From my Jewish Post series:
“Bontshe Schweig” by I.L. Peretz is probably the most well-known and widely discussed short stories in all of Yiddish literature. It is the story of a humble and meek man who suffered in silence through all the indignities of his miserable life, only to be greeted in the next world with wild adulation by all the angels. His entry into heaven is a foregone conclusion, but nevertheless his sins and virtues must be tallied up in a kind of trial. First the advocate speaks, and it is only as he leads the tribunal through one horrifying episode after another that Bontshe is able to convince himself that they are actually talking about him. But even so Bontshe is afraid of what will happen when it is the prosecutor’s turn to speak.
He can hardly remember the details of his past life...what kinds of sins might he have forgotten about? But when the advocate has finished and the prosecutor rises, he looks at the panel of angels and begins:
“Rabossey…”; then pauses and starts again, “Rabossey…er hât geschwiggen. Well ich auch schweigen.” (He was silent…I will also be silent.)
And then a gentle voice begins to comfort him: “Bontshe mein kind…in that other word your silence was not rewarded, but that was oylam ha-sheker; here, in oylam ha-emes you will receive your reward”.
And then to his disbelief he is assured that whatever he asks for will be his…anything!
The angels are waiting with baited breath to see what Bontshe will ask for. Bontshe still doesn’t believe it. “Takeh?” he asks. “Sicher!” he is reassured. “Nu”, he replies, õb asõ…will ich takeh alle täg inderfrüh (in that case I would like every morning)…a héisse boulkeh mit frische putter!”
And that’s where the story gets confusing. Because Peretz doesn’t tell us how we are supposed to feel about this. All he says is: “Dayanim un malachim hâben arâb-gelâst die köp verschämt; der kathoyger hât sich zelacht.” (Judges and angels hung their heads in shame; the prosecutor laughed out loud.”)
What does it mean? People have been debating this question ever since. Mock trials of Bontshe Shweig were once de rigeur wherever Yiddish literature was taught. Even translators got into the act; in Nathan Ausubel’s “Treasury of Jewish Folklore”, translator Hilda Abel gives this unbelievable rendering: “…slowly, the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this undending meekness they have created on earth. Then the silence is shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh”. You don’t have to know much Yiddish to see that she’s making most of that up. But she’s in line with the general consensus: that the angles were appalled that life on earth was so miserable that a man’s horizons and aspirations could become so pitifully limited.
I think people are missing the point. Bontshe wasn’t so stupid. What was he supposed to ask for…seventy virgins and a boatload full of gold? At least if you knew you were going to get a hot roll with butter first thing in the morning, how bad could the rest of your day be?
I think the angels were disappointed because, like the Miss America contestant who’s supposed to wish for World Peace, they expected Bontshe, after that tremendous build-up, to wish for something great for all mankind, perhaps even the coming of Mashiakh. (Pretty much the Jewish equivalent of world peace, actually.) They were ashamed, and rightly so, because they realized they had wanted him to wish for something that they wanted, not something that Bontshe actually wanted. And I think that’s a pretty good lesson that a lot of sanctimonious and moralizing people could take to heart even today.