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Greens for “Shevuous” by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

 

On the eve of “Shevuous,” I induced my mother—peace be unto her!—to let me go off outside the town, by myself, to gather greens for the Festival.

And my mother let me go off alone to gather the greens for the Festival. May she have a bright Paradise for that!

A real pleasure is a pleasure that one enjoys by one's self, without a companion, and without a single argument. I was alone, free as a bird, in the big cultivated field. Above me was the whole of the blue cap called “the sky.” For me alone shone the beautiful queen of the day, the sun. For my sake there came together, here in the big field, all the singers and warblers and dancers. For my sake there was spread before me the row of tall sunflowers, and the delicate growths were scattered all over the field by a benevolent nature. No one bothered me. No one prevented me from doing what I liked. No one saw me but God. And I could do what I liked. If I liked I might sing. If I liked I might shout and scream at the top of my voice. If I liked I might make a horn with my hands, and blow out a melody. If I liked I might roll on the green grass just as I was, curling myself up like a hedgehog. Who was there to give me orders? And whom would I pay heed to? I was free—I was free.

The day was so warm, the sun so beautiful, the sky so clear, the field so green, the grass so fresh, my heart so gay, and my soul so joyful that I forgot completely I was a stranger in the field and had merely come out to cut green boughs for “Shevuous.” I imagined I was a prince, and the whole field that my eyes rested on, and everything in the field, and even the blue sky above it—all were mine. I owned everything, and could do what I liked with it—I, and no one else. And like an overlord who had complete control of everything, I longed to show my power, my strength, my authority—all that I could and would do.

* * *

First of all I was displeased with the tall giants with the yellow hats—the sunflowers. Suddenly they appeared to me as my enemies. And all the other plants with and without stalks, the beans and beanstalks, were enemies too. They were the Philistines that had settled on my ground. Who had sent for them? And those thick green plants lying on the ground, with huge green heads—the cabbages, what are they doing here? They will only get drunk and bring a misfortune upon me. Let them go into the earth. I do not want them. Angry thoughts and fierce instincts awoke within me. A curious feeling of vengefulness took possession of me. I began to avenge myself of my enemies. And what a vengeance it was!

I had with me all the tools I would need for cutting the green boughs for the Festival—pocket-knife with two blades, and a sword—a wooden sword, but a sharp one.

This sword had remained with me after “L'ag Beomer.” And although I had carried it with me when I had gone with my comrades to do battle outside the town, yet I could swear to you, though you may believe me without an oath, that the sword had not spilled one drop of blood. It was one of those weapons that are carried about in times of peace. There was not a sign of war. It was quiet and peaceful around and about. I carried the sword because I wanted to. For the sake of peace, one must have in readiness swords and guns and rifles and cannon, horses and soldiers. May they never be needed for ill, as my mother used to say when she was making preserves.

* * *

It is the same all the world over. In a war, one aims first at the leaders, the officers. It is better still if one can hit the general. After that the soldiers fall like chaff, in any event. Therefore you will not be surprised to hear that, first of all, I fell upon Goliath the Philistine. I gave him a good blow on the head with my sword, and a few good blows from the back. And the wicked one was stretched at my feet, full length. After that I knocked over a good many more wicked ones. I pulled the stalks out of the ground, and threw them to the devil. The short, fat green enemies I attacked in a different manner. Wherever I could, I took the green heads off. The others I trampled down with my feet. I made a heap of ashes of them.

During a battle, when the blood is hot, and one is carried away by excitement, one cuts down everything that is at hand, right and left. When one is spilling blood, one loses one's self, one does not know where one is in the world. At such a time, one does not honour old age. One does not care about weak women. One has no pity for little children. Blood is simply poured out like water.... When I was cutting down the enemy, I felt a hatred and a malice I had never experienced before, immediately after I had delivered the first blow. The more I killed the more excited I became. I urged myself to go on. I was so beside myself, so enflamed, so ecstatic that I smashed up, and destroyed everything before me. I cut about me on all sides. Most of all the “little ones” suffered at my hands—the young peas in the fat little pods, the tiny cucumbers that were just showing above ground. These excited me by their silence and their coldness. And I gave them such a share that they would never forget me. I knocked off heads, tore open bellies, shattered to atoms, beat, murdered, killed. May I know of evil as little as I know how I came to be so wicked. Innocent potatoes, poor things, that lay deep in the earth, I dug out, just to show them that there was no hiding from me. Little onions and green garlic I tore up by the roots. Radishes flew about me like hail. And may the Lord punish me if I even tasted a single bite of anything. I remembered the law in the Bible forbidding it. And Jews do not plunder. Every minute, when an evil spirit came and tempted me to taste a little onion or a young garlic, the words of the Bible came into my mind.... But I did not cease from beating, breaking, wounding, and killing and cutting to pieces, old and young, poor and rich, big and little, without the least mercy....

On the contrary, I imagined I heard their wails and groans and cries for mercy, and I was not moved. It was remarkable that I who could not bear to see a fowl slaughtered, or a cat beaten, or a dog insulted, or a horse whipped—I should be such a tyrant, such a murderer....

“Vengeance,” I shouted without ceasing, “vengeance. I will have my revenge of you for all the Jewish blood that was spilled. I will repay you for Jerusalem, for the Jews of Spain and Portugal, and for the Jews of Morocco. Also for the Jews who fell in the past, and those who are falling today. And for the Scrolls of the Law that were torn, and for the ... Oh! oh! oh! Help! Help! Who has me by the ear?”

Two good thumps and two good smacks in the face at the one time sobered me on the instant. I saw before me a man who, I could have sworn, was Okhrim, the gardener.

* * *

Okhrim the gardener had for years cultivated fields outside the town. He rented a piece of ground, made a garden of it, and planted in it melons and pumpkins, and onions and garlic and radishes and other vegetables. He made a good living in this way. How did I know Okhrim? He used to deal with us. That is to say, he used to borrow money off my mother every Passover eve, and about “Succoth” time, he used to begin to pay it back by degrees. These payments used to be entered on the inside cover of my mother's prayer-book. There was a separate page for Okhrim, and a separate account. It was headed in big writing, “Okhrim's account.” Under these words came the entries: “A 'rouble ' from Okhrim. Another 'rouble' from Okhrim. Two 'roubles' from Okhrim. Half a 'rouble' from Okhrim. A sack of potatoes from Okhrim,” and so on.... And though my mother was not rich—a widow with children, who lived by money-lending—she took no interest from Okhrim. He used to repay us in garden-produce, sometimes more, sometimes less. We never quarrelled with him.

If the harvest was good, he filled our cellar with potatoes and cucumbers to last us all the winter. And if the harvest was bad, he used to come and plead with my mother:

“Do not be offended, Mrs. Abraham, the harvest is bad.”

My mother forgave him, and told him not to be greedy next year.

“You may trust me, Mrs. Abraham, you may trust me,” Okhrim replied. And he kept his word. He brought us the first pickings of onions and garlic. We had new potatoes and green cucumbers before the rich folks. I heard our neighbours say, more than once, that the widow was not so badly off as she said. “See, they bring her the best of everything.” Of course, I at once told my mother what I had heard, and she poured out a few curses on our neighbours.

“Salt in their eyes, and stones in their hearts! Whoever begrudges me what I have, let him have nothing. I wish them to be in my position next year.”

Naturally, I at once told my neighbours what my mother had wished them; and, of course, for these words they were enraged against her. They called her by a name I was ashamed to hear.... Naturally I was angry, and at once told my mother of it. My mother gave me two smacks and told me to give up carrying “'Purim' presents” from one to the other. The smacks pained, and the words “'Purim' presents” gnawed at my brain. I could not understand why she said “'Purim' presents.”

I used to rejoice when I saw Okhrim from the distance, in his high boots and his thick, white, warm, woollen pellisse which he wore winter and summer. When I saw him, I knew he was bringing us a sackful of garden produce. And I flew into the kitchen to tell my mother the news that Okhrim was coming.

* * *

I must confess that there was a sort of secret love between Okhrim and myself—a sort of sympathy that could not be expressed in words. We rarely spoke to one another. Firstly, because I did not understand his language, that is to say, I understood his but he did not understand mine. Secondly, I was shy. How could I talk to such a big Okhrim? I had to ask my mother to be our interpreter.

“Mother, ask him why he does not bring me some grapes.”

“Where is he going to get them? There are no grapes growing in a vegetable garden.”

“Why are there no grapes in a vegetable garden?”

“Because vine trees do not grow with vegetables.”

“Why do vine trees not grow with vegetables?”

“Why—why—why? You are a fool,” cried my mother, and gave me a smack in the face.

“Mrs. Abraham, do not beat the child,” said Okhrim, defending me.

That is the sort of Gentile Okhrim was. And it was in his hands I found myself that day when I waged war against the vegetables.

This is what I believe took place: When Okhrim came up and saw his garden in ruins, he could not at once understand what had happened. When he saw me swinging my sword about me on all sides, he ought to have realized I was a terrible being, an evil spirit, a demon, and crossed himself several times. But when he saw that it was a Jewish boy who was fighting so vigorously, and with a wooden sword, he took hold of me by the ear with so much force that I collapsed, fell to the ground, and screamed in a voice unlike my own:

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Who is pulling me by the ear?”

It was only after Okhrim had given me a few good thumps and several resounding smacks that we encountered each other's eyes and recognized one another. We were both so astonished that we were speechless.

“Mrs. Abraham's boy!” cried Okhrim, and he crossed himself. He began to realize the ruin I had brought on his garden. He scrutinized each bed and examined each little stick. He was so overcome that the tears filled his eyes. He stood facing me, his hands folded, and he asked me only one solitary question:

“Why have you done this to me?”

It was only then that I realized the mischief I had done, and whom I had done it to. I was so amazed at myself that I could only repeat:

“Why? Why?”

“Come,” said Okhrim, and took me by the hand. I was bowed to the earth with fear. I imagined he was going to make an end of me. But Okhrim did not touch me. He only held me so tightly by the hand that my eyes began to bulge from my head. He brought me home to my mother, told her everything, and left me entirely in her hands.

* * *

Need I tell you what I got from my mother? Need I describe for you her anger, and her fright, and how she wrung her hands when Okhrim told her in detail all that had taken place in his garden, and of all the damage I had done to his vegetables? Okhrim took his stick and showed my mother how I had destroyed everything on all sides, how I had smashed and broken, and trampled down everything with my feet, pulled the little potatoes out of the ground, and torn the tops off the little onions and the garlic that were just showing above the earth.

“And why? And wherefore? Why, Mrs. Abraham—why?”

Okhrim could say no more. The sobs stuck in his throat and choked him.

I must tell you the real truth, children. I would rather Okhrim with the strong arms had beaten me, than have got what I did from my mother, before “Shevuous,” and what the teacher gave me after “ Shevuous.” ... And the shame of it all. I was reminded of it all the year round by the boys at “Cheder.” They gave me a nickname—“The Gardener.” I was Yossel “the gardener.”

This nickname stuck to me almost until the day I was married.

That is how I went to gather greens for “Shevuous.”

 
 
 

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