4.1. Yitskhok Leybush Perets, short story ‘Bontshe Shvayg’ (1894)

The first of the discussed works of art with a shofar begins in total silence. The name of the protagonist of this short story by Yitskhok Leybush Perets (1852-1915) is identical to the Yiddish imperative Shvayg (“Be silent!”); moreover, both first name and last name contain a “Sh…!” Bontshe Shvayg suffers all the disasters in his life silently and therefore, it is no surprise that his death passes unnoticed: *Perets, Bontshe Shvayg 146

Here on earth the death of Bontshe Shvayg made no impression. Try asking who Bontshe was, how he lived, what he died of (Did his heart give out? Did he drop from exhaustion? Did he break his back beneath too heavy a load?), and no one can give you an answer. For all you know, he might have starved to death.

The death of a tram horse would have caused more excitement.

Bontshe Shvayg does not leave a mark in any street, memory or heart; he lives and dies in silence. At least, so it is in this world, the “World of Deceit” of the living. It is very different in the “World of Truth,” the world of the dead, the chronotope to which Anski refers in his play Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) *Chapter 4.10 and Shulamit Ran in her opera Between Two Worlds. *Chapter 4.57. In the play and the opera, the female protagonist Leah escapes a forced marriage in the “illusionary” world of the living and ascends to the “real” world of the dead, to reach a mystical union with her dead lover. Bontshe Shvayg’s death, unnoticed in this world, is great news in the other world: *Bontshe Shvayg 147

A blast of the Messiah’s horn sounded in all seven heavens: “Bontshe Shvayg has passed away! Bontshe has been summoned to his Maker!” the most exalted angels with the brightest wings informed each other in midflight. A joyous din broke out in paradise: “Bontshe Shvayg—it doesn’t happen every day!”

The magnificent palace filled with gold and precious stones, where the Messiah blows his shofar, does not reflect the image of heaven in the Hebrew Bible and looks rather like a cheerful, welcoming version of heaven in the Christian Bible book of Revelation, with its Messiah-like figure in 1:10: “I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” and in 1:8, 9 and 11, the seven angels with trumpets. *Salpinx, the Greek translation of both shofar and ḥaẓoẓrah. Cf. Chapter 4.28 on Levi, If This Is a Man. In Perets’ story, not only the reader, but also Bontshe is put on the wrong track: Father Abraham comes to meet and greet and two angels bring a golden throne on wheels, his seat in Paradise. When the angels put a gold crown with jewels on Bontshe’s head, two saints become envious, and then the angels answer that Bontshe’s trial will be a matter of form. Again the shofar is blown. *Bontshe Shvayg 148

When the cherubs raised Bontshe on high and sounded a heavenly fanfare, when Father Abraham reached out to shake his hand like an old friend, when Bontshe heard that a gold crown and chair awaited him in paradise and that the heavenly prosecutor had no case to present, he behaved exactly as he would have in this world—that is, he was too frightened to speak.”

Bontshe is convinced that he is dreaming, that he is making a mistake or that he is the victim of mistaken identity. His trial before the great court of justice in Paradise is the parodic stylization of an earthly process. The defending angel depicts Bontshe’s life, how he suffered misfortunes from the cradle to the grave and how others beat him, exploited him and dropped him. The angel pictures Bontshe’s exemplary life, in which no word of protest against God and his fellow men was heard. The presiding judge, however, keeps up the pace and interrupts the angel at every digression; when the latter says: “The name of Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe the Silent, . . . fit him like a tailored suit[,]” he interrupts with: “No poetry, please!” Then the prosecutor gets up to speak. Just as Bontshe resembles Job—without his rebellious moments—the prosecutor resembles the Adversary from Job 1:6-12, who is sent by God to test Job, without result. *Ibid. 151

“Gentlemen!” The voice of the prosecutor was sharp and piercing. At once, however, it broke off.

“Gentlemen . . .” it resumed, although more softly, only to break off again.

When it spoke a third time, it was almost tender. “Gentlemen,” it said. “He kept silent. I will do the same.”

In his judgment, the judge alludes to Josh. 6:20, where the Israelites blow down the walls of Jericho with seven shofarot and the “mighty shout” of the teruʿah: “You yourself never knew that had you cried out but once, you could have brought down the walls of Jericho. You never knew what powers lay within you.” *Ibid. 151. There, in the World of Deceit, his silence is not rewarded, but here, in the World of Truth, Bontshe gets what he deserves; he is allowed to take whatever he wants, because everything he sees is his. After much insistence, Bontshe believes this and make a wish. The judges, the angels and the prosecutor do not believe their ears. *Ibid. 152

“Well, then,” smiled Bontshe, “what I’d like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.”

The judges and angels hung their heads in shame. The prosecutor laughed.

After his self-effacing life on earth, Bontshe Shvayg is in heaven with almost empty hands.

With many striking details, Perets emphasizes Bontshe’s silent life on earth: at his circumcision, the glasses were not touched and later in his life, no one in the noisy world heard how Bontshe’s back groaned under the burden. Summing up, the author says that Bontshe was born in silence, lived in silence, died in silence and was buried in an even greater silence. All the greater is the impression of the Messiah’s shofar blasts in all seven heavens and the fanfares by the cherubs. There is a similar contrast at the end of the story: first the counsel, the prosecutor and the judge speak, “as sweet as a violin,” “almost tender” and “in harp-like tones” respectively, and then, the judge concludes that Bontshe could have blown down the walls of Jericho by raising his voice.

The shofar blowing in Bontshe Shvayg is a rather unorthodox dialogue with the Bible and the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book. The two allusions to Bible passages change the dimensions of the events. In Zeph. 1:14-16 “The great day of the LORD is approaching . . . A day of horn blasts and alarms—” ​the shofar sounds on earth; by contrast, the shofar in the story is blown in the seven heavens, and moreover, for one single man. According to the judge, Bontshe should have blown once to destroy “the walls of Jericho,” whereas in Josh. 6:20, seven shofar blowing priests and a whole shouting army are needed. Compared with the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book, the direction of the shofar blowing in Bontshe Shvayg is reversed and there is another addressee. The Shofarot section in the prayer book contains the complete Ps. 150 with v. 3a: “Praise Him with blasts of the shofar;” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 618 in Bontshe Shvayg, however, cherubs blow the shofar not for “Him,” God, with a capital letter, but for “him,” the man Bontshe. The Leader’s Repetition for Musaf says: “As Your congregation sounds their call to You on the ram’s horn this day . . .” *Ibid. 552. In the story, the roles are reversed with the cherubs as the congregation and Bontshe as the addressee. Bontshe’s coronation after the shofar fanfares is a profanation of the following passage from the prayer book: “May it be Your will, LORD my God and God of my ancestors, that the sound of TaShRaT that we sound may be made into a crown for You[.]” *Ibid. 496. Bontshe’s timid appearance in heaven amidst loud shofar fanfares can be read as a parody of the opening of the U-Netanneh Tokef: “A great shofar sounds, / and a still small voice is heard[,]” *Ibid. 566 as the “small voice” is the voice of Bontshe instead of the voice of God. The trial with the whispering Bontshe parodies the frightening judgment in the prayer books: “Her [Sarah’s] offshoots are frightened as the shofar service of the day is observed; / as they stand to represent themselves before the throne of the most fearful One. / On this day they shall whisperingly offer up the sound their speech, / gathering to sound the shofar in the hope of finding redemption.” *Ibid. 402. The merry angels who receive Bontshe are very much unlike the angel in Birnbaum’s drawing A Great Shofar Sounds, *Chapter 4.20 whose tense expression reveals that he himself will be judged as well.

These reversals are not meant as blasphemy, because in many stories—of which If not Higher, written six years after Bontshe Shvayg, is the best-known example—Perets gives a very positive image of faithful people bringing charity into practice. In Bontshe Shvayg, the Past is altered by the Present, because Perets had a political aim: he wanted to show to faithful Jews, who resigned themselves to poverty and oppression and were confident that God would help them, the consequences of their passivity. He presented his message not in a direct and emotional way, as did Zangwill in “Our Own”: A Cry Across the Atlantic with its call “Set your lips to the Shofar, / Waken a fiery blast, / Shrill to the heathen nations / This slaughter shall be the last!” *Chapter 4.14 but with irony and sarcasm.

Bontshe Shvayg has been called “a moving folktale . . . about the request of an exceedingly humble man when he arrives in heaven,” *Musikant and Grass, Judaism through Children’s Books 89 but instead of a folktale it is a story for the modern working class and it is certainly not meant to be moving; in his report about Bontshe’s tragic life, the counsel for the defense is repeatedly being interrupted by the judge: “No poetry, please!” “You can skip the rhetoric too!” “The facts!” The story is about an extremely flat character, neither humble nor pious, but timid and passive, and can be understood as “Perets’ exploration of the radical passivity and lack of volition of Eastern European Jews, so overwhelmed by the mundane, by anti-Semitism, or by strictures within their own community that they have lost all power of imagination.” *Norich, Discovering Exile 116.

In Bontshe Shvayg, the biblical Past is altered by the Present of modern history; the authoritative discourse of the biblical shofar, which brought down the walls of Jericho, should be turned into the internally persuasive discourse of the voices of the Jewish workers, which should disturb the silence with their protest against exploitation and oppression. “[Y]ou could have brought down the walls of Jericho,” says the judge to his addressee Bontshe Shvayg—and the author to his addressees, the readers of Jewish newspapers and the listeners at Jewish political meetings, “You never knew what powers lay within you.” *Bontshe Shvayg 151. Even the Past of biblical prophecy was altered by the Present of modern literature: Perets himself was sometimes seen as a prophet, for example by the Russian philosopher and political thinker Khayim Zhitlovski, who called him der novi fun kamf, “the prophet of struggle.” *quoted in Norich, Discovering Exile 154. And Perets’ message hit home: wherever he read from his own work, Bontshe Shvayg was a popular request. *Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction 288; and Wisse, I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture 50.


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