For Purim this year I read a story. Not the story of Esther, though. OK, yes, I did read some excerpts of the story of Esther, too. But line by line in my rather proper online Yiddish class. Not the right way, which would have been drunk and raucous and with costumes.
I picked a different story, just because the title related to the holiday. My mother often chooses to do this, as did her father before her. Rather than observe the holiday in the kosher manner, read something else relevant to it. This was once a common compromise among secularists who felt the pull at holiday-time, who wanted to maintain the feeling of connection, but could not bring themselves to do something religious or conformist.
Anyway, for Purim, thanks to the Yiddish Book Center and the miracle of Skype, we shared the I. L. Peretz story “Drunk All Year, Sober on Purim.”
The Yiddish text of the story can be found in a book called Folkstimlikhe Geshikhten, which is available free for download here: [Yiddish book center link]. The story starts on page 187.
You can also hear the story read aloud! [Here’s a link to the audio].
The language is a bit difficult at my level. It was not written for young people or students, as is much of the Yiddish material I read, and there are also a lot of Hebrew-origin words. But it’s not long, and I have a dictionary. And my mom (hi Mom) helps with the pronunciation. But it’s also helpful and fun to read along while listening to the audio recording.
The expression ‘drunk all year, sober on Purim’ is a common one in Yiddish, used in a general sense to refer to someone who is contrary. From its literal origin, it means doing something (deliberately?) at the wrong or opposite time. But it turns out the story isn’t really about that. Nor is it about or analogous to the Purim story per se. Purim does come into it, but really only to move the plot forward. It’s actually rather typical of Peretz stories in that it has a seemingly simple plot, into which can be read a multitude of meanings.
The story begins with a young man whose wife dies less than a year into their marriage. Unable to accept what has happened, he sells all his worldly goods, goes to the Yeshiva of Safed, tucks himself in a corner of the attic above the Beysmedresh (the synagogue), and studies.
When he’s not being invited out to eat in the community on Shabbes or on a holiday (an important part of the subsistence of a Yeshiva student, and a mitzvah for the townfolk), he is completely cut of from the world. He won’t even look at the people who bring him his bread and grits, but turns away to face the wall until they have gone again.
For various reasons, people begin to think he may be a saint or a miracle worker, but the Rabbi makes his skepticism clear. The man has not come to the study of Torah for the sake of Heaven. Therefore, the Rabbi predicts, he will meet resistance, and the ‘other side’ will throw obstacles and temptations in his path.
Then, a turkey appears. Yes, we had to double check that one in the dictionary. An indik. Shows up right at his door. And if you want to know what that means, how he reacts, or what happens after that, you’re going to have to read the story.
Sadly, the only English translation I’ve been able to find is 100 years old, and is just not very good. For now I’ll implore you to try the Yiddish first. If you’ve made an honest go of it, and you’re still having trouble, send me a message in the comments section and I’ll send you the English.
A freylekhn yontif. Happy Purim to all.