From Selling Jewish Calendars to Selling Schmutz: A Story

September 21, 2020 | Sholem Aleichem
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Naturally, the beginning of the Jewish year is the time for Jews to purchase calendars, and it is this trade that is the subject of a short story by the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, translated by Curt Leviant under the title, “Trying to Make a Living.” Through the eyes of one of his typical character-narrators, the author presents a searing reflection on the bewildering irrationality of anti-Semitism. The story begins thus:

Wanna know why a Jew like me, a father of children, has to sell illegal schmutz like French photo cards? It’s all thanks to Tolmatshov and Tolmatshov alone, may he fry in hell! But since this all happened so long ago, and since Tolmatshov is gone and Odessa is back to normal, I think I can come out with the whole truth and reveal why Tolmatshov was such an anti-Semite. And the truth is that I’m to blame for most of it, I’m afraid, if not all of it.

Well, now you’re probably wondering how a street-hawker like me, who peddles Yiddish newspapers—and those French photo cards on the sly—comes to General Tolmatshov! And what sort of pal am I with generals, anyway? If you can spare a few minutes, I’ll tell you an interesting story. It happened many years ago, right here in Odessa, at this season, during the intermediary days of Sukkot. Odessa was still the same old Odessa. No one had heard of Tolmatshov, and a Jew could roam around here free as a bird and sell his Yiddish books.

Then, there weren’t as many Yiddish papers as today. You weren’t afraid of anyone, and there was no need to mess around with contraband Parisian postcards. In the old days, I used to sell Sabbath and holiday prayer books and Jewish calendars around Lanyerovski, Katerinenski, and Fankonin streets. You could always run into a Jew there, for that was the area where speculators, agents, and various other Jews hung around waiting for a miracle.

Just like you see me now, I was strolling along on Fankonin Street, the spot where our fellow Jewish speculators wear out their shoe leather looking for business, and I said to myself: Where can I get a customer for those few Jewish calendars I’ve got left? Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are gone and forgotten and, before you know it, Sukkot will slip right by and I still haven’t gotten rid of my little bit of stock. God knows if I’ll ever sell those bound calendars—for if they aren’t sold before the holidays you can’t even give them away. Later, they’re completely useless. And I had three of these all-year Jewish calendars left over from before Rosh Hashanah!

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