Sholem Aleichem and Stolen Dreams
In a newly-translated story in Tablet magazine, Sholem Aleichem recounts the extraordinary Passover of one family in pre-war Poland. The narrator is a young boy whose father welcomes a stranger in town to his home for the seder.
In “You’ve Never Seen a Seder Guest Like This,” the guest is described as “a gem” — “a pearl of a man.” He certainly is exotic. He doesn’t speak Yiddish, only Hebrew, and his clothing, a Turkish cloak, is unlike anything anyone has seen. He is described by the young narrator as angelic, with “apple-red cheeks” and “beautiful black eyes that twinkled.” Mama considers him “a holy man,” and Father is “delighted by his presence.”
Father insists that the guest make kiddush, and the family hears a kiddush “the likes of which we had never heard before and will never hear again.”
The mystery deepens when the stranger is asked his name. He offers a name which contains all the letters of the alphabet backwards, and the family assumes that it is “one of their customs” in the land he comes from. When asked about his country of origin, he describes a veritable Garden of Eden, ten thousand miles away, across desert and mountain, overflowing with delectable food, with homes of pinewood, dishes of gold, and “gems, pearls, and diamonds” scattered on the streets.
Needless to say, the entire family is enthralled. Not only does this land have endless wealth, but it has a king who is also a high priest and “a holy temple with priests and Levites … everything as it once used to be in ancient Jerusalem.”
For the young narrator, “beautiful and bright thoughts snatched me up and carried me away to that happy land” where he imagines, “the kind and pleasant man” will take him after Passover. He goes to bed full of dreams and hopes.
He awakens from a dream to a nightmare — his parents “both pale as death.” The guest has vanished along with all their valuable possessions, and with their maid.
The nameless young boy is “heartbroken” — not because of the stolen items for which his parents mourned, but for “that blissful land … over all the other good things that had been taken from me [and] brutally, brutally stolen.”
The story concludes with the following words: “And I turned to the wall and wept softly to myself.”
Aleichem recounts this tale of profound disappointment not so much because a thief stole their goods, but because he stole a young boy’s dreams. The boy is not named because he represents the idealism of youth. He lives for the future and he fears that the future has been taken from him.
He has been deceived — by a man who, by all appearances, was beneficent, kindly, even perhaps holy. The youth must wonder: Does that mean that you cannot trust your own eyes? Your own judgment? Do all appearances deceive? No wonder the story ends with him alone, turned to the wall, weeping softly to himself. He is the perfect image of despair.
Sholem Aleichem has painted a portrait in this short story of the great need in the human heart for dreams that are transcendent and inspiring. This particular dream may well have been a mirage, even a fraud, but it had the power to make a young man’s imagination soar and hope for the future.
The dream was particularly meaningful because it evoked a venerated past renewed in a glorious future. It made the awakening to reality all the more cruel.
What we are left with is a puzzle, a question as mysterious as the man whose name encompassed the whole alphabet. His name included all letters, and potentially all words, because he embodies everything we desire and everything we fear: Dare we dream and hope? What if the dreams prove to be nightmares? Few are those who have not been deeply disappointed.
It is no coincidence that the dreamer is young. It is the young who have not yet been disappointed in their aspirations. We, the older readers, are witnesses to youth’s pain at first loss of idealism. It is a terrible vision to contemplate.
It is important to keep in mind that Aleichem was born in 1859 and died in 1916, writing before the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the Jewish people as a sovereign state in Israel. In his world, a dream was a fragile, ephemeral, even dangerous notion because it would likely be dashed.
He could not have imagined how, from the depths of despair, a dream is born.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo