Questions

Questions
by Solomon Simon
.
(based on two Hebrew stories by Yehuda Steinberg)
Published in Kinder Zhurnal, April, 1933 pp. 7-9

Joseph was six years old. A small, skinny little boy with big blue-gray eyes. A restless boy. He was always busy—working on, tinkering with, looking for, or dragging something around. Otherwise—talking.

His mouth never closed. Always asking questions. He was unendurable. Always in the way. He was generally yelled at for his talking. They called him chatterbox, long-tongue, millwheel, phonograph, and organ grinder.

Joseph did not know why people yelled at him. His father himself said that a good boy should learn well and grow up to know things, like his uncle Isaac. So, if you don’t ask questions, how can you know everything?

Grownups are just strange people. Take his dad—seems like an alright guy, a good man. But, nevertheless, strange.

Listen to this. When Joseph was four years old, he noticed the lightning for the first time, and he asked his father:

“Ta’te, how can fire come from a black cloud?”

His father did not answer. Then later he told everyone he knew what Joseph had asked him. Nu, if it was such a clever question, why didn’t he answer it?

Strange folks, the grownups. You ask them, and they don’t answer.

It rained for three days in a row. It was sad sitting in the house all day and not being able to go outside to play with his friends. Joseph sat and thought. God made the rain, after all. Maybe he could pray to God to stop the rain. But God is far away. Who knows if He would hear him.

Joseph asked his mother:

“Momma, if I talk, does God hear it?”

His mother answered, “Of course. And if you say good and nice things, God will like you. If you say bad things, he’ll punish you.”

“Does he hear when I whisper?” asked Joseph.

“Of course,” said his mother.

“Good, Momma,” said Joseph. I will pray to God to stop the rain. ‘God, God, stop the rain. I want to go out in the street and play.’”

The rain poured down without a pause. Joseph came to his mother with a new question.

“Momma, why didn’t God make the rain stop? I prayed to him.”

His mother got angry:

“Again already with the questions! Be quiet. Turn the machinery off for a while.”

Joseph retreated grumpily into a corner. And it irritated him even more when later in the evening he heard his mother telling his father all about Joseph’s cleverness.

Joseph had a lot of questions. But he did not know whom to ask. He repeated them and kept them in his head. If he met some clever person, one who would not get mad right away, he would ask him.

Surely his uncle Isaac would answer all of his questions. His father said that Uncle Isaac was the smartest man in America. He was a professor. But his uncle lived far away, somewhere in the state of Oregon. That’s where he was a professor. Isaac had never met his uncle.

One day his father came home happy, and told his mother proudly:

“My brother is in New York. He will visit us tomorrow. He’s coming here for dinner.

“Is he here with his wife?” asked his mother.

“No, alone. Came to give a talk at Columbia.”

“We should invite one of the neighbors. They should also…”

Joseph interrupted his mother:

“I want to come ‘to Uncle’s supper’ (dinner), too.”

“Look what else is new,” answered his mother, “we couldn’t possibly manage without him.”

“I will cry if you don’t let me,” said Joseph, peevishly.

“You will cry? How? Will you even be awake that late?” said his mother.

“I don’t care, I will be up,” answered Joseph.

“You know what, we’ll do it like this,” said his mother to Joseph. “You will say ‘Hello’ to your uncle, meet him, and then go to sleep. Good?”

“Good,” answered Joseph.

——————–

Joseph liked his uncle. He was tall, with gray eyes and black, curly hair. He had a big and ready laugh. He grabbed Joseph right away, lifted him high up to ceiling, and said:

“So, little rascal, do you like your uncle?”

“Yes, I like you,” said Joseph. “Did you bring me a present?

“Of course. I know nephews like presents. Here! I got you an electric train.”

Joseph took the bag, stood still and did not move from the spot.

“So,” asked his uncle, “why are you standing there like an statue; why don’t you open the bag? It’s late, almost time for you to go to sleep.”

Joseph fixed a pair of big blue-gray eyes on his uncle. His lips were scrunched as if he was about to cry.

“Shh. What are you about to cry? Feh. A big six year old boy should not cry,” teased his uncle.

“I don’t want your present,” answered Joseph, unhappy.

“What?” His astonished uncle asked.

“I thought if you forgot to bring me a present, you would have to answer my questions.”

“Your questions?” His uncle didn’t understand.

“Oh, now he’s started,” his mother mixed in.

“Oh. No, excuse me,” said his uncle, “I’m interested in hearing him out.”

His father signaled to his mother not to interfere.

And his uncle went on: “Why do you want to ask me these questions?”

“Because you are a professor, of course. You know everything.”

“OK, fine. Shoot.”

And Joseph began:

“I have a friend whose father is a carpenter. He makes furniture. But at home, they don’t have any nice furniture. Why?”

“A good question,” said his uncle. “Do you have more questions?”

“Yes,” said Joseph. “our maid.”

“What is with your maid?”

“She washes, she cleans all the time,” said Joseph, “and irons everyone’s things, and she herself always goes around in a wrinkled dress?”

“Another good question. Do you have more?”

“Yes. I asked Momma, why are there poor people in the world. She said that God loves poor people. If he loves them, why doesn’t he make them rich?”

Everyone in the house burst out laughing.

“Don’t laugh,” his uncle pretended to be mad. “Do you have more questions, Joseph?”

“Of course. A lot of questions. Should I ask them?”

“Wait a while,” said his uncle. “The questions you already asked are hard enough. To answer them, I would need to write a whole book, and I am only visiting here, I don’t have time. And you know what, son? Maybe I will not even be able to answer them in a book. Only on Peysekh will they be answered.”

“Peysekh?”

“Yes, on Peysekh, at the Seder. You know, of course, that’s when questions get asked, and the answers are given.”

Everyone smiled, and Joseph asked, seriously:

“Will they answer my questions??”

“Yes,” his uncle answered, “there, there is an answer for every question.”

“Good,” said Joseph, still serious. “This Peysekh I will go to my Zeidy’s for the Seder, and I will ask him.”

“Agreed,” answered his uncle. “Shake on it!”

Joseph gave his uncle his hand.

“Now good night, Sonny. Sleep.”

Joseph went off to sleep. His uncle sighed:

“Ach! If I only I did know the right answers to all the questions.”

—————-

The first Seder at his grandfather’s house. The whole family is seated around the table. The custom is for all grandchildren who know the questions to say them to their grandfather. Joseph is the youngest, so he asks last.

Joseph thinks: First I will ask Zeidy the other people’s questions, the ones that are in the Haggadah. Then I will ask him my own questions.

And now finally Joseph’s turn comes. His grandfather signals. “Ok. Joseph”.

Joseph begins.

“Zeidy, I would like to ask you four questions. The first question is,…” Done with the four questions from the Haggadah, Joseph wants to start asking his own questions. But his grandfather claps his hands right away. “Avodim hayinu…” We were slaves… Then, “A story is told of Rabbi Eleazer…” Joseph does not understand what kind of an explanation that was. He looks at his grandfather and waits for him to stop for a moment. When he stops, he will ask him. But his grandfather presses on. He speaks quickly, page after page.

Now his grandfather stopped. But before Joseph has time to open his mouth, his grandmother brings him a pitcher of water, a hand towel and a bowl. His grandfather washes his hands, makes a brokhe, and starts eating matzah. Joseph waits for him to swallow his bite. Now is a good time to ask. And he begins:

“Zeyde, now I want to ask you my…”

His grandfather speaks angrily and in Hebrew— one is not permitted to stop. “Morror, now we eat horseradish, as the law requires.”

Joseph wants to satisfy his grandfather. He grabs a little cup of horseradish, pops it into his mouth and gives one chew, and then another. It goes into his nose. Another chew, it takes his breath away. He starts to turn blue.

His mother notices and cries out:

“Woe is me, just look. The child is dying…”

“Not at all, not at all,” answers his grandfather calmly. The horseradish went in his nose. Give him a drink of wine.“

His mother gives him a cup of wine. Joseph drinks—wonderful,– the wine is cool and sweet, it cools the roof of his mouth. His whole body feels good.

But it’s still better in his mouth. He takes another little cup of wine—oh, it tastes good. He drinks a third cup.

Joseph did­ not remember when his mother took him and laid him in bed. When he opened his eyes, he was lying in his grandmother’s bed. Right away the floor leapt up and put itself where the ceiling was. The ceiling fell down, bells rang, wheels turned, black clouds snowed with fire. God sat above the floor, up in the sky, creating the moon and stars, making it rain, putting poor people out all over the world, and laughing… Joseph lay in soft white snow, but his father held a big cup of horseradish and shoved it into his mouth.

His head spun, everything was chaotic—he fell down into a deep hole. But no…

Morning. Joseph opened his eyes. His mouth was bitter, and his head hurt.

What happened yesterday at the Seder? He remembered.

He made a wave with his hand— there is no point asking any questions of grownups. They trick you. Even his smart and good uncle had made fun of him, telling him to wait for Peysekh. He waited, for nothing. If you want answers to questions, you have to find them out yourself. And sitting in bed, Joseph took out his little book and wrote down all the questions he had thought of. When he grew up, he said to himself, he would find out the answers himself, himself and with no one else’s help.

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