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Happy New Year! and Other Stories

Happy New Year! and Other Stories

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Happy New Year! and Other Stories

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Nov 17, 2015


One of the most beloved and prolific writers of Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem (1859–1916) produced a wealth of wonderful stories that combine traditional Jewish oral humor with Western literary tradition. For years a living legend, he wrote enduring gems of fiction, eleven of which are included in this entertaining collection.
The master storyteller brilliantly recaptures the joy and tribulations of Jewish life in such tales as "Geese," "At the Doctor's," "Three Widows," "The Passover Eve Vagabonds," "On America," "Someone to Envy," "Three Calendars," "The Ruined Passover," the title story, and two others. Introduced and ably translated by Curt Leviant, these tales sparkle with wit, wisdom, and a warm humanity that will appeal to a wide audience of readers, especially those with an interest in Jewish cultural life.
Nov 17, 2015

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Happy New Year! and Other Stories - Sholom Aleichem



I DON’T WISH this on anyone, but a year ago Hanuka time, I had a stroke of good and bad luck at one and the same time. Just listen to this story! You run across a gem like this only once in a thousand years. I’ve been selling geese, you see, and kosher-for-Passover goose-fat for these past twenty years, and in all that time, a thing like that’s never happened to me.

Geese is my business … but you think it’s as easy as all that? The first thing you got to do is this: you start buying geese right after Sukkoth, in the autumn. You throw them into a coop and keep them there all winter, until December. You feed them and take good care of them. Comes Hanuka, you start killing them, and you turn geese into cash. If you think it’s so easy to buy them, feed them, kill them, and turn them into cash, you’re wrong. First of all—buying the geese. You have to have something to buy them with! And I don’t have any reserve money salted away, you know. So I’m forced to go and take a loan from Reb Alter. You know him, don’t you? He enjoys squeezing the blood out of you, drop by drop. That is, he doesn’t say no right off the bat. But, with his telling you to come tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, he drives you to the breaking point. Then he gets down to work, dragging the interest out of you, adding on extra days. He’s some Reb Alter! It’s not for nothing he’s got such a pot belly and his wife’s got a face I wouldn’t wish on my enemies and a pair of jowls you could sharpen knives on. Talk of her pearls! Just recently, she had an engagement party for her daughter. Great God! May you and I have a third of what that party cost her. Then I wouldn’t have to bother with geese any more. But you ought to see the fellow she got! May God strike me if I’d take the likes of him for my daughter. First of all, he was as bald as an egg. But, anyway, the whole affair is none of my business. I don’t like to talk ill of anyone, God forbid, and I like to stay away from backbiting. I’m getting off the track. I’m sorry, but that’s a habit of mine. You know what they say: a woman was made with nine measures of talk.

Buying geese. … Where do you buy them? You’d think, at the marketplace, naturally! Surely! If we’d be able to buy all our geese at the marketplace, we’d be rolling in gold. If you want to buy geese for business, you have to put yourself out and get up early, at an hour when God himself is still asleep, and traipse way over to the other side of town, behind the mill. But there you’ll find another woman, just as smart as you, who’s gotten up earlier and made her way over to the same spot. Then there’s a third one who got up earlier than both of you—and that’s the way it goes. The whole thing turns into a fish-market. Everyone stands around waiting, hoping that God’ll have some pity and send along a peasant with some geese. And as soon as he shows up, the women close in on him and his birds.

How much for a goose? they yell.

If the peasant is the sort of businessman you can talk to, why then you can bargain with him. But if, with the help of God, he’s a nervous wreck, you can’t even come near him.

Beat it, he says. Scat. I don’t have any geese.

Well, what can you do. Sue him? You can only mumble, half in Yiddish, half in Russian. How so, you hick peasant? We see with our own eyes — may your eyes ooze out—that you’re carrying a goose—may devils and plagues carry you to blazes.

And he says: I don’t have any geese for sale.

But, if God is merciful and the peasant has let go of the goose, then you have to inspect it. And you have to know how to inspect it, too. People say that you have to be as much a connoisseur of geese as of diamonds. You probably think all geese are alike. Do you happen to know that there’s such a thing as a goose and a gander? And that a goose isn’t a gander. A goose’ll give fat, a gander—plaguesl But how can you tell the difference between them? Easy. First of all, by the comb. A gander has a little comb on the top of his head and a long neck. You can also tell by his voice. He has a gruff voice, just like a man. When he walks, he always struts ahead of the geese. Forgive the comparison— just like a man. Our husbands —it makes no difference who they are, even the worst bunglers among them—always walk ahead of their wives, as if to say: Lookee here! It’s me! Need more proof? Take my husband, for instance. There’s no greater bungler than my Nachman-Ber. Ever since I’ve known him, he hasn’t earned two broken kopeks. Then what’s he good for? He’s a scholar and a distant relative of a very rich man. His granduncle’s second cousin twice removed! But what do I get out of that? May my enemies choke on it in one bite! Trouble, heartache, and shame is what I get out of it. This rich relative’s daughter-in-law doesn’t wear a marriage-wig, so they throw it up to me. Can you beat that? And it’s no lie either! They hit the nail right on the head! But I don’t want to gossip about her or talk behind her back. I’m getting sidetracked. Sorry, but that’s the way I am. You know what they say: a woman was made with nine measures of talk.

Buying geese. … Once you’ve bought them you put them into the coop for the winter. If you think that’s an easy job, you’re sadly mistaken. It’s easy to coop them up if you’ve got a private apartment. But what’re you supposed to do if—and I hope it never happens to me or you or any other Jew—you’re sharing a place with Yente: that is, if you don’t have a little room you can call your own and your landlady, who’s called Yente, is also selling geese and kosher-for-Passover goose-fat. Well, I’d like to see you try and keep your geese and her geese in one room and not come to blows three times a day. That’s the first thing. Next, try and be the smarty and tell which geese are your geese and which geese are her geese. Listen to what happened some time ago. And I don’t wish this on anyone. I was sitting in the room when, suddenly, the door of her coop flew open and her whole pack of geese ran out and made a bee-line for my sacks of oat- and barley-feed. Who do you think suffered? Who was supposed to raise a storm? Me or her? Don’t you think she let me have it?

If I would have known, she said, "that you too keep geese, she said, I’d never have rented you this room, she said, for a hundred million rubles."

What’d you think was my business, I told her, selling jewelry?

You’re a jewel yourself and you got yourself a gem of a husband and diamonds for kids.

Expect me to take that sitting down? She’s a queer one, that Yente! Usually, she’ll do anything in the world for you. If you’re sick, God forbid, she’ll drop everything just to take care of you. But she’s a hot-head. You really have to watch out for her. One Hanuka—wait, just listen to this story and your hair will stand on end. The only trouble is that I don’t go poking my nose into other people’s business. I don’t like to gossip or talk behind other people’s backs … But I’ve lost the thread of the story. You’ll have to forgive me, that’s the way I am. You know what they say: a woman was made with nine measures of talk.

Let’s continue. Putting the geese away. … If you want the geese to grow good and fat you have to put them into the coop just before the beginning of the month. Don’t you dare come near any geese just after the new moon! May God save you from misfortune like that. The geese will be ruined. Their bones will be heavy, their skin scraggly. Don’t expect any fat at all! Just forget about it. Don’t cage them during the day either, when everyone is around. It’s much better toward evening, with candlelight, or better yet, in complete darkness. And when you do do it, pinch yourself and say three times: I hope you get as fat as me. My husband makes fun of me and says that my hocus-pocus isn’t worth a snap. If I’d listen to everything he says, I’d be in some pickle. All he does is sit and study, day and night. I’ll never understand why he likes to say that twirling a chicken around your head on the eve of Yom Kippur is a silly custom. How do you like that for nerve? Don’t worry, he didn’t get off lightly for that, either.

Did you come to that grand conclusion all by your little self?

That’s what the books say, he says.

Then the upshot is, I say, that I and my mother and Aunt Dvorah, and Nekhama-Breyne, Sosi, Dvosi, Tsipora, and all the rest of us are a bunch of asses!

My genius doesn’t answer, and he can thank his lucky stars he doesn’t, because I’d let him have it so that his ears would be ringing for three days in a row. But don’t think, God forbid, that I’m such a shrew and spitfire. Believe me, I know how to respect a man of learning, a man who sits and studies Torah, despite the fact that he doesn’t so much as put his finger into cold water. You think he’s lazy? He’d do anything, poor fellow—but there’s nothing to do. So he sits and studies. Let him keep studying. Why should he work if I can take care of everything myself? I can manage, if not to cover expenses, then at least not to go begging. I do everything by myself. Shop, keep house, cook, put up the potatoes, dress the kids, and what’s most important—send them off to Hebrew school. As you can see, there’s bread in the house—but sometimes there’s no white-loaf for the Sabbath. But although stones fall from heaven, there must always be money for the kids’ Hebrew lessons. I got four boys, you see, may they live and be well, not counting the girls. I’m not like these modern folk who push their kids to gentile schools. Take Berel the Cantor’s boy, for instance. He’s become a complete heathen, sausages and all, the devil take him. But after all, I’m not God’s lawyer. I’m not doing any backbiting, God forbid, and I can’t stand the evil tongue. … There I go, mixing one story with the next. I can’t help it; that’s one of my bad habits. You know what they say: a woman was made with nine measures of talk.

You’ve put the geese away…. Now, you just have to see to it that the geese get their feed and water in time. That’s all there is to it. For geese aren’t ducks and chickens, you know. Ducks are scared of the pox. Chickens of polecats. But geese just glut. When it comes to eating, anything goes. Oats, millet, groats, and, begging your pardon, they peck at worse things, too. A goose isn’t choosy. Everything goes down the hatch. A goose is always hungry, just like—and no comparison meant—a poor man’s children. A poor man’s children eat anything you give them with gusto. And they’re never full. I know it from experience. Let them live and be well, my children, God bless ’em, come home from school and —well, before you turn around, they’ve killed a full loaf of bread and licked a whole pot of potatoes clean. They don’t even leave a crumb. Comes the Sabbath, you have to portion out the white-loaf like cake and lock up the rest; for if you don’t there won’t be a trace of it left by morning. But it’s nice having children. It wouldn’t faze me at all having ten, fifteen, even seventy-five children. There’s only one drawback. They got mouths! The rich are as lucky as anything knowing that their kids go to sleep with full bellies and don’t dream about beggars and don’t wake up crying, Mama, I’m hu-un-gry. You feel sorry for them, you understand, and you practically go out of your mind. Can you imagine having to tell them: Get back to sleep, you little devils. Who’s heard of eating in the middle of the night? Back to sleep! On the other hand, you ought to see the storm the rich raise when, God forbid, an extra baby is born to them. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Just recently, one of their young mothers died. She was a fine, good-hearted, beautiful girl—the picture of health. Do you know what she died from? I’d rather not talk about it, for she’s in the other world now, may she have a bright Paradise. I don’t want to slander anyone, and I like to put distance between myself and the evil tongue. … But, you see, I’m forgetting about the story. That’s the way I am, so pardon me! You know what they say: a woman was made with nine measures of talk.

Oh, me, what a business geese is! That is to say, it isn’t such a bad business, and if God blesses the geese you can make a pretty ruble out of them. But what’s the rub? That only happens once in ten years. More often you don’t make a kopek from the geese. In fact, you end up in the red. You put so much work into the whole mess, that I swear it isn’t worth the tumult. If so, you’re liable to ask, if there’s no profit in geese, why bother? Here’s my answer—what else do you want me to do after working with geese all these years? Think of it! Tying up thirty geese, carrying them over to the slaughterer, coming home with thirty of them, plucking their feathers. Then salting, rinsing, and scalding them. Then separating the skin, the fat, the giblets, and the meat, turning everything into money, not letting a speck go to waste. And I do it all by myself. First of all, I fry the skin and the fat and make goose-fat out of it. I make Passover-fat every year, for my Passover-fat is considered the best and most kosher fat in the village. When I make kosher-for-Passover goose-fat, Passover steps into the house smack in the middle of Hanuka. I make the oven kosher-for-Passover. I send my husband to the synagogue. Let him study there. I chase the kids out of the house. Let them go play with their Hanuka dredle somewhere. Goose-fat hates extra company. Especially Passover goose-fat. Once, when I lived with Yente, I got myself into the sort of fix I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There were other people living there at the time. One of the women, Genesi it was, suddenly got it into her head to start making buckwheat latkes. Just on the day I was killing my geese and had the house kosher-for-Passover. I begged her, "Genesi, darling, honey, sweetheart! Put off temptation just one more day. God willing, you’ll make your latkes tomorrow."

It’s all right with me, she said, "but the children’ll find out. My little gluttons enjoy eating. As soon as they find out there’s no latkes, the little cannibals will start eating me."

She hit the nail right on the head. The little children, lying on the shelf atop the oven, heard that the latkes would be postponed for the next day. One of them, a little cross-eyed boy named Zelig, screamed:

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