Elijah’s impossible choices – a Sholem Aleichem tale
It’s no fun being an only child, fondled and fussed over, the sole surviving son of seven children. Don’t stand here. Don’t go there. Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. Wear a hat. Button your collar. Keep your hands warm. Blow your nose.
Ah me, it’s no good being an only son – and a rich man’s son at that. My father, you see, was well off. A moneychanger. He went from store to store with a bagful of coins. Exchanged silver for coppers and coppers for silver. That’s why his fingers were always black and his nails chipped. He worked very hard. Every day he came home tired and run-down.
“My legs are going,” he complained to Mama. “They’re failing me.”
Failing him? Possibly. But, on the other hand, he had a good business. That’s what everyone said. And everyone was green with envy that we made a living, and such a good one, too. Mama was very pleased that we were well off. And so was I.
“What a Passover we’re going to have! May all Jews have such a Passover, dear God!” Mama said. She thanked God for the fine festival we were going to have. And so did I, anxiously awaiting the arrival of this happy holiday.
Passover finally came. That dear, lovable holiday. I was dressed like a king, as befits a rich man’s son. But what good did it do me if I couldn’t race around outside, for I was prone to catch cold? If I couldn’t run around with the gang of poor boys, for I was a rich man’s son? I had such nice clothes. And no one to show them off to. A pocketful of nuts, and no one to play with.
It’s no fun being an only child, fondled and fussed over, the sole surviving son of seven children. And a rich man’s son at that.
After Father put on his best gabardine and went to shul to pray, Mama suggested, “You know what? You ought to lie down and take a nap. Then you won’t be sleepy at the seder. And you’ll be able to ask Father the Four Questions.”
Was I out of my mind? Going to sleep before the seder?
“But remember,” Mama added, “you’re not allowed to sleep during the seder. Because, if you fall asleep, God forbid, Elijah the Prophet will come with a sack on his shoulders…. For tonight, he goes from house to house and, if he sees anyone napping at the seder, he whisks him into his sack.”
“Me fall asleep at the seder? Me?! I’ll stay up all night with you. Even to the crack of dawn…. What happened last year, Mama?”
“Last year you fell asleep right after the Kiddush.”
“So how come Elijah the Prophet didn’t come with his sack then?”
“Because last year you were a little boy, but now you’re bigger. Tonight, you have to ask Father the Four Questions and recite with him, ‘Slaves were we unto Pharaoh.’ And you have to eat fish and soup and matzah balls with us…. Oh, here’s Father coming back from shul.”
Thank God Papa finished the Kiddush, so Papa drank the first cup. So did I. Filled to the brim, too. Down to the last drop.
“Look at that!” Mama told Father. “To the last drop!” Then she turned to me. “A full cup of wine? You’re going to doze off!”
“Me fall asleep? Me?! I’ll stay up all night with you. Even to the crack of dawn. Go ahead. Ask Father how I rattled off the Four Questions, how I recited the Haggadah and how, along with him, I rocked back and forth, saying, ‘Slaves were we.’”
Mama did not take her eyes off me. She smiled and said, “You’re going to doze off. Fall asleep.”
“Oh, Mama, Mama! That alone could make a 10-headed man fall asleep. How would you like someone sitting opposite you, droning in your ear, ‘Fall asleep. Doze off. Fall asleep’?”
So, naturally, I fell asleep.
I dozed off and dreamed that Father was already reciting “Pour out Thy wrath.” Mama was getting up to open the door and welcome Elijah the Prophet. How nice it would be if Elijah appeared with a sack on his back and told me to come with him! Just like Mama said.
The fault would be Mama’s alone, with her constant “Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep.”
Suddenly I heard the door squeak. Father rose and called out, “Welcome!”
I turned to the door. Yes, it was he. He was coming. He was coming. Slowly. You could hardly hear him. Elijah the Prophet, he was a good-looking Jew. An old man. With a curly, grey beard reaching to his knees. His face was yellow and wrinkled, but infinitely kind and beautiful. And his eyes – oh, what lovely, friendly eyes! Gentle, loving, faithful eyes. With a sack on his bent back, he leaned on a huge staff and silently walked toward me.
“Well, little boy, hop into my sack and let’s go,” the old man said sweetly.
“Where?” I asked.
“You’ll see later,” he replied.
I didn’t want to go, and he repeated his request.
“How can I go with you? I’m a rich man’s boy,” I pleaded.
“What sort of privilege does that entitle you to?”
“I’m their only son,” I said.
“I don’t consider you an only son,” Elijah said.
“I’m fondled and fussed over. The sole surviving son of seven children. If they see that I’ve gone, they won’t endure it. They’ll die. Especially Mama.”
The old man looked at me and said as sweetly as before, “If you don’t come with me, then sleep well – but keep on sleeping, forever.”
“That means I’ll die.” I began to cry. “They won’t endure it…. Especially Mama.”
“If you don’t want to die, then come with me. Say goodbye to your parents, and come along.”
“What do you mean? How can I go if I’m an only child, the sole surviving son of seven children?”
“For the last time, little boy,” Elijah said more severely now, “make your choice. One or the other. Either say goodbye to your parents forever and come with me, or remain here fast asleep forever. For all eternity.”
Having said this, he stepped away from me, to face the door. What to do? If I went with the old man to God knows where and disappeared, my parents would die. I’m an only child, the sole surviving son of seven children…. But to remain here fast asleep forever meant that I would die.
I stretched my hands out to him and said with tears in my eyes, “Elijah the Prophet. Dear, beloved, wonderful Elijah. Give me one minute to think it over.” He turned his fine, old, yellow and wrinkled face to me.
“I will give you one minute to consider it, child,” he said, and his loving and faithful eyes smiled. “But no more than that.”
And the old man with the knee-length, curly, grey beard leaned on his huge staff and waited.
Now I ask you. What should I have done during that minute to avoid going with the old man and yet not remain asleep forever?
Well, go ahead and guess!
Curt Leviant’s most recent novels are King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.