4.4. Yitskhok Leybush Perets, short story ‘The Shofar’ (1902)

According to the literary historian Charles Madison, Yitskhok Leybush Perets was “critical of dogmatic piety and dry legalism, which in combination were burdening the Jewish community with a pernicious lethargy” and he “yearned for the heroic, the noble, the spiritually exalted.” *Madison, Yiddish Literature 116. These three qualifications are found in Reb Shimen, *“Reb” is the usual Yiddish form of address of a man the protagonist of Perets’ Der alter r” Shimen (“Old Reb Shimen,” translated as “The Shofar”), more than in any other fictional character in the works of A Tool of Remembrance. However, Perets was an outsider in the pious world of Reb Shimen; in the words of Shachar Pinsker, he was a “transitional” writer, “‘suspended between two magnets—between traditional Jewish upbringing and the new secular world.” *Pinsker, Literary Passports 277. This may be the reason that his short story The Shofar is written in the form of a human interest interview by an explicit outsider.

The short story begins with an almost photographic and documentary description of old Reb Shimen and his shofar. The instrument is not his usual horn for weekdays in the month of Elul, *Cf. Chapter 3.3 but his “festival shofar” for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. It is like an extension of his body: “both holinesses mingled—the holy ash-gray shofar and the holy silver beard” *Perets, The Shofar 137 and his love for shofar blowing is boundless:

“I love blowing the shofar. My father, peace to his memory, was a farmer. We lived in the village, and—I was a boy—I envied the shepherd with his pipe. He piped, and at the sound the sheep gathered round him, lay down round him, and looked into his eyes. But a shofar is something higher—it gathers souls, Jewish Mount Sinai souls! They listen! I love blowing the shofar!”

“Not always,” he corrected himself. “Not the tekiah-gedolo on Yom Kippur! I put the shofar to my lips, and already half the congregation lies prostrate on the floor, under the benches. I look round, and it is like a field after a storm, three-quarters of the corn bowed to the ground—and there is the tekiah-gedolo still to come! It isn’t right!

“And blowing the shofar all through Ellul isn’t the same thing! Why? It’s a weekday congregation, small and scattered, one in, one out. The market keeps breaking in through the open windows. The women stallholders shout their wares; the peasants talk loudly. The youngsters play in the synagogue courtyard. It’s terribly confusing! It’s not right!

Rosh Hashanah is utterly different! The whole congregation stand, wrapped in their tallithim! *prayer shawls. They are the sons of kings! They sway like the green stalks in the blessed field, and there is a rustling as in a forest, or like the rushing of a stream.” *The Shofar 137-8.

According to Reb Shimen’s story, the shofar as a liturgical instrument is superior to a musical instrument like the pipe of the shepherd, no matter how melodious the latter sounds; the shofar is not meant to give musical pleasure, but to bring together “souls of Mount Sinai,” as Reb Shimen puts it with an allusion to the theophany in Exod. 19. Reb Shimen stresses the contrast between the authoritative discourse of God’s great shofar: “it gathers souls, Mount Sinai souls!” and the internally persuasive discourse of his own horn: “They listen!” But “Not always[.]” He compares the three moments in the year when the shofar is blown: Elul, Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. In the month of Elul, he blows the shofar on weekdays, in a poorly attended synagogue, where shofar blowing is disturbed by children playing in the street and market vendors loudly advertizing their wares. The 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service are better listened to, and Reb Shimen compares the shokeling congregation members even to “green stalks swaying.” The single shofar blast of Yom Kippur is the most important one, but after the long service and the fasting the congregation is so weakened that it is not registered anymore by everyone.

While the Present in this short story is directed by the Past in the form of the traditional shofar blasts, the rural Past—“those old days”—is altered and idealized by “today,” the harsh urban Present. “My father . . . was a farmer. We lived in the village, and . . . I envied the shepherd with his pipe. He piped, and at the sound the sheep gathered round him, lay down round him, and looked into his eyes.” The question whether he thinks often of his village—the “military maneuvers” in the story suggest that he now lives in a garrison town—tempts Reb Shimen to a lyrical description of the nature around that village: “When there was a wind, and the forest rustled and the stream rushed past, I used to think—foolish lad that I was!—that they were singing praises to God, and that heaven was going to blow the shofar!” *Ibid. 138. When he visits his old village now, the forest and the river seem to ask him: “What brings you here? Weren’t you chased out of here!” In the synagogue, however, the praying and shokeling congregation reminds Reb Shimen of the forest and the river of the old days; the murmuring swells, “It roars louder and louder, till it bursts out like a flame, like a sea of fire, and breaks through the walls, and rises up and breaks through the ceiling—it goes out into the world, up to heaven, this flame, this burning, boiling psalm of praise!” And then, suddenly, there is silence, so deep that the soft hiss of the burning candles can be heard. This passage is reminiscent of 1 Kings 19:12-13, where the prophet Elijah experiences a storm, an earthquake and a fire, whereafter God reveals Himself in a “soft murmuring sound” and a voice asking: “Why are you here, Elijah?” Then, for Reb Shimen the time has come to blow the shofar with “sounds clear as water, silver sounds, pure…” *Ibid. 139.

In his description of his shofar blowing in the synagogue, Reb Shimen also chooses images from nature. The—perhaps davening—congregation members at Rosh Ha-Shanah “sway like the green stalks in the blessed field, and there is a rustling as in a forest, or like the rushing of a stream.” *Ibid. 137-8. He compares himself with a fly, who becomes an eagle when he blows the shofar. Maybe he thinks not only of the jerky flight of the fly in contrast to the calm, elevated gliding of the eagle, but also of the biblical connotations of these animals; whereas the fly is associated with disease (Isa. 7:18) and decay (Eccl. 10:1), the eagle is the symbol of youth and strength, as in Ps. 103:5: “your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” The author also compares Reb Shimen with a lion, the symbol of strength and power mentioned in Judg. 14:18: “And what is stronger than a lion?” and depicted in Ben Shahn’s painting Third Allegory. *Chapter 4.33.

When asked if he always gets the right notes, Reb Shimen answers: “No, not always! Sometimes there are obstacles.” *The Shofar 139. There appear to be seven obstacles which interfere with or obstruct Reb Shimen’s dialogue with God and tradition by means of the shofar.

The first obstacle is his own poor health: he suffers from a chronic cough due to a pneumonia, his hands tremble and he has no teeth left.

The second is Satan, who can be rendered harmless with approved methods. Probably, Reb Shimen thinks of the prayer preceding the first ten shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, a prayer consisting of the seven verses Ps. 118:5, Lam. 3:56, Ps. 119:160, 122, 162, 66 and 108; the initial letters of vv. 2-7 constitute the sentence Kera S(a)t(a)n: “May Satan, the Adversary, be torn.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 494. And if that does not help against Satan, Reb Shimen recommends the method of the “Berditchever”: letting Ivan blow the shofar. *The “Berditchever” is the legendary Rabbi Levi Yitskhok from the Ukrainian city of Berdichev. He also figures in Buber, “The Last Blowing of the Ram’s Horn,” in Tales of the Hasidim 233. In the last Rosh Ha-Shanah in Rabbi Levi Yitskhok’s life, nobody succeeds in blowing the shofar; the rabbi thinks that Satan is behind this and invokes God, who commands His people to blow the shofar. “If we are no longer your beloved people, well—then let Ivan blow the ram’s horn for you!” cries the rabbi, who is ready to ask a Russian Gentile. All burst into tears and then, in their hearts the change takes place that is needed for the blowing of the shofar.*

The third obstacle is created by the congregation members, who are too busy to listen to the shofar or who run out of the synagogue to see what is happening in the street; this can be the passing of the fire brigade, just at the moment Reb Shimen puts the shofar to his mouth.

The fourth is raised by a Gentile just across the road and consists in the banal, profane and threatening barking of a dog. Reb Shimen has to wait until the barking is over, and sometimes, this is more than an hour, when the dog is governed by a Dybbuk—the restless soul of a dead person, who takes possession of the body of a living person and can only be driven out by shofar blasts. *Cf. Anski, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) (Chapter 4.10) and Ran, Between Two Worlds (Chapter 4.57).

The fifth obstacle is not raised by private persons, but by the authorities. Sometimes, allegedly by coincidence, there are military maneuvers on Rosh Ha-Shanah, and then the army marches through the streets, accompanied by deafening brass bands.

The sixth is church bell ringing, which is more than mere noise, because it announces a pogrom:

“Something much worse happened a few years before that! I was sounding shevorim. I tell you that it was a real broken shevorim, *The Hebrew word shevarim is derived from the root sh-v-r, “to break.” a shevorim with all the fear of heaven in it! Suddenly there was a lot of loud whistling in the street, shouting, bells ringing! The pogromists had arrived in the market place! God in heaven, what a panic there was! The people tried to rush out, to escape. They ran to the doors, to the windows! The old rabbi, blessings on his memory, was still alive. A short, thin little man—but he was a rabbi!

“He jumped up on a chair, and cried: ‘Stay where you are!’ And they all stayed where they were.

“‘Shut all the doors and windows!’ It was done. It made the synagogue pitch black!
The few candles on the reading desk only threw black shadows! We were all terror-stricken! But not the rabbi! ‘Sound the shofar!’ he cried.

“I sounded the shofar! I put my whole soul into the tekiahs!

“I may have conquered Satan,” he added, smiling ruefully, “but not the pogromists! They laid the town in ruins!

“Who can conquer them? Unless it is the shofar of Messiah!” *The Shofar 140.

In this story, as in Bialik’s poem And it shall be when the days grow long… *Chapter 4.6 the shofar is connected to the Messiah, as a symbol of redemption and a better future; in Perets’ short story Bontshe Shvayg, *Chapter 4.1 it is first of all a symbol of justice.

The seventh obstacle is modernity in the form of urbanization, that destroys traditional rural culture. According to the literary historian Dan Miron, the shtetl was “threatened by an engulfing inimical environment that included not only the ‘gentile’ reality but also nature as such.” *Miron, The Image of the Shtetl xii. Worse than the fate of Reb Shimen, who idealizes the chronotope of his old village in the midst of the unspoiled nature, is the fate of Bontshe Shvayg, who goes to a great city in pursuit of work and happiness. It is the more poignant because of the metaphor from nature, contrasting with the banal image from the crowded, impersonal city: “He vanished in it like a drop of water in the sea” *Perets, Bontshe Shvayg 149 (Chapter 4.1) and was “spattered with the mud of city streets, spat by unknown strangers[.]” *Bontshe Shvayg 150. The poverty and oppression in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove many Jews into emigration to the United States. *According to Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People 861, two million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the period 1881-1914. Sholem Aleykhem’s Mr. Green Has a Job *Chapter 4.8 is the story of such an immigrant in the chronotope of the Goldene Medine, who is confronted there with the jungle of the American great city and the new obstacle of brutal capitalism.


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