And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight

 

 

And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight

(Excerpt of a Novella)

By S.Y. Agnon 

Translated from Hebrew by Michael P. Kramer

 

 

Not so many years ago, there lived in the town of Buczacz (may His city be rebuilt, amen) a fine and upright Jew by the name of Menashe Chaim Ha'Cohen, a native of the holy community of Jazlowiec. While he would not have been counted among the world's rich and mighty nor have found his place among the nation's nobles, still the income he earned from his grocery store was ample rather than meager. He lived with his wife Kreindel Cherne, with whom God had graced him in his youth, and together with his wife he ate bread to the full and pursued righteousness and mercy all his days. He truly embodied the maxim of the Sages of blessed memory, “Who is he that does righteousness at all times? He who supports his wife and children.” At least in part, for the man was childless. And because they had no children, she, his helpmeet, put all her efforts into running the business. She presided over everything that had to do with the store, as was customary among the scattered communities of Israel in those days.
 
Ordinarily, such a man could have expected to dwell with his wife in peace and tranquility, to spend his days comfortably enjoying the good of the land, and when his appointed time should come, after a hundred and twenty years, to behold the graciousness of God. Alas, when it pleases the Lord to subvert a man's ways, good fortune swiftly takes wing, and the Omnipresent has many emissaries to fling a man down upon the dunghill of need. While they sat safe and sound in their home, fearing no evil, offering praise and thanks to the blessed Lord for their shop and its serenity, fortune's fury sprang upon them. Their shop caught the eye of one of the town's prominent storeowners and, seeing how goodly their portion was, he came to covet it. Having close ties to the authorities, he went to the court of the town's overlord, offered him significantly more rent than they were paying, and the store almost fell into his hands. For in those days, the government of His Majesty Kaiser Franz Josef had outlawed the use of rabbinic excommunication. High-handed Jews could now shamelessly disregard their people's covenant and flagrantly tread upon the established claims of others. Who could prevent them? Had Menashe Chaim's wife Kreindel Cherne herself not added several gulden to the rent, who knows if they would even have finished out the year there. Alas, from then on it seems as if the Evil Eye (may the Merciful One protect us) oversaw everything they did, and their business declined dramatically. Neither did their competitor stand by idly, hands in his pockets. He tried his hand at various schemes aimed at hurting their business and depriving them of their livelihood. He lowered the price of his goods. He maligned their shop. When Menashe Chaim brought in a new machine to grind cinnamon, peppercorns, and coffee beans, hoping thereby to help themselves out a bit, rumors spread that an evil demon was turning the grindstone, that satyrs were dancing upon it, and other such calumnies that are best left unprinted. In short, when the day came to pay the town's overlord the requisite rent for the shop, they had not a penny with which to pay, let alone the extra gulden they had added on to the rent, as explained above. And then there were the secret gifts to his deputies and lackeys and to the court go-betweens and to anyone with a mouth who could advocate on their behalf. Taxes and duties consumed the rest of their efforts. As it was the custom in the province to levy taxes upon shopkeepers adjusted to the amount of rent they paid, and being that the shop now cost them more, then of course the taxes for the government's coffers, for municipal upkeep, and for paving roads were also raised by several zakukim. They could not restock, and more and more of their shelves stood empty until, as the Talmud says, the breach in the wall was greater than what remained standing. But lo, the Lord’s mercy is not consumed and His compassion fails not. Such is the way of Divine Providence (may He be blessed) to dilute the bitterness of the bad by mixing it with some good. So even in these times of trouble Menashe Chaim and his wife did not despair, and their faith in God remained strong. Soon He would rescue them from the grip of misfortune.
 
Indeed, nothing stands in the way of faith. It is related in Kehal Hasidim that the Baal Shem Tov (may his merit shield us) received a divine command to journey to a certain village to observe the quality of faith so that he, in turn, could teach an invaluable lesson to the people who needed to learn. When the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples arrived at the village, they lodged with the tavern-keeper there. This tavern-keeper was a dignified old man who welcomed them warmly, prepared a great feast for them, and greatly rejoiced that such distinguished guests were staying with him. At daybreak the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples rose for prayers, and lo, a Cossack, an officer of the nobleman who ruled the village, entered with a corded whip in his hand, struck the table with the whip three times, and then left. None of the tavern staff said a word to him. The guests were baffled. They had no idea what these strikes might mean. They turned to the host and lo, he was as cheerful as before. As far as they could see, he had not even reacted. Then, just as they completed their prayers, they noticed that the Cossack had returned. Once again he struck the table with his whip three times. This time as well, not one of tavern staff said aught to him. The men looked at each other in bewilderment. So the Baal Shem Tov asked their host why the Gentile had struck the table thus. The host answered, "It’s a signal to me that today I must pay the rent for the tavern to the lord of the village." He would do this three times and after the third time, if the bundle of money was not ready, then the nobleman would take the tavern-keeper and all his family and throw them in the dungeon. "From the look on your face it appears that you have the money," said the Baal Shem Tov. "So hurry then, take the money, go to the nobelman yet before dinner, and we will wait till you safely return to us." But the host responded, "As of now I have not even one penny, but surely the blessed Lord will provide for me. Let us eat and drink and not hurry, for we have yet three hours till the time arrives. Surely the blessed Lord will provide for me." So they all sat down to dine, and they took their time, and you could not tell by the host's face whether or not he needed the money. The men looked at one another in bewilderment. It was truly wondrous to see. When they finished eating, the Cossack came a third time and struck the table thrice with his whip. The host neither stood nor stirred in his seat. After they ate and properly said grace, all unrushed and even-paced, the host dressed in his Sabbath clothes, girded himself with his wide sash and said, "Now I will go to the court and bring the rent to the nobleman. I will not tarry, so sit here and I will return apace." The Baal Shem Tov asked him again, "Do you have the money you need?" He answered, "As yet I do not have even one penny, but the blessed Lord will soon send his aid." And he left. The Baal Shem Tov stood in the entryway with his disciples to watch as he went on his way. As they watched him walk briskly toward the court, a wagon veered from its path to meet him. They saw that he stood beside the wagon, spoke with the passenger, and then left, taking naught from his hand. The wagon then slowly continued on its way toward the tavern. But before it arrived there, it stopped. The host was called back, and he was given some money. When the wagon arrived at the tavern, they asked the new arrival, "What went on with you and the tavern-keeper? Why did you call him back and give him money?" He explained, "I ordered whisky from him to be delivered next winter (may it be well for us), but at first we could not meet in the valley of Shaveh, as it were, and agree on a price. But when I saw that he insisted on his price and would not haggle with me, and because I know him to be an honest man, I gave him the amount he wanted. We did not speak much more than that, as he said he was on his way to the nobleman with the rent for the tavern." Then said the Baal Shem Tov, "Today you have seen the extraordinary power of faith. It's needless to worry. For the blessed Lord will help us in our hour of need, if only we truly trust in Him, may He be blessed."
 
Dear reader, please don't be angry with me for abandoning Menashe Chaim and his wife to their sighing while telling of the triumph of the tavern-keeper. As God is my witness, my purpose was solely to suggest that maase avos simon le'vonim - that what happened to God’s servants in earlier times may very well happen in latter days as well. The rewards of faith are great indeed, and happy are they that wait for Him. So I've presented the tale of the tavern here to teach a lesson, that even when a sharp sword is placed across one’s throat, a man should not lose faith. But let’s return to our story.
 
Still bewildered, wondering whence their help would come, Menashe Chaim and his wife lifted up their eyes to behold a large wagon hitched to three horses pull up at the door of their shop. A peasant got off the wagon. Trembling, they went to greet him and find out what he was doing there. But he was as a dumb man that opens not his mouth. Without saying a word, he rummaged through a pile of straw, probing its depths as God probes a man’s deepest and darkest secrets, took out a trough, and filled it with feed for his horses. When he was done, he turned his attention to the wheels. Then he opened his wide belt, removed his whip, spit this way and that, entered their shop, and asked whether he would be able to obtain various sorts of goods there. Kreindel Cherne and her husband received him cheerfully. "Where would you be able to get such goods if not here?" they answered in unison. Instantly the two of them sprang up, he here and she there, and showed him all sorts of things, whether he wanted them or not, and quoted him their prices. But even though the prices were fair and the measures just, the customer complained and haggled about the transaction for several hours. Since he was paying cash and could obtain all the merchandise from the supplier at cost, he argued, why should he waste his money? They saw he meant what he said. What would they do if the churl did what he said and went elsewhere? Are there no other shopkeepers in Buczacz; is there no other merchant there? They really needed his money, like the dead need the dew of rebirth. What difference would it make if they sold their merchandise for no profit, just this once for no profit, if as a result they would have the wherewithal to keep the shop for another year? Still, as merchants will, they put him off at first, trying to cajole and entice him in various ways, pleading that they could not possibly sell their merchandise below cost. But the uncircumcised fellow remained unmoved by their pleas. He took his whip from his left hand and put it in his right, turned his back on them, and walked out. They quickly ushered him back in, took his hand and patted it, partly as a show of affection and partly as an act of supplication, appealing to him in the name of God to add a bit to his offer. But in the end they closed the deal on his terms. The uncircumcised one undid his money pouch, bought all the goods he wanted, and went calmly on his way. Kreindel Cherne and her husband got up to recount the money they'd received, and they were overjoyed to see that they had in their hands almost enough to pay the overlord the shop’s rental fees for that year. They figured they would obtain the money they still lacked either through the gemilus chesed free loan society or, if need be, by borrowing on interest, which is what they did. That very day, between the mincha and maariv prayers, Kreindel Cherne dressed in her malbush yofe, wrapped her head in her silk Sabbath kerchief, put on her jewelry, went up to the court of the overlord, presented him with the money, and happy yet faint at heart, she renewed the contract for the year to come on this year’s terms. Taking a breath she returned to her shop where her husband Menashe Chaim was sitting at a table, dozing over a sefer.
 
Menashe Chaim awoke when she entered. Kreindel Cherne announced that it was already time to close the shop. Footsteps no longer filled the marketplace and customers could no longer be expected. As usual, Menashe Chaim went out to see whether his competitor’s shop was closed yet, lest it come to pass that a customer should happen by and turn instead, God forbid, to his rival. And Kreindel Cherne, tired and weary from the course of the difficult day, sat in the chair to relax a bit and for a short while did not even budge. She was simply unable to stand on her feet. When she got her wind back a few moments later, she looked around the shop and let out a loud and bitter cry. All the cupboards were bare. The boxes and crates had been completely emptied. Nothing at all was left. She tore at the edge of her garment and rained down torrential curses upon the head of her husband Menashe Chaim, pouring them down upon the pate of her good-for-nothing husband who carelessly fell asleep while she was out paying their debt, giving some thief the opportunity to clean them out. Although Menashe Chaim swore up and down that he had not taken his eyes off the store even for a minute, it didn't help a bit. For once the tongue begins to swear it cannot stop. And Kreindel Cherne heaped curse upon curse. “Did I go out dancing tonight? Did I paint my face for some fancy party?" she cried bitterly. "I went for you, you idler, for you. So your livelihood wouldn't crumble. And you couldn’t even sit like a golem and guard the fruit of my labor! Oy, Jews! Why did God give you eyes? Only to see me toil away? Only to see the food that I serve you by the sweat of my brow and my blood and my fat?" At that moment Menashe Chaim was struck silent, and his face turned as dark as the rim of a pot. The mishnah that states explicitly that a woman’s earnings belong to her husband escaped him. Because he did not respond, she berated him even more. But then she grew so weak (such is the strength of a woman) she could curse him no more, and the wrath of Kreindel Cherne subsided. Menashe Chaim took the bundle of keys, followed his wife out, and carefully locked the shop. At that Kreindel Cherne began to sob again, pouring out her bitterness before him. “This is what they mean when they say, locking the barn door after the horse is stolen," she said. "You lazy, good-for-nothing idler! Why are you locking an empty store?” Then she sprang up herself, rolled back her frayed sleeves, checked whether each and every lock had been shut properly, and left for home. The black cast-iron lock dangled down upon the dingy yellowed door that was flecked by frost and ice, and it looked like a snake’s tooth whose venom had dripped out.
 
 
 
 
 
This excerpt is from And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight, forthcoming (in 2012 or 2013) in an annotated edition from Toby Press. Ve'haya He'akov Le'mishor was first published in Hebrew, © Schocken Publishing House, Tel Aviv. English translation license © The Toby Press LLC.  
 
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888 - 1970; b. Buczacz, Galicia), born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes, 1966 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, was born to an urbane middle class family where traditional Jewish culture dwelt side by side with modern European culture. While his father taught him rabbinical legends, his mother read him German stories.
Agnon began to write in both Hebrew and Yiddish at the age of eight and began to publish at the age of fifteen. He left Buczacz in April 1908 for Jaffa and never again wrote in Yiddish. By that time, he had published some seventy pieces in Hebrew and Yiddish. In Jaffa, Agnon gave private lessons and occasionally worked as a clerk. In 1908 he published his first story in Eretz Israel, Agunot (Forsaken Souls), using the pseudonym Agnon. In 1924 he took Agnon as his official family name.

In 1912, drawn by Germany's lively Jewish cultural life, he left Eretz Israel. While there, he married Esther Marx and the couple had two children. At first, Agnon gave private lessons and worked as an editor. Later, a wealthy Jewish businessman, Zalman Schocken, became his patron and published his works. Agnon read German literature extensively, became a member of a circle of Hebrew writers in Hamburg, and collaborated with Martin Buber on a collection of Chassidic stories. In 1924, fire swept his home and destroyed all his books and manuscripts, including the novel, In the Bond of Life, whose imminent publication had already been announced. He returned to Jerusalem where he lived until his death.

Several of his works were published posthumously by his daughter, Emmuna Yaron. Called "a man of unquestionable genius" and "one of the great storytellers of our time," S.Y. Agnon is among the most effusively-praised and widely-translated Hebrew authors. His unique style and language have influenced later generations of Hebrew authors. In addition to the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, Agnon received numerous literary awards, including the Israel Prize on two occasions. In 2007, his work was named among the ten most important in modern Hebrew literature.
 
Michael P. Kramer (the translator) is director of the Anne Shachter-Smith Memorial Project in Literature and former director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He is the author of Imagining Language in America (Princeton), editor of New Essays on Seize the Day (Cambridge), and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries (Pennsylvania), and The Turn Around Religion in America (Ashgate). He is the founding editor of MAGGID: A Journal of Jewish Literature (Toby Press) and co-organizer of Kisufim: The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers. The above excerpt is from his forthcoming translation of S.Y. Agnon's And The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight (Toby Press). 


 

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