The Trade


The Trade

By Mendele Mokher Seforim

Translated from Hebrew by Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler


In the month when we increase our joy, that time of melting snows, ruined roads and much mud, the Children of Israel go about their settlements wearing a great band of filth on the hems of their garments. In this season of our joy, a letter reached me from one of my colleagues encouraging me to come visit him with my pack and bundles of books in order to swap for new merchandise: anthologies and hymnals, drawings and psychological stories, economic, social and political works and the like, pleasant matters for the spirit and taste of the times. This gentleman worked at many occupations – part bookseller, part middleman, part author, part publisher and, in all of them, a complete pauper. I had known him for a long while. At a time of need, I’m sorry to say, he would lie and permit himself vain talk, like the other merchants who boast of the quality of their merchandise and run down that of others, for in business, where one considers only one’s own pocket and one’s own advantage, one is permitted some leeway. Therefore, when I saw in his letter that he was disparaging the old merchandise, which was in my possession, and praising the new, I knew that these claims were not necessarily so, but were exaggerations for the good of his business. Even so, his words entered my heart and I decided that it was incumbent upon me to travel there.
I very much wanted to make my way immediately so that I could arrive by Purim and laugh at some of the famous Purimshpielers, who, during the rest of the year, appeared as fools who could say nothing right. But with the coming of Purim, a spirit enters them: they become clever and have seven things to say about every dummy, like those drunks who wake up from their wine on Purim and stand ready for action. My heart yearned for their innocent, pleasing tricks and the entertainment of that company, so many of whom sought to be with me, just as I longed to accompany them. Who knows if perhaps the spirit of joy might enter also me, so that I might also play among them and tell jokes that would make their limbs jounce and jiggle! But Heaven prevented me and against my will I had to stay at home for a few more days.
When I set out, it was my intention to return home by Passover, so before I left, I tried to prepare all things necessary for the holiday. I asked Reb Leib Melamed to include me among those ordering matzo shmurah. To my wife I said, “Get a lot of raisins, a lot of water and make a lot of wine. Get a load of good potatoes and also goose fat; don’t stint. Also, get a fattened duck for the holiday and when you need to pay, you can offer your jewelry and housewares in trust, for the Holy Blessed One should make my trip successful, and when I return safely home, we will, please God, eat from the fat of the land, drink sweet drinks and rejoice.” It seems to me that I behaved properly, like a householder and a kosher Jew, but what did the One who sits in heaven do?
The One who sits in heaven caused rain and snow to fall, flakes of frost in a great swirl, ruining the roads till they were impassable, neither by wagon nor by sleigh, neither on horseback nor on foot. My journey was turned into a difficult slog, in which I could go no further than on a Sabbath walk. Every step made my poor horse strain; he would step and stumble, fall, get up, step and fall again. And I too was trampling the mud, filthy from top to toe, falling, failing, and sighing aloud, “Oy!”
And this “Oy” was not just for me, but also for my horse. My heart was in anguish for this poor beast that was suffering because of me. I was in such a rush to make good – to be parted at once from Sarah, daughter of Tuvim, and all her women’s prayer books and all the other old books that had piled up in my house over many months. I heaped them all in the wagon to trade them in for new ones and overburdened my horse with a load far greater than her strength could bear. Oy – to have to feel the pain of one’s animal! As long as the number of her steps was greater than the number of her falls, I would put aside my ethics and pity and not worry about her. In fact, I raised my stick and struck her in anger in order to urge her on. But when her falls began to come one right after the other and she stayed lying down until she could get up only with the greatest effort, then my better angel woke my heart. When she sank in one of the mud-holes -- stretching out tail and legs, groaning from her heart, unable to move a limb – my better angel gained a voice and yelled at me with agitation: You empty-headed man! Why have you embittered the life of this innocent creature with difficult labor, with packages upon packages of your books? Is there not a limit to what a horse can carry – whether bricks and mortar or any other kind of stuff? You have heaped upon this horse the immense burden of Judaism and its books, far more than can be borne. To unburden yourself of this merchandise, you placed it all on this poor animal, which is losing strength. You’re forcing her to leave this world! Look how she’s laid out before you like a lifeless corpse.
At first, looking like a corpse, and then within an hour, really a corpse – my horse died, passing out of life, as do all that live.
At that moment, I was like the captain of a sunken ship, drifting in mighty waters; I stood alone amidst a sea of mud around me. My horse’s corpse lying before me, my wagon sunk in the mud, Passover coming tomorrow night, and I, embittered and not knowing what to do. In my straits, I remembered the Holy Blessed One, whose name be praised, to whom the afternoon prayer was now due. I turned my face to the east and I recited the passage on the Temple incense, praying sweetly with intention, staying in prayer until the stars came out. And the Holy Blessed One accepted my prayer, showing me a vision, as it were, of fire at a distance, and put it in my mind to uproot my stationary feet and set out toward the light of that fire. After crawling on hands and knees for two hours, I arrived at a villager’s house at the edge of a forest. This villager, a Gentile, looked at me angrily at first, but when he saw that I was bowing my head and standing before him trembling and sweaty, he overcame his anger and extended me his hospitality – a meal of roast potatoes and hot drinks – and prepared me a place to sleep in the hayloft. The next day, he hooked a pair of oxen to my cart and brought me to Boibrik, the nearest city. In payment, I gave him permission to strip my horse’s carcass and threw in the horseshoes as well in order to promote peace between Jews and Gentiles, lest he say that this Jew was an ingrate!
I reached Boibrik at twilight, at the hour when all had left the market, and all the Jews were in synagogue—from the poorest to the most influential. This pleased me well. After all, Jews have noses and can smell, have hands and can grope, yearning to know all. If, God forbid, I had arrived earlier and they had spotted me, Mendele, their bookseller, being borne by oxen, they would have flocked like chickens and run ahead of me in city’s streets, joyfully singing praises in my honor. And here am I, a simple Jew, humble and modest, fleeing all honor.
In Boibrik they informed me, Oh, God of mercy from of old, that there was a bookseller like me, Hendel of Boibrik, who was known throughout the Jewish communities. So I said to the Gentile, “Take me to Hendel’s.” As the oxen slowly plodded along, I had plenty of time to muse before arriving at our destination. I thought of all the troubles that had befallen me on my journey, I longed for my family and my heart was pained that I would not be spending the evening as a king, in partnership with my wife, my queen. I also thought affectionately of the duck, doubtless fat and beautiful, and my heart filled with yearning. The oxen slowly wended their way through fenced areas and alleyways, arriving, finally, at my colleague’s house, where they came to a halt.
I stood outside his door for a little while like a guest whose heart pounds with the fear that he has arrived at an inconvenient time and will be a burden for his host. But as a Jew who, only out of necessity, throws himself on the mercy of others, only out of necessity imposes upon them, and only out of necessity forces himself upon them to become a guest, I reached out my hand and opened the door. I pushed gently, but it rebuked me reproachfully. Hesitating, as it cried out in the loudest of voices, I entered a dim corridor, bowed and submissive, like a beggar at the door.
Members of the family immediately rushed to welcome me. In their great joy they became entangled and confused. One ran into an inner room and announced the good tidings, “He’s here! He’s here!” Another shouted, “A candle! A candle! Light a candle!” I heard a woman’s voice, filled with grace, loving-kindness and mercy, rejoicing over me, barely restraining herself from kissing and embracing me. Her pleasant speech was mixed with reproaches, speaking laughingly and angrily at the same time, “Why did you worry us and take so long to get here?!” I, too, was confused and unable to think clearly. Just as I opened my mouth to explain all that had happened to me, a candle was lit and we all stood open-mouthed–– a sight to behold. This astonishment was finally explained, as follows:
Hendel had set out on his route, planning to return in time for Shabbat Hagadol, but still hadn’t arrived. His family was sunk in despair. When I entered the hallway, they thought their father had at last shown up and they rejoiced. His wife also thought her husband had returned and was deliriously happy. When they saw it was me, they were shaken and disappointed.
Truly, Hendel’s wife became gloomy, despairing that her husband would not be able to spend this special night in his home where he was king. Nevertheless, she praised the Holy One of Blessing, who had brought me to her to create a kosher Seder. She sat me on a bench at the head of the table, enveloped in cushions and down pillows, and anointed me in place of Hendel.
I, too, gave praise to the Holy Blessed One who had made miracles for me, rescuing me from the hardships of my journey and bringing me to this night, reclining like royalty in Boibrik, eating horseradish and eggs, gefilte fish and knaidlach, and reciting the Haggadah with pleasure and song before Him and before Hendel’s wife. Hallelujah!
But I was not the only one to experience a miracle and to find kingship unintentionally, for as was made known to me a few days later, Hendel experienced this same miracle on the very same Passover! This is how it happened:
This Hendel of Broibik loaded up his wagon until it was bursting with books and set out, as was his custom year after year, traveling all around the district. And what happened to this Hendel was exactly what had happened to me, Mendel: rain and snow, silt and mud pits, slippery spots and obstacles on the road. His horse stumbled along, alternately falling down and pushing itself up. And if it did not give up the ghost and become a corpse, it was not because of its strength; on the contrary, it was weak and lame, its eyes blinded by cataracts.
So with much difficulty, Hendel led his horse forward and managed to make it to Kavtziel at twilight on the eve of Passover, arriving at my house and bringing joy to my wife, as he conducted the Passover Seder, sitting in my place and reigning in my stead.
This is what Hendel told me when we met on the road the day after the Seders and cheerfully discussed the trade. But when I explained to Hendel that the purpose of my journey had been to exchange my old books for new ones, he looked embarrassed and went silent. Then he shook his head and said, “Praised be God who killed your horse!”
I stood thunderstruck before Hendel.
“Why are you so astonished, Reb Mendel? I’m giving you a ‘Mazel Tov’ on the death of your horse, which caused you to cut short your journey and prevented you from buying new merchandise, saving you from a sorry fate. Now you even have hope of completely liberating yourself from the business of selling books, may the wind blow them all away—the new ones along with the old!  If only my horse had also died an unnatural death last year! Then I would have been unable to obtain all that new merchandise that resulted in my great losses. You have no idea!  No, books are simply boulders. I’m telling you, I lost a lot. But the financial loss was the least of it. Worse than that was the stain on my honor. For this trade brought contempt upon me and often brought me insults as well. Whom did I deal with? Poor idlers, Yeshiva bochers yearning for enlightenment but short on funds, teachers from among the thirty-six hidden Epikorsim, agnostics of our generation, passionate young men, skilled at speaking, but not great readers, knowing only a bit of Hebrew. Every so often I encountered honorable people, householders and shrewd merchants whose cleverness required them, for reasons known to themselves alone, to present themselves as being at the forefront of their generation’s new ideas. But I received no cash from any of them, not a red cent!  I’m telling you, Reb Mendel, your horse’s death was a stroke of luck. If only my horse would also die suddenly! I would bury it happily and all my merchandise along with it!” 
Yet in spite of it all, in spite of his anger, Hendel remains a bookseller. And I too deal in books as before. As soon as he calmed down a little, we traded books, standing in the road “on one foot,” as it were. I gave Hendel books of homilies and reference and I took from him many lamentations and penitential prayers. For the buds were appearing in the land and the spring month had arrived. Days of lament and fasting for the people of Israel were quickly approaching.


Translation copyright © Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler 2020

“The Trade” originally appeared in Hebrew as “Ha-temurah” in in S. J. Abromovich, The Collected Works of Mendele Mocher Seforim (Krakow-Odessa, 1909-12), v. 3.

Mendele Mokher Seforim (the author) (Mendele the Bookseller in Yiddish ) is the pen name of Shalom Yakov Abramowitz (1835-1917). Although known as the “grandfather of Yiddish Literature”, he is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern fiction in Hebrew as well as Yiddish. In fact, he began his career as a Hebrew writer, later writing in Yiddish as a way to reach a wider audience. In addition to stories that portrayed Jewish shtetl life with honesty and without judgment, Mendele wrote essays and drama in both Hebrew and Yiddish throughout a life spent mostly in Russia. 

Herbert Levine and Reena Spicehandler (the translators) have contributed translations of Agnon’s stories to two volumes of the Agnon Library: A City and Its Fullness and An Outcast and Other Stories (Toby Press). They are currently translating secular Israeli poems found in prayer books of congregations in Israel that are working to encourage a new Israeli Judaism to emerge. Reena taught Hebrew literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, was an editor of the Kol HaNeshamah prayerbook series and served several congregations as an interim rabbi. Herb is the author of Words for Blessing the World: Poems in Hebrew and English and Sing Unto God a New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms. Their translation projects have grown out of their chevruta studying Hebrew literature.

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