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Esther by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

 

If the Esther of the Bible was as beautiful a creature as the Esther of my story, then it is no wonder she found favour in the eyes of King Ahasuerus. The Esther of whom I am going to tell you was loved by everybody, everybody, even by me and by my older brother Mottel, although he was “Bar-mitzvah” long ago, and they were making up a match for him, and he was wearing a watch and chain this good while. (If I am not mistaken, he had already started to grow a beard at the time I speak of.) And that my brother Mottel loves Esther, I am positive. He thinks I do not know that his going to “Cheder” every Sabbath to read with the teacher is a mere pretext, a yesterday's day! The teacher snores loudly. The teacher's wife stands on the doorstep talking with the women. We boys play around the room, and Mottel and Esther are staring—she at him, and he at her. It sometimes happens that we boys play at “blind-man's-buff.” Do you know what “blind-man's-buff” is? Well, then I will tell you. You take a boy, bandage his eyes with a handkerchief, place him in the middle of the floor, and all the boys fly round him crying: “Blindman, blindman, catch me!”

Mottel and Esther also play at “blind-man's-buff” with us. They like the game because, when they are playing it, they can chase one another—she him, and he her.

And I have many more proofs I could give you that—But I am not that sort.

I once caught them holding hands, he hers, and she his. And it was not on the Sabbath either, but on a week-day. It was towards evening, between the afternoon and the evening prayers. He was pretending to go to the synagogue. He strayed into “Cheder.” “Where is the teacher?” “The teacher is not here.” And he went and gave her his hand, Esther, that is. I saw them. He withdrew his hand and gave me a “ groschen” to tell no one. I asked two, and he gave me two. I asked three, and he gave me three. What do you think—if I had asked four, or five, or six, would he not have given them? But I am not that sort.

Another time, too, something happened. But enough of this. I will rather tell you the real story—the one I promised you.

* * *

As I told you, my brother Mottel is grown up. He does not go to “ Cheder” any more, nor does he wish to learn anything at home. For this, my father calls him “Man of clay.” He has no other name for him. My mother does not like it. What sort of a habit is it to call a young man, almost a bridegroom, a man of clay? My father says he is nothing else but a man of clay. They quarrel about it. I do not know what other parents do, but my parents are always quarrelling. Day and night they are quarrelling.

If I were to tell you how my father and mother quarrel, you would split your sides laughing. But I am not that sort.

In a word, my brother Mottel does not go to “Cheder” any more. Nevertheless, he does not forget to send the teacher a “Purim “ present. Having been a pupil of his he sends him a nice poem in Hebrew, illuminated with a “Shield of David,” and two paper “roubles.” With whom does he send this “Purim” present? With me, of course. My brother says to me, “Here, hand the teacher this “Purim “ present. When you come back, I will give you ten 'groschens.'” Ten “groschens” is money. But what then? I want the money now. My brother said I was a heathen. Said I: “It may be I am a heathen. I will not argue about it. But I want to see the money,” said I. Who do you think won?

He gave me the ten “groschens,” and handed me the teacher's “ Purim” present in a sealed envelope. When I was going off, he thrust into my hand a second envelope and said to me, in a quick whisper: “And this you will give to Esther.” “To Esther?” “To Esther.” Any one else in my place would have asked twice as much for this. But I am not that sort.

* * *

“Father of the Universe,” thought I, when I was going off with the “ Purim” present, “what can my brother have written to the teacher's daughter? I must have a peep—only just a peep. I will not take a bite out of it. I will only look at it.”

And I opened Esther's letter and read a whole “Book of Esther.” I will repeat what was there, word for word.

“FROM MORDECAI TO ESTHER,

“And there was a man, a young man in Shushan—our village. His name was Mordecai and he loved a maiden called Esther. And the maiden was beautiful, charming. And the maiden found favour in his eyes. The maiden told this to no one because Mottel had asked her not to. Every day Mottel passes her house to catch a glimpse of Esther. And when the time comes for Esther to get married, Mottel will go with her under the wedding canopy.”

* * *

What do you say to my brother—how he translated the “Book of Esther”? I should like to hear what the teacher will say to such a translation. But how comes the cat over the water? Hush! There's a way, as I am a Jew! I will change the letters, give the teacher's poem to Esther, and Esther's letter to the teacher. Let him rejoice. Afterwards, if there's a fine to do, will I be to blame? Don't all people make mistakes sometimes? Does it not happen that even the postmaster of our village himself forgets to give up letters? No such thing will ever happen to me. I am not that sort.

* * *

“Good 'Yom-tov,' teacher,” I cried the moment I rushed into “ Cheder,” in such an excited voice that he jumped. “My brother Mottel has sent you a 'Purim' present, and he wishes you to live to next year.”

And I gave the teacher Esther's letter. He opened it, read it, thought a while, looked at it again, turned it about on all sides, as if in search of something. “Search, search,” I said to myself, “and you will find something.”

The teacher put on his silver spectacles, read the letter, and did not even make a grimace. He only sighed—no more. Later he said to me: “Wait. I will write a few lines.” And he took the pen and ink and started to write a few lines. Meanwhile, I turned around in the “ Cheder.” The teacher's wife gave me a little cake. And when no one was looking, I put into Esther's hand the poem and the money intended for her father. She reddened, went into a corner, and opened the envelope slowly. Her face burnt like fire, and her eyes blazed dangerously. “She doesn't seem to be satisfied with the 'Purim' present,” I thought. I took from the teacher the few lines he had written.

“Good 'Yom-tov' to you, teacher,” I cried in the same excited voice as when I had come in. “May you live to next year.” And I was gone.

When I was on the other side of the door, Esther ran after me. Her eyes were red with weeping. “Here,” she said angrily, “give this to your brother!”

On the way home I first opened the teacher's letter. He was more important. This is what was written in it.

“MY DEAR AND FAITHFUL PUPIL, MORDECAI N.

“I thank you many times for your 'Purim' present that you have sent me. Last year and the year before, you sent me a real ' Purim' present. But this year you sent me a new translation of the 'Book of Esther.' I thank you for it. But I must tell you, Mottel, that your rendering does not please me at all. Firstly, the city of Shushan cannot be called 'our village.' Then I should like to know where it says that Mordecai was a young man? And why do you call him Mottel? Which Mottel? And where does it say he loved a maiden? The word referring to Mordecai and Esther means 'brought up.' And your saying 'he will go with her under the wedding canopy' is just idiotic nonsense. The phrase you quote refers to Ahasuerus, not to Mordecai. Then again, it is nowhere mentioned in the 'Book of Esther' that Ahasuerus went with Esther under the wedding canopy. Does it need brains to turn a passage upside down? Every passage must have sense in it. Last year, and the year before, you sent me something different. This year you sent your teacher a translation of the 'Book of Esther,' and a distorted translation into the bargain. Well, perhaps it should be so. Anyhow, I am sending you back your translation, and may the Lord send you a good year, according to the wishes of your teacher.”

* * *

Well, that's what you call a slap in the face. It serves my brother right. I should think he will never write such a “Book of Esther” again.

Having got through the teacher's letter, I must see what the teacher's daughter writes. On opening the envelope, the two paper “ roubles” fell out. What the devil does this mean? I read the letter—only a few lines.

“Mottel, I thank you for the two 'roubles.' You may take them back. I never expected such a 'Purim' present from you. I want no presents from you, and certainly no charity.”

Ha! ha! What do you say to that? She does not want charity. A nice story, as I am a Jewish child! Well, what's to be done next? Any one else in my place would surely have torn up the two letters and put the money in his pocket. But I am not that sort. I did a better thing than that. You will hear what. I argued with myself after this fashion: When all is said and done, I got paid by my brother Mottel for the journey. Then what do I want him for now? I went and gave the two letters to my father. I wanted to hear what he would say to them. He would understand the translation better than the teacher, though he is a father, and the teacher is a teacher.

* * *

What happened? After my father had read the two letters and the translation, he took hold of my brother Mottel and demanded an explanation of him. Do not ask me any more.

You want to know the end—what happened to Esther, the teacher's daughter, and to my brother Mottel? What could have happened? Esther got married to a widower. Oh, how she cried. I was at the wedding. Why she cried so much I do not know. It seemed that her heart told her she would not live long with her husband. And so it was. She lived with him only one-half year, and died. I do not know what she died of. I do not know. No one knows. Her father and mother do not know either. It was said she took poison—just went and poisoned herself. “But it's a lie. Enemies have invented that lie,” said her mother, the teacher's wife. I heard her myself.

And my brother Mottel? Oh, he married before Esther was even betrothed. He went to live with his father-in-law. But he soon returned, and alone. What had happened? He wanted to divorce his wife. Said my father to him: “You are a man of clay.” My mother would not have this. They quarrelled. It was lively. But it was useless. He divorced his wife and married another woman. He now has two children—a boy and a girl. The boy is called Herzl, after Dr. Herzl, and the girl is called Esther. My father wanted her to be named Gittel, and my mother was dying for her to be called Leah, after her mother. There arose a quarrel between my father and mother. They quarrelled a whole day and a whole night. They decided the child should be named Leah-Gittel, after their two mothers. Afterwards my father decided he would not have Leah-Gittel. “What is the sense of it? Why should her mother's name go first?” My brother Mottel came in from the synagogue and said he had named the child Esther. Said my father to him: “Man of clay, where did you get the name Esther from?” Mottel replied: “Have you forgotten it will soon be 'Purim'?” Well, what have you to say now? It's all over. My father never calls Mottel “man of clay” since then. But both of them—my mother and my father—exchanged glances and were silent.

What the silence and the exchange of glances meant I do not know. Perhaps you can tell me?

 
 
 

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