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Sholem Aleichem
1859-1916

   

Tevye Blows a Small Fortune

by Sholem Aleichem



   
 

    Raboys makhshovoys belev ish: “Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart but the counsel of the Lord shall prevail”—isn’t that what it says in the Bible? I don’t have to spell it out for you, Pan Sholem Aleichem, but in ordinary language, that is, in plain Yiddish, it means the best horse can do with a whipping and the cleverest man with advice. What makes me say that? Only the fact that if I had had enough sense to go ask some good friend about it, things would never have come to this sorry state. You know what, though? When God decides to punish a man, He begins by removing his brains. How many times have I said to myself, Tevye, you jackass, would you ever have been taken for such a ride if you weren’t the big fool you are? Just what was the matter, touch wood, with the living you were already making? You had a little dairy business that was, I swear, world-famous in Boiberik and Yehupetz, to say nothing of God knows where else. Just think how fine and dandy it would be if all your cash were stashed quietly away now in the ground, so that no one knew a thing about it. Whose business was it anyway, I ask you, if Tevye had a bit of spare change?… I mean that. A fat lot anyone cared about me when — it shouldn’t happen to a Jew! — I was six feet underground myself, dying from hunger three times a day with my wife and kids. It was only when God looked my way and did me a favor for a change, so that I managed to make a little something of myself and even to put away a few rubles, that the rest of the world sat up and noticed me too. They made such a fuss over Reb Tevye then that it wasn’t even funny. All of a sudden everybody was my best friend. How does the verse go? Kulom ahuvim, kulom brurim—when God gives with a spoon, man comes running with a shovel. Everyone wanted me for a partner: this one to buy a grocery, that one a dry-goods store, another a house, still another a farm — all solid investments, of course. I should put my money into wheat, into wood, into whatnot … “Brothers,” I said to them, “enough is enough. If you think I’m another Brodsky, you’re making a terrible mistake. I’d like to inform you that I haven’t three hundred rubles to my name, or even half of that, or even two-thirds of that half. It’s easy to decide that someone is worth a small fortune, but come a little closer and you’ll see what cock-and-bull it is.”
    In short, our Jews — don’t even mention them! — put the whammy on me. The next thing I know, God sends me a relative — and a real kissing cousin too, let me tell you, the horse’s own tail, as they say. Menachem Mendl was his name: a wheeler, a dealer, a schemer, a dreamer, a bag of hot air; no place on earth is bad enough to deserve him! He got hold of me and filled my head with such pipe dreams that it began to spin like a top … I can see, though, that you want to ask me a good question: why does a Tevye, of all people, get involved with a Menachem Mendl? Well, the answer to that is: because. Fate is fate. Listen to a story.
    One day early last winter I started out for Yehupetz with some merchandise — twenty-five pounds of the very best butter and a couple of wheels of white and yellow cheese such as I only wish could be yours. I hardly need say that I sold it all right away, every last lick of it, before I had even finished making the rounds of my summer customers, the dacha owners in Boiberik, who wait for me as though I were the Messiah. You could beat the merchants of Yehupetz black and blue, they still couldn’t come up with produce like mine! But I don’t have to tell you such things. How does the Bible put it?Yehalelkho zor—quality toots its own horn …
    In a word, having sold everything down to the last crumb and given my horse some hay, I went for a walk about town. Odom yesoydoy mi’ofor—a man is only a man: it’s no fault of his own if he likes to get a breath of fresh air, to take in a bit of the world, and to look at the fine things for sale in Yehupetz’s shopwindows. You know what they say about that: your eyes can go where they please, but please keep your hands to yourself!.. Well, there I was, standing by a moneychanger’s window full of silver rubles, gold imperials, and all sorts of bank notes, and thinking: God in heaven, if only I had ten percent of what I see here, You’d never catch me complaining again. Who could compare to me then? The first thing I’d do would be to make a match for my eldest daughter; I’d give her a dowry of five hundred rubles over and above her trousseau, her bridal gown, and the wedding costs. Then I’d sell my nag and wagon, move to town, buy a good seat in the front row of the synagogue and some pearls, God bless her, for my wife, and make a contribution to charity that would be the envy of any rich Jew. Next I’d open a free school for poor children, have a proper tin roof made for the synagogue instead of the wreck it has now, and build a shelter for all the homeless people who have to sleep on the floor there at night, the kind any decent town should have. And lastly, I’d see to it that that no-good Yankl was fired as sexton of the Burial Society, because it’s high time he stopped swilling brandy and guzzling chicken livers at the public expense …
    “Why, hello there, Reb Tevye!” I heard someone say behind me. “What’s new with a Jew?”
    I turned around to look — I could have sworn that the fellow was familiar. “Hello there, yourself,” I said. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
    “From somewhere?” he answers. “From Kasrilevke! I’m an acquaintance of yours. In fact, I’m actually your second cousin once removed. Your wife Golde is my third cousin on her father’s side.”
    “Say there,” I say. “You aren’t by any chance Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s son-in-law, are you?”
    “You guessed it,” he says. “I’m Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s son-in-law. And my wife, Shayne Shayndl, is Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s daughter. Do you know me now?”
    “Do I?” I say. “Your mother-in-law’s grandmother, Soreh Yente, and my wife’s aunt, Frume Zlote, were, I believe, real first cousins — which makes you Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s middle son-in-law indeed. The only trouble is that I’ve forgotten your name. It’s slipped right out of my mind. What exactly did you say it was?”
    “My name,” he says, “is Menachem Mendl. Boruch Hirsh and Leah Dvossi’s Menachem Mendl, that’s how I’m known in Kasrilevke.”
    “In that case, my dear Menachem Mendl,” I say to him, “you deserve a better hello than the one I gave you! Tell me, how are you? How are your mother-in-law and your father-in-law? How is everyone’s health? How is business?”
    “Eh,” he says. “As far as health goes, we’re all still alive, God be praised. But business is nothing to speak of.”
    “It’s sure to pick up,” I say, glancing at his clothes. They were patched in several places and his boots, the poor devil, were a safety hazard. “Leave it to God,” I said. “Things always look up in the end. It’s written in the Bible, hakoyl hevel—money never follows a straight line. One day you’re up, the next you’re down. The main thing is to keep breathing. And to have faith. A Jew has to hope. So what if things couldn’t be worse? That’s why there are Jews in the world! You know what they say: a soldier had better like the smell of gunpowder … Not that that has anything to do with it — why, all of life is but a dream … Tell me, though, my good fellow: what are you doing here, right smack in the middle of Yehupetz?”
    “What do you mean, what am I doing here?” he says. “I’ve been here, let me see, it’s been nearly a year and a half now.”
    “Is that so?” I say. “Do you mean to tell me that you live here?”
    “Sshhh!” he says to me, looking all around. “Not so loud. You’re right, I do live here, but that’s strictly between the two of us.”
    I stood staring at him as though at a madman. “If you’re hiding from the law,” I said to him, “are you sure that the main street of Yehupetz is the place for it?”
    “Ask me no questions, Reb Tevye,” he says. “That’s how it is. I can see that you don’t know very much about our legal system here. If you’ll just let me explain it to you, you’ll understand in a jiffy how a man can live here and not live here at one and the same time …” With which he launched into such a brief explanation, that is, such a long song and dance, about what he had been through trying to get a permit to live in Yehupetz that I said:
    “Listen, Menachem Mendl, I have an idea. Why don’t you come spend a day with us in the village? It will be a chance to rest your weary bones. You’ll be a most welcome guest. In fact, the old lady will be tickled pink to have you.”
    Well, it didn’t take much to convince him, and the two of us set out for my place. There was some to-do when we got there. A guest! A genuine third cousin! That may not seem like much, but kinfolk are best folk, as they say. What a carnival! How are things in Kasrilevke? How is Uncle Boruch Hirsh? How is Aunt Leah Dvossi? How is Uncle Yosl Menashe? How is Aunt Dobrish? What are all the children doing? Who’s died? Who’s been married? Who’s divorced? Who’s sick or expecting? “Golde,” I said at last, “what’s a wedding more or a circumcision less to you when we have nothing to put in our mouths? Koyl dikhfin yeysey veyitzrokh—it’s no fun dancing on an empty stomach. If there’s a bit of borscht around, that will do nicely, and if there isn’t, no matter — we’ll start right in on the knishes, or the kreplach, or the knaidlach, or the varnishkes, or the pirogen, or the blintzes. You needn’t limit yourself to one course, but be quick.”
    In a word, we washed our hands and sat down to a fine meal. “Have some more, Menachem Mendl,” I said when I was done. “It’s all vanity anyway, if you don’t mind my quoting King David. It’s a false and foolish world, and if you want to be healthy and enjoy it, as my Grandma Nechomeh used to say — oh, she was a smart one, all right, sharp as a whistle! — then you must never forget to lick the pot clean.” My poor devil of a guest was so hungry that his hands shook. He didn’t stop praising my wife’s cooking and swearing up and down that he couldn’t remember when he had last eaten such delicious dairy food, such wonderful knishes and tasty varnishkes. “Don’t be silly, Menachem Mendl,” I said. “You should try her pudding or her poppy cake — then you would know what heaven on earth is really like.”
    After the meal we chatted a bit as people do. I told him about my business and he told me about his; I talked about everything under the sun and he talked about Yehupetz and Odessa, where he had been, as they say, through thick and thin, now on top of the world and now in the pits, one day a prince, and the next a pauper, and then a prince again, and once more without a shirt on his back. Never in my life had I heard of such weird, complicated transactions: stocks and shares, and selling long and short, and options and poptions, and the Devil only knows what else. And for the craziest sums too, ten and twenty thousand rubles, as though money were water! “To tell you the truth, Menachem Mendl,” I said, “you must have a marvelous head on your shoulders to figure all that out. There’s one thing I don’t get, though: if I know your wife as I think I do, how does she let you run around loose like this without coming after you on a broomstick?”
    “Ah, Reb Tevye,” he says with a sigh, “I wish you hadn’t mentioned that. She runs hot and cold, she does, mostly freezing. If I were to read you some of the letters she writes me, you’d see what a saint I am. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s a wife for, if not to put a man in his place? Believe me, I have a worse problem than her, and that’s my mother-in-law. I don’t have to describe her to you — you know her well enough yourself.”
    “What you’re trying to tell me,” I say, “is that she’s just like it says in the Bible, akudim nekudim uvrudim. Or to put it in plain language, like an abcess on a blister on a boil.”
    “Reb Tevye,” he says, “you’ve hit the nail on the head. And if you think the boil and the blister are bad, wait until you hear about the abcess.”
    In a word, we stayed up gabbing half the night. By then I was dizzy from all his wild stories about the thousands of rubles he had juggled as though he were Brodsky. All night long my head was in a whirl: Yehupetz … gold imperials … Brodsky … Menachem Mendl and his mother-in-law … It wasn’t until the next morning, though, that he finally got to the point. What was the point? It was, said Menachem Mendl, that since money was so scarce in Yehupetz that you couldn’t even give away your goods, “You, Reb Tevye, have a chance not only to make a nice killing but also to help save my life, I mean literally to raise me from the dead!”
    “And you,” I said to him, “are talking like a child. Are you really so foolish as to believe that I’m sitting on Yehupetz’s millions? I only wish the two of us could earn in a year a tenth of what I’d need to be half as rich as Brodsky.”
    “Of course,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me that. But what makes you think I have such big sums in mind? Let me have a hundred rubles and in a couple of days I’ll turn them into two hundred for you, into three hundred, into six hundred, into seven. In fact, I’ll make it an even thousand.”
    “That may very well be,” I said. “All things are possible. But do you know when they are? When there’s a hundred in the first place. When there isn’t, it’s begapoy yovoy uvegapoy yeytsey. Do you know what Rashi has to say about that? That if you invest a fever, you’ll get consumption for your profit.”
    “Come, come,” he says to me. “A hundred rubles, Reb Tevye, you’re sure to find. With your business, your reputation, touch wood …”
    “What’s my reputation got to do with it?” I ask. “A reputation is a wonderful thing to have, but would you like to know something? It’s all I do have, because Brodsky has all the rest. If you must know exactly, it may be that I could squeeze together somewhere in the neighborhood of roughly more or less a hundred rubles, but I can also think of a hundred different ways to make them disappear again, the first of which is marrying off my eldest daughter …”
    “But that’s just it!” he says. “Listen to me! When will you have another opportunity, Reb Tevye, to invest a hundred rubles and wind up, God willing, with enough money to marry off every one of your daughters and still have plenty to spare?” And for the next three hours he’s off on another serenade about how he can turn one ruble into three and three into ten. “The first thing you do,” he says, “is take your hundred and buy ten whatchumacallits with it.” (That wasn’t his word, I just don’t remember what he called them.) “You wait a few days for them to go up, and then you send off a telegram with an order to sell and buy twice as much. Then you wait a few more days and send a telegram again. Before you know it, your hundred’s worth two, your two hundred four, your four hundred eight, and your eight a thousand and six. It’s the damnedest thing! Why, I know people who just the other day were shop clerks in Yehupetz without a pair of shoes on their feet; today they live in mansions with walls to keep out beggars and travel to the baths in Germany whenever their wives get a stomachache. They ride around town in rubber-wheeled droshkies — why, they don’t even know you anymore!”
    Well, so as not to make a short story long, he gave me such an itch to be rich that it wasn’t any laughing matter. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? I told myself. Maybe he’s really meant to be your good angel. What makes you think you’re any worse than those shop clerks in Yehupetz who are living on easy street? He’s certainly not lying, because he could never make up such fairy tales in a million years … It just may be, I thought, that Tevye’s lucky number has come up at last and he’s finally going to be somebody in his old age. How long does a man have to go on working himself to the bone — day and night, horse and wagon, cheese and butter, over and over again? It’s high time, Tevye, for you to relax a bit, to drop in on a synagogue and read a book now and then like any respectable Jew. What are you so afraid of? That nothing will come of it? That you’ll be fleeced like a lamb? That your bread, as they say, will fall with the butter side down? But what’s to keep it from falling with the butter side up? “Golde,” I asked the old lady, “what do you think? How does our cousin’s plan strike you?”
    “What should I think?” she said. “I know that Menachem Mendl isn’t some fly-by-night who’s out to put one over on you. He doesn’t come from a family of fishmongers. His father was a fine Jew, and his grandfather was such a crackerjack that he kept right on studying Torah even after he went blind. Even his Grandmother Tsaytl, may she rest in peace, was no ordinary woman …”
    “I’m talking Purim costumes and you’re talking Hanukkah candles!” I said. “What do his Grandmother Tsaytl and her honey cakes have to do with it? Next you’ll be telling me about her saint of a grandfather who died with a bottle in his arms! Once a woman, always a woman, I tell you. It’s no coincidence that King Solomon traveled the whole world and couldn’t find a single female with all her marbles in her head!”
    In a word, we decided to go halves: I would invest the money and Menachem Mendl the brains, and we would split what God gave us down the middle. “Believe me, Reb Tevye,” he said to me, “I’ll be fair and square with you. With God’s help, you’ll soon be in clover.”
    “Amen,” I said, “the same to you. May your mouth be up against His ears. There’s one thing that still isn’t clear to me, though: how do we get the cat across the river? I’m here, you’re there, and money, as you know, is a highly perishable substance. Don’t take offense, I’m not trying to outfox you, God forbid. It’s just that Father Abraham knew what he was talking about when he said, hazoyrim bedimoh berinoh yiktsoyru—better twice warned than once burned.”
    “Oh,” he says to me, “you mean we should put it down in writing. With the greatest of pleasure.”
    “Not at all,” I say. “What good would that do? If you want to ruin me, a piece of paper won’t stop you. Lav akhboroh ganvo—it’s not the signature that counts, it’s the man that signs. If I’m going to hang by one foot, I may as well hang by two.”
    “Leave it to me, Reb Tevye,” he says. “I swear by all that’s holy — may God strike me down if I try any monkey business! I wouldn’t even dream of such a thing. This is strictly an aboveboard operation. God willing, we’ll split the take between us, half and half, fifty-fifty, a hundred for me, a hundred for you, two hundred for me, two hundred for you, three hundred for me, three hundred for you, four hundred for me, four hundred for you, a thousand for me, a thousand for you …”
    In a word, I took out my money, counted it three times with a trembling hand, called my wife to be a witness, explained to him once more how I had sweated blood for it, and handed it over to him, making sure to sew it into his breast pocket so that no one could steal it on the way. Then I made him promise to write me every detail by the end of the following week and said goodbye to him like the best of friends, even kissing him on the cheek as cousins do.
    Once he was gone and we were alone again, I began having such wonderful thoughts and sweet dreams that I could have wished they’d go on forever. I imagined ourselves living in the middle of town, in a huge house with a real tin roof, and lots of wings, and all kinds of rooms and alcoves and pantries filled with good things, and my wife Golde, a regular lady now, walking from room to room with a key ring in her hand — why, she looked so different, so high-and-mighty with her pearls and double chin, that I hardly recognized her! And the airs she put on, and the way she swore at the servants! My kids waltzed around in their Sabbath best without lifting a finger, while geese, chickens, and ducks cackled in the yard. The house was all lit up; a fire glowed in the fireplace; supper was cooking on the stove, and the kettle whistled like a horse thief. Only, who’s that sitting in a house frock and skullcap at the dining table, surrounded by the most prominent Jews in Yehupetz, all begging for his attention? Why, I do believe it’s Tevye! “Begging your pardon, Reb Tevye …” “No offense meant, Reb Tevye …” “That would be most kind of you, Reb Tevye …”
    “Damn it all!” I said, snapping out of it. “The Devil take every last ruble on earth!”
    “Who are you sending to the Devil?” asked my Golde.
    “No one,” I said. “I was just thinking — dreaming — of pie in the sky … Tell me, Golde, my darling, you wouldn’t happen to know by any chance what this cousin of yours, Menachem Mendl, does for a living, would you?”
    “May all my bad dreams come true for my enemies!” says my wife. “What? Do you mean to tell me that after talking and talking with that fellow all day and all night, I should tell you what he does for a living? God help me if I understood a thing about it, but I thought you two became partners.”
    “So we did,” I said. “It’s just that you can have my head on a platter if I have the foggiest notion what it is that we’re partners in. I simply can’t make heads or tails of it. Not that that’s any reason for alarm, my dear. Something tells me not to worry. I do believe, God willing, that we’re going to be in the gravy — and now say amen and make supper!”
    In short, a week went by, and then another, and then another — and not a peep from my partner! I was beside myself, I went about like a chicken without its head, not knowing what to think. It can’t be, I thought, that he simply forgot to write; he knows perfectly well that we’re waiting to hear from him. And suppose he’s skimmed all the cream for himself and claims we haven’t earned a kopeck’s profit, what can I do about it — call him a monkey’s uncle?… Only I don’t believe it, I told myself, it simply isn’t possible. Here I’ve gone and treated him like one of the family, the good luck that I’ve wished him should only be mine — how could he go and play such a trick on me?… Just then, though, I had an even worse thought: the principal! The Devil take the profit, Menachem Mendl could have it, revakh vehatsoloh ya’amoyd layehudim—but God protect my principal from him! You old fool, I said to myself, you sewed your whole fortune into his jacket with your own two hands! Why, with the same hundred rubles you could have bought yourself a team of horses such as no Jew ever horsed around with before, and traded in your old cart for a new droshky with springs in the bargain!
    “Tevye,” says my wife, “don’t just stand there doing nothing. Think!”
    “What does it look like I’m doing?” I asked. “I’m thinking so hard that my head is falling off, and all you can tell me is, think!”
    “Well,” she says, “something must have happened to him. Either he was stripped bare by thieves, or else he’s taken ill, or else, God forgive me, he’s gone and died on us.”
    “Thieves? That’s a good one! What other cheery thoughts do you have, light of my life?” I asked — though to myself I thought, who knows what a man can meet up with when he’s traveling? “Why is it that you always have to imagine the worst?”
    “Because,” she says, “it runs in his family. His mother, may she speak no ill of us in heaven, passed away not long ago in her prime, and his three sisters are all dead too. One died as a girl; one was married but caught a cold in the bathhouse and never recovered from it; and one went crazy after her first confinement and wasted away into nothing …”
    “May the dead live in Paradise, Golde,” I said, “because that’s where we’ll join them some day. A man, I tell you, is no different from a carpenter; that is, a carpenter lives till he dies, and so does a man.”
    In a word, we decided that I should pay a call on Menachem Mendl. By now I had a bit of merchandise, some Grade A cheese, cream, and butter, so I harnessed the horse to the wagon and vayisu misukoys—off to Yehupetz I went. I hardly need tell you that I was in a black and bitter mood, and as I drove through the forest my fears got the better of me. No doubt, I thought, when I ask for my man in Yehupetz I’ll be told, “Menachem Mendl? There’s someone who’s made it to the top. He lives in a big house and rides about in droshkies — you’ll never recognize him!” Still, I’ll pluck up my nerve and go straight to his house. “Hey, there, uncle,” says the doorman, sticking an elbow in my ribs, “just where do you think you’re going? It’s by appointment only here, in case you didn’t know.”
    “But I’m a relative of his,” I say. “He’s my second cousin once removed on my wife’s side.”
    “Congratulations,” says the doorman. “Pleased to meet you. I’m afraid, though, that you’ll have to cool your heels all the same. I promise you your health won’t suffer from it.”
    I realize that I have to cross his palm. How does the verse go? Oylim veyordim—if you want to travel, you better grease the wheels. At once I’m shown in to Menachem Mendl.
    “A good morning to you, Reb Menachem Mendl,” I say to him.
    A good what to who? Eyn oymer ve’eyn dvorim—he doesn’t know me from Adam! “What do you want?” he says to me.
    I feel weak all over. “But how can it be, Pani,” I say, “that you don’t even know your own cousin? It’s me, Tevye!”
    “Eh?” he says. “Tevye? The name rings a bell.”
    “Oh, it does, does it?” I say. “I suppose my wife’s blintzes, and knishes, and knaidlach, and varnishkes all happen to ring a bell too …?”
    He doesn’t answer me, though, because now I imagine the opposite: as soon as he catches sight of me, he greets me like a long-lost friend. “What a guest! What a guest! Sit down, Reb Tevye, and tell me how you are. And how is your wife? I’ve been looking all over for you, we have some accounts to settle.” And with that he dumps a bushel of gold imperials out on the table. “This,” he says, “is your share of the profit. The principal has been reinvested. Whatever we make we’ll keep on sharing, half and half, fifty-fifty, a hundred for me, a hundred for you, two hundred for me, two hundred for you, three hundred for me, three hundred for you, four hundred for me, four hundred for you …”
    He was still talking when I dozed off, so that I didn’t see my old dobbin stray from the path and run the wagon into a tree. It gave me such a jolt in the pants that I saw stars. Just look how everything turns out for the best, I told myself. You can consider yourself lucky that the axle didn’t break …
    Well, I arrived in Yehupetz, had my goods snatched up in no time as usual, and began to look for my fine friend. One, two, three hours went by in roaming the streets of the town—vehayeled eynenu, there’s neither hide nor hair of him. Finally I stopped some people and asked, “Excuse me, but do you by any chance know of a Jew around here whose given name is Menachem Mendl?”
    “Menachem Mendl?” they say to me. “We know no endl Menachem Mendls. Which one are you looking for?”
    “You mean what’s his last name?” I say. “It’s Menachem Mendl. Back home in Kasrilevke he’s called after his mother-in-law, that is, Leah Dvossi’s Menachem Mendl. In fact, his father-in-law — and a fine old man he is — is called Leah Dvossi’s Boruch Hirsh. Why, Leah Dvossi is so well known in Kasrilevke that she herself is called Leah Dvossi’s Boruch Hirsh’s Leah Dvossi. Do you know who I’m talking about now?”
    “We follow you perfectly,” they say. “But that still isn’t enough. What’s his line? What does he deal in, this Menachem Mendl of yours?”
    “What’s his line?” I say. “His line is gold imperials, and now and then poptions. And telegrams to St. Petersburg and Warsaw.”
    “Is that so?” they say, holding their sides. “If it’s the Menachem Mendl who’ll sell you a bird in the bush at half price that you’re looking for, you’ll find him over there with all the other bushmen, on the other side of the street.”
    One is never too old to learn, I thought, but bushmen? Still, I crossed to the opposite sidewalk, where I found myself among such a mob of Jews that I could hardly move. They were packed together as at a fairgrounds, running around like crazy and climbing all over each other. What bedlam! Everyone was shouting and waving his hands at once. “Up a quarter!.. Give me ten!.. Word of honor!.. Put it there!.. Cash on the barrelhead!.. Scratch that!.. You double-dealer!.. You four-flusher!.. I’ll bash your head in!.. You should spit in his eye!.. He’ll lose his shirt!.. What a chiseler!.. You’re a bankrupt!.. You’re a bootlicker!.. So’s your old man!..” They looked about to come to blows. Vayivrakh Ya’akoyv, I told myself: you better scram while you can, Tevye, my friend. If only you had listened to what the Bible says, you would never have believed in False Profits. So this is where the gold imperials grow on trees? This is the business you invested in? A black day it was that you became a businessman!
    In a word, I had moved on a bit and come to a big display window full of pants when whose reflection did I see in it but Mr. Moneybags’ himself! My heart sank to my stomach. I thought I would die! We should only live to meet our worst enemies crawling down the street like Menachem Mendl. You should have seen his coat! And his shoes! And the face on him — why, a corpse in the grave looks better. Nu, Tevye, I thought, ka’asher ovadeti ovadeti—you’re up the creek this time for sure. You can kiss every cent you ever had goodbye. Loy dubim veloy ya’ar—the principal’s gone with the profit and all that’s left you is troubles!
    He too must have been stunned to see me, because we just went on standing there without a word, staring at each other like two roosters, as if to say, you know and I know that it’s all over with the two of us; there’s nothing for it now but to take a tin cup and start going from door to door with it …
    “Reb Tevye,” he said in such a whisper that I could hardly hear him. “Reb Tevye! With luck like mine it’s better not to be born. I’d rather hang than have to live like this …”
    He couldn’t get out another word. “There’s no doubt, Menachem Mendl,” I said, “that you deserve as much. You should be taken right now and given such a whipping in the middle of Yehupetz, in front of everyone, that you’d soon be paying a call on your Grandmother Tsaytl in the next world. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? You’ve taken a house full of people, live, feeling human beings who never did you an ounce of harm, and slit their throats without a knife! How in the world am I supposed to show my face now to my wife and kids? Perhaps you can tell me that, you thief, you, you swindler, you murderer!”
    “It’s the truth,” he says, flattening himself against the wall. “So help me God, every word of what you say is true!”
    “Hell itself,” I say, “hell itself, you cretin, is too good for you!”
    “It’s the truth, Reb Tevye,” he says. “So help me God, before I’ll go on living like this any longer, I’ll … I’ll …”
    And he hung his head. I stood there looking at the schlimazel pressed against the wall with his hat falling off, every sigh and groan of his breaking my heart. “Well,” I said, “come to think of it, there’s no sense in blaming you either. After all, it’s ridiculous to suppose you did it on purpose, because you were a partner just like me, the business was half yours. I put in the money, you put in the brains, and don’t we both wish we hadn’t! I’m sure you meant well, lekhayim veloy lamoves. If we blew a small fortune, that’s only because we weren’t meant to make a big one. How does the verse go? Al tis’haleyl beyoym mokhor—the more man plans, the harder God laughs. Take my dairy business, for example. You would think it was pretty solid — and yet just last autumn, it shouldn’t happen to you, a cow dropped dead on me for whose carcass I was lucky to get fifty kopecks, and right after her, a red heifer that I wouldn’t have sold for twenty rubles. Was there anything I could do about it? If it’s not in the cards, you can stand on your head and say the alphabet backwards — it doesn’t help a damn bit. I’m not even asking what you did with the money that I bled for. I know as much as I want to, that it went to buy birds in a bush, whole flocks of them, and that I’ll never get to see a single one. And whose fault is it? It’s my own, for having been taken in by a lot of hot air. Take it from me, the only way to make money is to work your bottom off. Which is where you, Tevye, deserve to get a swift kick! But what good does it do to cry about it? It’s just like it says in the Bible, vetso’akoh hane’aroh—you can scream till you burst, who says that anyone is listening? Wisdom and second thoughts are two things that always come too late. Tevye just wasn’t meant to be upper crust, that’s not how God wanted it. Hashem nosan vehashem lokakh, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away — in which case, says Rashi, cheer up, my friend, and let’s go have a little shot of brandy!..”

    And that, Pan Sholem Aleichem, is how I blew all my money. But if you think I’ve been eating my heart out over it, you have another guess coming. You know the Bible’s opinion: li hakesef veli hazohov—money is a lot of baloney. What matters is the man who has it — I mean, what matters is for a man to be a man. Do you know what I still can’t get over, though? Losing my dream! If only you knew how badly, oh Lord, how really badly I wanted to be a rich Jew, if only for just a few days! But go be smarter than life. Doesn’t it say be’al korkhekho atoh khai—nobody asks if you want to be born or if you want your last pair of boots to be torn. “Instead of dreaming, Tevye,” God was trying to tell me, “you should have stuck to your cheese and butter.” Does that mean I’ve lost faith and stopped hoping for better times? Don’t you believe it! The more troubles, the more faith, the bigger the beggar, the greater his hopes. How can that be, you ask? But I’ve already gone on enough for one day, and I’d better be off and about my business. How does the verse go? Koyl ha’odom koyzev—there isn’t a man who hasn’t taken a beating sometime. Don’t forget to take care and be well!
    (1899)

 
           

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