4.8. Sholem Aleykhem, short story ‘Mr. Green Has a Job’ (1915)

Perets’ short story The Shofar (1902) *Chapter 4.4 gave a picture of an old shofar blower in the chronotope of an Eastern European town, who met several social “obstacles,” such as disturbing activities of the authorities on Rosh Ha-Shanah, pogroms against the Jewish community, and modernity in the form of urbanization, that threatened Jewish rural and religious traditions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Eastern European Jews emigrated to the United States, where they were not persecuted anymore but had to cope with the new obstacle of brutal capitalism. Mister Grin Hot a Dzhob (“Mr. Green Has a Job,” 1915) by Sholem Aleykhem (1859-1916) is the story of such an immigrant in the chronotope of the Goldene Medine, who is confronted with the jungle of the American big city and tries to support himself by blowing the shofar. This immigrant, Mr. Green, has a fictitious meeting with the author, the well-known Sholem Aleykhem, in a New York street. Instead of a dialogue with the writer, the story is a long monologue of Mr. Green, who starts blazing away on life in the Goldene Medine:

“And not so much about America as about its business: how you eat your heart out till God sends you the proper job. For if the Good Lord helps and you land the proper job, there’s hope that in time you can work yourself up the ladder of success and become a Jacob Schiff or a Nathan Strauss. In a word—to become an allrightnik.” *Sholem Aleykhem, Mr. Green Has a Job 233.

Mr. Green, named after the griner, the new immigrant, arrived in America as the penniless Grinberg from Ukraine, and perhaps he read the official warning to Jewish immigrants: “A Jew, like any other foreigner, is appreciated when he lives the American social life. Until then he counts for nothing.” *Carr, Guide to the United States for the Jewish Immigrant: A Nearly Literal Translation of the Second Yiddish Edition. Printed under the Auspices of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution (1912) 63. He was determined to become an allrightnik like Jacob Schiff *Jacob Schiff donated 600 dollars to defray the publishing costs of Rozenfeld’s Songs from the Ghetto (Chapter 4.2). Cf. Miller, Representing the Immigrant Experience 19 and Nathan Strauss, wealthy Jewish businessmen and philanthropists who were born in Europe and made a career in the United States. *Gurock, American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective 173, 188. Mister Green is not yet an allrightnik, but God be praised, he now has a job, created by God and himself. A month before Rosh Ha-Shanah, he saw newspapers with ads for cantors and synagogues and shop windows with High Holy Days prayer books, prayer shawls and shofarot. It struck him that everyone was trying to get into the Almighty’s good books, to ensure business success, and he wondered whether he himself could not get his share during the High Holy Days. But with what kind of work? Thinking about that question, he ended up in a shul, on the first day of Elul. This month precedes the month of Tishrei with the Days of Awe, Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur; the whole period is meant for repentance and every day of Elul the shofar is blown. *Cf. Chapter 3.3. At the moment of his arrival in the synagogue, the congregation recites Ps. 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my help” and after the service, one of the men asks who is to blow the shofar. *Many not-quoted verses of this psalm could be read as allusions to Mister Green’s behavior in the synagogue; v. 2: “it is they, my foes and my enemies, / who stumble and fall” as an allusion to the death of his predecessor as a shofar blower; v. 6: “I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy” to the sacrifice of his integrity; and v. 13: “Had I not the assurance / that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD / in the land of the living . . .” as an allusion to America. “Me!” shouts Mister Green, though it has been years since he touched a shofar (as a boy, he got into mischief with it in the synagogue and was caught by the shamash.) *This motif is found, too, in Gilboa’s poem Raḥav: “Look, look! Yosi is sneaking up to the ram’s horn in the ark.” (Chapter 4.32), and in the 19th century, in Mendele Moykher Sforim’s novel The Little Man 86: “when our attempts to steal the shoyfer from the synagogue attendant’s drawer were crowned with success, I was allowed to blow the first blast.” However, he is free of doubt:

“After the service someone said:

‘All right, who’s going to blow the shofar?’

‘The shofar?’ I called out. ‘Me! I will.’

So you’ll ask me: How do I become a shofar blower? Here’s the story. I never blew the shofar back home on the other side. Neither did my father. Or my father’s father. But when we were kids, starting with Elul, we small fry, little rascals one and all, would grab the shofar and blow it and blow it just for the fun of it until the shamesh *the sexton of the synagogue* would douse us with cold water and drive us from the shul.

In a word, I could do the job. But like they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So I took hold of the shofar, blew a few long, short, and quick blasts and ended up with one mighty blast which without exaggeration was heard on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge.” *Mr. Green Has a Job 234-5.

Mr. Green’s tekiʿah gedolah can be heard all the way to Brooklyn Bridge. Neither the Mishnah, nor the Talmud states that a blast should be heard across the Jordan or a wide river. What counts is the correct intention, which the shofar blower in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service reaches in a special prayer. In this he emphasizes his humility: “I do not have the understanding or wisdom to hold the correct intentions, with the right holy names, while blowing the shofar” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 492-4 and askes for God’s mercy with the words of Ps. 19:15: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart find favor before You, LORD, my Rock and Redeemer.” The difference between the “mighty blast” in this story and the introverted toutouroutoutou in Perahia’s poem *Chapter 4.24—both of them examples of the Present directed by the Past in the form of a traditional shofar blast—is irreconcilable. Asked where he comes from, Mr. Green answers that question with a question, a well-known phenomenon in Yiddish literature. *Harshav, “Questions” in The Meaning of Yiddish 111-6. The congregation does not keep asking, as their own shofar blower had died recently. Mr. Green fails to offer his condolences and says he wants to make a livelihood out of shofar blowing. When the others answer that you can do so only as a second job, Mr. Green asks whether he, as a shofar blower is supposed to be garbage man or street cleaner. Then they promise to recommend him in another synagogue. Eventually, Mr. Green has a busy practice; that his travels between synagogues could be a halakhic problem, because they take him outside the religious chronotope of the ʿeruv, is something he does not dwell on. And a fancy dress party is no problem:

“If you’d meet me after the High Holy Days, you wouldn’t recognize me either. Me, just before the beginning of Elul, I cast off my stylish suit, grow a beard and look like a homey old-timer. But as soon as the High Holy Days are over, I shave, put on my hat and suit, and once more become the picture of a modern gentleman. What doesn’t one do in America for the sake of business?” *Mr. Green Has a Job 236.

There is a striking parallel with Tshaykov’s drawing, *Tshaykov, Dawn. Chapter 4.11 that shows a man with peyes on one side and a clean-shaven face on the other; Tshaykov’s drawing, however, is about a synthesis of tradition and modernity, whereas Sholem Aleykhem’s story is about an opportunistic, hypocritical and almost immoral change of both, and the concept of progress has a political content in the former but a commercial content in the latter work. Seeing that Sholem Aleykhem brings forth a notebook, Mr. Green has the chutzpah to ask Sholem Aleykhem to write down his name and address, by way of advertayzment. As his goal has been reached, he concludes the monologue that began with “How do you do, Mr. Sholom Aleichem!” with “Until then—so long and good-bye.” *Mr. Green Has a Job 236. Perhaps, the person Sholem Aleykhem behind the persona Sholem Aleykhem finishes here with personal frustrations, which arose from his lack of success in the Yiddish theaters of the Lower East Side and his disappointment about life in the Goldene Medine: “In America there is everything except people, and people there have everything except a heart.”

Ironically, the monologue of Mister Green, the man who left Russia to become an American, follows the process of the Russian skaz, *“folk tale,” from the Russian verb skazat’, “to tell” the monologue of a simple man in dialect and full of repetitions. The “dialect words” in this case are the English words in the Yiddish monologue of the would-be American and the repetitions are implied in a run-down of the VIPs and locations of the constantly expanding web:

“For when I blow, everyone comes running from all the shul. Judges, Congressmen, and assemblymen have heard me, and all of them have said: ‘Wonderful!’ Naturally, during my first year I only had one shul and two small prayer rooms. This year, God willing, there are prospects for up to twelve prayer rooms, and I’ll be able to make a nice few dollars.

But alas, how can one man attend to so much business? Don’t ask! This is America, you know, and here one must make the best of a situation. In one place I blow the shofar a bit earlier, in the next place a bit later, in the third, later still. I try to do my best in order to satisfy the public. For if I don’t show up on time, I’m likely to lose my job and my reputation.” *Mr. Green Has a Job 235.

Just as the 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service are not a monologue by the shofar blower, but, in fact, a dialogue with God and the congregation, Mister Green’s unstoppable monologue is in fact a dialogue with the silent writer, whose input consists of the parodic stylization which makes the story “real,” adding some irony.

Compared with the shofar work which caused the greatest scandal, Alvin Curran’s composition Shofar der Zeit (1990), *Chapter 4.50 Mr. Green Has a Job seems a harmless story. In fact, Mr. Green’s monologue is a much greater chutzpah than Curran’s shrill sounds and comment. The composer summarizes the significance of the instrument as follows: “Shofar is not only history, but sound, morality, language, animal” *Curran, About Shofar III and thus fits into tradition, whereas Sholem Aleykhem’s Mr. Green replaces all traditional values by the value​s of modern business. As the literary historian Ken Frieden puts it, “Not only the [Yiddish] language of the Jews suffers at the hands of assimilation and business mentality. The entire culture surrounding religious life seems to have lost all dignity and weight. Only the outward forms remain.” *Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction 200. In this case, the shofar blasts without repentance, and the beard without the belonging to the religious community. Frieden adds: “Whereas Mister Green thinks that his is an admirable tale of making it in America, . . . the implied author expects us to share his revulsion.” *Ibid. 200. Though Sholem Aleykhem himself was highly sceptical about the American way of life, the first draft for his novel Motl, the Cantor’s Son *The final version was released in 1907 and 1916 was about a young immigrant who would make a succesful career; “whether it would be the career of a successful Jewish American cantor who performs not only in synagogues but also on record albums or that of an opera singer or concert performer we do not know.” *Miron, The Image of the Shtetl 182.

In A Tool of Remembrance, Sholem Aleykhem’s story follows after four works describing Jewish suffering: Perets’ Bontshe Shvayg (1894) about a life of misery; Rozenfeld’s Sephirah (1898) about Jewish religious sadness; Perets’ The Shofar (1902) about threatened traditions, and Bialik’s And it Shall Be When the Days Grow Long… (1908) about unfulfillment. *Bontshe Shvayg: Chapter 4.1; Sephirah: Chapter 4.2; The Shofar: Chapter 4.4; And it Shall Be When the Days Grow Long…: Chapter 4.6. The characters in these four works are not able to change something about their situation. Mr. Green succeeds, but the price he pays is the loss of identity and integrity. The traditional addressee of the shofar blower, the kehillah, is replaced by a Jewish community in which Mr. Green is a stranger, and God, the shofar blower’s traditional superaddressee, has left the field to modern business.

 

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