Complex in structure and content, this story purports to be an account given by a merchant who relates the misadventures of one Sholem Shachnah, nicknamed Rattlebrain, leading up to the Passover weekend. The narrator addresses the actual author, Sholom Aleichem by name, a very unusual device in a work of fiction, or any other piece of writing, for that matter, and repeatedly inquires whether the author is listening to what he is telling him. Sholem Shachnah sends a telegram to his wife, in which he informs her he will be home for the Passover Eve without fail, and proceeds to encounter problems at Zolodievka, where it is necessary to transfer to another train, after a layover of several hours. This layover occurs in the middle of the night, when Sholem Shachnah has already gone two nights without sleep, so he is dead tired, and cannot stay awake; and he finds the one decent place to sit in this dark train station where the walls are covered with soot and the floors with spit.
For the most part the bench is occupied by some official, a gentile, possibly an anti-Semite, thinks Sholem Shachnah, and not wanting trouble, he sits on a corner of the bench to try to doze a bit. He seeks out Yeremei, the gentile porter whom he knows well, and gives him money to wake him, sits down on the bench with his carpetbag hooked safely around him, and soon is stretching out with his hat falling off and rolling away on the floor as he sinks into a deep sleep. He has a dream-within-a-dream about a wagon ride with a coachman who first goes too slowly and then suddenly whips the horses into such a pace that Sholem Shachnah’s hat falls off. When the coach stops, he wakes up from the first dream and, realizing he is hatless, grabs for a hat, but mistakenly puts on that of the official on the bench beside him. The red band on the hat indicates to all who see it that the wearer is an important personage, and people are addressing Sholem Shachnah as Your Excellency and showing deference and favor on all sides, which makes him very uncomfortable. He, being but a poor Jew, takes it as mockery, which irritates him, but he checks his anger. When he presents his third class ticket to the train conductor and is instead ushered to first class accommodations, he can take it no longer. This respect from gentiles has Sholem Shachnah in a state where he no longer knows himself. Finally he catches sight of himself in a mirror in a corridor of the train and sees that he is wearing the hat of the official with the red band; he sees not himself, but the official.
Yeremei has not fulfilled his promise, and has awoken the official with the red band, leaving Sholem Shachnah to sleep. This is the ultimate insult.
So now Sholem Shachnah must return to the station to wake himself, and of course he arrives at the bench and returns the hat just in time to hear the whistle blow, indicating he is too late to board his train. The whole story gets back to his hometown, and his wife gives him a very hard time, not about his being away for the holiday or wearing the official’s hat, but about having sent a telegraph in which he promised to be home without fail. The adding of two unnecessary words was outrageous in her view, and besides, how could any human being claim to do anything without fail? Sholem Shachnah denies that he was late for having overslept, but insists to everyone that he went to look at a wooded estate, which of course no one believes; and Sholem Shachnah is mocked and called Your Excellency and variants thereof by the children thereafter.
The theme of the social position of a poor Jew in gentile society is presented in a comical, even absurdist light, with an almost Gogolian story in which the protagonist finds it impossible to get back home in time for Passover Eve, despite the fact that he pays the gentile to wake him. He struggles to make a real estate deal, but others involved try to cheat himof his commission, and give him only a small amount. When he wearsthe hat which draws respect from others, he becomes very uncomfortable, even taking it to be mockery, but the discomfort goes deeper than that, as though he cannot define himself as someone deserving of respect. There is a climax when he sees the official in the mirror; and he needs to wake up, get out of his skin, and get back to the old Sholem Shachnah, a poor schlemiel who is made fun of by town residents and railed at by his wife for his failings and foibles..
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