday of Purim comes up indirectly, by way of a description of his friend Hershl.  One of the most brilliant aspects of this passage is that it outlines the doubleness of being a Jew in America.  It provides the Jewish reader with an “insider joke” since only a Jew would know what these names, which emerge out of the Jewish tradition and Jewish life, mean.  (Vashti is the name of a character in the Purim story and Hershl is a Yiddish name; and calling Hershl, a male, by the name, Vashti, there is yet another doubleness.)   As the Motl “drawing” shows us, Americans don’t know these names and practices; but “we” do:

Even my friend Hershl earns money, the one with the birthmark on his forehead who we call Vashti.  Here he isn’t called Hershl or Vashti but Harry, and he’s going to school.  The outer half of each day after school he spend at a pushcart on Rivington Street….There isn’t much work for Vashti, or Harry to do.  He just has to keep an eye on people to see they don’t filch anything …But he himself will sample the sweets.  Vast has no secrets from me.  He admitted that he once snacked on so many raisins, he had a bellyache for three days afterward.  He doesn’t get paid for his work aside from tips, a cent or two…At home (in Eastern Europe) Vashti never laid eyes on a kopek even in his dreams, except for distributing chalk-mones, Purim sweets.  (318)

The punch line involves the difference between Purim in the “old country” and Purim in America: “But Purim comes only once a year.  Here Purim comes every day, and every day he earns money”(318).

In America Purim – as it has in Jewish tradition – has a new meaning which has little to do with the old one save for the sweets that one used to get, once a year, when exchanging presents.  Aleichem is telling his readers that in America, Jewish time and space are altered. Names are forgotten. And all jokes that he shares with his readers are insider jokes since, after all, he knew that the Judaism of Eastern Europe would not find a strong anchor in America.

After saying that every day in America is Purim, we hear the voice of Motl’s friend Pinni who praises Columbus – not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob…or God: “Columbus! You are worth your weight in gold!” In the wake of his celebratory exclamation honoring Columbus, he buys candy from “Vashti”and gives him a “tip”(318).  In America, the wealth is spread widely.  Even so, the reader is left with a Purim Shpiel (play) of sorts.   After all, we know that Vashti gets a tip, while, to everyone else, Harry does.  Sweetness and forgetfulness go hand-in-hand.   As Paul Celan says in one poem about forgetfulness it was “all sweetness and light.” But, at the very least, a reader, with some knowledge of Judaism, can remember that Harry is really Hershl and Hershl, he’s Vashti.  Motl, in this story, remembers.  But he was the last remnant of a generation that was, as we all know, to perish during the Holocaust.

Happy Purim!

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