“Where I am coming from?” a tall, lanky, bearded man, with a plush hat accosts me.
He had just finished praying and was putting away the folded prayer shawl and his phylacteries.
Where I am coming from? Alas and alack! I am coming from the draft board, am I. This fellow who is stretched out on the bench is actually a son of mine. I am just coming from Yehupetz with him. We were over to some lawyers and get some advice and at the same time visited some professors to see what they would say. Some draft was wished on me! Presented ourselves four times, and the end is not yet. And just think of it, an only son; that is, unique in the family, a true first born, pure and simple. Why do you look at me? Do I annoy you? You may just listen won't you.
The history of the tale is a matter like this: I myself am a Mezeretcher, from Mezeretch. A native — that is I was born, so to speak, in Mazepevkeh; I was registered, that is recorded in the books of Vorotilivkeh; that is, at one time I used to live, not to think of it today, in Vorotilivkeh. I used to, but now I'm living in Mezeretch.
Who am I, and what my name is I believe should not much matter to you, but my son’s name I must tell you, indeed, because it has to do with this matter, and very much so. His name is Itsik, or Abraham Isaac in Hebrew, but his pet name is Alter. That’s how she named him, my wife, bless her, because he is a delicate boy, an only child, unique in the family. Of course, we had, besides him, another boy, younger by a year and a half —may he live longer. He was called Izik, that was his name. And so the misfortune had to happen.
I was then, not to think of it today, living in Vorotilivkeh, was I: that is, I was a Vorotilivker. Well, the child, lzik, that is, takes the notion to creep up just under the samovar and pours out on himself the boiling water. , may it not happen to you, and scalds himself (a longer life to him) to death. From then on, this one, Itsik, Abraham Isaac, that is, remained an only child, and she, my wife, bless her, coddled him and gave him the name of Alter.
And now you'll of course exclaim: “My goodness! An only son, unique in the family! What has he to do with the draft, I'd like to know?" Well, there you are. That's exactly what burns me up. Why, you might think that he was, God forbid, a healthy fellow, as a child might happen to be that is reared in luxury. Then you are mistaken. You wouldn't give two copecks for him. He's a sight, an invalid! As to being an invalid, he's really not ailing. thank the Lord, but certainly he is not well.
It’s a pity, he’s asleep, and I don’t want to wake him. Wait till he gets up and you'll see the frame of a man; skin and bones, tall and narrow. a small face like a fig, the fig of Rabbi Tzodik; and some build. I tell you, thin as a rail, the spit image of her, my wife, bless her. She too is tall and slim, that is, I mean delicate. Now, I ask you, should I be having on my mind a draft, when he’s thin and lanky, and absolutely useless. and has an “examtion” on top of everything.
Well, came the “xamination,” then who's “examtion,” and what's “examtion "? “Examtion,” my eye, as they say. What's the story? The story is a simple story. The other child, the one who scalded himself to death with the samovar, may it not happen to you, was forgotten to be struck out from the register book. So naturally I hurried away to the crown rabbi, the dope, with a howl: “You robber, you cutthroat, what did I do to you, that you didn't take my Izik out of the register book? Why didn't you?”
“And who was Izik?" he asks me—such a dope!
“My goodness,” I say, “you don't know Izik? Izik, the boy who overturned the samovar?”
“What samovar?” he asks nonchalantly.
Well, what do you know? I say, “That's a nice how-do-you-do! Maybe you're a stranger,” I say. “You've got a mighty fine head on you,” says I, “It would be mighty nice to crack nuts on it. Why, who doesn’t remember the story of my Izik who scalded himself with the samovar? I don’t understand,” says I, “what sort of a rabbi you are in our town. If you don’t analice any laws for us—for this we have a real rabbi, long may he live—then surely it would only be no more than right,” says I, “if you attended to the dead—attended: or else, what do we need you for, with your meat-tax?”
And after all this, what do you suppose? For nothing I insulted this elegant rabbi, because the story of the samovar didn’t happen here in Mezeretch, but when we were living, not to think of it today, in Vorotilivkeh. Can you beat that? I clean went and forgot all about it—did I.
To make a long story short —what's the use of bothering you with histories, and tales and stories?— before I had a chance to get my bearings in the red tape of this document and that document, my Abraham Isaac, that is Itsik, who is now called Alter, went and lost his whole examtion. No more examtion! No examtion? Pretty tough, I'll say. We raise a howl, some howl: “Is it possible? One and only son, unique in the family, a real, honest-to-goodness first-born, and no examtion!” But you might as well cry in the wilderness. Well it looks like we're licked!
But God after all is good to us. And what do you suppose? Just think of it. Maybe my Alter, I mean Itsik, doesn’t up and draw the biggest number, 699. The whole board room was agog. The chief himself slapped him on the back: “Bravo, smart fellow!”
“Mazel tov, Mazel tov!”
The whole town was envious. Number six hundred and ninety-nine! What luck “Mazel tov! Mazel tov! Mazel tov to you!” You would think I had just won the grand lottery—the two hundred grand!
But you know our Yiddelech .… When the “physkel” came, the rejections came thick. Everyone all of a sudden became a miserable wretched cripple—each with his own failing. This one suddenly began to hop on one foot; another’s eyesight grew bad, and still another developed a whistle in the ear—he developed. And a fifth managed to get himself a running sore that spread nicely on his head—excuse me for mentioning it—like a beautiful ornament.
To make a long story short, no use filling you with all sorts of stories and things. They reached my son's number 699, and my Itsik, that is poor Alter, had to appear in person at the “physkel,” and our home was full of wailing. Wailing isn’t the word for it. It was a wild howling. My wife, bless her, hits the ceiling. My daughter-in-law swoons away. My God! Is that possible? An only son, unique in the family, a real honest-to-goodness first-born, and not that much of an examtion. And he, my son, that is, doesn’t seem to mind it, as if he’s out of it. “What will happen to all Israel,” he says, “will happen to Mr. Israel.” That's how he puts it, sort of wisecracking, but you can imagine that inside he is shivering in his boots.
But then God is certainly good to us. The doctor begins to “xamine " my Itsik, that is, Alter, measure him from top to bottom, tap him, size him up and bother him, one way and another; and what for? He’s no good, the guy; that is, in general, he is good, but he’s no good for the army. His chest measurement is hardly more than a yard around. Well, again there was rejoicing and happiness. “Good luck!” “Good luck!” “Good luck to you, too.” The family got together, whisky was served and we drank to each other's health. Thank the Lord: got rid of the draft.
But then our Yiddelech, again. Perhaps you think there wasn’t some heel who made it his business to inform the central office that I used “grease.” Well, don’t fret. Before two months were up, I received a paper where Itsik, that is of course Alter, is invited to be so kind and present himself again, this time, at the State board office for inspection, so to speak. How do you like that, eh? A nice picnic. My wife, bless her, hits the ceiling, and the daughter-in-law just faints.
Well, what's the use of talking? Stringing out long stories? When you're called to the State house, you can’t be a hog and refuse. Reaching the big city, I naturally began to scurry about here and there, perhaps through pull, a good word, this and that, but you might as well cry: “I’m King Solomon.” All you have to do is to tell someone the story, “An only child, unique in the family, a real, honest-to-goodness, first-born and an invalid, at that”—and you are greeted with the noisiest guffaw. And as to my son, a corpse looks much better. Not because of the draft, at least that’s what he says. He doesn’t give a hoot about the draft, if it’s destined that he should serve. What he can't stand is our troubles, that is, he can’t bear to see the pain of the women. That's what he can't. You know how it is: a central draft board. You never can tell. Anything might happen. It’s only lucky, as you say; nothing but a lottery.
But the Almighty is good to us after all. My Itsik, that is Alter, was ushered into the State board room, and again they began all over again from scratch. They xamined him lengthwise and broadwise. Again they felt and patted and sized him up and bothered him here and there. But what's the good? The son of a gun is no good, that is he’s good all right, but not for the army.
True, one of them tried to go against, and said “Fit,” but the doctor made it short, “Unfit.” One said, “Fit,” the other said “Unfit.” “Fit.” “Unfit.” And so it went, until the governor personally took the trouble and left his seat and sized him up, saying, “Absolutely not fit,” that mean’s he's good for a scarecrow. Of course, I immediately sent a wire, naturally disguised, which read: “Mazel tov, the goods definitely cancelled.”
Now I must turn back to the time I was still living in Vorotilivkeh, may it not happen to you, and my Itsik. Alter, that is, was still a baby, was he. Well, it so happened that there was a census in town. They went from house to house and registered each and every one, young and old—the name, the age, and how many children, boys and girls, and what they are called. When the turn came to my Itsik, my wife, bless her, says “Alter.” So the fellow thinks, “Alter, well I should worry” and so he wrote “Alter.”
Well, what do you suppose. A year after the other draft trouble, I get a new message. My son Alter is wanted to present himself kindly at the board in Vorotilivkeh. Can you beat that? Of all the dumb and crazy things! There you are! A toast to Mr. Alter.
To make it short—why bother you with long drawn-out stories—my Itsik, that is, Alter, is called to appear at the board, all over again. My wife, bless her, is just hitting the ceiling. My daughter-in-law faints away. My God, have you ever heard the like of it in all the world, corner to corner, that an only son, unique in the family, a real honest-to-goodness, first-born, should appear three times for the draft. But you might as well talk Greek, or Chinese, for that matter. What am I to do?
Well, I hurried away to the community house, made a scene, and after much trouble, got the Jews to make out an “affidavid” that they know positively that Itsik is the same as Abraham Isaac, and Abraham Isaac is really Alter, and that Alter and Itsik and Abraham Isaac are all one and the same person.
With the paper in my hand, I drove to Vorotilevkeh.
Arrived in Vorotilevkeh, I was hailed: “Look who's here.” “My, what a stranger!” “How is Reb Yossel?” “ What are you doing here?”
Maybe, I'll tell them, what? Why should I? The less they know, I thought, the better.
“O, nothing. I have to see the poritz, the big shot.”
“About chickenfeed. You see. I bought some millet, and gave a deposit, and now, no millet and no deposit. Gone,” says I, “the cow with the cord.” And immediately I start out for the draft board office.
As soon as I get to the office, do I, I meet up with one of those real clerks and show him the paper. He only takes one look and he falls into a rage, the clerk, that is; and flings the paper right into my face with such fury—may God take pity.
“Stupaite kehortu—go to the deuce with all your names and Jewish tricks. You want to get out of the draft,” he cries, “you Jew-swindlers, so you turn Abraham Isaac into Itsik and Itsik into Alter—O no, that kind of monkey business won't do here.”
“Aha! Monkey business,” say I to myself, “in that case, he must be thinking of a ‘tip’, and I take out a coin, and say to him on the quiet, as I present it to him. “With my humble compliments, your honor.” As if stung, he yells out, “Bribes!" Other clerks gathered, and what do you suppose? I was shown the door, was I.
What a misfortune! My luck to come upon an “empty-hander.”
Of course, you might well imagine that among Jews you are never lost. I did find someone to act as a go-between… It was of as much use as a blood transfusion to a corpse—and, as it rested, I was supposed to have another son by the name of Alter, which Alter was invited to present himself personally before the draft board in Vorotilevkeh. A nice how-do-you-do!
If I survived the year, I must be of an iron constitution—although if you want to look at it the other way, am I not a fool to worry? What if there are ten draft board xaminations, so long as I know that he’s no good. the son of a gun. Well, I wouldn’t say exactly that he’s no good, but for the army he’s no good, especially when he was turned down two times, was he. But then again, when you come to think of it, who knows? A strange town; a draft board of “empty-handers"—who know what may happen? But God the Almighty was good to us again. My Alter. Itsik, that is, again drew a number, again presented himself for the “physkel,” and God worked a miracle. The draft board of Vorotilevkeh too decided “not fit”, and gave him a white card. So now with God's help we have two white cards.
Returning home, we were as gay as a lark, walking on air. We threw a party, invited nearly all the town and made merry, danced till the wee hours. What care I about anyone; and who can compare with me? A real king!
And now, we must get back to Izik, bless his soul, who scalded himself with the samovar, as a child, may his brother's years be longer. Just wait and you'll hear something interesting, you'll hear. Just imagine. Was I to be a prophet and foresee that the elegant rabbi of Vorotilevkeh, the crown rabbi, I mean, would forget to take his name out of the records in the city hall, and that I'd be credited with having another son: Izik, who must present himself before the draft board this year?
“Well, it’s not so good”
What a bombshell! What a “catasrofy!”
What Izik? Which Izik? When Izik has long been in the other world? Thus I plead and take counsel with our rabbi.
“What's to be done? What?”
“Well, it’s not so good,” he replies.
“Why isn't it good?” I ask.
“Why? Because Itsik and lzik are one and the same name.”
“Tell me.” I say, “if you’re so smart, how Itsik and lzik is one name?”
“Because,” says he, ‘“Itsik is Yitzchok, and Yitzchok is Isak. and Isak is Tsaac and Isaac is Izik.”
“Whew, what a brain-twister!”
Well to make a long story short, no use going into matters and details. My Izik is wanted, I am ordered without fail to present him before the draft board. At home the wailing began anew. Talk about wailing, like the destruction of the Temple. Firstly, my wife, bless her, reminded herself of the dead boy—revived her old wound.
“Why should he not be alive today and be drafted instead of rotting in the ground? And secondly, maybe, it’s just as the crown rabbi says: Itsik is Yitzchok, and Yitzchok is Isak, and Isak is Isaac, and Isaac is Izik—and that’s no joke.”
That's what she, my wife, bless her, says, and just hits the ceiling, and my daughter-in-law naturally passes out.
Well, I got going and drove up to Yehupetz, to consult a good lawyer, and at the same time took along my son, so I could consult a professor so he could tell me if he's fit or not, although I know mighty well that he’s no good, the son of a gun; that is, he’s good, all right, but not for a soldier. And then, I thought, when I find out what the lawyer will tell me, and what the professor will tell me, I'll be able to get some rest, and be done with the draft.
The first lawyer I went to happened to be a real blockhead, even though he had a large forehead and a bald pate, as smooth as a billiard ball. He couldn’t understand for the life of him, which was Alter, and which was Itsik, and who was Abraham Isaac and who was Izik. Of course I repeat and keep repeating that Alter and ltsik and Abraham Isaac are all one and the same person, and Izik is the one who overturned the samovar while I was still a Vorotilivker, that is while I lived in Vorotilivkeh… And I am beginning to guess that I am through, when he questions me all over again. “Allow me, just one moment, which was the oldest, Ttsik, Alter, or Abraham Isaac?”
“Who is Itsik?”
“There you are!” I blurt out. “Haven't I told you umpteen times, haven't I, that Itsik and Abraham Isaac and Alter are all one and the same person, that is, his real name is Itsik, or better, Abraham Isaac, but he’s called—his mother petnamed him so—‘Alter’; and Izik,” I tell him, “is the one who overturned the samovar while I was a Vorotilivker, that is, when I was living in Vorotilivkeh.”
“In that case,” he asks, “when was it that Abraham Alter, I mean, Isaac Itsik, presented himself before the draft board?”
“What is he jabbering! What a mix-up,” I say.
“You've got the wires twisted. I've never yet in all my life,” I say, “come across a Jew to have such a goyish head on him. Haven't I told you that Isaac and Abraham Isaac and Itsik and Izik, and Alter are all one and the same person—one and the same, the very same!”
“See here,” he says, “what are you shouting about? Stop your shouting.” What do you know? You might think that it was my fault.
In brief, I slammed the door and went to another lawyer. This time I struck a real Talmud brain, did I, but a little too much of a smarty. He rubbed his forehead and studied aloud, turned and twisted and worried the laws, inferred that fundamentally speaking, according to the law, the Mezeretch board had no right to register him, but seeing that this board did register him, the other board was obliged to strike him out, that is ‘‘aliminate” him, and then there is a law, he said, that if the board included him and the other board did not take his name out, then they must write him out, that is “aggsamt” him, and then there is a “statue” that if the other board refuses to take his name out, that is “aliminate” him . . .well, this law and that law and the other law, this “statue” and that “statue” . . . He just made my head dizzy with laws and “statues,” just dizzy; and I had to go to a third one now.
This time I struck a brand new schlemihl, a very young lawyer, just out of the shell, that is just graduated law, and a very cordial fellow with a voice like a bell, a ringing bell.
It looked to me like he was still practicing to plead, was he, because one could see that he liked to hear himself talk; he just swelled with pleasure. And so he waxed eloquent, delivered a whole speech in my favour, so that I had to interrupt him, saying, “Excellent,” I said, “you're absolutely right, but what's the good of your ‘lamenting’ me. You better advise me what to do,” I said, “in case, God forbid, he’s called again.”
Well, to make it short, why bother you with all sorts of stories? I finally got to the right sort, the real A-1 lawyer, one who, mind you, is a lawyer of the old school, who understands a thing or two.
I related the whole story from A to Z, while he sat the whole time with his eyes closed and listened.
After I finished, he says to me, “Are you all through? No more? Why, you just return home. It doesn’t amount to a pinch of snuff. You'll not have to pay more than three hundred roubles fine.”
“What, is that all?” I say, “if I only knew that the matter ends in three hundred roubles. What I fear is about my son, I fear.”
“What son?” he asks.
“What do you mean, ‘what son’? My son Alter Itsik, that is.”
“How does that affect Itsik?”
“What do you mean, ‘how does it affect’? Suppose they, God forbid, drag him out again, suppose.”
“But you say he has a white card.”
“Why, he has two white cards.”
“Well then, what more do you want?”
“So far as I am concerned, I want nothing. What I am afraid of is that now that they're looking for Izik,. and as Izik doesn’t exist, and as Alter, Itsik, that is, is registered as Abraham Isaac, and Isaac—so says our dope of a crown rabbi, is Isak, and Isak is Isaac, and Isaac is Izik—well they might, God forbid, take my Itsik, or Abraham Isaac, that is Alter, for the dead Izik?”
“Well, then,” he says, “all the better. If Itsik is Izik, you'll save the fine too. Didn't you say he had a white card?”
“Two white cards,” I reply, “but the two white cards were given to Itsik, not to Izik.”
“Didn’t you just tell me that Itsik was Izik?"
“Whoever told you that Itsik is Izik?"
“Why, just a moment ago, you said that Itsik was the same as Izik!”
“I? How could I tell you such a thing when Itsik is no other than Alter, and Izik is the boy who overturned the samovar while I was a Vorotilivker, that is lived in Vorotilivkeh …I…”
Getting into a purple rage, he cries out, “Stupaite vi nadoiedliveh vevrei.”
Just think of it; I, a pest. I should be called a pest. I…