Wearing a silk kerchief and a plain apron – a combination of holiday and weekday attire – Mama stood by the table, practically at her wit’s end.
It was no trifle, you know, receiving almost a hundred shalakhmones, the traditional Purim platter of sweets, and sending out a like number. Mama had to be careful not to omit anyone or make any mistakes, God forbid; she also had to remember what sort of platter to send to whom. For instance, if someone favored you with a fruit-cut, two jam-filled pastries, a poppy-seed square, two tarts, a honey bun, and two sugar cookies, it was customary to send in return two fruit-cuts, one jam-filled pastry, two poppy-seed squares, one tart, two honey buns, and three sugar cookies.
You had to have the brains of a prime minister not to create the sort of first-class muddle that once took place, alas, in our shtetl. What happened was that a woman named Rivke-Beyle mistakenly shipped back to one of the rich matrons the very same platter of Purim goodies that the rich matron had sent her. You should have seen the scandal this caused. The squabble that broke out between the husbands blossomed into a full-blown feud – smacks, denunciations, and unending strife.
Besides worrying about what to send to whom, you also had to tip the youngsters who delivered the shalakhmones. And you had to know whether to give them one kopeck, or two, or three.
The door opened up and in came my rebbi’s daughter, a freckled girl with bright red hair. She went about from house to house collecting the Purim sweet platters for her father, the teacher. She carried a saucer covered with a cloth napkin which already contained one honey bun, dotted with a solitary raisin, and next to it – a silver coin. Mama lifted the napkin and placed another coin alongside the first. She also slipped something into the girl’s hand. The redhead blushed furiously and rattled off the traditional blessing:
“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you, your husband, and your children.”
Following the teacher’s daughter came a chubby lad with a swollen cheek bound with a blue kerchief and eyes of unequal size. In his hand he held a little brass tray on which lay a fruit-cut. This small cake was impressed with the shape of a tiny fish filled with honeyed dough crumbs. Next to it lay several silver coins and a few paper rubles. The chubby lad went right up to Mama and in one breath rattled off his greeting as though it had been memorized by rote:
“Happy holiday the rabbisentyou this shalakhmones may youenjoyPurim ayearfromnow you ‘n your husband ‘n your children.”
The chubby lad palmed his tip and took off without a farewell because by mistake he had dashed it off upon entering.
More people kept coming by. They brought various treats from the rabbinic judge, the cantor, the ritual slaughterers, the Torah scribe, the Talmud Torah teacher, the man who blew the shofar on Rosh Hashana, the butcher who specialized in removing thigh veins, the reader of the Purim megillah, the Scroll of Esther, and the water carrier and the bathhouse attendant (the latter two also fancied themselves religious functionaries). After them came Velvel the shamesh himself, hoarse and ailing – he was asthmatic, poor man. He stood awhile at the door and, hand to his chest, coughed his heart out.
“Well, what’s the good word?” Mama asked him, exhausted by now from the day’s work.
“A shalakhmones has been sent to you,” said Velvel, displaying a honey cake he had in his hand. “May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and…”
“Who is it from?” asked Mama, and stuck her hand beneath her apron, looking for a coin.
“Well, actually, it’s from me. May you enjoy Purim, you…” and he began coughing. “Pardon me… for coming myself… got no one to send… had a daughter but, alas, God preserve you… you remember Freydl, may she rest in peace…”
Velvel the shamesh coughed for an entire minute and Mama quickly dug into her pocket and removed a few coins that she put into his hand. She also offered him some cake and a couple of fruit-cuts. Velvel stuffed the cake and the fruit-cuts into his breast pocket, thanked her, and said:
“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your husband…” and once again began coughing.
I looked at Mama and noticed a tear standing in each of her beautiful eyes.
Velvel and his Purim treat cast a momentary gloom over the holiday mood. But it did not last long. Immediately after his departure other people arrived with more Purim sweet platters, and Mama kept on doling out the coins, here one, there two or three. Everyone received a piece of cake, a fruit-cut or a honey bun. For a poor man too should feel the joy of the holiday.
“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your….”
“The same to you and many more to you and yours.”
Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), the great Yiddish humorist, always wrote stories about to the holidays. The comedy and pathos of Purim in a shtetl are reflected in this touching little story. His narrative accurately reflects the tradition of sending platters or sweets to friends and relatives that is still practiced today. An entire socio-political dynamic surrounded the sending of shalakhmones. A woman always had to somehow balance the return platter so it should reflect the initial offering. Too little would be insulting; too much would be self-aggrandizing. And you must never ever send back the same plate to the person who sent it.
The shalakhmones were delivered by children who earned a few kopecks in tips for their service. In addition to cakes and pastries, coins also were sent to those people who needed extra income, like the narrator’s teacher. The daughter of the teacher, or rebbi, is actually collecting shalakhmones, not giving them. She goes from house to house and gathers a few coins to supplement the meager income of the rebbi, who taught little boys in his house.
The chubby boy is bringing sweets from the shtetl’s rabbi – and that’s why, in addition to coins, there are also paper ruble notes on the plate, for the people’s generosity was enhanced for the shtetl’s leading religious figure. He too earned a meager salary.
And Velvel, the shamesh, or sexton, who took take care of the synagogue, and went from door to door early weekday mornings to wake the men up for services, also needs to supplement his small salary. Note that he apologizes for delivering the shalakhmones himself. Usually, this was done by children; it was not dignified for an adult to go from house to house delivering the Purim sweet platters. But, as we learn, Velvel had lost his only child, a daughter, and so he himself has to go from household to household to offer his Purim sweets and to collect something for himself.
Curt Leviant is the author or translator of 25 books, which include seven critically acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is the comic “A Novel of Klass.”