Friday, January 9, 2009

It's somehow thicker'n other water - Mendele Mocher Sforim's "Fishke the Lame"

"The Little Man," from 1864, is Mendele Mocher Sforim's first Yiddish story. "Fishke the Lame," from 1869, is his third. "The Little Man" may have marked the creation of modern Yiddish literature, but it obviously took a while for things to get moving. In the meantime, Mendele / Abramovitsh wrote in Hebrew, and translated an enormous variety of stuff into Yiddish and Hebrew - biology textbooks, Russian history, Jules Verne.

In "Fishke the Lame," Mendele the Book Peddler tells us about poor Fishke; later Fishke tells us his own story:

"Cross-eyed, one arm twisted back, limping heavily on one leg, Fishke was no delight to behold. He was such a freakish creature that the town didn't even want him as a cholera groom."

A what? To end an epidemic, a town would try to create luck for itself through forced marriages of its "cripples, scoundrels, and beggars." Even grotesque Fishke finally gets to marry a blind woman, and together they hit the road with a troupe of beggars. This is obviously a story about the poorest of the poor. It's vivid, funny, and sort of horrible.

Fishke had worked as a tout at a village bathhouse. In Odessa, disillusioned with his travels, he decides to return to the baths, but discovers that the big city bathhouses are not like the one at home:

"I went to other baths, but ain't none like ours - they don't even smell like our brick bathhouse in Glupsk. Now, their ritual baths are a joke. In our mikve you can darn near cut the water, 'cause it has a special odor, a different color, and it's somehow thicker'n other water. Right away you know it has a Jewish flavor, but there the mikve water is clear, plain old water, you could even drink it."

Vivid, funny, and horrible.

Both "The Little Man" and "Fishke the Lame" are in Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, 2004, edited and translated by Ken Frieden.


  1. What's a "cholera groom"? (Oh I know I could go look it up, but it's so much easier to ask you).

  2. This is right up your alley, except hideous. It's all about generating good luck. An epidemic hits a town, so the citizens need to create some good luck for themselves. What's luckier than a wedding? So they grab two unmarriageable people and have a wedding.

    "Jews should be fruitful and multiply, everyone agreed, and poor cripples should also be able to enjoy life. But I'm getting off the point."

    These sorts of superstitions were primary targets in Abramovitsh's fiction. He wanted fewer superstiton-based weddings and cleaner bathhouses. I'm with him.

  3. I believe these cholera weddings would take place AT the cemetery.

  4. That's right! Because what could be luckier than a wedding in a cemetery?

    May I say, that I am honored to receive a visit from Uncle Shlomo, or his representative. Uncle Shlomo's website seems to consist mostly of Yiddish jokes right now. Scroll down to the one about the herring - it may be my all-time favorite.