Motl Farber, Purimshpieler

From Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers
By Jacob Dinezon
Translated from the Yiddish by Tina Lunson
Copyright © 2014 by Jewish Storyteller Press. All rights reserved.
This Purim short story is offered in honor of the Yiddish author Jacob Dinezon as we continue our year-long centennial commemoration of his death in 1919. You can learn more about Jacob Dinezon here.

The folks in town said about Motl Farber that along with the additional soul that one receives in honor of Shabbes and the holidays, he also received an additional beard. During the week he was a Jew with just one beard like everyone else, but for Shabbes and the holidays, his beard divided itself in two, half to the right and half to the left, so it looked like two separate beards on the same person. And that’s what people called it: “The extra-soul beard.”

People would ask him, “Reb Motl, what do you do with your second beard during the week?”

And he would reply: “I salt it and pack it away in the same box where I pack away my stomach and half of my soul for the winter. When summer is over and the Master of the Universe takes away my trade by painting everyone’s rooftops with fine white snow without a penny’s cost, then I am out of business, no longer a painter or much of a person. What good is a person without a livelihood?”

And Motl was not exaggerating. When you saw him in summer, sitting on a roof and ordering his helpers around, he did not acknowledge winter.

In summer, he was a tall, happy Jew with big shoulders. He sang like a cantor with a sweet voice, and his helpers responded like his chorus. He was alive; his work was alive in his hands. Everything about his work had a gay tone. He was happy and God and people were happy with him.

On Shabbes in the study house, you might think that he was the elder of the month. He always provided a poor guest with a place for Shabbes and also invited a few for the afternoon meal. But when summer was over and snow covered the roofs and his business began to die off, Motl withdrew, and there was only half of him. No one heard his voice, and he was rarely seen in the study house even on Shabbes.

Until Chanukah he lived on whatever profit he had made during the summer. They had borscht and thanked God for it. But after Chanukah, when the big freezes came and no one thought about painting, and the expense of firewood and warm clothes for his sons in cheder grew ever greater, Motl lost all his courage. Then he just lay on the bench near the oven and waited for summer.

When people asked him: “How goes it, Motl?” he answered with jokes: “Going, it’s not going, brother, it has stopped, frozen. A small thing, this frost! Better to ask, how lays it? The whole winter I kick back and lay around. The Master of the Universe is busy now painting people’s roofs. It’s His time now. No matter, my time will come again.”

“But what are you eating in the meantime?”

“Meanwhile we are eating copper frying pans and brass candlesticks. If we had silver spoons, we would eat silver spoons. Have you heard that a person can relish a tin samovar? Any week my stomach could swallow that tin samovar of mine, and today I will eat it again. For Shabbes we put together a tasty dish: a pillow with feathers. How could you hurt your stomach with such digestible meals?”

He often addressed his hunger with such jokes and so bluffed his way through the entire winter. But his wife was not comforted by his humor and always yelled that it would be better if her husband was a shoemaker or a tailor or even a water carrier, anything but a painter who earned half the year and the other half had to store his teeth on a shelf in disuse.

“A painter,” she said, “is a beast worse than a bear. A bear lives half the year and sleeps half the year. A painter doesn’t live more than the summer either, but he can’t sleep the whole winter. He wants to eat in the winter, too, because he’s still awake!”

“Do you know why a bear sleeps the whole winter, Yente?” he called out in answer to her complaints.

“Why?”

“Because a bear has no wife! If he had a wife like a painter, he wouldn’t be able to sleep the whole winter either, just like a man.”

“Bitter is the lot of a woman!” his wife interrupted. “All your clever sayings are only about women. What would you do if you didn’t have me?”

“If I didn’t have you,” he answered, “I would be free as a bird and would do what all free birds do. When summer was over, I would fly off to a warmer country where you can paint roofs, shutters, and fences the whole year ‘round!”

“Fly, if you can! Why don’t you fly? Who’s holding you back?”

“It’s hard to fly when your wings are clipped,” he sighed. “Yente, another month, another week, it’s already closer than farther. Soon it will be summer again, there will be work again, and our hearts will be happy and our stomachs will be full.”

And soon the days were longer, the blessing was said for the month of Adar, and a warm sunlight shone on the streets. The sullen sun underwent a change, gradually throwing off her morose veil. She was charming and winked at her longing lovers to come outdoors.

“Please, forgive me,” she says to them, “it will be good again, it will be peaceful again! I will comfort you, don’t run away, don’t hide from me!”

And little children pour out of basements and attic apartments into the street and rejoice and warm themselves under the loving sun. We hear happy childish voices outdoors and even the cranky old Jews who go around bundled up in ten layers of clothes begin to smile and toss off a layer or two.

Motl Farber always perceived the summer before anyone else did because he was waiting and counting the last minutes of winter. As soon as the blessings for the month of Adar had been recited, he sprang up from his bench, straightened himself out, and headed outside. By evening he was back home with a group of painters. They shook out their pockets and collected a few kopecks. Motl’s wife ran to the market and brought back bread and herring, and with a pot of potatoes, they made a feast in honor of the New Moon of Adar. They ate bread, herring, potatoes, and drank a pot of tea as though they were kings. It was lively, and Motl divided his beard into two equal parts, stuck out his big chest and gave the command like a general, “Now, children, to our business!”

This meant that they should begin to organize their purimshpiel, the play they would produce for Purim. It was because of Purim that they would all have money for Pesach. And they only played in important places, in the homes of rich Jews who always paid for the play with a three-ruble piece or even a fiver.

This was Motl’s claim for many years. Motl played Mordecai the Jew. Itsikl Glezer, a sturdy youth, played Haman. Itsikl’s father, who had been a soldier in Nikolai’s army, played King Akheshverus, the king of the Persian Empire. Two boys, Motl’s young apprentices, played Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, a woman with a veil, a wig, and a golden crown on her head. Other younger and older helpers played other parts in the Megillah, the Purim story. Haman’s sons were not absent, and there was even a horse.

In place of a real horse, Motl tied on a costume with a horse’s tail on the back and a screen on the front, which was painted with big horse’s eyes. There was a bridle and reins, and the whole animal was covered with a Turkish shawl so it looked as though the tall Mordecai was riding on a horse.

However, the point was not the costumes, but the style of the words and the tunes they sang. Motl was better with words and music than all the other Purim players. Motl had a wonderful voice and was well known for his leading of the prayers. He could have even led the afternoon service during the Days of Awe and earned a pretty penny for it, but Motl always had some opponents who would not let him up to lead. They maintained that a painter and a purimshpieler could not also lead the community in prayer.

Motl rehearsed the group for two solid weeks. Night after night they besieged his little house, going over the songs of Akhashverus, Vashti, and especially Motl’s Mordecai the Jew, with his tenor voice that diffused through every limb.

On Purim eve, right after the reading of the Megillah, everyone gathered at Motl’s house. They brought out the horse costume and Motl saddled up. He combed his beard into two parts, put on a fur hat with a rabbinic brim, and picked up the golden scepter. Haman put on the general’s uniform, which was hung with medals, orders, and everything else that Itsikl Glezer had rented from Shmuel Epoletnik the pawnbroker. On his head, he placed a three-pointed hat that looked like a hamantasch. And in these clothes, no one can recognize Itsikl, a tall healthy fellow, for who he is. Strangers can really take him for a general.

The rabbi examines Vashti and Queen Esther to be certain that they are not real women but men dressed up like women, then tells them to present the purimshpiel, and enjoys the old merry custom very much. He blesses Mordecai, curses Haman, spits at Vashti and Zeresh, pats Queen Esther, and wishes the company to survive another year to present the play again.

After the rabbi, the company goes to the head of the community council. There the play flows a little more freely. The group is served cups of whisky, which soften their hearts and raise their voices, and no matter how stingy the council head is—may he come to no shame—his pleasure rises above his stinginess and he gives Motl a whole five rubles for himself and the company. The group moves on, playing for influential people, and if one is uncertain about what donation to make, they bargain first. Motl says, “My merchandise, your money. You have a choice: yes or no. You are not compelled and there are no grudges here. On Purim a Jew is not stingy.” Motl also knows his way around things and both sides are satisfied.

So the business goes from year to year. Jews are Haman’s downfall, that is, Itsikl Glezer’s downfall, as his own father Yisroel, Nikolai’s soldier, who is King Akhashverus, orders him to be hanged. Mordecai the Jew walks around with the big tin crown on his head and everyone bows to him. And Motl looks at the audience and thinks, “It will be Pesach, and I will have you all under my thumb.”

So it always was and so it will certainly continue wherever people follow the customs. Every year there is Purim, every year we read the Megillah, beat Haman, and hang him. In truth, Haman remains Haman with his own torments, but Jews remain Jews, too. The folk is eternal.

Eternal, also, are day and night, summer and winter; maybe it has to be that way. And maybe our Motl Farber would have remained a painter in the summer, a merry pauper in the winter, and a purim­shpieler on Purim and forever after, if it had not been for the incident with the police.

The story with the police goes like this. A few weeks before Purim a new police chief arrived in town from a distant Russian city. He had never heard of Jews or any of their customs. And just before he became acquainted with Jews and their customs, Purim slipped in.

He already knew something about what Purim meant, but he certainly had no concept of a purimshpiel. Leaving the police station, he chanced to encounter Motl and his Purim troupe and suddenly saw Itsikl in his Haman’s uniform with the chest full of medals and orders. Thinking that this was an important general whom he did not know, the police chief was stunned. He stepped back, straightened up, and brought his hand up to his visor in a salute, as is the custom in such a situation. Haman—Itsikl, that is—realized the error, but pretended not to know. He also brought his hand up to his visor, but in the manner of a higher saluting a lower.

Seeing such a scene, the Jewish and Christian shopkeepers who were standing nearby, broke into laughter. The police chief went pale. He understood that what had happened was a serious error and was greatly embarrassed.

He looked around and saw Mordecai the Jew with his horse; the old king Akhashverus, Itsikl’s father with the gold scepter in his hand; Vashti the queen with the boil on her forehead; and Queen Esther wearing a yellow wig, a long veil, and a paper crown on her head. Stringing along behind were remnants in various military uniforms.

Embarrassed and enraged, the police chief turned around and hurried back into the police station where he ordered several policemen out to apprehend “The General” and his group, and ordered the whole lot thrown into jail. And that’s how the entire joy of Purim was destroyed for the town.

First of all, pity on Motl Farber and his troupe, who suffered in the cold, dark jail, and God only knew how the whole thing was going to end. And second, everyone was simply shocked: this was no small thing, embarrassing a police chief.

That same day a rumor spread throughout the town that the police chief had decreed an end to the entire purimshpiel, so the joyous party of Purim would not be so obvious to others. Jews were out of their heads. Boys and girls cried because their happiness was ruined. It was not a Purim but a Tishah b’Av.

But the Eternal One always sends the cure before the plague.

The police chief’s wife had to go shopping that morning, and one of the town’s shopkeepers, a modern woman with a glib tongue, recognized the police chief’s wife as an old friend. The women kissed and hugged one another like two sisters. What friendship, you might ask, between a police chief’s wife and a Jewish shopkeeper? But God, may He be blessed, turns the wheel so that things come out well.

The police chief’s wife had once spent the summer in Marienbad where she met the shopkeeper who was also visiting there. While in Marienbad, the police chief’s wife became very ill and the Jewish woman did everything under heaven to help her get better. She brought doctors, consulted with them because the police chief’s wife did not know any German, and in general, protected her like the apple of her eye. It was natural that she, the sick one, felt a powerful connection to the Jewish woman. Later, though they parted emotionally, as often happens in such cases, they gradually forgot one another.

Now they had come together in different roles: one as a police chief’s wife and the other as the proprietor of a store. They both hugged each other again and again and were very touched by it all. As they calmed down and talked of other things, they recalled their experiences in Marienbad and remembered that summer when their friendship had been so warm. The police chief’s wife spent several hours at the store and then went home.

That same day in the evening, the Jewish woman dressed in her finest clothes and went to call upon the police chief to plead for the arrestees. The young woman was now transformed into Queen Esther, but not so naïve, and she shone and glowed like the morning star.

She was received very warmly at the police chief’s house. The police chief already knew that this was the Jewish woman who had once saved his wife in her illness, need, and loneliness. After a long chat about other matters, as is necessary in such a case, the pretty young “Esther” said to the police chief, “I have something to request of you. No, I have a favor to ask of you.”

The police chief was quite surprised. “A favor of me? I would do anything within my power to help you!” he said in his own language, but much as it is written in the Megillah.

So the Jewish woman told him the entire story of Purim, about giving little gifts of food, and about the Purim play in which the Me­gillah story is acted out. And that today, probably because he did not know about this custom, he had arrested the entire company of poor and innocent Jewish purimshpielers, who had been anticipating this day as though it were an annual fair. With their earnings from their performances today, they would be able to buy provisions for the holiday of Passover, and to settle their debts from the past winter.

The police chief laughed good-naturedly, and asked that all the Jewish arrestees be brought before him. He asked their intercessor to remain seated beside him. He wanted to see their presentation and she would translate the entire story into Russian.

Motl and his troupe were brought in and they were honored with glasses of cognac and snacks. Then they were asked to perform. The audience warmed to them and it was a lively evening. The jailbirds played out the story merrily and the police chief laughed, even though he did not understand it. The police chief freed all the players and the whole town was as though restored.

Everyone rejoiced and from that time on, the lovely young shopkeeper was known throughout the town as “Queen Esther.”

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