Shalom Aleichem (1859-1916, "Peace be upon you") was the pseudonym of the Russian Yiddish writer Shalom Rabinowitz. The most popular Jewish writer of all times, his stories depict with wry humor, the hardships, poverty and oppression endured by the Jews in the Russian pale of Settlement, as well as their proud resilience. The successful Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964) was based on Shalom Aleichem's sketches in Tevye's Daughters (1894).

Passover has come at last – the dear sweet Passover. I was dressed as befitted the son of a man of wealth — like a young prince. But what was the consequence? I was not allowed to play or run about, lest I catch cold. I must not play with poor children. I was a wealthy man's son. Such nice clothes, and I had no one to show off before. I had a pocketful of nuts, and no one to play with.

It is not good to be an only child, and fretted over – the only one left out of seven, and a wealthy man's son into the bargain.

My father put on his best clothes and went off to the synagogue. Said my mother to me, "Do you know what? Lie down and have a nap. You will then be able to sit up at the seder and ask the Four Questions!"

Was I mad? Would I go to sleep before the seder?

"Remember, you must not sleep at the seder. If you do, Elijah the Prophet will come with a bag on his shoulders. On the first night of Passover, Elijah the Prophet goes about looking for those who have fallen asleep at the seder and takes them away in his bag." Ha, ha! Will I fall asleep at the seder? I? Not even if it were light.

"What happened last year, Mother?"
"Last year you fell asleep soon after the first blessing."
"Why did Elijah the Prophet not come then with his bag?"
"Then you were small; now you are big. Tonight you must ask father ‘Slaves were we.' Tonight, you must eat with us fish and soup and matzah balls. Here is father, back from the synagogue."
"Good Yom-tov."
"Good Yom-tov."

Thank God, father made the blessing over the wine. I, too. Father drank the cup full of wine. So did I, a cup full, to the very dregs. "See, to the dregs," said mother to father. To me she said: "A cup full of wine! You will drop off to sleep." Ha, ha! Will I fall asleep? Not even if we were to sit up all the night, or even to broad daylight....

My mother never took her eyes off me. She smiled and said: "You will fall asleep – fast asleep"....

Of course I fell asleep.
I fell asleep, and dreamt that my father was already saying, "Pour out Thy wrath." My mother herself got up from the table, and went to open the door to welcome Elijah the Prophet. It would be a fine thing if Elijah the Prophet did come, as my mother had said, with a bag on his shoulders, and if he said to me, "Come, boy." and who else would be to blame for this but my mother, with her "fall asleep." And as I was thinking these thoughts, I heard the creaking of the door. My father stood up and cried, "Blessed are You who comes in the name of the Eternal."

I looked towards the door. Yes, it was he. He came in so slowly, and so softly that one scarcely heard him. He was a handsome man, Elijah the Prophet, an old man with a long grizzled beard reaching to his knees. His face was yellow and wrinkled, but it was handsome and kindly without end. And his eyes! Oh, what eyes! kind, soft, joyous, loving, faithful eyes. He was bent in two, and leaned on a big, big stick. He had a bag on his shoulder. And silently, softly, he came straight to me.

"Now, little boy, get into my bag and come." So said the old man to me, but in a kind voice and softly, sweetly.

I asked him, "Where to?" and he replied, "You will see later."
I did not want to go, and he said to me again, "Come."
I began to argue with him. "How can I go with you when I am a wealthy man's son?"

Said he to me, "And as a wealthy man's son, of what great value are you?"
Said I, "I am the only child of my father and mother."
Said he, "To me, you are not an only child."
Said I, "I am fretted over. If they find that I am gone, they will not get over it; they will die, especially my mother."

He looked at me, the old man did, very kindly and he said to me, softly and sweetly as before, "If you do not want to die, then come with me, Say goodbye to your father and mother and come."
"But how can I come when I am an only child, the only one left alive out of seven?"

Then he said to me more sternly: "For the last time, little boy. Choose one of the two. Either you say goodbye to your father and mother, and come with me, or you remain here, but fast asleep forever and ever."

Having said these words, he stepped back from me a little, and was turning to the door. What was to be done? To go with the old man, God-knows-where and get lost, would mean the death of my father and mother. I am an only child, the only one left alive out of seven. To remain here, and fall asleep forever and ever–that would mean that I myself must die....

I stretched out my hand to him, and with tears in my eyes I said, "Elijah the Prophet, dear, kind, loving, darling Elijah, give me one minute to think." He turned towards me his handsome,yellow, wrinkled, old face with its grizzled beard reaching to his knees, and looked at me with his beautiful, kind, loving, faithful eyes, and he said to me with a smile, "I will give you one minute to decide, my child–but no more than one minute."

I ask you. "What should I have decided to do in that one minute so as to save myself from going with the old man, and also to save myself from falling asleep forever. Can you guess?

excerpted From: Sholom Aleichem, Jewish Children, trans. from the Yiddish by Hannah Berman, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1926. Reprinted in The Passover Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman. Jewish Publication Society, 1961, 1993.
sources Illustration details from from Augsburg (Germany) Haggadah of 1534. In: Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah, ed. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Jewish Publication Society, 1975, 1976, 1977).

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