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THE PASSOVER ELECTIONS AT THE SHARON ISRAEL
by: Joseph S. Alderman - Yale '15S
by: Abraham S. Alderman - '23 Emeritus
Assistant Professor of English, S.C.S.C.
"The Passover Elections at the Sharon Israel" was written by Joseph Sorrel Alderman and appeared in The Yale Sheffield Monthly for June 1915. It is a fictionalized version of a rather turbulent-- though not without the element of humor-- episode in the history of the Congregation Sheveth Achim on upper Factory Street, one of the leading Orthodox synagogues of New Haven during the first half of the present century.
The event with which this story is concerned was of great moment to the author, for it was his father Max, familiarly and widely known and loved throughout the Jewish community as Mordche (Mordecai) the Shamus, whose long tenure in that office of the Sheveth Achim Synagogue was now challenged by Aaron Peretz Svirsky, who for several years had ably served the Congregation as its secretary. The threat posed by the challenge brought out all the resources, such as they were, that were available to the partisans both of the incumbent and of his newly risen adversary, as is freely depicted in the story.
Joseph Alderman was born in Kurenitz/ Kurenets, Lithuania (today in Belarus) in 1894 and was brought here shortly thereafter as a child of four. He spent his entire impressionable youth in the Jewish Ghetto of New Haven, living at one time or another on Dow, Commerce, Factory, and Spruce Streets. He attended the schools in or close to this enclave; and was strongly influenced by its parochial institutions, religious, social, cultural, and economic, as well by its traditions, ideals, and way of life. Upon graduating from Hillhouse High School in 1912, he entered Yale, from which he graduated with honors as a member of the class of 1915S.
From the very beginning of his college career he showed marked literary ability in creative writing, and several of his articles, poems, dramas, and stories appeared in The Yale Literary Magazine and The Sheffield Monthly. He won several prizes and awards for composition, notably the Stone Trust Corporation Prize for a series of short stories collectively titled Shadows of Israel. The themes and subject material of practically all his writings were derived from the life in the Jewish quarter of New Haven in which he grew up. His writings reflect his familiarity with, and his love of the characters, values, events, and even the very languagesYiddish and Hebrewof that community.
Following his graduation from Yale he pursued his literary studies in the Yale Graduate School and then joined the faculty of the then newly founded Rosenbaum School (later to be known as the Milford Prepatory School and presently as the Milford Academy.) He remained at his post for more than fifty years, preparing its students and others for college. Upon his retirement about ten years ago, he took up his residence in Florida.
In the April 1915 issue of The Sheffield Monthly, the members of the Editorial Board expressed their appreciation to Joseph Alderman for contributing almost monthly "compositions of unusual excellence". They added:
His writing has been superior to that of any man in Sheffpossibly in Yalethat we know of. The Board is glad to have had the opportunity. To publish his work, almost every piece of which he could have disposed of to outside publishers, and we take this opportunity of making very grateful acknowledgement.
Shaneh Malkah Jacobson lay under her best, highly polished bed, scrubbing the region below it with that sudden enthusiasm for cleanliness which annually beset her the week before Passover. When Shaneh Malkah had been born, her mother, partly because one of her grandaunts had been thus called, partly because of a maternal pride in her first child, had bestowed a name upon her that signified, literally, "Beautiful Queen." Whether or not Shaneh Malkahs mother had been justified in giving her first daughter so ambitious a name, certain it is that that daughter had long since lost all appositeness for it, more especially since she had become the portly Mrs. Jacobson with six healthy offspring of her own. Truth to tell, Shaneh Malkahs appearance was neither regal nor prepossessing.
Those who met Mrs. Jacobson for the first time were struck at once by the sight of her feeble, plaintively protruding eyes. She was woefully near-sighted, of that degree of near-sightedness, indeed, which made her stare passively at a visitor if she happened to be at the other side of the room from the door, and not realize until the visitor spoke whether it was her sister-in-law from the other end of the city, or a neighbor come to borrow some onions. It was because of this myopic defect, also, that so many of Mrs. Jacobsons domestic duties were performed with such startling abandon. Her floors, when swept, showed generally a unique, albeit a somewhat irregular, pattern, indicating those places over which her eyes had wondered ineffectively. The food, also, which she set before her family, brought to light queer ingredients on being analyzed. Bits of paper and stray hairs, with an occasional pin or a toothpick, inadvertently swept into the platter form her pastry board, were found nestling among the more legitimate components of her pies; and once a dime, whose mysterious disappearance she could in no way account for, was triumphantly discovered by Master David Jacobson, innocently lodged between two noodles in his slice of Luckschenkugel. Nor did the glasses, which she was finally persuaded to procure, prove a source of continuous advantage to her, for she firmly persisted in regarding them as an acquisition to her jewelry, and, as such, to be worn only on the Sabbath and on holidays.
This particular afternoon however, the floors showed only to a remarkably small degree the usual imperfections that resulted from Mrs. Jacobsons limited vision. It was with a complacent pride, therefore, in having accomplished more than usual, that she emerged from beneath the bed, and, finishing soon what little there remained of floor space, brought the holiday washing of her rooms to a successful close. Turning then with some regard for her own begrimed appearance, she had scarcely begun a vigorous ablution of her face and hands, when the lusty cries of her youngest-born caused her to hasten nervously through that function and attend to his uncertain wants. "Sha, sha!" she cried, attempting, by violently bouncing him up and down to overcome his merciless yowls. "Sha, mei traste! Hear, my little dove! If you will but hush, God will bring here your rich uncle from Africa, just as He brought over Mrs. Bermans; and he, also, will have many fine presents with him, for you and all the rest of us." The youngest addition to the Jacobsons, after due meditation upon the inducement for quiescence thus offered, suddenly subsided; and, as if in fulfillment of the material promise, a knock was heard at the door, and Mr. Mendel Nathans entered the room.
Mendel Nathans, let s hasten to say, lest the unsuspecting reader drew wong inferences as to the affluential connections of the Jacobsons, was not that rich uncle to whom Shaneh Malkah had just alluded; being as a matter of fact, neither rich, nor, as yet, anybodys uncles. Indeed, to tell the truth, Mrs. Jacobsons allusion to the wealthy relative from Africa had no justification other than that prompted by her active imagination, spurred by the envy of the more fortunate Mrs. Berman. Far from being so romantic a personage, Mendel Nathans was but an humble, indigent carpenter, who, in his struggle to provide for his evergrowing brood, undertook, in addition to his trade, the collection of the weekly dues of a charitable society to which Mrs. Jacobson belonged.
When Shaneh Malkah had approached near enough to recognize him and had answered his doleful "Gut Morgen!" with a like phrase, she delved into her apron pocket and carefully counting out five pennies there, delivered them to him. Now ever since Mr. Nathans had begun collecting, it had been his custom, after acknowledging Mrs. Jacobsons payment with a receipt, to bid her "a good day," receive "a good year" in return, and then depart to the next door. That afternoon being very warmsurprisingly so for the first week in Apriland Mrs. Jacobson chancing to be his last contributor that day, he lingered a little after giving her the receipt. Whereat Mrs. Jacobson, being of a hospitable nature, of that kind indeed which finds its greatest pleasure in forcing refreshments on the chance visitor and its greatest rebuff in the refusal of the visitor to partake, inquired tentatively: "Perhaps you will sit down, Mr. Nathans, and have a little Branfen und Lekech (brandy and gingerbread)?" Fortunately for the ease of her mind, Mendel Nathans was not one of those who required insistent pressure to partake of any refreshments, especially where Branfen und Lekech were concerned. The reflection being duly served then by beaming Mrs. J., the carpenter-collector seated himself with a sigh on the chair nearest the window, that he might enjoy, in addition to the delectables, the mild breeze that blew in with grateful relief, even though it bore unmistakable evidence that the opposite neighbors in the next tenement were to have fish and cabbage for supper.
It was in the midst of the general conversation that followed, and when he had swept off the last remaining crumb of Lekech, that he suddenly asked: "What do you think, Mrs. Jacobson, about Aaron Smolansky running for Shames against your husband this year?"
Mrs. Jacobson gave a nervous start. "Aaron Smolansky for Shames?" she cried. "Why, what are you saying, Mr. Nathans? I hear this for the first time."
He shook his head decisively. "Oh, yes. He was in the synagogue this morning, and he said that he was going after the office. Already, he is running around to all members of the Congregation Sharon Israel, asking them that they should vote for him at the election next week."
"May mad dogs run after him!" she cried irefully. "What business has that old toper to run for Shames?"
"You know your husband has had that office for eighteen yearsever since the Sharon Israel has been founded. And there are a lot of members who say that its time we had another onenot, of course, that there is any real dissatisfaction against your husband, you know, but just because they say it is good to have a change in everything"
"Always a change, always a change!" she cried petulantly. "Theres nothing you can keep on doing in this precious country, and as for wearing or keeping something you once get, thats out of the question! Now look at my daughter Annie! Just as soon as she gets enough to buy a new hat in the latest style, she wears it for about two weeks, and then, behold! Theres a change; the brim is wider, or its narrower, or they stick on some new baubles or a Heaven-knows-what. And then Annie doesnt wear it any more, and saves a month or two from her wages and gets another one. And its the same way with everything. The children are changing; they dont want to go to the synagogue and they dont say the morning prayers. And now, as if all this wasnt enough, the change is to come to the Sharon Israel. I dont know, though, what we will do if Aaron Smolansky is elected. Annie is the only one who is working, and God knows she needs enough for herself!"
"Mr. Jacobson might go back to teaching Hebrew," he suggested.
"Lazar is not made for that. Oh, I know he can sit with some of those old do-nothings, and drone over the Commentaries for hours at a time. And he seems like a perfect angel, too, so mild-tempered and obliging. But when he teaches children, and they dont hear him or understand him, he turns into a devil, and he throws the books about, and screams, until he gets them into hysterics. Ive had enough of his teaching the first few years after our marriage, when every new pupil he got, fled after a week or two. Heaven keep us from having to go back again to that!"
Mendel Nathans having no ready comment to make to this, remained silent a moment and then, rising, departed hastily, leaving Mrs. Jacobson in a highly distressed and agitated state of mind.
And what was this office of Shames which Lazar Jacobson had held undisputedly for eighteen years, only to see a rival arise in the nineteenth? The Shames you must understand, is an executive peculiar to the Jewish synagogue. He is a janitor and a beadle, a sexton and a cantor. He is ubiquitous. It is he who recites the prayers that bring the new-born child into the ranks of Israel; he is resent again at the confirmation service and the wedding feast; and it is he who digs the graves for the departed members of his congregation. For all these manifold services, the Congregation Sharon Israel presented its Shames with a salary of one hundred dollars a year. More important than this stipend, however, were those dispensations which the members of the synagogue gave to the Shames for the various duties he performed for them, so that his income netted from ten to fifteen dollars a week, a not inconsiderable sum for the Ghetto.
When Lazar Jacobson came home for supper that evening, his spouse turned reproachfully at him as he took forth a book of Commentaries and began to read.
"I hear that Aaron Smolansky will run against you for Shames this year," she said with an attempt at indifference.
"Yes," he answered mildly.
"Yes!" she repeated angrily. "You take it indeed with a gay heart. Id like to know what you will do if Aaron Smolansky is elected?"
"At the worse, I can go back to my Hebrew teaching. Besides, Aaron Smolansky hasnt been elected yet."
"A fine answer indeed: Behold, my children," she cried, pointing dramatically to the unperturbed Lazar, "behold the blockhead with whom God has blessed me! May all my enemies be so blessed! And what if he is not elected yet? Is that a reason for his not being elected next week?"
"Woman," said Lazar calmly, "you are a fool!" With which remark he serenely turned again to his book and buried himself in its didactic contents.
Mrs. Jacobson shuffled irately about, directing a continuous stream of reproaches on her husband. She repeated again and again her assurance that their rival would have no difficulty at all in obtaining the coveted office, and followed it up with a dismal picture of the results after the election; she and her children begging from house to house, and Lazar unable to obtain a single pupil.
"Sayeth Rabbi Joseph Lehak" droned Lazar in that plaintive, monotonous chant which is found especially appropriate for the reading of holy texts; "He that hath no wife shall not teach small children, for the mothers of the children will come to the school and he will cast eyes upon them. And she that hath no husband shall not teach small children "
Mrs. Jacobson cast as furious a look as her poor eyes were capable of upon the slight, diminutive form of her husband, and surrendered.
The next day, assisted by her children, Shaneh Malkah began her campaign. Meeting Mrs. Smolansky at the butchers, she glared at her with all the force of her feeble eyes, while Mrs. Smolansky mockingly stuck her tongue into her cheek and laughed. Annie Jacobson deliberately cut Ida Smolansky as they left the shop in which they both worked, going home with Esther Levine instead of with Ida; this despite the fact that up to that very moment she had regarded the Levine girl as "a little fool" whom she "perfectly detested." The young gentlemen of the rival houses showed their animosity in a more vigorous way, and Harry Jacobson came in the next day with a bloody nose and a generally rumpled appearance, but triumphant withal that he had left Simon Smolansky in even a worse condition. Shaneh Malkah changed her milkdealer for one who was a member of the Sharon Israel, not until he had assured her, however, that he would, in recompense, vote for her husband. From her storekeeper, also, she demanded a promise to give his vote to the Jacobsons, and the storekeeper had smiled genially and promised. How was poor Mrs. Jacobson to know that that double-faced wretch had smiled just as genially upon Mrs. Smolansky an hour before? She received an ally, and a powerful one, in the shape of old Deborah, a shriveled widow of seventy who lived above them, and who effectually spread the direst scandals concerning the Smolanskys about the neighborhood; that Mr. And Mrs. S., and a friend played pinochle nightly till past midnight, and that Mrs. Smolansky would have no other than an orchestra seat when she attended the theater. Old Deborah brought in, also, daily reports to Shaneh Malkah to indicate the election sentiment; that, for example, Mr. Brownstein had averred that he would vote for the Jacobsons, and that Mrs. Greenblatt had sworn by all that she regarded most holy that her husband would vote against them because Shaneh Malkah had dared to call her Samie a Mshumid (apostate) for throwing stones at a cat.
And thus the week progressed, while the conflicting parties bribed and cajoled and wheedled each member of the congregation. Lazar Jacobson, however, remained passive throughout.
Passover came and the first two days of the eight were celebrated with the greatest rejoicing in all but two of the homes in the neighborhood. On the evening that ushered in the third day, the holiday restrictions against writing being removed until the final two hours, the elections at the Sharon Israel were to take place. The rival parties exerted themselves to the utmost that day, and even Lazar Jacobson lost something of his indifference, and looked pale and worried.
The fateful evening drew on. It was with the feeling that she had done all that she could, and that, for the rest, the future lay with the Almighty, that Shaneh Malkag, having first prudently removed her glasses and other holiday ornaments so that the mind of the congregation might not be unfavorably turned at the sight of such opulence, entered the synagogue, and repaired to the womens balcony. As a rule, women rarely attended the elections, through some dim feeling that it was not altogether decorous for them to interfere inning, however, besides Mrs. Jacobson and Old Deborah, who sat together in a corner of the balcony, were Mrs. Smolansky and a sympathizing friend who had seated themselves in the very middle of the first row and kept up a continual chattering and laughing.
"There you have it!" cried Shaneh Malkah indignantly, as a burst of scornful laughter came from the direction of Mrs. S. "The old sorceress has got nothing else to do but laugh. I wish I could laugh now; only Im too nervous and dont mistake the synagogue for a theater." Indeed, Mrs. Jacobson had been fidgeting nervously about for the last half hour. Below her, in the main hall, the members came straggling in, by twos and threes, all engaged in high-pitched conversation on topics that ranged from the latest scandal and account of the war to the election on hand. Among all these, however, Shaneh Malkah failed to distinguish her husband, though she strained her eyes vexatiously among the whole assembly. At last her eyes rested at a table in the corner directly beneath her, sitting near which she dimly recognized the figure of her husband. She plucked Old Deborah agitatedly by the sleeve.
"Will you but look there," she whispered hoarsely, "If the old dolt hasnt gone and fallen asleep!" Old Deborah peered carefully through her glasses. "He isnt asleep," she said, "but he is bent over, reading a book. And besides, he isnt your husband. "Then hes probably asleep somewhere else," Shaneh Malkah answered, gazing again over the indistinct blur beneath, to find confirmation of her suspicion. "You cant tell anything about a man who fell asleep poring over the Commentaries on his wedding day, and had to be searched out and wakened for ceremony!"
Lazar Jacobson, however, despite his spouses presentiment, was not asleep. On the contrary, he had, for the last half hour, been going about from member to member in solicitation of their votes, with an energy and a desperate eloquence that would have filled his good lady with amazement.
Promptly after the half-hour leeway always given to the set time had passed, the president arose, and, after he had cried himself hoarse and had nearly broken the ministers table, at which he presided, with the thumping of his mallet, the meeting was called to order. A half silence being established, the president, after a sonorous prelude in a gaudy handkerchief, addressed his congregation.
"Brothers of the Congregation Sharon Israel, I need not tell you that we meet tonight to elect officers for the coming year. We will begin, therefore, with the nominees for president."
It is not my purpose, however, to give an account of the installation of the new officials of the Sharon Israel. Suffice it to say that the new president and vice-president were duly elected; that a fitful competition for the secretaryship did not succeed in overthrowing the dynasty of the present wielder of the pen; and that the treasurer having declined renomination, an embarrassing time ensued to find a successor, which not being forth-coming, the treasurer was forced to go remain in office.
And then, at last, nominees for Shames were called for.
"Lazar Jacobson!" came from the carpenter-collector. "If that collector comes to my house again," whispered Mrs. Smolansky ominously to her companion, "may the Lord help me if I wont throw him down stairs!"
"Aaron Smolansky!" called the hypocritical storekeeper. "A black pestilence seize him!" cried Shaneh Malkah to Old Deborah. "He promised to vote for us!"
The blanks were then distributed, and after the ten members who alone had pens or pencils had had these articles circulated among the unfurnished ones, they were collected.
An unutterable anguish swept through Mrs. Jacobson. Her heart beat rapidly and her lips formulated prayer after prayer for success. At last the secretary rose. A quiet fell over the house, while Mrs. Jacobson swayed nervously forward. Having paused enough and cleared his throat enough to sufficiently impress the congregation with his peculiar importance at the moment, he read slowly:
Jacobson, 67__ Smolansky, 34.
Mrs. Jacobson arose dizzily, unable, at first, to comprehend the overwhelming victory. Only for a moment, however. With a sob of exultation, she gathered her skirts about her, and, followed by her faithful attendant, marched superbly past the crestfallen Mrs. Smolansky. And if ever, at any time, Shaneh Malkah looked more like a queen it was then, when, with Old Deborah as lady-in-waiting, she proceeded majestically down the stairs to congratulate her husband