The Dead Citron
My name is Leib. When I am called up to read the portion of the Law
it is by the name of Yehudah-Leib. At home, I sign myself Lyef
Moishevitch. Amongst the Germans I am known as Herr Leon. Here in
England, I am Mr. Leon. When I was a child I was called Leibel. At
Cheder I was Lieb-Dreib-Obderick. You must know that at our
Cheder every boy has a nickname. For instanceMottel-Kappotel,
Meyer-Dreyer, Mendel-Fendel, Chayim-Clayim, Itzig-Shpitzig,
Berel-Tzap. Did you ever hear such rhymes? That Itzig rhymes with
Shpitzig, and Mendel with Fendel, and Chayim with Clayim is correct.
But what has Berel to do with Tzap, or how does Leib rhyme with
Obderick? I did not like my nickname. And I fought about it. I got
blows and thumps and smacks and whacks and pinches and kicks from all
sides. I was black and blue. Because I was the smallest in the
Chederthe smallest and the weakest and the poorest, no one
defended me. On the contrary, the two rich boys tortured me. One got on
top of me, and the other pulled me by the ear. Whilst the thirda poor
boysang a song to tease me
Just so! Just so!
Give it to him.
His little limbs,
His little limbs.
Just so! Just so!
At such times I lay quiet as a kitten. And when they let me go I
went into a corner and wept silently. I wiped my eyes, went back to my
comrades, and was all right again.
Just a wordwhenever you meet the name Leibel in this story, you
will know it refers to me.
I am soft as down, short and fat. In reality, I am not so fat as I
look. On the contrary, I am rather bony, but I wear thick, wadded
little trousers, a thick, wadded vest, and a thick wadded coat. You see
my mother wants me to be warm. She is afraid I might catch cold, God
forbid! And she wraps me in cotton-wool from head to foot. She believes
that cotton-wool is very good to wrap a boy in, but must not be used
for making balls. I provided all the boys with cotton-wool I pulled it
out of my trousers and coat until she caught me. She beat me, and
whacked me, and thumped me and pinched me. But Leibel went on doing
what he likeddistributing cotton-wool.
My face is red, my cheeks rather blue, and my nose always running.
Such a nose! cries my mother. If he had no nose, he would be all
right. He would have nothing to freeze in the cold weather. I often
try to picture to myself what would happen if I had no nose at all. If
people had no noses, what would they look like? Then the question is?
But I was going to tell you the story of a dead citron, and I have
wandered off to goodness knows where. I will break off in the middle of
what I was saying, and go back to the story of the dead citron.
* * *
My father, Moshe-Yankel, has been a clerk at an insurance company's
office for many years. He gets five and a half roubles a week.
He is waiting for a rise in wages. He says that if he gets his rise
this year, please God, he will buy a citron. But my mother,
Basse-Beila, has no faith in this. She says the barracks will fall down
before father will get a rise.
One day, shortly before the New Year, Leibel overheard the following
conversation between his father and his mother.
He: Though the world turn upside down, I must have a citron this
She: The world will not turn upside down, and you will have no
He: That's what you say. But supposing I have already been promised
something towards a citron?
She: It will have to be written into the books of Jests. In the
month called after the town of Kreminitz a miracle happeneda bear
died in the forest. But what then? If I do not believe it, I shall not
be a great heretic either.
He: You may believe or not. I tell you that this Feast of
Tabernacles, we shall have a citron of our own.
She: Amen! May it be so! From your mouth into God's ears!
Amen, amen, repeated Leibel in his heart. And he pictured to
himself his father coming into the synagogue, like a respectable
householder, with his own citron and his own palm-branch. And though
Moshe-Yankel is only a clerk, still when the men walk around the Ark
with their palms and their citrons, he will follow them with his palm
and citron. And Leibel's heart was full of joy. When he came to
Cheder, he at once told every one that this year his father would
have his own palm and citron. But no one believed him.
What do you say to his father? asked the young scamps of one
another. Such a mansuch a beggar amongst beggars desires to have a
citron of his own. He must imagine it is a lemon, or a 'groschen
That was what the young scamps said. And they gave Leibel a few good
smacks and thumps, and punches and digs and pushes. And Leibel began to
believe that his father was a beggar amongst beggars. And a beggar must
have no desires. But how great was his surprise when he came home and
found Reb Henzel sitting at the table, in his Napoleonic cap,
facing his father. In front of them stood a box full of citrons, the
beautiful perfume of which reached the furthest corners of the house.
* * *
The cap which Reb Henzel wore was the sort of cap worn in
the time of Napoleon the First. Over there in France, these caps were
long out of fashion. But in our village there was still one to be
foundonly one, and it belonged to Reb Henzel. The cap was
long and narrow. It had a slit and a button in front, and at the back
two tassels. I always wanted these tassels. If the cap had fallen into
my hands for two minutesonly two, the tassels would have been mine.
Reb Henzel had spread out his whole stock-in-trade. He took
up a citron with his two fingers, and gave it to father to examine.
Take this citron, 'Reb' Moshe-Yankel. You will enjoy it.
A good one? asked my father, examining the citron on all sides, as
one might examine a diamond. His hands trembled with joy.
And what a good one, replied Reb Henzel, and the tassels
of his cap shook with his laughter.
Moshe-Yankel played with the citron, smelled it, and could not take
his eyes off it. He called over his wife to him, and showed her, with a
happy smile, the citron, as if he were showing her a precious jewel, a
priceless gem, a rare antique, or an only childa dear one.
Basse-Beila drew near, and put out her hand slowly to take hold of
the citron. But she did not get it.
Be careful with your hands. A sniff if you like.
Basse-Beila was satisfied with a sniff of the citron. I was not even
allowed to sniff it. I was not allowed to go too near it, or even to
look at it.
He is here, too, said my mother. Only let him go near it, and he
will at once bite the top off the citron.
The Lord forbid! cried my father.
The Lord preserve us! echoed Reb Henzel. And the tassels
shook again. He gave father some cotton-wool into which he might nest
the citron. The beautiful perfume spread into every corner of the
house. The citron was wrapped up as carefully as if it had been a
diamond, or a precious gem. And it was placed in a beautiful round,
carved, painted and decorated wooden sugar box. The sugar was taken
out, and the citron was put in instead, like a beloved guest.
Welcome art thou, 'Reb' citron! Into the boxinto the box!
The box was carefully closed, and placed in the glass cupboard. The
door was closed over on it, and good-bye!
I am afraid the heathenthat was meant for mewill open the
door, take out the citron, and bite its top off, said my mother. She
took me by the hand, and drew me away from the cupboard.
Like a cat that has smelt butter, and jumps down from a height for
it, straightens her back, goes round and round, rubbing herself against
everything, looks into everybody's eyes, and licks herselfin like
manner did Leibel, poor thing, go round and round the cupboard. He
gazed in through the glass door, smiled at the box containing the
citron, until his mother saw him, and said to his father that the young
scamp wanted to get hold of the citron to bite off its top.
To 'Cheder,' you blackguard! May you never be thought of,
Leibel bent his head, lowered his eyes, and went off to Cheder.
* * *
The few words his mother had said to his father about his biting off
the top of the citron burned themselves into Leibel's heart, and ate
into his bones like a deadly poison.
The top of the citron buried itself in Leibel's brain. It did not
leave his thoughts for a moment. It entered his dreams at night,
worried him, and almost dragged him by the hand. You do not recognize
me, foolish boy? It is Ithe top of the citron. Leibel turned round
on the other side, groaned, and went to sleep. It worried him again.
Get up, fool. Go and open the cupboard, take out the citron, and bite
me off. You will enjoy yourself.
Leibel got up in the morning, washed his hands, and began to say his
prayers. He took his breakfast, and was going off to Cheder.
Passing by, he glanced in the direction of the glass cupboard. Through
the glass door, he saw the box containing the citron. And he imagined
the box was winking at him. Over here, over here, little boy. Leibel
marched straight out of the house.
One morning, when Leibel got up, he found himself alone in the
house. His father had gone off to business, his mother had gone to the
market. The servant was busy in the kitchen. Every one is gone. There
isn't a soul in the house, thought Leibel. Passing by, he again looked
inside the glass cupboard. He saw the sugar box that held the citron.
It seemed to be beckoning to him. Over here, over here, little boy.
Leibel opened the glass door softly and carefully, and took out the
boxthe beautiful, round, carved, decorated wooden box, and raised the
lid. Before he had time to lift out the citron, the fragrance of it
filled his nostrilsthe pungent, heavenly odour. Before he had time to
turn around, the citron was in his hand, and the top of it in his eyes.
Do you want to enjoy yourself? Do you want to know the taste of
Paradise? Take and bite me off. Do not be afraid, little fool. No one
will know of it. Not a son of Adam will see you. No bird will tell on
* * *
You want to know what happened? You want to know whether I bit the
top off the citron, or held myself back from doing it? I should like to
know what you would have done in my placeif you had been told ten
times not to dare to bite the top off the citron? Would you not have
wanted to know what it tasted like? Would you not also have thought of
the planto bite it off, and stick it on again with spittle? You may
believe me or notthat is your affairbut I do not know myself how it
happened. Before the citron was rightly in my hands, the top of it was
between my teeth.
* * *
The day before the Festival, father came home a little earlier from
his work, to untie the palm-branch. He had put it away very carefully
in a corner, warning Leibel not to attempt to go near it. But it was
useless warning him. Leibel had his own troubles. The top of the citron
haunted him. Why had he wanted to bite it off? What good had it done
him to taste it when it was bitter as gall? It was for nothing he had
spoiled the citron, and rendered it unfit for use. That the citron
could not now be used, Leibel knew very well. Then what had he done
this for? Why had he spoiled this beautiful creation, bitten off its
head, and taken its life? Why? Why? He dreamt of the citron that night.
It haunted him, and asked him: Why have you done this thing to me? Why
did you bite off my head? I am now uselessuseless. Leibel turned
over on the other side, groaned, and fell asleep again. But he was
again questioned by the citron. Murderer, what have you against me?
What had my head done to you?
* * *
The first day of the Feast of Tabernacles arrived. After a frosty
night, the sun rose and covered the earth with a delayed warmth, like
that of a step-mother. That morning Moshe-Yankel got up earlier than
usual to learn off by heart the Festival prayers, reciting them in the
beautiful Festival melody. That day also Basse-Beila was very busy
cooking the fish and the other Festival dishes. That day also Zalmen
the carpenter came to our Tabernacle to make a blessing over the citron
and palm before any one else, so that he might be able to drink tea
with milk and enjoy the Festival.
Zalmen wants the palm and the citron, said my mother to my father.
Open the cupboard, and take out the box, but carefully, said my
He himself stood on a chair and took down from the top shelf the
palm, and brought it to the Tabernacle to the carpenter.
Here, make the blessing, he said. But be careful, in Heaven's
name be careful!
Our neighbour Zalmen was a giant of a manmay no evil eye harm him!
He had two hands each finger of which might knock down three such
Leibels as I. His hands were always sticky, and his nails red from
glue. And when he drew one of these nails across a piece of wood, there
was a mark that might have been made with a sharp piece of iron.
In honour of the Festival, Zalmen had put on a clean shirt and a new
coat. He had scrubbed his hands in the bath, with soap and sand, but
had not succeeded in making them clean. They were still sticky and the
nails still red with glue.
Into these hands fell the dainty citron. It was not for nothing
Moshe-Yankel was excited when Zalmen gave the citron a good squeeze and
the palm a good shake.
Be careful, be careful, he cried. Now turn the citron head
downwards, and make the blessing. Carefully, carefully. For Heaven's
sake, be careful!
Suddenly Moshe-Yankel threw himself forward, and cried out, Oh!
The cry brought his wife, Basse-Beila, running into the Tabernacle.
What is it, Moshe-Yankel? God be with you!
Coarse blackguard! Man of the earth! he shouted at the carpenter,
and was ready to kill him.
How could you be such a coarse blackguard? Such a man of the earth?
Is a citron an ax? Or is it a saw? Or a bore? A citron is neither an ax
nor a saw nor a bore. You have cut my throat without a knife. You have
spoiled my citron. Here is the top of ithere, see! Coarse blackguard!
Man of the earth!
We were all paralysed on the instant. Zalmen was like a dead man. He
could not understand how this misfortune had happened to him. How had
the top come off the citron? Surely he had held it very lightly, only
just with the tips of his fingers? It was a misfortunea terrible
Basse-Beila was pale as death. She wrung her hands and moaned.
When a man is unfortunate, he may as well bury himself alive and
fresh and well, right in the earth.
And Leibel? Leibel did not know whether he should dance with joy
because the Lord had performed a miracle for him, released him from all
the trouble he had got himself into, or whether he should cry for his
father's agony and his mother's tears, or whether he should kiss
Zalmen's thick hands with the sticky fingers and the red nails, because
he was his redeemer, his good angel.... Leibel looked at his father's
face and his mother's tears, the carpenter's hands, and at the citron
that lay on the table, yellow as wax, without a head, without a spark
of life, a dead thing, a corpse.
A dead citron, said my father, in a broken voice.
A dead citron, repeated my mother, the tears gushing from her
A dead citron, echoed the carpenter, looking at his hands. He
seemed to be saying to himself: There's a pair of hands for you! May
A dead citron, said Leibel, in a joyful voice. But he caught
himself up, fearing his tones might proclaim that he, Leibel, was the
murderer, the slaughterer of the citron.