Envy; or, Yiddish in America-A Novella
Edelshtein, an American for forty years, was a ravenous reader of novels by writers “of”—he said this with a snarl—“Jewish extraction.” He found them puerile, vicious, pitiable, ignorant, contemptible,, above all stupid. In judging them he dug for his deepest vituperation—they were, he said, “Amerikaner-geboren.” Spawned in America, pogroms a rumor, mamaloshen a stranger, history a vacuum. Also many of them were still young, and had black eyes, black hair, and red beards. A few were blue-eyed, like the cheder-yinglach of his youth. Schoolboys. He was certain he did not envy them, but he read them like a sickness. They were reviewed and praised, and meanwhile they were considered Jews, and knew nothing. There was even a body of Gentile writers in reaction, beginning to show familiarly whetted teeth: the Jewish Intellectual Establishment was misrepresenting American letters, coloring it with an alien dye, taking it over, and so forth. Like Berlin and Vienna in the 20's. Judenrein ist Kulturrein was Edelshtein's opinion. Take away the Jews and where, Oh so-called Western Civilization, is your literary culture?
For Edelshtein Western Civilization was a sore point. He had never been to Berlin, Vienna, Paris, or even London. He had been to Kiev, though, but only once, as a young boy. His father, a melamed, had traveled there on a tutoring job and had taken him along. In Kiev they lived in the cellar of a big house owned by rich Jews, the Kirilovs. They had been born Katz, but Russified their name. Every morning he and his father would go up a green staircase to the kitchen for a breakfast of coffee and stale bread and then into the schoolroom to teach chumash to Alexei Kirilov, a red-cheeked little boy. The younger Edelshtein would drill him while his father dozed. What had become of Alexei Kirilov? Edelshtein, a widower in New York, sixty-seven years old, a Yiddishist (so-called),, a poet, could stare at anything at all—a subway car-card, a garbage-can lid, a streetlight—and cause the return of Alexei Kirilov's face, his bright cheeks, his Ukraine-accented Yiddish, his shelves of mechanical toys from Germany—trucks, cranes, wheelbarrows, little colored autos with awnings overhead. Only Edelshtein's father was expected to call him Alexei—everyone else, including the young Edelshtein, said Avremeleh. Avremeleh had a knack of getting things by heart. He had a golden head. Today he was a citizen of the Soviet Union. Or was he finished, dead, in the ravine at Babi Yar? Edelshtein remembered every coveted screw of the German toys. With his father he left Kiev in the spring and returned to Minsk. The mud, frozen into peaks, was melting. The train-carriage reeked of urine and the dirt seeped through their shoelaces into their socks.
And the language was lost, murdered. The language—a museum. Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil? Where are the speakers of ancient Etruscan? Who was the last man to write a poem in Linear B? Attrition, assimilation. Death by mystery not gas. The last Etruscan walks around inside some Sicilian. Western Civilization, that pod of muck, lingers on and on. The Sick Man of Europe with his big globe-head, rotting, but at home in bed. Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light—oh little holy light!—dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness.
This was Edelshtein's subject. On this subject he lectured for a living. He swallowed scraps. Synagogues, community centers, labor unions underpaid him to suck on the bones of the dead. Smoke. He traveled from borough to borough, suburb to suburb, mourning in English the death of Yiddish. Sometimes he tried to read one or two of his poems. At the first Yiddish word the painted old ladies of the Reform Temples would begin to titter from shame, as at a stand-up television comedian. Orthodox and Conservative men fell instantly asleep. So he reconsidered, and told jokes:
Before the war there was held a great International Esperanto Convention. It met in Geneva. Esperanto scholars, doctors of letters, learned men, came from all over the world to deliver papers on the genesis, syntax, and functionalism of Esperanto. Some spoke of the social value of an international language, others of its beauty. Every nation on earth was represented among the lecturers. All the papers were given in Esperanto. Finally the meeting was concluded, and the tired great men wandered companionably along the corridors, where at last they began to converse casually among themselves in their international language: “Nu, vos macht a yid?”
After the war a funeral cortège was moving slowly down a narrow street on the Lower East Side. The cars had left the parking lot behind the chapel in the Bronx and were on their way to the cemetery in Staten Island. Their route took them past the newspaper offices of the last Yiddish daily left in the city. There were two editors, one to run the papers off the press and the other to look out the window. The one looking out the window saw the funeral procession passing by and called to his colleague: “Hey Mottel, print one less!”
But both Edelshtein and his audiences found the jokes worthless. Old jokes. They were not the right kind. They wanted jokes about weddings—spiral staircases, doves flying out of cages, bashful medical students—and he gave them funerals. To speak of Yiddish was to preside over a funeral. He was a rabbi who had survived his whole congregation. Those for whom his tongue was no riddle were specters.
The new Temples scared Edelshtein. He was afraid to use the word shul in these palaces—inside, vast mock-bronze Tablets, mobiles of outstretched hands rotating on a motor, gigantic dangling Tetragrammatons in transparent plastic like chandeliers, platforms, altars, daises, pulpits, aisles, pews, polished-oak bins for prayer-books printed in English with made-up new prayers in them. Everything smelled of wet plaster. Everything was new. The refreshment tables were long and luminous—he saw glazed cakes, snowheaps of egg salad, herring, salmon, tuna, whitefish, gefillte fish, pools of sour cream, silver electric coffee urns, bowls of lemon-slices, pyramids of bread, waferlike teacups from the Black Forest, Indian-brass trays of hard cheeses, golden bottles set up in rows like nine-pins, great sculptured butter-birds, Hansel-and-Gretel houses of cream cheese and fruitcake, bars, butlers, fat napery, carpeting deep as honey. He learned their term for their architecture: “soaring.” In one place—a flat wall of beige brick in Westchester—he read Scripture riveted on in letters fashioned from 14-karat gold molds: “And thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” Later that night he spoke in Mount Vernon, and in the marble lobby afterward he heard an adolescent girl mimic his inflections. It amazed him: often he forgot he had an accent. In the train going back to Manhattan he slid into a miniature jogging doze—it was a little nest of sweetness there inside the flaps of his overcoat, and he dreamed he was in Kiev, with his father. He looked through the open schoolroom door at the smoking cheeks of Alexei Kirilov, eight years old. “Avremeleh,” he called, “Avremeleh, kum tsu mir, lebst ts' geshtorben?” He heard himself yelling in English: Thou shalt see my asshole! A belch woke him to hot fear. He was afraid he might be, unknown to himself all his life long, a secret pederast.
He had no children and only a few remote relations (a druggist cousin in White Plains, a cleaning store in-law hanging on somewhere among the blacks in Brownsville), so he loitered often in Baumzweig's apartment—dirty mirrors and rusting crystal, a hazard and invitation to cracks, an abandoned exhausted corridor. Lives had passed through it and were gone. Watching Baumzweig and his wife—-gray-eyed, sluggish, with a plump Polish nose—it came to him that at this age, his own and theirs, it was the same having children or not having them. Baumzweig had two sons, one married and a professor at San Diego, the other at Stanford, not yet thirty, in love with his car. The San Diego son had a son. Sometimes it seemed that it must be in deference to his childlessness that Baumzweig and his wife pretended a detachment from their offspring. The grandson's photo—a fat-lipped blond child of three or so—was wedged between two wine glasses on top of the china closet. But then it became plain that they could not imagine the lives of their children. Nor could the children imagine their lives. The parents were too helpless to explain, the sons were too impatient to explain. So they had given each other up to a common muteness. In that apartment Josh and Mickey had grown up answering in English the Yiddish of their parents. Mutes. Mutations. What right had these boys to spit out the Yiddish that had bred them, and only for the sake of Western Civilization? Edelshtein knew the titles of their PhD theses: literary boys, one was on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the other was on the novels of Carson McCullers.
Baumzweig's lethargic wife was intelligent. She told Edelshtein he too had a child, also a son. “Yourself, yourself,” she said. “You remember yourself when you were a little boy, and that little boy is the one you love, him you trust, him you bless, him you bring up in hope to a good manhood.” She spoke a rich Yiddish, but high-pitched.
Baumzweig had a good job, a sinecure, a pension in disguise, with an office, a part-time secretary, a typewriter with Hebrew characters, ten-to-three hours. In 1910 a laxative manufacturer—a philanthropist—had founded an organization called the Yiddish-American Alliance for Letters and Social Progress. The original illustrious members were all dead—even the famous poet Yehoash was said to have paid dues for a month or so—but there was a trust providing for the group's continuation, and enough money to pay for a biannual periodical in Yiddish. Baumzweig was the editor of this, but of the Alliance nothing was left, only some crumbling brown snapshots of Jews in derbies. His salary check came from the laxative manufacturer's grandson—a Republican politician, an Episcopalian. The name of the celebrated product was LUKEWARM: it was advertised as delightful to children when dissolved in lukewarm cocoa. The name of the obscure periodical was Bitterer Yam, Bitter Sea, but it had so few subscribers that Baumzweig's wife called it Invisible Ink. In it Baumzweig published much of his own poetry and a little of Edelshtein's. Baumzweig wrote mostly of Death, Edelshtein mostly of Love. They were both sentimentalists, but not about each other. They did not like each other, though they were close friends.
Sometimes they read aloud among the dust of empty bowls their newest poems, with an agreement beforehand not to criticize: Paula should be the critic. Carrying coffee back and forth in cloudy glasses, Baumzweig's wife said: “Oh, very nice, very nice. But so sad. Gentlemen, life is not that sad.” After this she would always kiss Edelshtein on the forehead, a lazy kiss, often leaving stuck on his eyebrow a crumb of Danish: very slightly she was a slattern.
Edelshtein's friendship with Baumzweig had a ferocious secret: it was moored entirely to their agreed hatred for the man they called der chazer. He was named Pig because of his extraordinarily white skin, like a tissue of pale ham, and also because in the last decade he had become unbelievably famous. When they did not call him Pig they called him shed—Devil. They also called him Yankee Doodle. His name was Yankel Ostrover, and he was a writer of stories.
They hated him for the amazing thing that had happened to him—his fame—but this they never referred to. Instead they discussed his style: his Yiddish was impure, his sentences lacked grace and sweep, his paragraph transitions were amateur, vile. Or else they raged against his subject-matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish—men who embraced men, women who caressed women, sodomists of every variety, boys copulating with hens, butchers who drank blood for strength behind the knife. All the stories were set in an imaginary Polish village, Zwrdl, and by now there was almost no American literary intellectual alive who had not learned to say Zwrdl when he meant lewd. Ostrover's wife was reputed to be a high-born Polish Gentile woman from the “real” Zwrdl, the daughter in fact of a minor princeling, who did not know a word of Yiddish and read her husband's fiction falteringly, in English translation—but both Edelshtein and Baumzweig had encountered her often enough over the years, at this meeting and that, and regarded her as no more impressive than a pot of stale fish. Her Yiddish had an unpleasant gargling Galician accent, her vocabulary was a thin soup—they joked that it was correct to say she spoke no Yiddish—and she mewed it like a peasant, comparing prices. She was a short square woman, a cube with low-slung udders and a flat backside. It was partly Ostrover's mockery, partly his self-advertising, that had converted her into a little princess. He would make her go into their bedroom to get a whip he claimed she had used on her bay, Romeo, trotting over her father's lands in her girlhood. Baumzweig often said this same whip was applied to the earlobes of Ostrover's translators, unhappy pairs of collaborators he changed from month to month, never satisfied.
Ostrover's glory was exactly in this: that he required translators. Though he wrote only in Yiddish, his fame was American, national, international. They considered him a “modern.” Ostrover was free of the prison of Yiddish! Out, out—he had burst out, he was in the world of reality.
And how had he begun? The same as anybody, a columnist for one of the Yiddish dailies, a humorist, a cheap fast article-writer, a squeezer-out of real-life tales. Like anybody else, he saved up a few dollars, put a paper clip over his stories, and hired a Yiddish press to print up a hundred copies. A book. Twenty-five copies he gave to people he counted as relatives, another twenty-five he sent to enemies and rivals, the rest he kept under his bed in the original cartons. Like anybody else, his literary gods were Chekhov and Tolstoy, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. From this, how did he come to the New Yorker, to Playboy, to big lecture fees, invitations to Yale and M.I.T. and Vassar, to the Midwest, to Buenos Aires, to a literary agent, to a publisher on Madison Avenue?
“He sleeps with the right translators,” Paula said. Edelshtein gave out a whinny. He knew some of Ostrover's translators—a spinster hack in dresses below the knee, occasionally a certain half-mad and drunken lexicographer, college boys with a dictionary.
Thirty years ago, straight out of Poland via Tel Aviv, Ostrover crept into a toying affair with Mireleh, Edelshtein's wife. He had left Palestine during the 1939 Arab riots, not, he said, out of fear, out of integrity rather—it was a country which had turned its face against Yiddish. Yiddish was not honored in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. In the Negev it was worthless. In the God-given State of Israel they had no use for the language of the bad little interval between Canaan and now. Yiddish was inhabited by the past, the new Jews did not want it. Mireleh liked to hear these anecdotes of how rotten it was in Israel for Yiddish and Yiddishists. In Israel the case was even lamer than in New York, thank God! There was after all a reason to live the life they lived: it was worse somewhere else. Mireleh was a tragedian. She carried herself according to her impression of how a barren woman should sit, squat, stand, eat and sleep, talked constantly of her six miscarriages, and was vindictive about Edelshtein's sperm-count. Ostrover would arrive in the rain, crunch down on the sofa, complain about the transportation from the Bronx to the West Side, and begin to woo Mireleh. He took her out to supper, to his special cafe, to Second Avenue vaudeville, even home to his apartment near Crotona Park to meet his little princess Pesha. Edelshtein noticed with self-curiosity that he felt no jealousy whatever, but he thought himself obliged to throw a kitchen chair at Ostrover. Ostrover had very fine teeth, his own; the chair knocked off half a lateral incisor, and Edelshtein wept at the flaw. Immediately he led Ostrover to the dentist around the corner.
The two wives, Mireleh and Pesha, seemed to be falling in love: they had dates, they went to museums and movies together, they poked one another and laughed day and night, they shared little privacies, they carried pencilbox rulers in their purses and showed each other certain hilarious measurements, they even became pregnant in the same month. Pesha had her third daughter, Mireleh her seventh miscarriage. Edelshtein was griefstricken but elated. “My sperm-count?” he screamed. “Your belly! Go fix the machine before you blame the oil!” When the dentist's bill came for Ostrover's jacket crown, Edelshtein sent it to Ostrover. At this injustice Ostrover dismissed Mireleh and forbade Pesha to go anywhere with her ever again.
About Mireleh's affair with Ostrover Edelshtein wrote the following malediction:
You, why do you snuff out my sons, my daughters?
Worse than Mother Eve, cursed to break waters
for little ones to float out upon in their tiny
barks of skin,
you, merciless one, cannot even bear the fruit of
It was published to much gossip in Bitterer Yam in the spring of that year—one point at issue being whether “snuff out” was the right term in such a watery context. (Baumzweig, a less oblique stylist, had suggested “drown.”) The late Zimmerman, Edelshtein's cruelest rival, wrote in a letter to Baumzweig (which Baumzweig read on the telephone to Edelshtein):
Who is the merciless one, after all, the barren woman who makes the house peaceful with no infantile caterwauling, or the excessively fertile poet who bears the fruit of his sin—namely his untalented verses? He bears it, but who can bear it? In one breath he runs from seas to trees. Like his ancestors the amphibians, puffed up with arrogance. Hersheleh Frog! Why did God give Hersheleh Edelshtein an unfaithful wife? To punish him for writing trash.
Around the same time Ostrover wrote a story: two women loved each other so much they mourned because they could not give birth to one another's children. Both had husbands, one virile and hearty, the other impotent, with a withered organ, a shlimazl. They seized the idea of making a tool out of one of the husbands: they agreed to transfer their love for each other into the man, and bear the child of their love through him. So both women turned to the virile husband, and both women conceived. But the woman who had the withered husband could not bear her child: it withered in her womb. “As it is written,” Ostrover concluded, “Paradise is only for those who have already been there.”
A stupid fable! Three decades later—Mireleh dead of a cancerous uterus, Pesha encrusted with royal lies in Time magazine (which photographed the whip)—this piece of insignificant mystification, this pollution, included also in Ostrover's Complete Tales (Kimmel & Segal, 1968), was the subject of graduate dissertations in comparative literature, as if Ostrover were Thomas Mann, or even Albert Camus. When all that happened was that Pesha and Mireleh had gone to the movies together now and then—and such a long time ago! All the same, Ostrover was released from the dungeon of the dailies, from Bitterer Yam and even seedier nullities, he was free, the outside world knew his name. And why Ostrover? Why not somebody else? Was Ostrover more gifted than Komorsky? Did he think up better stories than Horowitz? Why does the world outside pick on an Ostrover instead of an Edelshtein or even a Baumzweig? What occult knack, what craft, what crooked convergence of planets drove translators to grovel before Ostrover's naked swollen sentences with their thin little threadbare pants always pulled down? Who had discovered that Ostrover was a “modern”? His Yiddish, however fevered on itself, bloated, was still Yiddish, it was still mamaloshen, it still squeaked up to God with a littleness, a familiarity, an elbow-poke, it was still pieced together out of shtetl rags, out of a baby aleph, a toddler beys—so why Ostrover? Why only Ostrover? Ostrover should be the only one? Everyone else sentenced to darkness, Ostrover alone saved? Ostrover the survivor? As if hidden in the Dutch attic like that child. His diary, so to speak, the only documentation of what was. like Ringelblum of Warsaw. Ostrover was to be the only evidence that there was once a Yiddish tongue, a Yiddish literature? And all the others lost? Lost! Drowned. Snuffed out. Under the earth. As if never.
Edelshtein composed a letter to Ostrover's publishers:
Kimmel & Segal
244 Madison Avenue, New York City
My dear Mr. Kimmel, and very honored Mr. Segal:
I am writing to you in reference to one Y. Ostrover, whose works you are the company that places them before the public's eyes. Be kindly enough to forgive all flaws of English Expression. Undoubtedly, in the course of his business with you, you have received from Y. Ostrover, letters in English, even worse than this. (I Have No Translator!) We immigrants, no matter how long already Yankified, stay inside always green and never attain to actual native writing Smoothness. For one million green writers, one Nabokov, one Kosinski. I mention these to show my extreme familiarness with American Literature in all Contemporaneous avatars. In your language I read, let us say, wolfishly. I regard myself as a very Keen critic, esp. concerning so-called Amer Jewish writers. If you would give time I could willingly explain to you many clear opinions I have concerning these Jewish-Amer. boys and girls such as (not alphabetical) Roth Philip/ Rosen Norma/ Melammed Bernie/ Friedman B.J./ Paley Grace/ Bellow Saul/ Mailer Norman. Of the latter having just read several recent works including political I would like to remind him what F. Kafka, rest in peace, said to the German-speaking, already very comfortable, Jews of Prague, Czechoslovakia: “Jews of Prague! You know more Yiddish than you think!”
Perhaps, since doubtless you do not read the Jewish Press, you are not informed. Only this month all were taken by surprise! In that filthy propaganda Sovietishe Heymland which in Russia they run to show that their prisoners the Jews are not prisoners—a poem! By a 20-year-old young Russian Jewish girl! Yiddish will yet live through our young. Though I doubt it as do other pessimists. However, this is not the point! I ask you—what does the following personages mean to you, you who are Sensitive men, Intelligent, and with closely-warmed Feelings! Lyessin, Yehoash! H. Leivik himself! Itzik Manger, Chaim Grade, Jacob Glatshtein, Eliezer Greenberg! Dovid Ignatov, Morris Rosenfeld, Moishe Nadir, Moishe Leib Halpern, Reuven Eisland, Mani Leib, Zisha Landau! I ask you! Frug, Peretz, Vintchevski, Bovshover,, Edel-shtat! Velvl Zhbarzher, Avrom Goldfaden! A. Rosenblatt! Y.Y. Schwartz, Yoisef Rollnick! These are all our glorious Yiddish poets. And if I would add to them our beautiful recent Russian brother-poets that were killed by Stalin with his pockmarks, for instance Peretz Markish, would you know any name of theirs? No! They Have No Translators!
Esteemed Gentlemen, you publish only one Yiddish writer, not even a Poet, only a Story-writer. I humbly submit you give serious wrong Impressions. That we have produced nothing else. I again refer to your associate Y. Ostrover. I do not intend to take away from him any possible talent by this letter, but I wish to WITH VIGOROUSNESS assure you that others also exist without notice being bothered over them! I myself am the author and also publisher of four tomes of poetry: N'shomeh un Guf, Zingen un Freyen, A Velt ohn Vint, A Shtundeh mit Shney. To wit, “Soul and Body,” “Singing and Being Happy,” “A World with no Wind,” “An Hour of Snow,” these are my Deep-Feeling titles.
Please inform me if you will be willing to provide me with a translator for these very worthwhile pieces of hidden writings, or, to use a Hebrew Expression, “Buried Light.”
Yours very deeply respectful.
He received an answer in the same week.
Dear Mr. Edelstein:
Thank you for your interesting and informative letter. We regret that, unfortunately, we cannot furnish you with a translator. Though your poetry may well be of the quality you claim for it, practically speaking, reputation must precede translation.
A lie! Liars!
Dear Kimmel, dear Segal,
Did you, Jews without tongues, ever hear of Ostrover before you found him translated everywhere? In Yiddish he didn't exist for you! For you Yiddish has no existence! A darkness inside a cloud! Who can see it, who can hear it? The world has no ears for the prisoner! You sign yourself “Yours.” You're not mine and I'm not Yours!
He then began to search in earnest for a translator. Expecting little, he wrote to the spinster hack.
Esteemed Edelshtein [she replied]:
To put it as plainly as I can—a plain woman should be as plain in her words—you do not know the world of practicality, of reality. Why should you? You're a poet, an idealist. When a big magazine pays Ostrover $500, how much do I get? Maybe $75. If he takes a rest for a month and doesn't write, what then? Since he's the only one they want to print he's the only one worth translating. Suppose I translated one of your nice little love songs? Would anyone buy it? Foolishness even to ask. And if they bought it, should I slave for the $5? You don't know what I go through with Ostrover anyhow. He sits me down in his dining room, his wife brings in a samovar of tea—did you ever hear anything as pretentious as this—and sits also, watching me. She has jealous eyes. She watches my ankles, which aren't bad. Then we begin. Ostrover reads aloud the first sentence the way he wrote it, in Yiddish. I write it down, in English. Right away it starts. Pesha reads what I put down and says, “That's no good,. you don't catch his idiom.” Idiom! She knows! Ostrover says, “The last word sticks in my throat. Can't you do better than that? A little more robustness.” We look in the dictionary, the thesaurus, we scream out different words, trying, trying. Ostrover doesn't like any of them. Suppose the word is “big.” We go through huge, vast, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan, monstrous, etc., etc., etc., and finally Ostrover says—by now it's five hours later, my tonsils hurt, I can hardly stand—“all right, so let it be ‘big.’ Simplicity above all.” Day after day like this! And for $75 is it worth it? Then after this he fires me and gets himself a college boy! Or that imbecile who cracked up over the mathematics dictionary! Until he needs me. However I get a little glory out of it. Everyone says, “There goes Ostrover's translator.” In actuality I'm his pig, his stool (I mean that in both senses, I assure you). You write that he has no talent. That's your opinion, maybe you're not wrong, but let me tell you he has a talent for pressure. The way among them they write careless novels, hoping they'll be transformed into beautiful movies—that's how it is with him. Never mind the quality of his Yiddish, what will it turn into when it becomes English? Transformation is all he cares for—and in English he's a cripple—like, please excuse me, yourself and everyone of your generation. But Ostrover has the sense to be a suitor. He keeps all his translators in a perpetual frenzy of envy for each other, but they're just rubble and offal to him, they aren't the object of his suit. What he woos is them. Them! You understand me, Edelshtein? He stands on the backs of hacks to reach. I know you call me hack, and it's all right, by myself I'm what you think me, no imagination, so-so ability (I too once wanted to be a poet, but that's another life)—with Ostrover on my back I'm something else: I'm “Ostrover's translator.” You think that's nothing? It's an entrance into them. I'm invited everywhere, I go to the same parties Ostrover goes to. Everyone looks at me and thinks I'm a bit freakish, but they say: “It's Ostrover's translator.” A marriage. Pesha, that junk-heap, is less married to Ostrover than I am. Like a wife, I have the supposedly passive role. Supposedly: who knows what goes on in the bedroom? An unmarried person like myself becomes good at guessing at these matters. The same with translation. Who makes the language Ostrover is famous for? You ask: what has persuaded them that he's a “so-called modern”?—a sneer. Aha. Who has read James Joyce, Ostrover or I? I'm fifty-three years old. I wasn't born back of Hlusk for nothing, I didn't go to Vassar for nothing—do you understand me? I got caught in between, so I got squeezed. Between two organisms. A cultural hermaphrodite, neither one nor the other. I have a forked tongue. When I fight for five hours to make Ostrover say “big” instead of “gargantuan,” when I take out all the nice homey commas he sprinkles like a fool, when I drink his wife's stupid tea and then go home with a watery belly—then he's being turned into a “modern,” you see? I'm the one! No one recognizes this, of course, they think it's something inside the stories themselves, when actually it's the way I dress them up and paint over them. It's all cosmetics, I'm a cosmetician, a painter, the one they pay to do the same job on the corpse in the mortuary, among them . . . don't, though, bore me with your criticisms. I tell you his Yiddish doesn't matter. Nobody's Yiddish matters. Whatever's in Yiddish doesn't matter.
The rest of the letter—all women are long-winded, strong-minded—he did not read. He had already seen what she was after: a little bit of money, a little bit of esteem. A miniature megalomaniac: she fancied herself the real Ostrover. She believed she had fashioned herself a genius out of a rag. A rag turned into a sack, was that genius? She lived out there in the light, with them: naturally she wouldn't waste her time on an Edelshtein. In the bleakness. Dark where he was. An idealist! How had this good word worked itself up in society to become an insult? A darling word nevertheless. Idealist. The difference between him and Ostrover was this: Ostrover wanted to save only himself, Edelshtein wanted to save Yiddish.
Immediately he felt he lied.
With Baumzweig and Paula he went to the Ninety-Second Street Y to hear Ostrover read. “Self-mortification,” Paula said of this excursion. It was a snowy night. They had to shove their teeth into the wind, tears of suffering iced down their cheeks, the streets from the subway were Siberia. “Two Christian saints, self-flagellation,” she muttered, “with chains of icicles they hit themselves.” They paid for the tickets with numb fingers and sat down toward the front. Edelshtein felt paralyzed. His toes stung, prickled, then seemed diseased, gangrenous, furnace-like. The cocoon of his bed at home, the pen he kept on his nighttable, the first luminous line of his new poem lying there waiting to be born—Oh that I might like a youth be struck with the blow of belief—all at once he knew how to go on with it, what it was about and what he meant by it, the hall around him seemed preposterous, unnecessary, why was he here? Crowds, huddling, the whine of folding chairs lifted and dropped, the babble, Paula yawning next to him with squeezed and wrinkled eyelids, Baumzweig blowing his flat nose into a blue plaid handkerchief and exploding a great green flower of snot, why was he in such a place as this? What did such a place have in common with what he knew, what he felt?
Paula craned around her short neck inside a used-up skunk collar to read the frieze, mighty names, golden letters, Moses, Einstein, Maimonides, Heine. Heine. Maybe Heine knew what Edelshtein knew, a convert. But these, ushers in fine jackets, skinny boys carrying books (Ostrover's), wearing them nearly, costumed for blatant bookishness, blatant sexuality, in pants crotch-snug, pencilling buttocks on air, mustachioed, some hairy to the collarbone, shins and calves menacing as hammers, and girls,, tunics, knees, pants, boots, little hidden sweet tongues, black-eyed. Woolly smell of piles and piles of coats. For Ostrover! The hall was full, the ushers with raised tweed wrists directed all the rest into an unseen gallery nearby: a television screen there, on which the little gray ghost of Ostrover, palpable and otherwise white as a washed pig, would soon flutter. The Y. Why? Edelshtein also lectured at Y's—Elmhurst, Eastchester, Rye, tiny platforms, lecterns too tall for him, catalogues of vexations, his sad recitations to old people. Ladies and Gentlemen, they have cut out my vocal cords, the only language I can freely and fluently address you in, my darling mamaloshen, surgery, dead, the operation was a success. Edelshtein's Y's were all old people's homes, convalescent factories, asylums. To himself he sang,
|Why||Farvos di Vy?|
|the Y?||Ich reyd|
|to specters,||un sheydim tantsen derbei|
aha! specters, if my tongue has no riddle for you, Ladies and Gentlemen, you are specter, wraith, phantom, I have invented you, you are my imagining, there is no one here at all, an empty chamber, a vacant valve, abandoned, desolate. Everyone gone. Pust vi dem kalten shul mein harts (another first line left without companion-lines, fellows, followers), the cold study-house, spooks dance there. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you find my tongue a riddle, here is another riddle: How is a Jew like a giraffe? A Jew too has no vocal cords. God blighted Jew and giraffe, one in full, one by half. And no salve. Baumzweig hawked up again. Mucus the sheen of the sea. In God's Creation no thing without beauty however perverse. Khrakeh khrakeh. Baumzweig's roar the only noise in the hall. “Shah,” Paula said, “ot kumt der shed.”
Gleaming, gleaming, Ostrover stood—high, far, the stage broad, brilliant, the lectern punctilious with microphone and water-pitcher. A rod of powerful light bored into his eye-sockets. He had a moth-mouth as thin and dim as a chalk-line, a fence of white hair erect over his ears, a cool voice.
“A new story,” he announced, and spittle flashed on his lip. “It isn't obscene, so I consider it a failure.”
“Devil,” Paula whispered, “washed white pig, Yankee Doodle.”
“Shah,” Baumzweig said, “lomir heren.”
Baumzweig wanted to hear the devil, the pig! Why should anyone want to hear him? Edelshtein, a little bit deaf, hung forward. Before him, his nose nearly in it, the hair of a young girl glistened—some of the stage light had become enmeshed in it. Young, young! Everyone young! Everyone for Ostrover young! A modern.
Cautiously, slyly, Edelshtein let out, as on a rope, little bony shiverings of attentiveness. Two rows in front of him he glimpsed the spinster hack, Chaim Vorovsky the drunken lexicographer whom too much mathematics had crazed, six unknown college boys.
Satan appears to a bad poet. “I desire fame,” says the poet, “but I cannot attain it, because I come from Zwrdl, and the only language I can write is Zwrdlish. Unfortunately no one is left in the world who can read Zwrdlish. That is my burden. Give me fame, and I will trade you my soul for it.”
“Are you quite sure,” says Satan, “that you have estimated the dimensions of your trouble entirely correctly?” “What do you mean?” says the poet. “Perhaps,” says Satan, “the trouble lies in your talent. Zwrdl or no Zwrdl, it's very weak.” “Not so!” says the poet, “and I'll prove it to you. Teach me French, and in no time I'll be famous.” “All right,” says Satan, “as soon as I say Glup you'll know French perfectly, better than de Gaulle. But I'll be generous with you. French is such an easy language, I'll take only a quarter of your soul for it.”
And he said Glup. And in an instant there was the poet, scribbling away in fluent French. But still no publisher in France wanted him and he remained obscure. Back came Satan: “So the French was no good, mon vieux? Tant pis!” “Feh,” says the poet, “what do you expect from a people that kept colonies, they should know what's good in the poetry line? Teach me Italian, after all even the Pope dreams in Italian.” “Another quarter of your soul,” says Satan, ringing it up in his portable cash-register. And Glup! There he was again, the poet, writing terza rima with such fluency and melancholy that the Pope would have been moved to holy tears of praise if only he had been able to see it in print—unfortunately every publisher in Italy sent the manuscript back with a plain rejection slip, no letter.
“What? Italian no good either?” exclaims Satan. “Mamma mia, why don't you believe me, little brother, it's not the language, it's you.” It was the same with Swahili and Armenian, Glup!—failure, Glup!—failure, and by now, having rung up a quarter of it at a time, Satan owned the poet's entire soul, and took him back with him to the Place of Fire. “I suppose you'll burn me up,” says the poet bitterly. “No, no,” says Satan, “we don't go in for that sort of treatment for so silken a creature as a poet. Well? Did you bring everything? I told you to pack carefully! Not to leave behind a scrap!” “I brought my whole file,” says the poet, and sure enough, there it was, strapped to his back, a big black metal cabinet. “Now empty it into the Fire,” Satan orders. “My poems! Not all my poems? My whole life's output?” cries the poet in anguish. “That's right, do as I say,” and the poet obeys, because, after all, he's in hell and Satan owns him. “Good,” says Satan, “now come with me, I'll show yon to your room.”
A perfect room, perfectly appointed, not too cold, not too hot, just the right distance from the great Fire to be comfortable. A jewel of a desk, with a red leather top, a lovely swivel chair cushioned in scarlet, a scarlet Persian rug on the floor, nearby a red refrigerator stocked with cheese and pudding and pickles, a glass of reddish tea already steaming on a little red table. One window without a curtain. “That's your Inspiring View,” says Satan, “look out and see.” Nothing outside but the Fire cavorting splendidly, flecked with unearthly colors, turning itself and rolling up into unimaginable new forms. “It's beautiful,” marvels the poet. “Exactly,” says Satan. “It should inspire you to the composition of many new verses.” “Yes, yes! May I begin, your Lordship?” “That's why I brought you here,” says Satan. “Now sit down and write, since you can't help it anyhow. There is only one stipulation. The moment you finish a stanza you must throw it out of the window, like this.” And to illustrate, he tossed out a fresh page.
Instantly a flaming wind picked it up and set it afire, drawing it into the great central conflagration. “Remember that you are in hell,” Satan says sternly, “here you write only for oblivion.” The poet begins to weep. “No difference, no difference! It was the same up there! O Zwrdl, I curse you that you nurtured me!” “And still he doesn't see the point!” says Satan, exasperated. “Glup glup glup glup glup glup glup! Now write.” The poor poet began to scribble, one poem after another, and lo! suddenly he forgot every word of Zwrdlish he ever knew, faster and faster he wrote, he held on to the pen as if it alone kept his legs from flying off on their own, he wrote in Dutch and in English, in German and in Turkish, in Santali and in Sassak, in Lapp and in Kurdish, in Welsh and in Rhaeto-Romanic, in Niasese and in Nicobarese, in Galcha and in Ibanag, in Ho and in Khmer, in Ro and in Volapuk, in Jagatai and in Swedish, in Tulu and in Russian, in Irish and in Kalmuck! He wrote in every language but Zwrdlish, and every poem he wrote he had to throw out the window because it was trash anyhow, though he did not realize it. . . .
Edelshtein, spinning off into a furious and alien meditation, was not sure how the story ended. But it was brutal, and Satan was again in the ascendancy: he whipped down aspiration with one of Ostrover's sample aphorisms, dense and swollen as a phallus, but sterile all the same. The terrifying laughter, a sea-wave all around: it broke toward Edelshtein, meaning to lash him to bits. Laughter for Ostrover. Little jokes, little jokes, all they wanted was jokes! “Baumzweig,” he said, pressing himself down across Paula's collar (under it her plump breasts), “he does it for spite, you see that?”
But Baumzweig was caught in the laughter. The edges of his mouth were beaten by it. He whirled in it like a bug. “Bastard!” he said.
“Bastard,” Edelshtein said reflectively.
“He means you,” Baumzweig said.
“An allegory. You see how everything fits. . . .”
“If you write letters, you shouldn't mail them,” Paula said reasonably. “It got back to him you're looking for a translator.”
“He doesn't need a muse, he needs a butt. Naturally it got back to him,” Baumzweig said. “That witch herself told him.”
“Why me?” Edelshtein said. “It could be you.”
“I'm not a jealous type,” Baumzweig protested. “What he has you want.” He waved over the audience: just then he looked as insignificant as a little bird.
Paula said, “You both want it.”
What they both wanted now began. Homage.
Q. Mr. Ostrover, what would you say is the symbolic weight of this story?
A. The symbolic weight is, what you need you deserve. If you don't need to be knocked on the head you'll never deserve it.
Q. Sir, I'm writing a paper on you for my English class. Can you tell me please if you believe in hell?
A. Not since I got rich.
Q. How about God? Do you believe in God?
A. Exactly the way I believe in pneumonia. If you have pneumonia, you have it. If you don't, you don't.
Q. Is it true your wife is a Countess? Some people say she's really only Jewish.
A. In religion she's a transvestite, and in actuality she's a Count.
Q. Is there really such a language as Zwrdlish?
A. You're speaking it right now, it's the language of fools.
Q. What would happen if you weren't translated into English?
A. The pygmies and the Eskimos would read me instead. Nowadays to be Ostrover is to be a worldwide industry.
Q. Then why don't you write about worldwide things like wars?
A. Because I'm afraid of loud noises.
Q. What do you think of the future of Yiddish?
A. What do you think of the future of the Doberman pinscher?
Q. People say other Yiddishists envy you.
A. No, it's I who envy them. I like a quiet life.
Q. Do you keep the Sabbath?
A. Of course, didn't you notice it's gone?—I keep it hidden.
Q. And the dietary laws? Do you observe them?
A. Because of the moral situation of the world I have to. I was heartbroken to learn that the minute an oyster enters my stomach, he becomes an anti-Semite. A bowl of shrimp once started a pogrom against my intestines.
Jokes, jokes! It looked to go on for another hour. The condition of fame, a Question Period: a man can stand up forever and dribble shallow quips and everyone admires him for it. Edelshtein threw up his seat with a squeal and sneaked up the aisle to the double doors and into the lobby. On a bench, half-asleep, he saw the lexicographer. Usually he avoided him—he was a man with a past, all pasts are boring—but when he saw Vorovsky raise his leathery eyelids he went toward him.
“What's new, Chaim?”
“Nothing. Liver pains. And you?”
“Life pains. I saw you inside.”
“I walked out, I hate the young.”
“You weren't young, no.”
“Not like these. I never laughed. Do you realize, at the age of twelve I had already mastered calculus? I practically reinvented it on my own. You haven't read Wittgenstein, Hersheleh, what do you know about the empire of the universe?”
Edelshtein thought to deflect him: “Was it your translation he read in there?”
“Did it sound like mine?”
“I couldn't tell.”
“It was and it wasn't. Mine, improved. If you ask that ugly one, she'll say it's hers, improved. Who's really Ostrover's translator? Tell me, Hersheleh, maybe it's you. Nobody knows. It's as they say—by several hands, and all the hands are in Ostrover's pot, burning up. I would like to make a good strong b.m. on your friend Ostrover.”
“My friend? He's not my friend.”
“So why did you pay genuine money to see him? You can see him for free somewhere else, no?”
“The same applies to yourself.”
“Youth, I brought youth.”
A conversation with a madman: Vorovsky's meshugas was to cause other people to suspect him of normality. Edelshtein let himself slide to the bench—he felt his bones accordian downward. He was in the grip of a mournful fatigue. Sitting eye to eye with Vorovsky he confronted the other's hat—a great Russian-style fur monster. A nimbus of droshky-bells surrounded it, shrouds of snow. Vorovsky had a big head, with big kneaded features, except for the nose, which looked like a doll's, pink and formlessly delicate. The only sign of drunkenness was at the bulbs of the nostrils, where the cartilage was swollen, and at the tip, also swollen. Of actual madness there was, in ordinary discourse, no sign, except a tendency toward elusiveness. But it was known that Vorovsky, after compiling his dictionary, a job of seventeen years, one afternoon suddenly began to laugh, and continued laughing for six months, even in his sleep: in order to rest from laughing he had to be given sedatives, though even these could not entirely suppress his laughter. His wife died, and then his father, and he went on laughing. He lost control of his bladder, and then discovered the curative potency, for laughter, of drink. Drink cured him, but he still peed publicly, without realizing it; and even his cure was tentative and unreliable, because if he happened to hear a joke that he liked he might laugh at it for a minute or two, or, on occasion, three hours. Apparently none of Ostrover's jokes had struck home with him—he was sober and desolate-looking. Nevertheless Edelshtein noticed a large dark patch near his fly. He had wet himself, it was impossible to tell how long ago. There was no odor. Edelshtein moved his buttocks back an inch. “Youth?” he inquired.
“My niece. Twenty-three years old, my sister Ida's girl. She reads Yiddish fluently,” he, said proudly. “She writes.”
“Yiddish,” he spat out. “Don't be crazy, Hersheleh, who writes in Yiddish? Twenty-three years old, she should write in Yiddish? What is she, a refugee, an American girl like that? She's crazy for literature, that's all, she's like the rest in there, to her Ostrover's literature. I brought her, she wanted to be introduced.”
“Introduce me,” Edelshtein said craftily.
“She wants to be introduced to someone famous, where do you come in?”
“Translated I'd be famous. Listen, Chaim, a talented man like you, so many languages under your belt, why don't you give me a try? A try and a push.”
“I'm no good at poetry. You should write stories if you want fame.”
“I don't want fame.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“I want—” Edelshtein stopped. What did he want? “To reach,” he said.
Vorovsky did not laugh. “I was educated at the University of Berlin. From Vilna to Berlin, that was 1924. Did I reach Berlin? I gave my whole life to collecting a history of the human mind, I mean expressed in mathematics. In mathematics the final and only poetry possible. Did I reach the empire of the universe? Hersheleh, if I could tell you about reaching, I would tell you this: reaching is impossible. Why? Because when you get where you wanted to reach to, that's when you realize that's not what you want to reach to.—Do you know what a bilingual German-English mathematical dictionary is good for?”
Edelshtein covered his knees with his hands. His knuckles glimmered up at him. Row of white skulls.
“Toilet paper,” Vorovsky said. “Do you know what poems are good for? The same. And don't call me cynic, what I say isn't cynicism.”
“Despair maybe,” Edelshtein offered.
“Despair up your ass. I'm a happy man. I know something about laughter.” He jumped up—next to the seated Edelshtein he was a giant. Fists gray, thumbnails like bone. The mob was pouring out of the doors of the auditorium. “Something else I'll tell you. Translation is no equation. If you're looking for an equation, better die first. There are no equations, equations don't happen. It's an idea like a two-headed animal, you follow me? The last time I saw an equation it was in a snapshot of myself. I looked in my own eyes, and what did I see there? I saw God in the shape of a murderer. What you should do with your poems is swallow your tongue. There's my niece, behind Ostrover like a tail. Hey Yankel!” he boomed.
The great man did not hear. Hands, arms, heads enclosed him like a fisherman's net. Baumzweig and Paula paddled through eddies, the lobby swirled. Edelshtein saw two little people, elderly, overweight, heavily dressed. He hid himself, he wanted to be lost. Let them go, let them go—
But Paula spotted him. “What happened? We thought you took sick.”
“It was too hot in there.”
“Come home with us, there's a bed. Instead of your own place alone.”
“Thank you no. He signs autographs, look at that.”
“Your jealousy will eat you up, Hersheleh.”
“I'm not jealous!” Edelshtein shrieked; people turned to see. “Where's Baumzweig?”
“Shaking hands with the pig. An editor has to keep up contacts.”
“A poet has to keep down vomit.”
Paula considered him. Her chin dipped into her skunk ruff. “How can you vomit, Hersheleh? Pure souls have no stomachs, only ectoplasm. Maybe Ostrover's right, you have too much ambition for your size. What if your dear friend Baumzweig didn't publish you? You wouldn't know your own name. My husband doesn't mention this to you, he's a kind man, but I'm not afraid of the truth. Without him you wouldn't exist.”
“With him I don't exist,” Edelshtein said. “What is existence?”
“I'm not a Question Period,” Paula said.
“That's all right,” Edelshtein said, “because I'm an Answer Period. The answer is period. Your husband is finished, period. Also I'm finished, period. We're already dead. Whoever uses Yiddish to keep himself alive is already dead. Either you realize this or you don't realize it. I'm one who realizes.”
“I tell him all the time he shouldn't bother with you. You come and you hang around.”
“Your house is a gallows, mine is a gas chamber, what's the difference?”
“Don't come any more, nobody needs you.”
“My philosophy exactly. We are superfluous on the face of the earth.”
“You're a scoundrel.”
“Your husband's a weasel, and you're the wife of a weasel.”
“Pig and devil yourself.”
“Mother of puppydogs.” (Paula, such a good woman, the end, he would never see her again!)
He blundered away licking his tears, hitting shoulders with his shoulder, blind with the accident of his grief. A yearning all at once shouted itself in his brain:
Edelshtein: Chaim, teach me to be a drunk!
Vorovsky: First you need to be crazy.
Edelshtein: Teach me to go crazy!
Vorovsky: First you need to fail.
Edelshtein: I've failed, I'm schooled in failure, I'm a master of failure!
Vorovsky: Go back and study some more.
One wall was a mirror. In it he saw an old man crying, dragging a striped scarf like a prayer shawl. He stood and looked at himself. He wished he had been born a Gentile. Pieces of old poems littered his nostrils, he smelled the hour of their creation, his wife in bed beside him, asleep after he had rubbed her to compensate her for bitterness. The sky is cluttered with stars of David. . . . If everything is something else, then I am something else. . . . Am I a thing and not a bird? Does my way fork though I am one? Will God take back history? Who will let me begin again. . . .
Ostrover: Hersheleh, I admit I insulted you, but who will know? It's only a make-believe story, a game.
Edelshtein: Literature isn't a game! Literature isn't little stories!
Ostrover: So what is it, Torah? You scream out loud like a Jew, Edelshtein. Be quiet, they'll hear you.
Edelshtein: And you, Mr. Elegance, you aren't a Jew?
Ostrover: Not at all, I'm one of them. You too are lured, aren't you, Hersheleh? Shakespeare is better than a shadow, Pushkin is better than a pipsqueak, hah?
Edelshtein: If you become a Gentile you don't automatically become a Shakespeare.
Ostrover: Oho! A lot you know. I'll let you in on the facts, Hersheleh, because I feel we're really brothers, I feel you straining toward the core of the world. Now listen—did you ever hear of Velvl Shikkerparev? Never. A Yiddish scribbler writing romances for the Yiddish stage in the East End, I'm speaking of London, England. He finds a translator and overnight he becomes Willie Shakespeare. . . .
Edelshtein: Jokes aside, is this what you advise?
Ostrover: I would advise my own father no less. Give it up, Hersheleh, stop believing in Yiddish.
Edelshtein: But I don't believe in it!
Ostrover: You do. I see you do. It's no use talking to you, you won't let go. Tell me, Edelshtein, what language does Moses speak in the world-to-come?
Edelshtein: From babyhood I know this. Hebrew on the Sabbath, on weekdays Yiddish.
Ostrover: Lost soul, don't make Yiddish into the Sabbath-tongue! If you believe in holiness, you're finished. Holiness is for make-believe.
Edelshtein: I want to be a Gentile like you!
Ostrover: I'm only a make-believe Gentile. This means that I play at being a Jew to satisfy them. In my village when I was a boy they used to bring in a dancing bear for the carnival, and everyone said, “It's human!”—They said this because they knew it was a bear, though it stood on two legs and waltzed. But it was a bear.
Baumzweig came to him then. “Paula and her temper. Never mind, Hersheleh, come and say hello to the big celebrity, what can you lose?” He went docilely, shook hands with Ostrover, even complimented him on his story. Ostrover was courtly, wiped his lip, let ooze a drop of ink from a slow pen, and continued autographing books. Vorovsky lingered humbly at the rim of Ostrover's circle: his head was fierce, his eyes timid; he was steering a girl by the elbow, but the girl was mooning over an open flyleaf, where Ostrover had written his name. Edelshtein, catching a flash of letters, was startled: it was the Yiddish version she held.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“My niece,” Vorovsky said.
“I see you read Yiddish,” Edelshtein addressed her. “In your generation a miracle.”
“Hannah, before you stands H. Edelshtein the poet.”
She recited. “Little fathers, little uncles, you with your beards and glasses and curly hair. . . .”
Edelshtein shut his lids and again wept.
“If it's the same Edelshtein?”
“The same,” he croaked.
“My grandfather used to do that one all the time. It was in a book he had, A Velt ohn Vint. But it's not possible.”
“That you're still alive.”
“You're right, you're right,” Edelshtein said, struck. “We're all ghosts here.”
“My grandfather's dead.”
“He used to read you! And he was an old man, he died years ago, and you're still alive—”
“I'm sorry,” Edelshtein said. “Maybe I was young then, I began young.”
“Why do you say ghosts? Ostrover's no ghost.”
“No, no,” he agreed. He was afraid to offend. “Listen, I'll say the rest for you. I'll take a minute only, I promise. Listen, see if you can remember from your grandfather—”
Around him, behind him, in front of him Ostrover, Vorovsky, Baumzweig, perfumed ladies, students, the young, the young, he clawed at his wet face and declaimed, he stood like a wanton stalk in the heart of an empty field:
How you spring out of the ground covered with
In your long coats, fingers rolling wax, tallow
How can I speak to you, little fathers?
You who nestled me with lyu, lyu, lyu,
lip-lullaby. Jabber of blue-eyed sailors,
how am I fallen into a stranger's womb?
Take me back with you, history has left me out.
You belong to the Angel of Death,
I to you.
Braided wraiths, smoke,
let me fall into your graves,
I have no business being your future.
He gargled, breathed, coughed, choked, tears invaded some false channel in his throat—meanwhile he swallowed up with the seizure of each bawled word this niece, this Hannah, like the rest, boots, rough full hair, a forehead made on a Jewish last, chink eyes—
At the edge of the village a little river.
Herons tip into it pecking at their images
when the waders pass whistling like Gentiles.
The herons hang, hammocks above the sweet
Their skulls are full of secrets, their feathers
The village is so little it fits into my nostril.
The roofs shimmer tar,
the sun licks thick as cow.
No one knows what will come.
How crowded with mushrooms the forest's dark
Into his ear Paula said, “Hersheleh, I apologize, come home with us, please, please, I apologize.” Edelshtein gave her a push, he intended to finish. “Littleness,” he screamed,
I speak to you.
We are such a little huddle.
Our little hovels, our grandfathers' hard hands,
our little, little words,
sung at the lip of your grave,
Baumzweig said, “That's one of your old good ones, the best.”
“The one on my table, in progress, is the best,” Edelshtein screamed, clamor still high over his head; but he felt soft, rested, calm; he knew how patient.
Ostrover said, “That one you shouldn't throw out the window.”
Vorovsky began to laugh.
“This is the dead man's poem, now you know it,” Edelshtein said, looking all around, pulling at his shawl, pulling and pulling at it: this too made Vorovsky laugh.
“Hannah, better take home your uncle Chaim,” Ostrover said: handsome, all white, a public genius, a feather.
Edelshtein discovered he was cheated, he had not examined the girl sufficiently.
He slept in the sons' room—bunk beds piled on each other. The top one was crowded with Paula's storage boxes. He rolled back and forth on the bottom, dreaming, jerking awake, again dreaming. Now and then, with a vomitous taste, he belched up the hot cocoa Paula had given him for reconciliation. Between the Baumzweigs and himself a private violence: lacking him, whom would they patronize? They were moralists, they needed someone to feel guilty over. Another belch. He abandoned his fine but uninnocent dream—young, he was kissing Alexei's cheeks like ripe peaches, he drew away . . . it was not Alexei, it was a girl, Vorovksy's niece. After the kiss she slowly tore the pages of a book until it snowed paper, black bits of alphabet, white bits of empty margin. Paula's snore traveled down the hall to him. He writhed out of bed and groped for a lamp. With it he lit up a decrepit table covered with ancient fragile model airplanes. Some had rubber-band propellers, some were papered over a skeleton of balsawood ribs. A game of Monopoly lay under a samite tissue of dust. His hand fell on two old envelopes, one already browning, and without hesitation he pulled the letters out and read them:
Today was two special holidays in one, Camp Day and Sacco and Vanzetti Day. We had to put on white shirts and white shorts and go to the casino to hear Chaver Rosenbloom talk about Sacco and Vanzetti. They were a couple of Italians who were killed for loving the poor. Chaver Rosenbloom cried, and so did Mickey but I didn't. Mickey keeps forgetting to wipe himself in the toilet but I make him.
Paula and Ben: thanks so much for the little knitted suit and the clown rattle. The box was a bit smashed in but the rattle came safe anyhow. Stevie will look adorable in his new blue suit when he gets big enough for it. He already seems to like the duck on the collar. It will keep him good and warm too. Josh has been working very hard these days preparing for a course in the American Novel and asks me to to tell you he'll write as soon as he can. We all send love, and Stevie sends a kiss for Grandma and Pa. P.S. Mickey drove down in a pink Mercedes last week. We all had quite a chat and told him he should settle down!
Heroes, martyrdom, a baby. Hatred for these letters made his eyelids quiver. Ordinariness. Everything a routine. Whatever man touches becomes banal like man. Animals don't contaminate nature. Only man the corrupter, the anti-divinity. All other species live within the pulse of nature. He despised these ceremonies and rattles and turds and kisses. The pointlessness of their babies. Wipe one generation's ass for the sake of wiping another generation's ass: this was his whole definition of civilization. He pushed back the airplanes, cleared a front patch of table with his elbow, found his pen, wrote:
Dear Niece of Vorovsky:
It is very strange to me to feel I become a Smasher, I who was born to being humane and filled with love for our darling Human Race.
But nausea for his shadowy English, which he pursued in dread, passion, bewilderment, feebleness, overcame him. He started again in his own tongue—
I am a man writing you in a room of the house of another man. He and I are secret enemies, so under his roof it is difficult to write the truth. Yet I swear to you I will speak these words with my heart's whole honesty. I do not remember either your face or your body. Vaguely your angry voice. To me you are an abstraction. I ask whether the ancients had any physical representation of the Future, a goddess Futura, so to speak. Presumably she would have blank eyes, like Justice. It is an incarnation of the Future to whom this letter is addressed. Writing to the Future one does not expect an answer. The Future is an oracle for whose voice one cannot wait in inaction. One must do to be. Although a Nihilist, not by choice but by conviction, I discover in myself an unwillingness to despise survival. Often I have spat on myself for having survived the death-camps—survived them drinking tea in New York!—but today when I heard carried on your tongue some old syllables of mine I was again wheedled into tolerance of survival. The sound of a dead language on a live girl's tongue! That baby should follow baby is God's trick on us, but surely we too can have a trick on God? If we fabricate with our syllables an immortality passed from the spines of the old to the shoulders of the young, even God cannot spite it. If the prayer-load that spilled upward from the mass graves should somehow survive! If not the thicket of lamentation itself, then the language on which it rode. Hannah, youth itself is nothing unless it keeps its promise to grow old. Grow old in Yiddish, Hannah, and carry fathers and uncles into the future with you. Do this. You, one in ten thousand maybe, who were born with the gift of Yiddish in your mouth, the alphabet of Yiddish in your palm, don't make ash of these!
A little while ago there were twelve million people—not including babies—who lived inside this tongue, and now what is left? A language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths, and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms. The rest jabber Russian, English, Spanish, God knows what. Fifty years ago my mother lived in Russia and spoke only broken Russian, but her Yiddish was like silk. In Israel they give the language of Solomon to machinists. Rejoice—in Solomon's time what else did the mechanics speak? Yet whoever forgets Yiddish courts amnesia of history. Mourn—the forgetting has already happened. A thousand years of our travail forgotten. Here and there a word left for vaudeville jokes. Yiddish, I call on you to choose! Yiddish! Choose death or death. Which is to say death through forgetting or death through translation. Who will redeem you? What act of salvation will restore you? All you can hope for, you tattered, you withered, is translation in America! Hannah, you have a strong mouth, made to carry the future—
But he knew he lied, lied, lied. A truthful intention is not enough. Oratory and declamation. A speech. A lecture. He felt himself an obscenity. What did the death of Jews have to do with his own troubles? His cry was ego and more ego. His own stew, foul. Whoever mourns the dead mourns himself. He wanted someone to read his poems, no one could read his poems. Filth and exploitation to throw in history. As if a dumb man should blame the ears that cannot hear him.
He turned the paper over and wrote in big letters:
and went down the corridor with it in pursuit of Paula's snore. Taken without ridicule a pleasant riverside noise. Bird. More cow to the sight: the connubial bed, under his gaze, gnarled and lumped—in it this old male and this old female. He was surprised on such a cold night they slept with only one blanket, gauzy cotton. They lay like a pair of kingdoms in summer. Long ago they had been at war, now they were exhausted into downy truce. Hair all over Baumzweig. Even his leg-hairs gone white. Nightstands, a pair of them, on either side of the bed, heaped with papers, books, magazines, lampshades sticking up out of all that like figurines on a prow—the bedroom was Baumzweig's second office. Towers of back issues on the floor. On the dresser a typewriter besieged by Paula's toilet water bottles and face powder. Fragrance mixed with urinous hints. Edelshtein went on looking at the sleepers. How reduced they seemed, each breath a little demand for more, more, more, a shudder of jowls; how they heaved a knee, a thumb; the tiny blue veins all over Paula's neck. Her nightgown was stretched away and he saw that her breasts had dropped sidewise and, though still very fat, hung in pitiful creased bags of mole-dappled skin. Baumzweig wore only his underwear: his thighs were full of picked sores.
He put Edelshtein Gone between their heads. Then he took it away—on the other side was his real message: secret enemies. He folded the sheet inside his coat pocket and squeezed into his shoes. Cowardly. Pity for breathing carrion. All pity is self-pity. Goethe on his deathbed: more light!
In the street he felt liberated. A voyager. Snow was still falling, though more lightly than before, a night-colored blue. A veil of snow revolved in front of him, turning him around. He stumbled into a drift, a magnificent bluish pile slanted upward. Wetness pierced his feet like a surge of cold blood. Beneath the immaculate lifted slope he struck stone—the stair of a stoop. He remembered his old home, the hill of snow behind the study-house, the smoky fire, his father swaying nearly into the black fire and chanting, one big duck, the stupid one, sliding on the ice. His mother's neck too was finely veined and secretly, sweetly, luxuriantly odorous. Deeply and gravely he wished he had worn galoshes—no one reminds a widower. His shoes were infernos of cold, his toes dead blocks. Himself the only life in the street, not even a cat. The veil moved against him, turning, and beat on his pupils. Along the curb cars squatted under humps of snow, blue-backed tortoises. Nothing moved in the road. His own house was far, Vorovsky's nearer, but he could not read the street sign. A building with a canopy. Vorovsky's hat. He made himself very small, small as a mouse, and curled himself up in the fur of it. To be very, very little and to live in a hat. A little wild creature in a burrow. Inside warm, a mound of seeds nearby, licking himself for cleanliness, all sorts of weather leaping down. His glasses fell from his face and with an odd tiny crack hit the lid of a garbage can. He took off one glove and felt for them in the snow. When he found them he marveled at how the frames burned. Suppose a funeral on a night like this, how would they open the earth? His glasses were slippery as icicles when he put them on again. A crystal spectrum delighted him, but he could not see the passageway, or if there was a canopy. What he wanted from Vorovsky was Hannah.
There was no elevator. Vorovsky lived on the top floor, very high up. From his windows you could look out and see people so tiny they became patterns. It was a different building, not this one. He went down three fake-marble steps and saw a door. It was open: inside was a big black room knobby with baby carriages and tricycles. He smelled wet metal like a toothpain: life! Peretz tells how on a bitter night a Jew outside the window envied peasants swigging vodka in a hovel—friends in their prime and warm before the fire. Carriages and tricycles, instruments of Diaspora. Baumzweig with his picked sores was once also a baby. In the Diaspora the birth of a Jew increases nobody's population, the death of a Jew has no meaning. Anonymous. To have died among the martyrs—solidarity at least, a passage into history, one of the marked ones, kiddush ha-shem.—A telephone on the wall. He pulled off his glasses, all clouded over, and took out a pad with numbers in it and dialed.
“Who is this?”
“Yankel Ostrover, the writer, or Pisher Ostrover the plumber?”
“What do you want?”
“To leave evidence,” Edelshtein howled.
“Never mind! Make an end! Who's there?”
“Who is this?—Mendel, it's you?”
“That toenail? Please. Trust me.”
“Fall into a hole!”
“This is how a man addresses his Redeemer?”
“It's five o'clock in the morning! What do you want? Bum! Lunatic! Cholera! Black year! Plague! Poisoner! Strangler!”
“You think you'll last longer than your shroud, Ostrover? Your sentences are an abomination, your style is like a pump, a pimp has a sweeter tongue—”
“Angel of Death!”
He dialed Vorovsky but there was no answer.
The snow had turned white as the white of an eye. He wandered toward Hannah's house, though he did not know where she lived, or what her name was, or whether he had ever seen her. On the way he rehearsed what he would say to her. But this was not satisfactory, he could lecture but not speak into a face. He bled to retrieve her face. He was in pursuit of her, she was his destination. Why? What does a man look for, what does he need? What can a man retrieve? Can the future retrieve the past? And if retrieve, how redeem? His shoes streamed. Each step was a pond. The herons in spring, red-legged. Secret eyes they have: the eyes of birds—frightening. Too open. The riddle of openness. His feet poured rivers. Cold, cold.
Little old man in the cold,
come hop up on the stove,
your wife will give you a crust with jam.
Thank you, muse, for this little psalm.
He belched. His stomach was unwell. Indigestion? A heart attack? He wiggled the fingers of his left hand: though frozen they tingled. Heart. Maybe only ulcer. Cancer, like Mireleh? In a narrow bed he missed his wife. How much longer could he expect to live? An unmarked grave. Who would know he had ever been alive? He had no descendants, his grandchildren were imaginary. O my unborn grandson. . . . Hackneyed. Un-grandfathered ghost. . . . Too baroque. Simplicity, purity, truthfulness.
You made no impression on me. When I wrote you before at Baumzweig's I lied. I saw you for a second in a public place, so what? Holding a Yiddish book. A young face on top of a Yiddish book. Nothing else. For me this is worth no somersault. Ostrover's vomit!—that popularizer, vulgarian, panderer to people who have lost the memory of peoplehood. A thousand times a pimp. Your uncle Chaim said about you: “She writes.” A pity on his judgment. Writes! Writes! Potatoes in a sack! Another one! What do you write? When will you write? How will you write? Either you'll become an editor of Good Housekeeping, or, if serious, join the gang of so-called Jewish novelists. I've sniffed them all, I'm intimate with their smell. Satirists they call themselves. Picking at their crotches. What do they know, I mean of knowledge? To satirize you have to know something. In a so-called novel by a so-called Jewish novelist (“activist-existential”—listen, I understand, I read everything!)—Elkin, Stanley, to keep to only one example—the hero visits Williamsburg to contact a so-called “miracle rabbi.” Even the word rabbi ! No, listen—to me, a descendant of the Vilna Gaon myself, the guter yid is a charlatan and his chasidim are victims, never mind if willing or not. But that's not the point. You have to KNOW SOMETHING! At least the difference between a rav and a rebbeh! At least a pinteleh here and there! Otherwise where's the joke, where's the satire, where's the mockery? American-born! An ignoramus mocks only himself. Jewish novelists! Savages! The allrightnik's children, all they know is to curse the allrightnik! Their Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole vocabulary! And when they give a try at phonetic rendition! Darling God! If they had mothers and fathers, they crawled out of the swamps. Their grandparents were tree-squirrels if that's how they held their mouths. They know ten words for, excuse me, penis, and when it comes to a word for learning they're impotent!
Joy, Joy! He felt himself on the right course at last. Daylight was coming, a yellow elephant rocked silently by in the road. A little light burned eternally on its tusk. He let it slide past, he stood up to the knees in the river at home, whirling with joy. He wrote:
But this great thick word, Truth!, was too harsh, oaken; with his finger in the snow he crossed it out.
I was saying: indifference. I'm indifferent to you and your kind. Why should I think you're another species, something better? Because you knew a shred of a thread of a poem of mine? Ha! I was seduced by my own vanity. I have a foolish tendency to make symbols out of glimpses. My poor wife, peace on her, used to ridicule me for this. Riding in the subway once I saw a beautiful child, a boy about twelve. A Puerto Rican, dusky, yet he had cheeks like pomegranates, I once knew, in Kiev, a child who looked like that. I admit to it. A portrait under the skin of my eyes. The love of a man for a boy. Why not confess it? Is it against the nature of man to rejoice in beauty? “This is to be expected with a childless man”—my wife's verdict. That what I wanted was a son. Take this as a complete explanation: if an ordinary person cannot
The end of the sentence flew like a leaf out of his mind . . . it was turning into a quarrel with Mireleh. Who quarrels with the dead? He wrote:
Esteemed Alexei Yosifovitch:
You remain. You remain. An illumination. More than my own home, nearer than my mother's mouth. Nimbus. Your father slapped my father. You were never told. Because I kissed you on the green stairs. The shadow-place on the landing where I once saw the butler scratch his pants. They sent us away shamed. My father and I, into the mud.
Again a lie. Never near the child. Lying is like a vitamin, it has to fortify everything. Only through the doorway, looking, looking. The gleaming face: the face of flame. Or would test him on verb-forms: kal, nifal, piel, pual, hifil, hofal, hispael. On the afternoons the Latin tutor came, crouched outside the threshold, Edelshtein heard ego, mei, mihi, me, me. May may. Beautiful foreign nasal chant of riches. Latin! Dirty from the lips of idolators. An apostate family. Edelshtein and his father took their coffee and bread, but otherwise lived on boiled eggs: the elder Kirilov one day brought home with him the mashgiach from the Jewish poorhouse to testify to the purity of the servants' kitchen, but to Edelshtein's father the whole house was treyf, the mashgiach himself a hired impostor. Who would oversee the overseer? Among the Kirilovs with their lying name money was the best overseer. Money saw to everything. Though they had their particular talent. Mechanical. Alexei Y. Kirilov, engineer. Bridges, towers. Consultant to Cairo. Builder of the Aswan Dam, assistant to Pharoah for the latest Pyramid. To set down such a fantasy about such an important Soviet brain . . . poor little Alexei, Avremeleh, I'll jeopardize your position in life, little corpse of Babi Yar.
Only focus. Hersh! Scion of the Vilna Gaon! Prince of rationality! Pay attention!
The gait—the prance, the hobble—of Yiddish is not the same as the gait of English. A big headache for a translator probably. In Yiddish you use more words than in English. Nobody believes it but it's true. Another big problem is form. The moderns take the old forms and fill them up with mockery, love, drama, satire, etc. Plenty of play. But STILL THE SAME OLD FORMS, conventions left over from the last century even. It doesn't matter who denies this, out of pride: it's true. Pour in symbolism, impressionism, be complex, be subtle, be daring, take risks, break your teeth—whatever you do, it still comes out Yiddish. Mamaloshen doesn't produce Wastelands. No alienation, no nihilism, no dadaism. With all the suffering no smashing! No INCOHERENCE! Keep the latter in mind, Hannah, if you expect to make progress. Also: please remember that when a goy from Columbus, Ohio, says “Elijah the Prophet” he's not talking about Eliohu hanovi. Eliohu is one of us, a folksmensh, running around in secondhand clothes. Theirs is God knows what. The same biblical figure, with exactly the same history, once he puts on a name from King James, COMES OUT A DIFFERENT PERSON. Life, history, hope, tragedy, they don't come out even. They talk Bible Lands, with us it's eretz yisroel. A misfortune.
Astonished, he struck up against a kiosk. A telephone! On a street corner! He had to drag the door open, pulling a load of snow. Then he squeezed inside. His fingers were sticks. Never mind the pad, he forgot even where the pocket was. In his coat? Jacket? Pants? With one stick he dialed Vorovsky's number: from memory.
“This is Ostrover.”
“Ostrover! Why Ostrover? What are you doing there? I want Vorovsky.”
“I thought so. A persecution, what is this? I could send you to jail for tricks like before—”
“Quick, give me Vorovsky.”
“I'll give you.”
“Vorovsky's not home?”
“How do I know if Vorovsky's home? It's dawn, go ask Vorovsky!”
Edelshtein grew weak: “I called the wrong number.”
“Hersheleh, if you want some friendly advice you'll listen to me. I can get you jobs at fancy out-of-town country clubs, Miami Florida included, plenty of speeches your own style, only what they need is rational lecturers not lunatics. If you carry on like tonight you'll lose what you have.”
“I don't have anything.”
“Accept life, Edelshtein.”
“Dead man, I appreciate your guidance.”
“Yesterday I heard from Hollywood, they're making a movie from one of my stories. So now tell me again who's dead.”
“The puppet the ventriloquist holds in his lap. A piece of log. It's somebody else's language and the dead doll sits there.”
“Wit, you want them to make movies in Yiddish now?”
“In Talmud if you save a single life it's as if you saved the world. And if you save a language? Worlds maybe. Galaxies. The whole universe.”
“Hersheleh, the God of the Jews made a mistake when he didn't have a son, it would be a good occupation for you.”
“Instead I'll be an extra in your movie. If they shoot the shtetl on location in Kansas send me expense money. I'll come and be local color for you. I'll put on my shtreiml and walk around, the people should see a real Jew. For ten dollars more I'll even speak mamaloshen.”
Ostrover said, “It doesn't matter what you speak, envy sounds the same in all languages.”
Edelshtein said, “Once there was a ghost who thought he was still alive. You know what happened to him? He got up one morning and began to shave and he cut himself. And there was no blood. No blood at all. And he still didn't believe it, so he looked in the mirror to see. And there was no reflection, no sign of himself. He wasn't there. But he still didn't believe it, so he began to scream, but there was no sound, no sound at all—”
There was no sound from the telephone. He let it dangle and rock.
He looked for the pad. Diligently he consulted himself: pants cuffs have a way of catching necessary objects. The number had fallen out of his body. Off his skin. He needed Vorovsky because he needed Hannah. Worthwhile maybe to telephone Baumzweig for Vorovsky's number, Paula could look it up—Baumzweig's number he knew by heart, no mistake. He had singled out his need. Svengali, Pygmalion, Rasputin, Dr. (jokes aside) Frankenstein. What does it require to make a translator? A secondary occupation. Parasitic. But your own creature. Take this girl Hannah and train her. His alone. American-born but she had the advantage over him, English being no worm on her palate; also she could read his words in the original. Niece of a vanquished mind—still, genes are in reality God, and if Vorovsky had a little talent for translation why not the niece?—Or the other. Russia. The one in the Soviet Union who wrote two stanzas in Yiddish. In Yiddish! And only twenty! Born 1948, same year they made up to be the Doctors' Plot, Stalin already very busy killing Jews, Markish, Kvitko, Kushnirov, Hofshtein, Mikhoels, Sus-skin, Bergelson, Feffer, Gradzenski with the wooden leg. All slaughtered. How did Yiddish survive in the mouth of that girl? Nurtured in secret. Taught by an obsessed grandfather, a crazy uncle: Marranos. The poem reprinted, as they say, in the West. (The West! If a Jew says “the West,” he sounds like an imbecile. In a puddle what's West, what's East?) Flowers, blue sky, she yearns for the end of winter: very nice. A zero, and received like a prodigy! An aberration! A miracle! Because composed in the lost tongue. As if some Neapolitan child suddenly begins to prattle in Latin. Not the same. Little verses merely. Death confers awe. Russian: its richness, directness. For “iron” and “weapon” the same word. A thick language, a world-language. He visualized himself translated into Russian, covertly, by the Marranos' daughter. To be circulated, in typescript, underground: to be read, read!
Understand me, Hannah—that our treasure-tongue is derived from strangers means nothing. 90 per cent German roots, 10 per cent Slavic: irrelevant. The Hebrew take for granted without percentages. We are a people who have known how to forge the language of need out of the language of necessity. Our reputation among ourselves as a nation of scholars is mostly empty. In actuality we are a mob of working people, laborers, hewers of wood, believe me. Leivik, our chief poet, was a housepainter. Today all pharmacists, lawyers, accountants, haberdashers, but tickle the lawyer and you'll see his grandfather sawed wood for a living. That's how it is with us. Nowadays the Jew is forgetful, everybody with a profession, every Jewish boy a professor—justice seems less urgent. Most don't realize this quiet time is only another Interim. Always, like in a terrible Wagnerian storm, we have our interludes of rest. So now. Once we were slaves, now we are free men, remember the bread of affliction. But listen. Whoever cries Justice! is a liberated slave. Whoever honors Work is a liberated slave. They accuse Yiddish literature of sentimentality in this connection. Very good, true. True, so be it! A dwarf at a sewing machine can afford a little loosening of the heart. I return to Leivik. He could hang wallpaper. I once lived in a room he papered—yellow vines. Rutgers Street that was. A good job, no bubbles, no peeling. This from a poet of very morbid tendencies. Mani Leib fixed shoes. Moishe Leib Halpern was a waiter, once in a while a handyman. I could tell you the names of twenty poets of very pure expression who were operators, pressers, cutters. In addition to fixing shoes Mani Leib was also a laundryman. I beg you not to think I'm preaching Socialism. To my mind politics is dung. What I mean is something else: Work is Work, and Thought is Thought. Politics tries to mix these up, Socialism especially. The language of a hard-pressed people works under the laws of purity, dividing, the Commanded from the Profane. I remember one of my old teachers. He used to take attendance every day and he gave his occupation to the taxing council as “attendance-taker”—so that he wouldn't be getting paid for teaching Torah. This with five pupils, all living in his house and fed by his wife! Call it splitting a hair if you want, but it's the hair of a head that distinguished between the necessary and the merely needed. People who believe that Yiddish is, as they like to say, “richly intermixed,” and that in Yiddishkeit the presence of the Covenant, of Godliness, inhabits humble things and humble words, are under a delusion or a deception. The slave knows exactly when he belongs to God and when to the oppressor. The liberated slave who is not forgetful and can remember when he himself was an artifact, knows exactly the difference between God and an artifact. A language also knows whom it is serving at each moment. I am feeling very cold right now. Of course you see that when I say liberated I mean self-liberated. Moses not Lincoln, not Franz Josef. Yiddish is the language of auto-emancipation. Theodor Herzl wrote in German but the message spread in mamaloshen—my God cold. Naturally the important thing is to stick to what you learned as a slave including language, and not to speak their language, otherwise you will become like them, acquiring their confusion between God and artifact and consequently their taste for making slaves, both of themselves and others.
Slave of rhetoric! This is the trouble when you use God for a Muse. Philosophers, thinkers—all cursed. Poets have it better: most are Greeks and pagans, unbelievers except in natural religion, stones, stars, body. This cube and cell. Ostrover had already sentenced him to jail, little booth in the vale of snow; black instrument beeped from a gallows. The white pad—something white—on the floor. Edelshtein bent for it and struck his jaw. Through the filth of the glass doors morning rose out of the dark. He saw what he held:
all of us are humans together
but some humans-should drop dead.
do you feel this?
if so call TR 5-2530 if you want to
know whether you will survive in
christ' five-day inexpensive
practiced free free
(please no atheists or crank calls
we are sincere scientific soul-sociologists)
ask for rose or lou
we love you
He was touched and curious, but withdrawn. The cold lit him unfamiliarly: his body a brilliant hollowness, emptied of organs, cleansed of debris, the inner flanks of him perfect lit glass. A clear chalice. Of small change he had only a nickel and a dime. For the dime he could CALL TR-5-2530 and take advice appropriate to his immaculateness, his transparency. Rose or Lou. He had no satire for their love. How manifold and various the human imagination. The simplicity of an ascent lured him, he was alert to the probability of levitation but disregarded it. The disciples of Reb Moshe of Kobryn also disregarded feats in opposition to nature—they had no awe for their master when he hung in air, but when he slept—the miracle of his lung, his breath, his heartbeat! He lurched from the booth into rushing daylight. The depth of snow sucked off one of his shoes. The serpent too prospers without feet, so he cast off his and weaved on. His arms, particularly the hands, particularly those partners of mind his fingers, he was sorry to lose. He knew his eyes, his tongue, his stinging loins. He was again tempted to ascend. The hillock was profound. He outwitted it by creeping through it, he drilled patiently into the snow. He wanted to stand then but without legs could not. Indolently he permitted himself to rise. He went only high enough to see the snowy sidewalks, the mounds in gutters and against stoops, the beginning of business time. Lifted light. A doorman fled out of a building wearing earmuffs, pulling a shovel behind him like a little tin cart. Edelshtein drifted no higher than the man's shoulders. He watched the shovel pierce the snow, tunneling down, but there was no bottom, the earth was without foundation.
He came under a black wing. He thought it was the first blindness of Death but it was only a canopy.
The doorman went on digging under the canopy; under the canopy Edelshtein tasted wine and felt himself at a wedding, his own, the canopy covering his steamy gold eyeglasses made blind by Mireleh's veil. Four beings held up the poles: one his wife's cousin the postman, one his own cousin the druggist; two poets. The first poet was a beggar who lived on institutional charity—Baumzweig; the second, Silverman, sold ladies' elastic stockings, the kind for varicose veins. The postman and the druggist were still alive, only one of them retired. The poets were ghosts, Baumzweig picking at himself in bed also a ghost, Silverman was long dead, more than twenty years—lideleh-shreiber they called him, he wrote for the popular theater. “Song to Steerage”: Steerage, steerage, I remember the crowds, the rags we took with us we treated like shrouds, we tossed them away when we spied out the shore, going re-born through the Golden Door. . . . Even on Second Avenue 1905 was already stale, but it stopped the show, made fevers, encores, tears, yells. Golden sidewalks. America the bride, under her fancy gown nothing. Poor Silverman, in love with the Statue of Liberty's lifted arm, what did he do in his life beside raise up a post at an empty wedding, no progeny?
The doorman dug out a piece of statuary, an urn with a stone wreath.
Under the canopy Edelshtein recognized it. Sand, butts, a half-naked angel astride the wreath. Once Edelshtein saw a condom in it. Found! Vorovsky's building. There is no God, yet who brought him here if not the King of the Universe? Not so bad off after all, even in a snowstorm he could find his way, an expert, he knew one block from another in this desolation of a world.
He carried his shoe into the elevator like a baby, an orphan, a redemption. He could kiss even a shoe.
In the corridor laughter, toilets flushing; coffee stabbed him.
He rang the bell.
From behind Vorovsky's door, laughter, laughter!
No one came.
He rang again. No one came. He banged. “Chaim, crazy man, open up!” No one came. “A dead man from the cold knocks, you don't come? Hurry up, open, I'm a stick of ice, you want a dead man at your door? Mercy! Pity! Open up!”
No one came.
He listened to the laughter. It had a form; a method, rather; some principle, closer to physics than music, of arching up and sinking back. Inside the shape barks, howls, dogs, wolves, wilderness. After each fright a crevice to fall into. He made an anvil of his shoe and took the doorknob for an iron hammer and thrust. He thrust, thrust. The force of an iceberg.
Close to the knob a panel bulged and cracked. Not his fault. On the other side someone was unused to the lock.
He heard Vorovsky but saw Hannah.
She said: “What?”
“You don't remember me? I'm the one what recited to you tonight my work from several years past, I was passing by in your uncle's neighborhood—”
“What, a fit?”
“All night. I've been here the whole night. The whole night—”
“Let me in.”
“Please go away. I just told you.”
“In. What's the matter with you? I'm sick myself, I'm dead from cold! Hey, Chaim! Lunatic, stop it!”
Vorovsky was on his belly on the floor, stifling his mouth with a pillow as if it were a stone, knocking his head down on it, but it was no use, the laughter shook the pillow and came yelping out, not muffled but increased, darkened. He laughed and said “Hannah” and laughed.
Edelshtein took a chair and dragged it near Vorovsky and sat. The room stank, a subway latrine.
“Stop,” he said.
“All right, merriment, very good, be happy. You're warm, I'm cold. Have mercy, little girl—tea. Hannah. Boil it up hot. Pieces of flesh drop from me.” He heard that he was speaking Yiddish, so he began again for her. “I'm sorry. Forgive me. A terrible thing to do. I was lost outside, I was looking, so now I found you, I'm sorry.”
“It isn't a good time for a visit, that's all.”
“Bring some tea also for your uncle.”
“He can maybe, let him try. Someone who laughs like this is ready for a feast —flanken, tsimmis, rosselfleysh—” In Yiddish he said, “In the world-to-come people dance at parties like this, all laughter, joy. The day after the Messiah people laugh like this.”
Vorovsky laughed and said “Messiah” and sucked the pillow, spitting. His face was a flood: tears ran upside down into his eyes, over his forehead, saliva sprang in puddles around his ears. He was spitting,, crying, burbling, he gasped, wept, spat. His eyes were bloodshot, the whites showed likes slashes, wounds; he still wore his hat. He laughed, he was still laughing. His pants were wet, the fly open, now and then seeping. He dropped the pillow for the tea and ventured a sip, with his tongue, like an animal full of hope—vomit rolled up with the third swallow and he laughed between spasms, he was still laughing, stinking, a sewer.
Edelshtein took pleasure in the tea, it touched him to the root, more gripping on his bowel than the coffee that stung the hall. He praised himself with no meanness, no bitterness: prince of rationality! Thawing, he said, “Give him schnapps, he can hold schnapps, no question.”
“He drank and he vomited.”
“Chaim, little soul,” Edelshtein said, “what started you off? Myself. I was there. I said it, I said graves, I said smoke. I'm the responsible one. Death. Death, I'm the one who said it. Death you laugh at, you're no coward.”
“If you want to talk business with my uncle come another time.”
“Death is business?”
Now he examined her. Born 1945, in the hour of the death camps. Not selected. Immune. The whole way she held herself looked immune—by this he meant American. Still, an exhausted child, straggled head, remarkable child to stay through the night with the madman. “Where's your mother?” he said. “Why doesn't she come to watch her brother? Why does it fall on you? You should be free, you have your own life.”
“You don't know anything about families.”
She was acute: no mother, father, wife, child, what did he know about families? He was cut off, a survivor. “I know your uncle,” he said, but without belief: in the first place Vorovsky had an education. “In his right mind your uncle doesn't want you to suffer.”
Vorovsky, laughing, said “Suffer.”
“He likes to suffer. He wants to suffer. He admires suffering. All you people want to suffer.”
Pins and needles: Edelshtein's fingertips were fevering. He stroked the heat of the cup. He could feel. He said, “‘You people’?”
“Aha. Chaim, you hear? Your niece Hannah—on the other side already, never mind she's acquainted with mamaloshen. In one generation, ‘you Jews.’ You don't like suffering? Maybe you respect it?”
“It comes from history, history is also unnecessary?”
“History's a waste.”
America the empty bride. Edelshtein said, “You're right about business. I came on business. My whole business is waste.”
Vorovsky laughed and said “Hersheleh Frog Frog Frog.”
“I think you're making him worse,” Hannah said. “Tell me what you want and I'll give him the message.”
“He's not deaf.”
“He doesn't remember afterward—”
“I have no message.”
“Then what do you want from him?”
“Nothing. I want from you.”
“Frog Frog Frog Frog Frog.”
Edelshtein finished his tea and put the cup on the floor and for the first time absorbed Vorovsky's apartment: until now Vorovsky had kept him out. It was one room, sink and stove behind a plastic curtain, bookshelves leaning over not with books but journals piled flat, a sticky table, a sofa-bed, a desk, six kitchen chairs, and along the walls seventy-five cardboard boxes which Edelshtein knew harbored two thousand copies of Vorovsky's dictionary. A pity on Vorovsky, he had a dispute with the publisher, who turned back half the printing to him. Vorovsky had to pay for two thousand German-English mathematical dictionaries, and now he had to sell them himself, but he did not know what to do, how to go about it. It was his fate to swallow what he first excreted. Because of a mishap in business he owned his life, he possessed what he was, a slave, but invisible. A hungry snake has to eat its tail all the way down to the head until it disappears.
Hannah said: “What could I do for you”—flat, not a question.
“Again ‘you.’ A distinction, a separation. What I'll ask is this: annihilate ‘you,’ annihilate ‘me.’ We'll come to an understanding, we'll get together.”
She bent for his cup and he saw her boot. He was afraid of a boot. He said mildly, nicely, “Look, your uncle tells me you're one of us. By ‘us’ he means writer, no?”
“By ‘us’ you mean Jew.”
“And you're not a Jew, meydeleh?”
“Not your kind.”
“Nowadays there have to be kinds? Good, bad, old, new—”
“Old and new.”
“All right! So let it be old and new, fine, a reasonable beginning. Let old work with new. Listen, I need a collaborator. Not exactly a collaborator, it's not even complicated like that. What I need is a translator.”
“My uncle the translator is indisposed.”
At that moment Edelshtein discovered he hated irony. He yelled,, “Not your uncle. You! You!”
Howling, Vorovsky crawled to a tower of cartons and beat on them with his bare heels. There was an alteration in his laughter, something not theatrical but of the theater—he was amused, entertained, clowns paraded between his legs.
“You'll save Yiddish,” Edelshtein said, “you'll be like a Messiah to a whole generation, a whole literature, naturally you'll have to work at it, practice, it takes knowledge, it takes a gift, a genius, a born poet—”
Hannah walked in her boots with his dirty teacup. From behind the plastic he heard the faucet. She opened the curtain and came out and said:
You old men.
Ostrover's pages you kiss!
“You jealous old men from the ghetto,” she said.
And Ostrover's young, a young prince? Listen! You don't see,, you don't follow—translate me, lift me out of the ghetto, it's my life that's hanging on you!
Her voice was a whip. “Bloodsuckers,” she said. “It isn't a translator you're after, it's, someone's soul. Too much history's drained your blood, you want someone to take you over, a dybbuk—”
“Dybbuk! Ostrover's language. All right, I need a dybbuk, I'll become a golem, I don't care, it doesn't matter! Breathe in me! Animate me! Without you I'm a clay pot!” Bereaved, he yelled, “Translate me!”
The clowns ran over Vorovsky's charmed belly.
Hannah said: “You think I have to read Ostrover in translation? You think translation has anything to do with what Ostrover is?”
Edelshtein accused her, “Who taught you to read Yiddish? What right have you to Yiddish?—A girl like that, to know the letters worthy of life and to be ignorant! ‘You Jews,’ ‘you people,’ you you you!”
“I learned, my grandfather taught me, I'm not responsible for it, I didn't go looking for it, I was smart, a golden head, same as now. But I have my own life, you said it yourself, I don't have to throw it out. So pay attention, Mr. Vampire: even in Yiddish Ostrover's not in the ghetto. Even in Yiddish he's not like you people.”
“He's not in the ghetto? Which ghetto, what ghetto? So where is he? In the sky? In the clouds? With the angels? Where?”
She meditated, she was all intelligence. “In the world,” she answered him.
“In the marketplace. A fishwife, a kochleffel, everything's his business, you he'll autograph, me he'll get jobs, he listens to everybody.”
“Whereas you people listen only to yourselves.”
In the room something was absent.
Edelshtein, pushing into his snow-damp shoe, said into the absence, “So? You're not interested?”
“Only in the mainstream. Not in your little puddles.”
“Again the ghetto. Your uncle stinks from the ghetto? Graduated, 1924, the University of Berlin, Vorovsky stinks from the ghetto? Myself, four God-given books not one living human being knows, I stink from the ghetto? God, four thousand years since Abraham hanging out with Jews, God also stinks from the ghetto?”
“Rhetoric,” Hannah said. “Yiddish literary rhetoric. That's the style.”
“Only Ostrover doesn't stink from the ghetto.”
“A question of vision.”
“Better say visions. He doesn't know real things.”
“He knows a reality beyond realism.”
“American literary babies! And in your language you don't have a rhetoric?” Edelshtein burst out. “Very good, he's achieved it, Ostrover's the world. A pantheist, a pagan, a goy.”
“That's it. You've nailed it. A Freudian, a Jungian, a sensibility. No little love stories. A contemporary. He speaks for everybody.”
“Aha. Sounds familiar already. For humanity he speaks? Humanity?”
“Humanity,” she said.
“And to speak for Jews isn't to speak for humanity? We're not human? We're not present on the face of the earth? We don't suffer? In Russia they let us live? In Egypt they don't want to murder us?”
“Suffer suffer,” she said. “I like devils best. They don't think only about themselves and they don't suffer.”
Immediately, looking at Hannah—my God, an old man, he was looking at her little waist, underneath it where the little apple of her womb was hidden away—immediately, all at once, instantaneously, he fell into a chaos, a trance, of truth, of actuality: was it possible? He saw everything in miraculous reversal,, blessed—everything plain, distinct, understandable, true. What he understood was this: that the ghetto was the real world, and the outside world only a ghetto. Because in actuality who was shut off? Who then was really buried, removed, inhabited by darkness? To whom, in what little space, did God offer Sinai? Who kept Terach and who followed Abraham? Talmud explains that when the Jews went into Exile, God went into Exile also. Babi Yar is maybe the real world, and Kiev with its German toys, New York with all its terrible intelligence, all fictions, fantasies. Unreality.
An infatuation! He was the same, all his life the same as this poisonous wild girl, he coveted mythologies, specters, animals, voices. Western Civilization his secret guilt, he was ashamed of the small tremor of his self-love, degraded by being ingrown. Alexei with his skin a furnace of desire, his trucks and trains! He longed to be Alexei. Alexei with his German toys and his Latin! Alexei whose destiny was to grow up into the world-at-large, to slip from the ghetto, to break out into engineering for Western Civilization! Alexei, I abandon you! I'm at home only in a prison, history is my prison, the ravine my house, only listen—suppose it turns out that the destiny of the Jews is vast, open, eternal, and that Western Civilization is meant to dwindle, shrivel, shrink into the ghetto of the world—what of history then? Kings, Parliaments, like insects, Presidents like vermin, their religion a row of little dolls, their art a cave smudge, their poetry a lust—Avremeleh, when you fell from the ledge over the ravine into your grave, for the first time you fell into reality.
To Hannah he said: “I didn't ask to be born into Yiddish. It came on me.”
He meant he was blessed.
“So keep it,” she said, “and don't complain.”
With the whole ferocity of his delight in it he hit her mouth. The madman again struck up his laugh. Only now was it possible to notice that something had stopped it before. A missing harp. The absence filled with bloody laughter, bits of what looked like red pimento hung in the vomit on Vorovsky's chin, the clowns fled, Vorovsky's hat with its pinnacle of fur dangled on his chest—he was spent, he was beginning to fall into the quake of sleep, he slept, he dozed, roars burst from him, he hiccuped, woke, laughed, an enormous grief settled in him, he went on napping and laughing, grief had him in its teeth.
Edelshtein's hand, the cushiony underside of it, blazed from giving the blow. “You,” he said, “you have no ideas, what are you?” A shred of learning flaked from him, what the sages said of Job ripped from his tongue like a peeling of the tongue itself, he never was, he never existed. “You were never born, you were never created!” he yelled. “Let me tell you,, a dead man tells you this, at least I had a life, at least I understood something!”
“Die,” she told him. “Die now, all you old men, what are you waiting for? Hanging on my neck, him and now you, the whole bunch of you, parasites, hurry up and die.”
His palm burned, it was the first time he had ever slapped a child. He felt like a father. Her mouth lay back naked on her face. Out of spite, against instinct, she kept her hands from the bruise—he could see the shape of her teeth, turned a little one on the other, imperfect, again vulnerable. From fury her nose streamed. He had put a bulge in her lip.
“Forget Yiddish!” he screamed at her. “Wipe it out of your brain! Extirpate it! Go get a memory operation! You have no right to it, you have no right to an uncle a grandfather! No one ever came before you, you were never born! A vacuum!”
“You old atheists,” she called after him. “You dead old socialists. Boring! You bore me to death. You hate magic, you hate imagination, you talk God and you hate God, you despise, you bore, you envy, you eat people up with your disgusting old age—cannibals, all you care about is your own youth, you're finished, give somebody else a turn!”
This held him. He leaned on the door frame. “A turn at what? I didn't offer you a turn? An opportunity of a lifetime? To be published now, in youth, in babyhood, early in life? Translated I'd be famous, this you don't understand. Hannah, listen,” he said, kindly, ingratiatingly, reasoning with her like a father, “you don't have to like my poems, do I ask you to like them? I don't ask you to like them, I don't ask you to respect them, I don't ask you to love them. A man my age, do I want a lover or a translator? Am I asking a favor? No. Look,” he said, “one thing I forgot to tell you. A business deal. That's all. Business, plain and simple. I'll pay you. You didn't think I wouldn't pay, God forbid?”
Now she covered her mouth. He wondered at his need to weep; he was ashamed.
“Hannah, please, how much? I'll pay, you'll see. Whatever you like. You'll buy anything you want. Dresses, shoes—” Gottenyu, what could such a wild beast want? “You'll buy more boots, all kinds of boots, whatever you want, books, everything—” He said relentlessly, “You'll have from me money.”
“No,” she said, “no.”
“Please. What will happen to me? What's wrong? My ideas aren't good enough? Who asks you to believe in my beliefs? I'm an old man, used up, I have nothing to say any more, anything I ever said was all imitation. Walt Whitman I used to like. Also John Donne. Poets, masters. We, what have we got? A Yiddish Keats? Never—” He was ashamed, so he wiped his cheeks with both sleeves. “Business. I'll pay you,” he said.
“Because I hit you? Forgive me, I apologize. I'm crazier than he is, I should be locked up for it—”
“Not because of that.”
“Then why not? Meydeleh, why not? What harm would it do you? Help out an old man.”
She said desolately, “You don't interest me. I would have to be interested.”
“I see. Naturally.” He looked at Vorovsky. “Goodbye, Chaim, regards from Aristotle. What distinguishes men from the beasts is the power of ha-ha-ha. So good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Be well. Chaim, live until a hundred and twenty. The main thing is health.”
In the street it was full day, and he was warm from the tea. The road glistened, the sidewalks. Paths, crisscrossed in unexpected places, sleds clanged, people ran. A drugstore was open and he went in to telephone Baumzweig: he dialed, but on the way he skipped a number, heard an iron noise like a weapon, and had to dial again. “Paula,” he practiced, “I'll come back for a while, all right? For breakfast maybe,” but instead he changed his mind and decided to CALL TR 5-2530. At the other end of the wire it was either Rose or Lou. Edelshtein told the eunuch's voice, “I believe with you about some should drop dead. Pharoah, Queen Isabella, Haman, that pogromchik King Louis they call in history Saint, Hitler, Stalin, Nasser—” The voice said, “You're a Jew?” It sounded Southern but somehow not Negro—maybe because schooled, polished: “Accept Jesus as your Saviour and you shall have Jerusalem restored.” “We already got it,” Edelshtein said. Meshiachtseiten ! “The terrestrial Jerusalem has no significance. Earth is dust. The Kingdom of God is within. Christ released man from Judaic exclusivism.” “Who's excluding who?” Edelshtein said. “Christianity is Judaism universalized. Jesus is Moses publicized for ready availability. Our God is the God of Love, your Gad is the God of Wrath. Look how He abandoned you in Auschwitz.” “It wasn't only God who didn't notice.” “You people are cowards, you never even tried to defend yourselves. You got a wide streak of yellow, you don't know how to hold a gun.” “Tell it to the Egyptians,” Edelshtein said. “Everyone you come into contact with turns into your enemy. When you were in Europe every nation despised you. When you moved to take over the Middle East the Arab Nation, spic faces like your own, your very own blood-kin, began to hate you. You are a bone in the throat of all mankind.” “Who gnaws at bones? Dogs and rats only.” “Even your food habits are abnormal, against the grain of quotidian delight. You refuse to seethe a lamb in the milk of its mother. You will not eat a fertilized egg because it has a spot of blood on it. When you wash your hands you chant. You pray in a debased jargon, not in the beautiful sacramental English of our Holy Bible.” Edelshtein said, “That's right, Jesus spoke the King's English.” “Even now, after the good Lord knows how many years in America, you talk with a kike accent. You kike, you Yid.” Edelshtein shouted into the telephone, “Amalekite! Titus! Nazi! The whole world is infected by you anti-Semites! On account of you children become corrupted! On account of you I lost everything, my whole life! On account of you I have no translator!”