“Aryele” by Shloyme Gilbert, translated from the Yiddish by David Weaver

Portrait of a Man by Alexander Chubar

Translator’s Note

For me, Shloyme Gilbert’s attraction—and challenge—is that, like the character in the eponymous “Aryele” (“Little Lion”), he was a consummate outsider, unwelcome among the entrenched elites whom he profoundly hated. He was something of a celebrated eccentric, yet he was considered by his contemporaries—writers, artists and critics—a profoundly talented and unique stylist. Deeply learned in both Talmud and Kabbalah, he was fascinated by mysticism generally, a preoccupation only rarely evident in his shorter fiction (“Aryele” is an exception), although his lectures on these topics typically drew large crowds. For the most part, he wrote short prose pieces that focused on the people he knew well and with whom he lived – impoverished and marginal, like himself, and “Aryele” is also an example of that.

I’m very grateful to the Yiddish Book Center, whose Translation Fellowship has helped make this and my other translations of Gilbert’s work possible.

Aryele sits next to the stove, his hands on the warm tiles, his head nodding, eyes closed. Little can be seen of his face: What you can see is an old sheepskin hat pulled down, a bit of beard jutting out, a robe pulled tight around his hips by a thin rope. Stitches and seams run all over the robe, and its lapels are shining with grime. More noticeable are his high, stiff boots, bent and haphazard, standing by the stove. 

How can anyone sleep with the besmidrash1 so packed with Jews? The prayer leader is at the cantor’s pulpit, loudly singing the psalm verses, and the responses are like the splashing murmur of a broad creek. So Aryele does not sleep. His lips move, quietly mouthing the psalms and from time to time he raises his head and calls out, along with the worshippers, Eli, eli, lamah azavtani, “My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?”2

When his head is raised, one can see his wrinkled yellow face, sparsely edged by a blond beard. He yawns, his mouth empty except for the occasional crooked, yellow tooth or black, putrid stump. 

His head drops again. He closes his eyes. 

Aryele is the assistant shammes3. He sweeps up and keeps the stove lit. On Rosh Khodesh4 or a yahrzeit5, or on any occasion when the important members donate to the shammes, they never forget to leave a couple of groschen6 for Aryele. And what more does a man need? A piece of bread and a little hot water to dunk it in. Aryele can’t digest anything else. 

Sometimes Aryele gets agitated and ill-tempered. At such times his eyes remain open, and the corner of his smile turns virulent. He surveys the besmidrash, and the speech from his loose, sagging mouth becomes incomprehensible.

“Oho, look at this one: He owns a stone house. He has sons and son-in-laws to do all his bullying for him: It leaves him plenty of time to run his mouth… Nice fur coat. Plush hat. White beard. Red cheeks…How he loves his sweet tzimmes7, the fat worm!” 

“Aryele, what are you squawking about?” asks a young man as he lays his hand on the warm tile.  

Aryele turns to look at him and repeats, laughing, “A fat worm loves his sweet tzimmes!”

“I don’t get it. You’re just raving.” The young man walks away.

“Haha you lummox, you understand nothing!” Aryele says and follows with more of his piping laughter. 

He looks around and continues. “And that one: proper young man. Blue little eyes. Fat little lips. Beard all trimmed. At home he rules an empire of women. He comes here thinking he can fool God the way he can fool people… And here comes the Jew with the belly, sighing and groaning and quoting scripture, “…vain, worldly pleasuresliving for the momentlike a fleeting shadow…” But he’s the first one at the table at any wedding or bris! …. And here’s the Administrator, with his shiny boots, his big, overcombed beard and his spotless eyeglasses—Embezzler!”

Someone approaches praying the Korbonos8. He brushes his wet hands against the warm tile as though it were some kind of towel. He nods his head to Aryele and says, “What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” 

“Ha ha, this one’s shaggy as a bear. He can’t even hear with all that hair in his ears! A bear! A bear!” Aryele sputters gleefully.

He remains in place next to the stove, watching everyone, observing their flaws. Their prayers are no defense, nor are their prayer-shawls, however tightly wrapped.

He stares at them with his yellow, dilapidated face and malevolent, wrinkled smile, talking, talking…with another burst of gleeful laughter from his collapsing mouth. They in turn watch him, thinking, “A fool, that Aryele.”   

But there’s a storm gathering within him, and he can’t hold it back. He gets up and walks over to the readers’ table and pounds it with his fist. Suddenly he is shouting:

There are worms crawling around in the house of God! You can see their ugliness! You can smell their excrement!” 

Jews walk by, lips moving, mumbling their Korbonos. Their dimly lit faces are brightened, fleetingly, by inquisitive smiles. 

One of them says, without smiling, “Aryele speaks the truth!” 

“I do speak the truth. But you speak lies!” Aryele snaps. 

“Aryele, get yourself some teeth,” says another. “No one understands a word you say!”

Someone else walks past, saying, “Aryele’s last screw has fallen out. Let him ‘counsel against God and His anointed’9.  Just finish Korbonos, so we can daven mincha!”10 

Aryele pounds the reader’s table again. “They’ve been saying Korbonos for two thousand years. It goes nowhere! Prayer is the sludge that weighs it down!”

“Enough. Now he’s telling us not to pray!” 

“Senile heretic…” 

“Hold him down—He needs a good thrashing!!” 

“He’s a ruin, a broken vessel!11 No need to thrash him: He’s crumbling to pieces on his own.”

Aryele says, “You’re the ones who are crumbling. Not me. Not me!”

Aryele returns to the stove. The group davens the afternoon prayer, during which the indigent Jews enter the besmidrash. Their faces are dark and creased, and their eyes glitter with hunger. They hurry about with their packs and satchels, trying to capture what they can of the mincha. Aryele recognizes them. He regrets his words now, all of them—And when mincha is over and there is no one left in the besmidrash, he approaches the holy ark, weeping.

“Forgive me, God! I’ve spoken ill of your Jews! Forgive me! I’m a wicked man! I am worse than all of them!”

At night, when the last worshipper has gone, Aryele closes the doors and secures them with chains. Then he takes out his most cherished volume, the Zohar.12 

His face shines. Presently he finds himself floating above vast, distant worlds, over an infinity of radiant temples. The letters on the page burn like golden suns. He glimpses terrifying angels as enormous as planets, the light emanating from the faces of the tzaddikim13, and, above them all, the hidden God. No eye can behold Him, and no outer light can fall upon Him. 

Later he closes the book and begins to pace back and forth in the besmidrash, which is brightly lit, but quiet. He is no longer that broken Aryele who sits by the stove. His body is straight, and his limbs are infused with power. His face shines, and he shouts, as always, “God is great! God is great!”

He opens the cabinet under the readers’ table. He takes out an old caftan and makes his bed with it on the bench next to the stove. 

On some nights, the slumber that erases both sorrow and delight will take Aryele under its dark wing—but there are also times when, by chance, a beam of memory penetrates this nest of sleep, and that’s when Aryele must revisit the fragments that were once his life. 

Again he’s a broker, hurrying about all day, telling his lies to merchants and distributors in hopes of ensnaring a client. Sometimes it seems his lies become a single heavy weight, pressing him down. But when he comes home at night, his beer is waiting for him, and his rooms are sparkling clean. His wife is also waiting for him, the wife he loves so much, along with his two beautiful children. 

But then comes the night on which he returns to find an unexpected letter: From the outset, his wife has deceived him! His world collapses. The very fires of hell are burning in his house. Now his wife is a witch. Now his children—who’s their real father?!  His heartbeat surges, and his own bitter cry wakes him.  

He can’t go back to sleep. He groans and thrashes on the bedroll he has laid over the hard bench. He sits up for a while in the darkness of the besmidrash, a burned out ember in an extinguished oven. He calls out, his voice trembling, “I wrecked my life, but I’m cleansed of sin, and I thank you, God, for that. Now give me strength. Give me strength!”

He lights the lantern and walks over to the washstand at the entrance. He washes up, dries his face with the communal towel, then begins to pace the lamplit besmidrash. In his mind there is not even a whisper of a thought. He’s like the besmidrash itself—illumined, empty, and still. 

He busies himself at the stove and lays a fire—they’ll be coming in before sunrise to study and pray. Then he sits before the open oven door. In the firelight his face is tranquil: He is still here, even after the dark storm of this earthly night. His eyes are fixed, seeing nothing at all and seeing all that there is. During these moments in the depths of oblivion, he penetrates eternity, and it absorbs him. 


1 besmidrash – a house of study, where Jews gather to learn Talmud and other religious texts, and also to pray.

2 Eli, eli, lamah azavtani – a quote from Psalm 22. The Aramaic version of this psalm is associated with Jesus during crucifixion because this is the psalm he quoted. Here, the psalm has no Christian context at all, but its reference seems to be playfully ironic. “I am a worm, not a man,” the psalm goes on to say, “Scorned by men, despised by people. All who see me mock me; they reject me with a curled lip and shake their heads...” 

3 shammes – Sexton or caretaker of a synagogue or besmidrash

4 Rosh Khodesh – The first day of every lunar month on the Jewish calendar, marked by additional prayers and observances.

5 yahrzeit – anniversary of a loved one’s death.

6 groschen – a unit of currency in Poland and elsewhere

7 tzimmes – a traditional stew of root vegetables and dried fruit.

8 Korbonos – A selection of psalms said prior to a longer service.

9 “counsel against God and His anointed” – Quoted in Hebrew from Psalm 2:2 

10 daven mincha – pray the afternoon service

11 “a ruin, a broken vessel” Shivra keyle ( שברי-כלי) in informal speech, “a ruin”, but it also has a Kabbalistic significance, referring to the vessels of light originally broken during the creation of the world.

12 Zohar – One of the most important mystical texts associated with Kabbalah. 

13 tzaddikim – Plural form of ‘tzaddik’, a person of sublime spirituality and righteousness. Often regarded as Judaism’s version of saints, though this is misleading.


Shloyme Gilbert (1885-1942) was born in Radzymin, Poland, where he was raised by his grandfather, a former soldier in the army of Czar Nicholas I. He moved to Warsaw at around sixteen, and became closely associated with both major Warsaw writers’ circles, that of Y.L. Peretz and that of Hillel Zeitlin. This dual affiliation is remarkable in itself: apart from occasional visits by individuals, these two groups rarely shared members. Gilbert’s 1922 collection Noveln (the only book-length work published in his lifetime) was highly praised by critics and writers such as Shmuel Charney, Y.Y. Trunk, and many others.  He also wrote several plays. Though he struggled for most of his life in poverty, he continued into the 1930s to publish short fiction both in Poland and in the United States. He was imprisoned the Warsaw ghetto, where he carried on writing and participated in Jewish Self-Help and Yikor, two of those famously defiant community and artistic organizations that continued to operate against all odds and in desperate circumstances. In August of 1942 he was taken with his daughter to Treblinka and murdered.

David Weaver’s short stories were published in various journals in the 1980’s and 1990’s, including Puerto Del Sol, The Crescent Review, Grand Valley Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and Scream. He received an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1987 and won a Writer’s Exchange Award from Poets & Writers Magazine in 1988. Still on a long hiatus from his own writing, he has been translating Shloyme Gilbert for many years, including “From the Land of Consumption,” which appeared in In Geveb in 2019 (a collaboration with his daughter, Abigail Weaver). He was a 2021 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center.

Alexander Chubar holds a BFA from Hunter College and a MFA from the Pratt Institute. His work has previously been published in Gone Lawn, Gemini, Subprimal Poetry Art, The Tishman Review, The Storm Cellar, and several other publications.