The Dead Citron

My name is Leib. When I am called up to read the portion of the Law it is by the name of Yehudah-Leib. At home, I sign myself Lyef Moishevitch. Amongst the Germans I am known as Herr Leon. Here in England, I am Mr. Leon. When I was a child I was called Leibel. At “Cheder” I was Lieb-Dreib-Obderick. You must know that at our “Cheder” every boy has a nickname. For instance—”Mottel-Kappotel,” “Meyer-Dreyer,” “Mendel-Fendel,” “Chayim-Clayim,” “Itzig-Shpitzig,” “Berel-Tzap.” Did you ever hear such rhymes? That Itzig rhymes with Shpitzig, and Mendel with Fendel, and Chayim with Clayim is correct. But what has Berel to do with Tzap, or how does Leib rhyme with Obderick? I did not like my nickname. And I fought about it. I got blows and thumps and smacks and whacks and pinches and kicks from all sides. I was black and blue. Because I was the smallest in the “Cheder”—the smallest and the weakest and the poorest, no one defended me. On the contrary, the two rich boys tortured me. One got on top of me, and the other pulled me by the ear. Whilst the third—a poor boy—sang a song to tease me—

“Just so! Just so!
Give it to him.
Punch him.
Bang him.
His little limbs,
His little limbs.
Just so! Just so!

At such times I lay quiet as a kitten. And when they let me go I went into a corner and wept silently. I wiped my eyes, went back to my comrades, and was all right again.

Just a word—whenever you meet the name Leibel in this story, you will know it refers to me.

I am soft as down, short and fat. In reality, I am not so fat as I look. On the contrary, I am rather bony, but I wear thick, wadded little trousers, a thick, wadded vest, and a thick wadded coat. You see my mother wants me to be warm. She is afraid I might catch cold, God forbid! And she wraps me in cotton-wool from head to foot. She believes that cotton-wool is very good to wrap a boy in, but must not be used for making balls. I provided all the boys with cotton-wool I pulled it out of my trousers and coat until she caught me. She beat me, and whacked me, and thumped me and pinched me. But Leibel went on doing what he liked—distributing cotton-wool.

My face is red, my cheeks rather blue, and my nose always running. “Such a nose!” cries my mother. “If he had no nose, he would be all right. He would have nothing to freeze in the cold weather.” I often try to picture to myself what would happen if I had no nose at all. If people had no noses, what would they look like? Then the question is—? But I was going to tell you the story of a dead citron, and I have wandered off to goodness knows where. I will break off in the middle of what I was saying, and go back to the story of the dead citron.

My father, Moshe-Yankel, has been a clerk at an insurance company’s office for many years. He gets five and a half “roubles” a week. He is waiting for a rise in wages. He says that if he gets his rise this year, please God, he will buy a citron. But my mother, Basse-Beila, has no faith in this. She says the barracks will fall down before father will get a rise.

One day, shortly before the New Year, Leibel overheard the following conversation between his father and his mother.

He: “Though the world turn upside down, I must have a citron this year!”

She: “The world will not turn upside down, and you will have no citron.”

He: “That’s what you say. But supposing I have already been promised something towards a citron?”

She: “It will have to be written into the books of Jests. In the month called after the town of Kreminitz a miracle happened—a bear died in the forest. But what then? If I do not believe it, I shall not be a great heretic either.”

He: “You may believe or not. I tell you that this Feast of Tabernacles, we shall have a citron of our own.”

She: “Amen! May it be so! From your mouth into God’s ears!”

“Amen, amen,” repeated Leibel in his heart. And he pictured to himself his father coming into the synagogue, like a respectable householder, with his own citron and his own palm-branch. And though Moshe-Yankel is only a clerk, still when the men walk around the Ark with their palms and their citrons, he will follow them with his palm and citron. And Leibel’s heart was full of joy. When he came to “Cheder,” he at once told everyone that this year his father would have his own palm and citron. But no one believed him.

“What do you say to his father?” asked the young scamps of one another. “Such a man—such a beggar amongst beggars desires to have a citron of his own. He must imagine it is a lemon, or a ‘groschen’ apple.”

He gazed in through the glass door, smiled at the box containing the citron, until his mother saw him, and said to his father that the young scamp wanted to get hold of the citron to bite off its top.

That was what the young scamps said. And they gave Leibel a few good smacks and thumps, and punches and digs and pushes. And Leibel began to believe that his father was a beggar amongst beggars. And a beggar must have no desires. But how great was his surprise when he came home and found “Reb” Henzel sitting at the table, in his Napoleonic cap, facing his father. In front of them stood a box full of citrons, the beautiful perfume of which reached the furthest corners of the house.

The cap which “Reb” Henzel wore was the sort of cap worn in the time of Napoleon the First. Over there in France, these caps were long out of fashion. But in our village there was still one to be found—only one, and it belonged to “Reb” Henzel. The cap was long and narrow. It had a slit and a button in front, and at the back two tassels. I always wanted these tassels. If the cap had fallen into my hands for two minutes—only two, the tassels would have been mine.

“Reb” Henzel had spread out his whole stock-in-trade. He took up a citron with his two fingers, and gave it to father to examine.

“Take this citron, ‘Reb’ Moshe-Yankel. You will enjoy it.”

“A good one?” asked my father, examining the citron on all sides, as one might examine a diamond. His hands trembled with joy.

“And what a good one,” replied “Reb” Henzel, and the tassels of his cap shook with his laughter.

Moshe-Yankel played with the citron, smelled it, and could not take his eyes off it. He called over his wife to him, and showed her, with a happy smile, the citron, as if he were showing her a precious jewel, a priceless gem, a rare antique, or an only child—a dear one.

Basse-Beila drew near, and put out her hand slowly to take hold of the citron. But she did not get it.

“Be careful with your hands. A sniff if you like.”

Basse-Beila was satisfied with a sniff of the citron. I was not even allowed to sniff it. I was not allowed to go too near it, or even to look at it.

“He is here, too,” said my mother. “Only let him go near it, and he will at once bite the top off the citron.”

“The Lord forbid!” cried my father.

“The Lord preserve us!” echoed “Reb” Henzel. And the tassels shook again. He gave father some cotton-wool into which he might nest the citron. The beautiful perfume spread into every corner of the house. The citron was wrapped up as carefully as if it had been a diamond, or a precious gem. And it was placed in a beautiful round, carved, painted and decorated wooden sugar box. The sugar was taken out, and the citron was put in instead, like a beloved guest.

“Welcome art thou, ‘Reb’ citron! Into the box—into the box!”

The box was carefully closed, and placed in the glass cupboard. The door was closed over on it, and good-bye!

“I am afraid the heathen”—that was meant for me—”will open the door, take out the citron, and bite its top off,” said my mother. She took me by the hand, and drew me away from the cupboard.

Like a cat that has smelt butter, and jumps down from a height for it, straightens her back, goes round and round, rubbing herself against everything, looks into everybody’s eyes, and licks herself—in like manner did Leibel, poor thing, go round and round the cupboard. He gazed in through the glass door, smiled at the box containing the citron, until his mother saw him, and said to his father that the young scamp wanted to get hold of the citron to bite off its top.

“To ‘Cheder,’ you blackguard! May you never be thought of, you scamp!”

Leibel bent his head, lowered his eyes, and went off to “Cheder.”

The few words his mother had said to his father about his biting off the top of the citron burned themselves into Leibel’s heart, and ate into his bones like a deadly poison.

The top of the citron buried itself in Leibel’s brain. It did not leave his thoughts for a moment. It entered his dreams at night, worried him, and almost dragged him by the hand. “You do not recognize me, foolish boy? It is I—the top of the citron.” Leibel turned round on the other side, groaned, and went to sleep. It worried him again. “Get up, fool. Go and open the cupboard, take out the citron, and bite me off. You will enjoy yourself.”

Leibel got up in the morning, washed his hands, and began to say his prayers. He took his breakfast, and was going off to “Cheder.” Passing by, he glanced in the direction of the glass cupboard. Through the glass door, he saw the box containing the citron. And he imagined the box was winking at him. “Over here, over here, little boy.” Leibel marched straight out of the house.

One morning, when Leibel got up, he found himself alone in the house. His father had gone off to business, his mother had gone to the market. The servant was busy in the kitchen. “Everyone is gone. There isn’t a soul in the house,” thought Leibel. Passing by, he again looked inside the glass cupboard. He saw the sugar box that held the citron. It seemed to be beckoning to him. “Over here, over here, little boy.” Leibel opened the glass door softly and carefully, and took out the box—the beautiful, round, carved, decorated wooden box, and raised the lid. Before he had time to lift out the citron, the fragrance of it filled his nostrils—the pungent, heavenly odor. Before he had time to turn around, the citron was in his hand, and the top of it in his eyes.

Why? Why? He dreamt of the citron that night. It haunted him, and asked him: “Why have you done this thing to me? Why did you bite off my head?

“Do you want to enjoy yourself? Do you want to know the taste of Paradise? Take and bite me off. Do not be afraid, little fool. No one will know of it. Not a son of Adam will see you. No bird will tell on you.”

You want to know what happened? You want to know whether I bit the top off the citron, or held myself back from doing it? I should like to know what you would have done in my place—if you had been told ten times not to dare to bite the top off the citron? Would you not have wanted to know what it tasted like? Would you not also have thought of the plan—to bite it off, and stick it on again with spittle? You may believe me or not—that is your affair—but I do not know myself how it happened. Before the citron was rightly in my hands, the top of it was between my teeth.

The day before the Festival, father came home a little earlier from his work, to untie the palm branch. He had put it away very carefully in a corner, warning Leibel not to attempt to go near it. But it was useless warning him. Leibel had his own troubles. The top of the citron haunted him. Why had he wanted to bite it off? What good had it done him to taste it when it was bitter as gall? It was for nothing he had spoiled the citron, and rendered it unfit for use. That the citron could not now be used, Leibel knew very well. Then what had he done this for? Why had he spoiled this beautiful creation, bitten off its head, and taken its life? Why? Why? He dreamt of the citron that night. It haunted him, and asked him: “Why have you done this thing to me? Why did you bite off my head? I am now useless—useless.” Leibel turned over on the other side, groaned, and fell asleep again. But he was again questioned by the citron. “Murderer, what have you against me? What had my head done to you?”

The first day of the Feast of Tabernacles arrived. After a frosty night, the sun rose and covered the earth with a delayed warmth, like that of a stepmother. That morning Moshe-Yankel got up earlier than usual to learn off by heart the Festival prayers, reciting them in the beautiful Festival melody. That day also Basse-Beila was very busy cooking the fish and the other Festival dishes. That day also Zalmen the carpenter came to our Tabernacle to make a blessing over the citron and palm before anyone else, so that he might be able to drink tea with milk and enjoy the Festival.

“Zalmen wants the palm and the citron,” said my mother to my father.

“Open the cupboard, and take out the box, but carefully,” said my father.

He himself stood on a chair and took down from the top shelf the palm, and brought it to the Tabernacle to the carpenter.

“Here, make the blessing,” he said. “But be careful, in Heaven’s name be careful!”

Our neighbor Zalmen was a giant of a man—may no evil eye harm him! He had two hands each finger of which might knock down three such Leibels as I. His hands were always sticky, and his nails red from glue. And when he drew one of these nails across a piece of wood, there was a mark that might have been made with a sharp piece of iron.

In honor of the Festival, Zalmen had put on a clean shirt and a new coat. He had scrubbed his hands in the bath, with soap and sand, but had not succeeded in making them clean. They were still sticky and the nails still red with glue.

Into these hands fell the dainty citron. It was not for nothing Moshe-Yankel was excited when Zalmen gave the citron a good squeeze and the palm a good shake.

“Be careful, be careful,” he cried. “Now turn the citron head downwards, and make the blessing. Carefully, carefully. For Heaven’s sake, be careful!”

Suddenly Moshe-Yankel threw himself forward, and cried out, “Oh!” The cry brought his wife, Basse-Beila, running into the Tabernacle.

“What is it, Moshe-Yankel? God be with you!”

“Coarse blackguard! Man of the earth!” he shouted at the carpenter, and was ready to kill him.

“How could you be such a coarse blackguard? Such a man of the earth? Is a citron an ax? Or is it a saw? Or a bore? A citron is neither an ax nor a saw nor a bore. You have cut my throat without a knife. You have spoiled my citron. Here is the top of it—here, see! Coarse blackguard! Man of the earth!”

We were all paralyzed on the instant. Zalmen was like a dead man. He could not understand how this misfortune had happened to him. How had the top come off the citron? Surely he had held it very lightly, only just with the tips of his fingers? It was a misfortune—a terrible misfortune.

Basse-Beila was pale as death. She wrung her hands and moaned.

“When a man is unfortunate, he may as well bury himself alive and fresh and well, right in the earth.”

And Leibel? Leibel did not know whether he should dance with joy because the Lord had performed a miracle for him, released him from all the trouble he had got himself into, or whether he should cry for his father’s agony and his mother’s tears, or whether he should kiss Zalmen’s thick hands with the sticky fingers and the red nails, because he was his redeemer, his good angel… Leibel looked at his father’s face and his mother’s tears, the carpenter’s hands, and at the citron that lay on the table, yellow as wax, without a head, without a spark of life, a dead thing, a corpse.

“A dead citron,” said my father, in a broken voice.

“A dead citron,” repeated my mother, the tears gushing from her eyes.

“A dead citron,” echoed the carpenter, looking at his hands. He seemed to be saying to himself: “There’s a pair of hands for you! May they wither!”

“A dead citron,” said Leibel, in a joyful voice. But he caught himself up, fearing his tones might proclaim that he, Leibel, was the murderer, the slaughterer of the citron.


Mitchell Waife

From YIVO Encyclopedia: Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz; 1859–1916), one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature. A supreme Jewish humorist, Sholem Aleichem tapped into the energies of the East European, spoken-Yiddish idiom and invented modern Jewish archetypes, myths, and fables of unequaled imaginative potency and universal appeal.

Born in the provincial town of Pereyaslav (Ukraine) to a middle-class family of timber merchants, Rabinovitz spent a happy childhood in Voronkov. Here he was suffused with impressions and experiences that he would later utilize artistically, sublimating memories of his tiny childhood hamlet into the literary image of Kasrilevke, the archetypal shtetl. The death of his mother, Esther, and the loss of the family’s capital, truncated his childhood felicity. Following a brief stay with his grandparents in Bohuslav, he returned to live with his father and stepmother. In spite of his habitual high spirits, depression and impotent fantasies marked Rabinovitz’s pubescent years. This dark mood suffused his fictional world as a dangerous undercurrent of distress, sickness, psychosis, and death, which belied its bright surface and informed the “Jewish comedy” that he was to create. — Dan Miron

Translation by Khane (Hannah) Berman (1881-1955)

She was born in a town near Kovno, Lithuania.  She moved to England while still young.  Over the course of fifty years, she was active in the realm of Yiddish and English literature.  She published stories and translations of world literature in the Yiddish press in London.  She translated from Yiddish to English works by Y. L. Peretz, Sholem-Aleykhem (Stempenyu), Leyb Malakh’s Don domingos kraytsveg (Don Domingo’s crossroads), and a series of novellas by younger Yiddish writers.  She died lonely and forlorn in a town near London.

Source: Sh. Y. Dorfzon, in Dorem-afrika (January 1956).