Saturday, March 28, 2009

As I wish my enemies an early death, so I am from the bottom of my heart, Your truly faithful wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl

I'm as bad as Menakhem-Mendl, her husband - I got carried away by work and have neglected Sheyne-Sheyndl.

Sheyne-Sheyndl always starts her letters the same way:

"To my dear, learned, & illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!

First, we're all well, thank God. I hope to hear no worse from you."

But then, then - some samples:

"Second, you write like a madman.

Second, I'm writing you, my sweetheart, to wish a cruel death to all my enemies.

Second, just look at what you've done, you fool!

Second, my dear husband, I pronounce you a certified lunatic. You might as well run naked through the streets!

Second, my mother says you can't make a fur hat from a pig's tail. I'm referring to your charming sister-in-law Yentl."

Actually, Sheyne-Sheyndl's letters always contain sayings from her mother. Here are a few of these gems:

"If it acts like a donkey and brays like a donkey, it must be a donkey.

One man eats garlic and another smells of it.

What's a rabbi doing raising pigs?"

In one letter, the mother seems to short circuit, just spilling out one saying after another. "She said a few other things too, my mother did. In fact, she left Kreindl speechless."

Maybe I should show how Sheyne-Sheyndl's letters end:

"I tell you, my husband, I've put up with as much as I can. Either you get yourself home in a jiffy and act like a human being - or else! As I wish my enemies an early death, so I am from the bottom of my heart,

Your truly faithful wife,

The last two chapters of The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl are each single letters by Menakhem-Mendl. They're fine, funny stories on their own, but the lack of the exchange of letters with Sheyne-Sheyndl is a great loss. So many of these comic Yiddish stories have a tragic undercurrent, and here's one of them. "May I never read another letter of yours again!" she says in her last letter. Maybe we just aren't getting Sheyne-Sheyndl's side, but maybe she's given up on her restless, useless husband.

And of course, Sheyne-Sheyndl's letters may contain a few hints about why Menakhem-Mendl doesn't want to go home, which is also sad. I think Sheyne-Sheyndl sounds like great fun, but I don't have to live with her.

Translations by Hillel Halkin.


  1. She does sound like great fun. As does this book. The names alone!

  2. It makes me want to start writing letters and closing with a non-sequitur indictment of my enemies!

  3. And yet she ends each letter with "your truly faithful wife". Says something, doesn't it?

    And funnily enough, I actually know not one, but three people named "Menakhem-Mendl" (though none spell it like this). But I know no "Sheyne-Sheyndl"s.

  4. These fine comments suggest that i have adequately represented the likability of this book.