Pity for the
Living by Sholem
If you were a good boy, you would help us to scrape the
horse-radish until we are ready with the fish for the holy festival.
That was what my mother said to me on the eve of Shevuous,
about mid-day. She was helping the cook to prepare the fish for the
supper. The fishes were still alive and wriggling. When they were put
into a clay basin and covered with water they were still struggling.
More than any of the others there struggled a little carp with a
broad back, and a round head and red eyes. It seemed that the little
carp had a strong desire to get back into the river. It struggled hard.
It leaped out of the basin, flapped its tail, and splashed the water
right into my face. Little boy, save me! Little boy, save me!
I wiped my face, and betook myself to the task of scraping the
horse-radish for the supper. I thought within myself, Poor little
fish. I can do nothing for you. They will soon take you in hand. You
will be scaled and ripped open, cut into pieces, put in a pot, salted
and peppered, placed on the fire, and boiled and simmered, and
simmered, and simmered.
It's a pity, I said to my mother. It's a pity for the living.
Of whom is it a pity?
It's a pity of the little fishes.
Who told you that?
She exchanged glances with the cook who was helping her, and they
both laughed aloud.
You are a fool, and your teacher a still greater fool. Ha! ha!
Scrape the horse-radish, scrape away.
That I was a fool I knew. My mother told me that frequently, and my
brothers and my sisters too. But that my teacher was a greater fool
than Ithat was news to me.
* * *
I have a comrade, Pinalle, the Shochet's son. I was at his
house one day, and I saw how a little girl carried a fowl, a huge cock,
its legs tied with a string. My comrade's father, the Shochet,
was asleep, and the little girl sat at the door and waited. The cock, a
fine strong bird, tried to get out of the girl's arms. He drove his
strong feet into her, pecked at her hand, let out from his throat a
loud Cock-a-doodle-doo! protested as much as he could. But the girl
was no weakling either. She thrust the head of the rooster under her
arm and dug her elbows into him, saying:
Be still, you wretch!
And he obeyed and remained silent.
When the Shochet woke up, he washed his hands and took out
his knife. He motioned to have the bird handed to him. I imagined that
the cock changed colour. He must have thought that he was going to be
freed to race back to his hens, to the corn and the water. But it was
not so. The Shochet turned him round, caught him between his
knees, thrust back his head with one hand, with the other plucked out a
few little feathers, pronounced a blessingheck! the knife was drawn
across his throat. He was cast away. I thought he would fall to pieces.
Pinalle, your father is a heathen, I said to my comrade.
Why is he a heathen?
He has in him no pity for the living.
I did not know you were so clever, said my comrade, and he pulled
a long nose right into my face.
* * *
Our cook is blind of one eye. She is called Fruma with the little
eye. She is a girl without a heart. She once beat the cat with nettles
for having run away with a little liver from the board. Afterwards,
when she counted the fowls and the livers, it turned out that she had
made a mistake. She had thought there were seven fowls, and, of course,
seven little livers, and there were only six. And if there were only
six fowls there could be only six little livers. Marvellous! She had
accused the cat wrongly.
You might imagine that Fruma was sorry and apologized to the cat.
But it appeared she forgot all about it. And the cat, too, forgot all
about it. A few hours later she was lying on the stove, licking herself
as if nothing had happened. It's not for nothing that people say: A
But I did not forget. No, I did not forget. I said to the cook: You
beat the cat for nothing. You had a sin for no reason. It was a pity
for the living. The Lord will punish you.
Will you go away, or else I'll give it you across the face with the
That is what Fruma with the little eye said to me. And she added:
Lord Almighty! Wherever in the world do such children come from?
* * *
It was all about a dog that had been scalded with boiling water by
the same Fruma with the little eye. Ah, how much pain it caused the
dog. It squealed, howled and barked with all its might, filling the
world with noise. The whole town came together at the sound of his
howling, and laughed, and laughed. All the dogs in the town barked out
of sympathy, each from his own kennel, and each after his own fashion.
One might think that they had been asked to bark. Afterwards, when the
scalded dog had finished howling, he moaned and muttered and licked his
sores, and growled softly. My heart melted within me. I went over to
him and was going to fondle him.
The dog, seeing my raised hand, jumped up as if he had been scalded
again, took his tail between his legs and ran awayaway.
Shah! Sirko! I said trying to soothe him with soft words. Why do
you run away like that, fool? Am I doing you any harm?
A dog is a dog. His tongue is dumb. He knows nothing of pity for the
My father saw me running after the dog and he pounced down on me.
Go into 'Cheder,' dog-beater.
Then I was the dog-beater.
* * *
It was all about two little birdstwo tiny little birds that two
boys, one big and one small, had killed. When the two little birds
dropped from the tree they were still alive. Their feathers were
ruffled. They fluttered their wings, and trembled in every limb.
Get up, you hedgehog, said the big boy to the small boy. And they
took the little birds in their hands and beat their heads against the
tree-trunk, until they died.
I could not contain myself, but ran over to the two boys.
What are you doing here? I asked.
What's that to do with you? they demanded in Russian. What harm
is it? they asked calmly. They are no more than birds, ordinary
And if they are only birds? Have you no pity for the livingno
mercy for the little birds?
The boys looked curiously at one another, and as if they had already
made up their minds in advance to do it, they at once fell upon me.
When I came home, my torn jacket told the story, and my father gave
me the good beating I deserved.
Ragged fool! cried my mother.
I forgave her for the ragged fool, but why did she also beat me?
* * *
Why was I beaten? Does not our teacher himself tell us that all
creatures are dear to the Lord? Even a fly on the wall must not be
hurt, he says, out of pity for the living. Even a spider, that is an
evil spirit, must not be killed either, he tells us emphatically.
If the spider deserved to die, then the Lord Himself would slay
Then comes the question: Very well, if that is so, then why do the
people slaughter cows and calves and sheep and fowls every day of the
And not only cows and other animals and fowls, but do not men
slaughter one another? At the time when we had the Pogrom, did
not men throw down little children from the tops of houses? Did they
not kill our neighbours' little girl? Her name was Peralle. And how did
they kill her?
Ah, how I loved that little girl. And how that little girl loved me!
Uncle Bebebe, she used to call me. (My name is Velvalle.) And she
used to pull me by the nose with her small, thin, sweet little fingers.
Because of her, because of Peralle, every one calls me Uncle Bebebe.
Here comes Uncle Bebebe, and he will take you in hand.
* * *
Peralle was a sickly child. That is to say, in the ordinary way she
was all right, but she could not walk, neither walk nor stand, only
sit. They used to carry her into the open and put her sitting in the
sand, right in the sun. She loved the sun, loved it terribly. I used to
carry her about. She used to clasp me around the neck with her small,
thin, sweet little fingers, and nestle her whole body close to me
closer and closer. She would put her head on my shoulder. I love
Our neighbour Krenni says she cannot forget Uncle Bebebe to this
day. When she sees me, she says she is again reminded of her Peralle.
My mother is angry with her for weeping.
We must not weep, says my mother. We must not sin. We must
That is what my mother says. She interrupts Krenni in the middle and
drives me off.
If you don't get into our eyes, we won't remember that which we
Ha! ha! How is it possible to forget? When I think of that little
girl the tears come into my eyes of their own accordof their own
See, he weeps again, the wise one, cries Fruma with the little
eye to my mother. My mother gives me a quick glance and laughs aloud.
The horse-radish has gone into your eyes. The devil take you. It's
a hard piece of horse-radish. I forgot to tell him to close his eyes.
Woe is me! Here is my apron. Wipe your eyes, foolish boy. And your
nose, too, wipe at the same time your nose, your nose.