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Jonathan is silent!

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Jonathan Hirschfeld

Several years ago, the goddess of fortune blessed me with the opportunity to be present in an excited audience when Dr. Mordehay Yushkovsky said more or less from memory the story of the Yiddish writer Moishe Lemster "Yontche the Silent" (which is probably a kind of new reading of a classic story by I.L. Peretz).

The story fascinated me. It was, in a way, a reflection of the tragic Jewish fate. It was a song praising the sincerity and inevitability inherent in human lamentation, meaning that I stand against heroism and stoicism. And the main character of this story, after all, is also called like me – Jonathan.

The plot of the story is divided into two parts. The first part takes place in this world, and it describes the series of suffering and abuse that Jonathan goes through, from both non-Jews and Jews. And he, in turn, purses his lips and does not cry, curse or challenge Heaven.

The action of the second part (something in the style of Kafka / Woody Allen) takes place in Heaven, when, after the death of the same Jonathan, the heavenly bureaucracy loses its records and reference books, and it turns out that his whole life on earth was not documented and properly formalized. As if Jonathan hadn't lived this life at all ... He cannot go to paradise or hell (probably because he did not cry, did not complain, and did not point his finger to the sky). The God Himself intervenes and offers Jonathan to live his earthly life again as compensation. And he expresses his desire to be born not a Jew, but a member of the Cossack class in Ukraine. And at birth he was given the same name Jonathan, but translated into Ukrainian: Bogdan. And his surname was Khmelnitsky…

I have used the portrait of this satanic murderer of the Jews attached here as the basis for a series of paintings that are dedicated to the tragedy of Jewish history and praise crying, complaining and disobedience to God. In fact, this is a natural continuation of the theme of death and rebirth in my works. I took jewelry, mace, sword and clothing as a basis and turned them into stand-alone pictorial elements.

All works:

"Jonathan the Silent" - paper, oil, pencil, shellac on paper, 80/60 cm (diptych), 2021

Jonathan is silent!


The story I am going to present you, took place in the 16th century. Although, to tell all the truth, it could have happened later, much later, perhaps in our 21st century as well.

In a Jewish shtetl in western Ukraine, an unmarried young woman gave birth to a son. Even those who lived next door to her, had not the smallest idea who the boy's father was, although wicked tongues told that some Ukrainian lad could be the dad. But, gey veys (go and know)...

Since the child's mother was Jewish, according to custom he was circumcised. However, the young mother did not arrange any festivities on that occasion. No vodka, no wine, no music...

The baby was named with the Hebrew name Jonathan, which means given by God. But everyone called him Yonche only, and this nickname remained with him for life.

Mom disliked the child when he was still in her womb. If he moved his leg there, she would hit him, slapping herself on the stomach. Thus, even before his birth the poor thing managed to pick up cuffs. He came into this world on a cold autumn day, when it was raining cats and dogs, as if during the biblical flood. The newborn behaved quietly, without the usual birth crying, seemingly trying to prevent another spanking from his mother for that.

Yonche did not cry later, too, even when his nappies got wet, when he was hungry or ill. He still received undeserved punches, but never cried. Moreover, he kept complete silence...

Maybe for that reason, even in infancy Yonche looked like an adult. Only his eyes were saying: "I have already learned what life is, what suffering is ..." And if someone had looked well into the depth of his eyes, he would have seen there, at the very bottom, two smoldering sparks lit up, perhaps, when he was in his mother's stomach.

Yonche’s mom died of typhus when he was barely thirteen. The round orphan was picked up by a neighbor who was raising seven children of her own and needed help. Only then did the real Yonche’s suffer begin.

A mother of many children grudged the orphan a piece of bread. She only fed him the leftovers out of the plates of her own children. Yonche felt lucky getting a gnawed bone or a spoonful of cold porridge; but sometimes he had to make a shift with crumbs of stale bread.

Yonche's fixed place was not at the table, but in the corner by the door. He used clothes worn out by the stepmother's children to the point of being tattered. His skinny body peeked out of dozens of holes in pants, shirts, jackets that had passed to him. The stepmother's children mocked the stranger with amazing imagination and invention.

In winter, in the most severe frost, barefoot Yonche chopped wood in the yard. The logs were thick, the ax was blunt, and he was too young and weak for such work. But Yonche was silent, afraid of the stepmother's slap in the face, of being hit by her children, and most of all, of being kicked out of the house. Of course, he did not study at the cheder, nor had he a close friend.

When Yonche was 16, the stepmother sent him to look for work with local Jews. He had to go from door to door to earn a couple of pennies. And if there was some work and it was paid (which did not always happen), the stepmother grabbed all the earnings.

Once, when he came for the third time to a respected Jew for the due payment, he got angry and set his dogs on him; the beasts almost tore the poor thing to pieces. So he was offended and mocked by the Jews of the whole shtetl. But he kept silence, did not complain, he was afraid that he would be beaten and expelled from the town. It was only in the depths of his eyes that sparks flared up brighter and brighter ...

There was another shtetl 10 miles from theirs. From time to time Yonche visited that place hoping that its inhabitants were kinder and more humane. Alas, they turned out to be of the same kind, like wine out of the same barrel. Demanded good work from him, they avoided paying for it or threw, like alms, a couple of pennies or a crust of bread.

It took several days for Yonche to clean a bathroom and a cesspool for a wealthy Jew. When the boy came to him again for money, the boss ordered his clerk to pay by means of slaps in the face. From the powerful poke, Yonche was left without front teeth for life. But he, as usual, kept silence, never complaining.

Yonche was not a fool. He heard something about Lord, about Torah, about mercy. He even thought about why all this has nothing to do with his own life on earth? But he did not ask Lord any questions, fearing to receive cuffs from the Master of Heaven, too.

Often, both in summer and in winter, Yonche had to spend nights under someone's fence, under a tree, under other people's doors. In one frosty night, Yonche froze to death sleeping under the wall of the city synagogue on the eve of the merry holiday of Purim. But the sparks in his eyes did not go out for a long, very long time ...

Those who found him in the morning, thought that some old man had died. In fact, Yonche was younger than 30 years old.

And what was happening at that time in heaven, in the next world, as such suffering soul, which was silent all his life without claims and complaints to Lord, was ascending to eternity? Nothing! Quiet and grace. No thunder, no lightning, no sound of the big heavenly shofar.

When Yonche arrived at the high heavens, no one was meeting him: neither Abraham, nor the prophet Moses, nor the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Even the ordinary angels were not flying towards him. He found himself in some waiting room with many booths, where the newcomers were sitting on benches waiting for a call and a verdict. Yonche also sat down on the bench, waiting patiently. It is hard to say how long he had to wait, because there, in heaven, there is no change of days and nights, time does not exist - only eternity. Finally, he got tired of sitting in vain, since everyone around (including those who had arrived after him) had undergone the admission procedure.

Around those who were waiting there was a noise, a din, like at the fair on Sunday. People, angels, various heavenly inhabitants scurried to and fro, obviously doing very important heavenly work. The lawyer-angels, alongside with their recently departed clients, were in a hurry to the heavenly judgment. Suddenly Yonche saw an acquaintance from his earthly place, who once set evil dogs on him: he was accompanied by several heavenly lawyers, who were explaining him how to behave at the trial. Later, when this acquaintance left the courtroom, his face shone: he seemed to be very content with the verdict. And Yonche was still waiting. Still silent ...

Finally he broke down. He approached one of the angels and told him that he had been waiting for a very long time and no one was calling him. The angel was very surprised, because he knew for sure that everything here worked without delay - someone arrived, registered and brought to the trial. Both Yonche and the angel came up to an empty booth, and the angel told the clerk sitting inside about the incident. The latter asked Yonche: "What is your name?"

- Yonche, that is Yonatan from a shtetl named ...

The celestial servant got down to business. He started leafing through some thick book, there and back, all over again, but - there was no person with such personal details in his book, as if Yonche never existed on earth! But how could this be possible?

A large meeting of heavenly bureaucrats, solicitors and other officials was gathered. They were searching in the Books of Life and in the Books of Death. They were looking for Yonche’s data in the first heaven, in the second one... in the seventh – all in vain! Formally, it turned out that such a person had not lived on earth at all and had not died. But in fact, here he was - standing in front of them! How to behave with him? He could not be judged, because it was unknown who this Yonche had been on earth - a righteous man or a villain, a thief or a devout Jew? How to find it out if there was no trace of him in heavenly bookkeeping?

There is no other way but to go to Lord Himself, for only He can unravel the matter with Yonche.

A lot of waiting time passed until the angel together with Yonche had got a reception in the Highest Office of the Lord Himself. At last, Yonche was standing before Him. And the Lord, the only one who knew everything about this unusual matter, said: “There was a mistake. This also happens in our heavens. And I have decreed that you are to be reborn on earth. Since this is our mistake, the sin of ours, you enjoy the right to choose a new birthplace and a new family."

Yonche asked in a trembling voice:

- Can I be born into a non-Jewish family?

- Yes, - Lord answered.

- And can I be born in a Ukrainian family of gentry, so that my mother be a Cossack?

The Lord pondered and asked Yonche:

- Are you sure about that?

“Of course I am,” Yonche replied, now in the firm tone.

The Lord took a deep breath and said:

- Well, well ... so it will be as you wish! ...

The next day in a small town In Western Ukraine, in the family of a local nobleman and a Cossack woman, a son was born - a future Cossack. He was given a name which in the Ukrainian language meant the same as Jonathan in Hebrew - "given by God": Bohdan. Bohdan Khmelnytsky...


M. Yushkovsky

Moyshe Lemster's story is a kind of paraphrase to the famous story of the classic of Yiddish literature Yitzhak-Leibush Peretz "Bonche Shvayg" ("Bonche the Silent"). Each one of two stories has both uncovered and hidden philosophical interpretations.

Bonche is a man upon whom all possible blows of fate were sent, nevertheless he accepted them meekly, never complained, never resisted his bitter lot, and never asked tricky questions like: "For what do I receive all this?"

Bonche lived quietly and died quietly. After his death, the wind even blew away a nameplate from his grave, so that not a trace remained from his existence in this world. But when Bonche came to the higher worlds, the righteous representatives of all generations gathered to receive him with the greatest honors. The highest court for Bonche was a pure formality, for it was clear that for a person who had taken all the blows of fate and never complained, the road to paradise was predetermined. And when Bonche was offered to choose whatever he wants - palaces, diamonds, gold, he only asked for a hot bun with fresh butter every morning... Then the High Court prosecutor burst out laughing.

Peretz's story deals with the eternal dilemma based on the Gemara saying “Tzaddik ve-ra-lo, rasha ve-tov lo” (“Life is hard for the just man, whereas for the sinner it is good”).

Moyshe Lemster in his story brought out the character Yonche, who is extremely similar to Bonche from Peretz's story. But Lemster delved into more significant and practical issues - the mutual responsibility of Jews for each other, social solidarity in the Jewish community, the relationship between the community and the individual.

Lemster's story touches upon cardinal principles of Kabbalah, according to which a person's dependence on higher powers is not a one-way connection, but a mutual one. In other words, if we behave inappropriately towards each other, we violate the basic spiritual principles of our existence: "Ve-ahavta le-reeha kamoha" ("Love your neighbor as yourself"), "Kol Israel arevim ze beze" ("All the Jews are responsible for each other"), then it makes no sense during all the misfortunes with which our history abounds, yelling to heaven: for what do we receive all this?

It is not for nothing that in the second coming of Yonche, who had been rejected, robbed and mocked by his brothers, the author turns him into Bohdan Khmelnytsky, one of the most terrible villains in Jewish history ...

Of course, it should be noted that there are significant differences between Jewish and Ukrainian narratives, between Ukrainian and Jewish historiographies.

In the Jewish collective memory, Khmelnytsky is responsible for the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities, the barbaric pogroms of 1648-1649 ("gzerot takh ve-tat"), in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were brutally murdered. These tragic events are widely reflected in Jewish literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew, in the works of Sholom Ash, Isaac Bashevis-Singer, Shaul Chernikhovsky and many others, as well as in Jewish folklore - proverbs and sayings, folk songs and stories.

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