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Chelm and us

Schloss Hinterleiten, one of the many palaces built by the Austrian Rothschild dynasty WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Y. Agnon’s 1963 work Rothschild’s Luck; or, A Tale of Two Patrons is a brilliant satire that exposes human folly in under a dozen pages. It is a perfect example of the power of the shortest of short stories to convey insight and yield understanding about human nature.

The opening is deceptively simple and understated: “I have heard that Rothschild once went on a journey. Along the way, the wheels of his carriage broke; repairmen were called, but before the work was done the Sabbath arrived.” The unnamed narrator comments that he is unaware of the name of the place where Rothschild spends the Sabbath, but if the reader wants to know, “go and check the communal ledgers of those towns.” It is clear that the town is as fictional, as the narrator and Agnon is preparing the reader for a parable that will gain in complexity as the story unfolds.

Rothschild, the world-renowned financier, shows himself to be unassuming. When it comes time to start the Sabbath service, nothing happens, because everyone awaits the presence of the town’s great Patron. The entire parable centres on Rothschild’s observing the town’s unquestioning obedience to, and adoration of, a nameless man referred to only as the Patron. They “bow to him with awe and reverence” when he enters. Nothing in the town is done without his involvement and approval: “In his right hand he holds the entire city, in his left lies life and death.” He is ironically called “world renowned,” as he is no doubt unknown beyond the town and stands in the presence of Rothschild, a truly famous businessman and philanthropist.

It becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that the Chelm-like townspeople are only too eager to believe any nonsense about their legendary Patron: “Before he was nine years old,” says the innkeeper, “he had established a welfare fund.” We learn that one of the Patron’s son-in-laws controls the liquor franchise, while another acts as the tax collector and another serves as rabbi of the community. All of this is told to Rothschild with exaggerated respect.

When Rothschild, at this point still a nameless stranger to the townspeople, is called up for an aliyah and asked for a pledge, he announces he will donate “eighteen guldens times 18 times the net worth of your Patron.” When his identity is later revealed, the town is overjoyed. After the Sabbath, each of the residents shows up “carrying a vat or a sack or a pillowcase or a quilt emptied of its down,” expecting a vast fortune to be bestowed upon them by Rothschild.

Not so fast. Rothschild announces that he has a tradition from his fathers “not to enter a deal without inspecting it first.” That simple, obvious statement stands in contrast to the astounding credulity and naiveté of the townspeople, who inspected nothing and believed everything about their Patron. Rothschild will send his man to assess the Patron’s wealth, and then the money will be distributed.

In the end, of course, Rothschild pays nothing, as it turns out the corrupt Patron had amassed all his money by stealing from communal funds. The gullible townspeople saw nothing that was going on and understood less.

Self-satisfied readers are left laughing at the fools and simpletons in the story, and congratulating themselves on understanding the meaning of Agnon’s parable. But then the story closes with a paragraph that reveals Agnon’s true genius. “A person shouldn’t rely on what others think,” he writes, “even should the whole world say such-and-such about so-and-so; one must examine things for himself.”

The end constitutes not a condemnation of the fictional townspeople but a challenge to the reader: “What would you have done in Rothschild’s place? You would have relied on what others said, and you would have lost.”

So the story was a setup. The nameless town is Everytown, Everywhere, and the gullible townspeople are you and me. It is a cautionary tale for the reader – you think you’re so much wiser?

Patrons stand before us in all places and all times. Do we recognize them, or are we also duped? 

Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish studies program in the University of Waterloo.