Commentary Magazine


Land Without Jews

The Republic of Haiti was a land without Jews except in myth and memory. There was no congregation and no cemetery, but there were a few visitors. There were some visiting American Jews, two Israelis. There was no community, no rabbi, no shared life—this lack was nothing strange to me. I had lived all my life with no Jewish community, no Jewish leadership except habits dimly revealed in my family, no religious life. These habits, and their presence in my father and mother, must have given me the connection with the past we all need to survive. My father was a man mysterious to me, though reconciliation is a kind of understanding and we reconciled. An avenue of blood was my link with history, and as I came back to him in time, I also go forward with my children into the history of the future.

The barrenness of history without connection became as demanding as hunger or thirst. In Haiti I began to search for the Jew in myself, and it began as something little more than a fantastic paradox—to find Jews in the land without Jews. Even in this desolate Caribbean island, suffering from so much poverty and isolation, its Christianity smudged over by voodoo, there remained an imagination of Jews; for me and, as I learned, for others.

In the rank, oily harbor of Port-au-Prince glistening black boys dived for coins, frantically turning like playful dolphins for the pleasure of the tour ships. The smoke of charcoal fires lay over the white heap of a city built on hills like Naples, Haifa, and San Francisco. The lizards played up walls and across ceilings, darting after flies. Beneath the surface, the town was sleepily insomniac, drinking coffee and rum-cola to stay awake, but to see it as a tourist was to see frantic commerce, subtle sexual gaming, a struggle to stay alive and feel vivid in the heat.

What was I doing in Haiti? The traditional or curriculum-vitae answer would be: interested in the meeting of France and Africa, lecturing about literature under U.S. study grant. The oedipal or psychoanalytic answer would be: bored with marriage, desiring to break the habit of suburbia, wishing to ease wife’s spirit by providing distraction and cheap servants. The deepest answer is that my childhood dreams are always with me. I can fly. I can find perfect love. I can do what I choose to do, be what I choose to be. In the hunt for buried treasure (in which I nearly died of malarial jaundice), in adventures among white magic, black magic, and harsh strangers, I could discover the possibilities of that harsh stranger which was my self. And following along, grinning at me with big teeth, was the devil of a question from my earliest childhood: What is a Jew and why am I this thing?

Stand far from it, stand close. No matter; answer the question. I sought the answer along with power, love, and riches. Those things would do until the truth came along.

I shipped out as a scholar assigned to the Université d’Haiti. The school of music in those days of 1954 consisted of one professor, a Cuban guitarist whose sister was the “petite amie” of the Président de la République. The university was a complex of termite-ridden wooden buildings, barracks, and gingerbread houses, but Haiti had an adequate medical school and of course the usual crowded school of law required by French tradition. There was a steady stream of anthropologists come to study voodoo, village culture, and the marketing system. In the countryside, another synonym for white man was “anthropologue,” just as a Haitian educated abroad was known in Creole as “oun masters-of,” indicating that he was no doubt a Master of Something-or-other from Columbia University. I happened to be a white master-of.

Haiti divided the peoples of the world into three races—black, mulatto, and white. An occasional Oriental visitor was just another rich white man. The real and practical social discord, between black and mulatto, was oddly played against an abstract historical world warfare between Haiti and everyone else outside. A few Haitians believed, as did one of my friends among the coffee-drinkers of the Cénacle des Philosophes in the village of Kenscoff: “Haiti is the third force. After the United States and Russia destroy civilization, Haiti will make peace between them.”

“Ah!” said Monsieur Bonfils, single pedagogical finger uplifted. “Perhaps with the aid of China!”

I discovered an odd new condition in Haiti. I was first of all a white man without qualification. Coddled or resented, teased or accepted, I was a member of the group called “blancs,” a name which included all foreigners. Nothing is pure on this earth, of course, and even black Americans—foreign is dominant—were commonly called “blancs.” And a rich black Haitian was often transformed by Haitian optical nerves into a mulatto or a “griffon” or one of the hundred-odd other classifications for someone with mixed blood and complicated skin, nose, hair, lips. And money.

The dentist, the market woman, the Haitian bureaucrats were missing something in their definition of me as white like all other whites. But there was no Jewish community, no Jewish life. Even the most primary and final sign of Jewish history, as of all histories, was lacking—no Jewish cemetery, no Jewish place in a cemetery. A Jew might run and hide, history is full of that, but the cemetery remains, or the place where the cemetery once stood, or the memory of that place. None. No graveyard, no place, no memory of a place which never was. And yet, as it happened, even here, in this lovely, forsaken corner of the world, Jews had come out of hope, desperation, and in one case at least, perhaps simple curiosity.

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Before I found the traces of Jewry, I found the anti-Semites, refugees from their crimes, a Gestapo informer from Paris who became my good friend and companion (“Get me into the States, can’t you? Surely you can!”), and a Pétainist colonel in exile. Odd to meet the evidence of my own history first in the form of its enemy, the fascist exiles biting their nails, biding their time in a backwater of time. And then I found Haitians like my friend Jean Berlin, a handsome engineer and traveler, tall as a Watusi, with a cackling hysterical laugh when he described the origin of his distinguished Roman Catholic family: “Berlin! A Jew from Berlin came here to trade in coffee! He left a family of brown coffee merchants in Jacmel, in Jeremie, and another wife here in Port-au-Prince, and now Bairlin is a fine old Gallic name for a family croyant et bien-pensant, all of us married in the cathedral. I’m the only one who tells the truth, my friend.”

He knew nothing of being Jewish except that his rebellion against the conservative old family consisted in saying. Yes I am. I am! As sign of the double view of knowledge he urged his son to convert—“Too late for me,” he said—to Protestantism.

Through my friend Berlin I met an accountant, a morose black man with a degree from a school of business in Philadelphia and a mania for recounting the days of his persecution there. Restaurants, doormen, professors, women had all treated him like a Negro—“Moi qui est Haitien!” he cried. Except in the purgatory of Philadelphia, he despised Haiti, the peasantry, and the Jews; and his name was Cohen. When he confided one evening that the Jews are at the root of all the trouble in Haiti and the world, I said to him what an American or a European would have known without being told: I am a Jew. He looked at me blankly through his red-rimmed eyes, as if he had never seen one before. “And you, with your name,” I said.

“My grandfather came from Jamaica!” he shouted.

“You must have had a Jewish grandfather in there someplace,” I said.

“You’re making that up! . . . How did you know?”

“Cohen.”

“Cohen?” he asked. To him Cohen was the name of a Catholic Haitian accountant. I explained that the Cohanim were priests and he was descended from priests and princes.

“Priests don’t have children,” he said irritably.

“Do you really think Jews caused all the trouble in Haiti?” I asked.

“No, not all,” he said, “but the wars, the world wars, they touch us, too.”

There was a secret black ledger between his consciousness that he had a Jewish ancestor and his desire to provide an explanation for trouble and sin in the world. I could torture him with facts, brutalize him with my own history, but I could never change his accounting and put Cohen, the Haitian accountant, in touch with Cohen, the man with an ancestor who did not start the line in Jamaica. He had horn-rimmed glasses, owlish eyes with reddened conjunctiva, pock-marked black skin, and a Jew-hating heart which was only stopped a moment from its need by the information, which he knew already, that his name meant something grave in his past. He was not descended from an infinite line of Jamaican mulattoes. Someplace back there in the accountant’s genes wandered a Jew.

“Priests don’t have children,” he mumbled, “but of course princes do. That’s just a theory you have, however. I studied the Jews very carefully in Jamaica and Philadelphia.”

“If you knew more about the troubles of the world,” I told him, “you’d be safer from them.”

J’en ai eu, des difficultés.”

“Try to learn what they come from.”

Not safe, but safer. I didn’t add the maybe which would only confuse a black Roman Catholic Cohen in search of clear definitions.

There were others like him, of course, good Mass-going Haitians with names like Goldenberg or Weiner or with Sephardic names. The legend of Jewish ancestry might make some of them giggle, but it was even more fantastic and unreal than the feudal French names of other Haitians. The Duc de Marmalade was one of the courtiers of the mad emperor Faustin Soulouque, and the hamlet of Marmalade, reachable by burro, still exists in the jungle center of Haiti. Faustin the First (there was no second or other) named four princes, fifty-nine dukes, ninety counts, two hundred barons, three hundred and forty-six chevaliers. Later the deputies and senators also became barons. Massacre and forgetfulness have ended most of these lines.

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In Jacmel, a tiny town on the sea with an unpaved Grande Rue and traffic jams of black Haitian pigs—which are as skinny and speedy as dogs—perhaps once a week a police jeep scattered them, flailing dust—and a pension, telephones and electricity which rarely worked, the look of a spoiled African village—in this place, Jacmel, I found a Jewish tailor. There were a few of the elegant carpentered Haitian dreamhouses in Jacmel, floating above reality like a magic vision, but Monsieur Schneider lived in a dwelling only a step above the caille-paille, the country hut of mud and straw. He did his work on a hand-treadled machine out in the dusty street, his head tilted on one side to favor his good eye, his joints swollen and his body twisted by arthritis. He was old and wore hand-sewn rags, like many other Haitians, but the rags were sewn into the blurred shape of a European shirt and a suit. It was too hot for such formal etiquette. He was one of two or three white people in the town. In the air around him, like the insects and the animals—the little black Haitian pigs that ran and even barked like dogs—eddied the members of his extended family, the mixed African and Semitic, some dark and some light, children and adults, wives and grandchildren.

With no authority but our common color and my knowing his name, I spoke with him, first in English. No English, but he understood that I was asking if he was a Jew. Was I? Yes. Out. A flood of Yiddish poured out of his head. I spoke no Yiddish. He looked at me as if to doubt my sanity. A Jew I said, and spoke no Yiddish? He tried Creole. We settled on French, which he spoke in a Yiddish accent, with Creole words and phrases. He believed I was what I said I was, for otherwise what gain could there be for either of us? He was a shriveled old man, kicking amiably at the grandchildren—children?—playing about the treadles of his Singer machine. The treadle was cast with scrolls and Art Nouveau symbols in iron polished by his bare feet. To do honor to our conversation, he slipped his feet into sandals soled with sliced and shaped tires and sisal uppers.

He did not have the look of a man who asked deep questions, but he stared at me from his one good eye. “What’s a Jew—?” he asked.

I had no answer until he finished the question. “—doing in Jacmel?”

His face, shriveled against sunlight, shriveled by age, blotched and deeply freckled, looked like a dog’s muzzle. “Why is a Jew living here?” I asked him in return.

“My home,” he said. “Living? You call this a life? My wife is dead. I have another wife. My children and grandchildren.”

“Would you forgive my asking how you happened to settle in Jacmel?”

He pumped furiously at the machine. He was fixing a seam, a simple matter, but he gave it all his concentration. Then he looked up and squinted around at me. I had moved so he wouldn’t be staring into the sun and he winked at so much consideration, Jew to Jew.

“Jacmel,” he said. “And where else is there?”

Jeremie, St.-Marc, Cap Haitien, Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix—that’s all.

“Were you Polish?” I asked him.

“Russian.”

“So were my parents. Why didn’t you go to the United States?”

“Ah,” he said. “Because I wanted to learn the French and Creole languages, c’est vrai?”

Non,” I said.

“Because,”—and he spread wide his arms—“I had adventure in my heart?”

“No.”

He put down his cloth, he stood up, he was a tiny old man with one dead eye. He put his face close to mine, pulled at the lid of the dead eye as if he were pulling at a piece of excess cloth, and said, “I went to the Ellis Isle, maybe your father did too. But he didn’t have a sick eye. At that time it was infected from the trip. They sent me away. And then I wandered, no place to go, so instead of killing myself I came to Haiti.”

Stupid to be oppressed by sadness and a sick eye from a generation before I was born. “I’m sorry,” I said.

He started to laugh. It was not the dry, fearful, old-man’s Jewish laughter of my uncles in Cleveland. It was a rich, abandoned, Haitian old-man’s laughter. He clutched at his pants for luck. “You see these children? You see all the beautiful brown Schneider children in Jacmel? Many died, my wives often die, but look what I have done. I have proved God is not malevolent. He let me live, He let some of these children live. God is indifferent, but perhaps I have shown, not proved, but demonstrated that He is not malevolent.”

“If you believe, God is not evil, merely all-powerful.”

He put his face down, he reached in his pocket for a cube of sugar and held it up to my face. “If He were all-powerful, then He would be evil. He could not allow what He allows. Coffee? You like Haitian coffee? Marie!” he shouted into the caille-paille. “Café pou l’blanc!

I drank coffee with the tailor and his new wife, who said not a word as she sat with us. He sucked cubes of sugar and drank his coffee through them.

“I have a few books,” he said, “but I was never a scholar. My uncle was a rabbi, I think my brother was going to be a rabbi, but—” He shrugged. “I never found out what he became. You’re not a rabbi?”

“No.”

“It’s not so ridiculous. I heard once there are rabbis who don’t speak Yiddish.”

“I don’t speak Hebrew, either.”

“Then you couldn’t be a rabbi, could you? But you speak other languages.”

I wanted to give him answers and ask questions, but we drank coffee and made tiny conversation. We were two Jews speaking a mad polyglot in the town of Jacmel, which few people visit, even if they live in the nearby villages of Carrefour Fauche, Bassin Blue, or Bainet. Jacmel is the end of the world with a dusty street and a crowd of people. He didn’t offer to show me about the village. We sat in his portion of the street in front of his door. His arthritis confined him to his sewing machine and his house of wood, mud, and straw. His house had a floor of hewn slats; it was not just a caille-paille. His wife watched us with mournful eyes, as if I would take him away from her, but time was taking him away faster than I could. We had little to say across the many years and many lives between us except to give each other greetings in the town of Jacmel.

When I said goodby, dizzy with coffee, he stood up painfully and I saw a small thin bent brown man, a creature neither Russian nor Jewish nor Haitian, something molded in time’s hands like a clay doll. He put out his hand and said in a cracked voice, laughing at the peculiar word he must have pronounced for the first time in years: “Shalom !”

I would return to Jacmel to try to learn what living in this place meant for a Russian Jew, but although I did come back to visit, I was still only a tourist. A few years later there was a hurricane which devastated the village, and now, fifteen years later, I wonder what of Schneider’s mark on life can still be felt there. Has one of the mixed-blood Schneiders learned to sew and use the treadle? Have they scattered? How many survive? No matter; he had many sons and daughters; something of Jewry has surely been sown in this corner of Haiti which is forsaken, like the rest of the world, by an indifferently fructifying God.

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It seems that I had gone hunting for Jews, but in fact I was unaware of my desire. I was busy with wife and children, living under peculiar conditions—we kept a lizard in a cage, warning burglars of what our magic could do to them; I was writing, reading, floating, studying, learning about Haiti and Haitians, not about Jews. I was drifting and lazing with an island’s self-sufficient isolation.

But when a Jew happened, I was alert. It was an odd nostalgia which chilled and awakened me; I didn’t know why. I know why: it returned me to myself.

I met the old Russian Jew Lazaroff living with his Haitian wife and his library on the mountain leading from Port-au-Prince up above Kenscoff to the Forêt des Pins. He was unused to speaking with visitors, and it was a skill he didn’t need anymore. He gave me coffee; he smiled without speaking when I looked at his books and said, “I’ve read that. . . . I’ve read that one. . . .”

“Please, if you would like to borrow?” he said at last.

“No, thank you, I have enough books. You’ve been here long?”

“Long,” he said.

“You plan to stay very long?”

“Forever,” he said.

“Why?”

He shrugged. “That’s not very far away.”

I met the French Calmann who had suffered under Hitler and chose not to suffer under the Soviet occupation of France. “If that happens,” I said, “Haiti won’t be safe, either.”

“Haiti will be safer,” he said stubbornly. “This time I’ve done all I can.”

These flight-obsessed men, cutting their losses, limited their gains to nothing but survival. They served their time on earth as a dizzy bewilderment. Then it happened that I came to know Shimon Tal, the fisherman, who had more than survival in mind.

There was a small colony of foreigners attracted to expatriation in this dreamy corner of the world by island ease, drink, isolation, or porous laws. They could live with eleven-year-old girls or drink Rum Barbancourt, smoky and rich as brandy, or buy the police for whatever odd quirks or against whatever odd crimes they may have committed elsewhere. It was a good place to hide the self, and perhaps, in voodoo, excess, and wildness, even in odd new disciplines, also a place for finding selves. There were plenty of local fishers of souls, and plenty of souls to be fished—often, of course, the fishers and the fish were identical. Doc Reser, the retired Marine sergeant, was now a voodoo priest; a wild white pelt on his chest, much drink, little wily red barroom eyes; and old Dan Cassidy, once a fashion photographer in Paris and New York, who collected all his wives from one family, marrying the girl, divorcing her when she turned fifteen, looking toward her younger sister, trying again, one more good shot for true love; many others. There were the international bureaucrats, United Nations study groups, American military missions, Jesus missionaries, Belgian and Breton priests, chic Episcopalians, CARE officials trying to keep the milk away from the weevils and the politicians, researchers on detached service from the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, entranced addicts dug into a good connection, sly advisers and profiteers, apprentice white gods, retired white gods, a Swedish geologist looking for gold, oil, tungsten, or hemp—anything salable, aging Greenwich Village ladies who loved black men, or at least hoped to be loved in return, a few winsome homosexuals, political exiles with a purchase on the police, escapees from Devil’s Island, and of course the wandering students and anthropologists who wore castoff World War II clothes and were forever looking for an authentic voodoo ceremony, finding a staged one. And settling for an authentic cockfight.

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A lovely high-living international lady named Shelagh reminded me, with only the slightest touch of malice, just enough to keep awake in the hot season, that I might like to meet a fellow Jew. He was a United Nations fishing expert, an Israeli, and she described him as weathered and quiet as a farmer. “I like him, he’s funny. He pretends he’s asleep all the time because he’s, you know—shy?”

I’d heard of that.

She had met him at an obligatory meeting for a UN official; he was hiding from the foreign colony. The notion of a shy Israeli of Middle European ancestry teaching this island people to fish made me smile, too. Maybe he wasn’t shy, only embarrassed.

I didn’t find him at any United Nations or American Aid drinkfests, but eventually we did meet. I was visiting the Damiens agriculture station outside Port-au-Prince. His Haitian “counterpart” (trainee), Monsieur Gerard, a gleaming, very polite graduate of the Damiens school, hung at his elbow as if his every motion gave hints about the puzzling folkways of fish. The counterpart might learn how fish bit and bred, swarmed in schools and took to the rushes, by studying this white man’s gestures. We toured the ponds—carp, tilapia, fry, mature fish—and Tal explained about protein starvation and the bounty which could be provided by the sea and also by rivers, marshes, ditches, and ponds.

Then he asked to come to visit us. When he did, without Monsieur Gerard and his thermometer, grain samples, and Hebrew-French phrase book, he looked like just another lonely middle-aged Jew, far from home and missing his wife and children. His face was sunburned and peeling; there were broken capillaries, sunburn upon sunburn. Pale smile lines radiated from corners of eyes, corners of mouth. It was a face of hard work and abstract conviction. His family waited on the kibbutz back home. He was doing this service and he would use his pay to buy an earth-mover. In Israel he had built ponds to raise fish—pisciculture was a new word to me—refining the techniques taken by Yugoslavs from the ancient Chinese. And now here he was also planting tilapia, the African shmoo-fish, in the streams and ditches, besides constructing a few experimental carp ponds for venturesome Haitian businessmen.

“They are a wonderful people. They are so beautiful. But there are certain problems—” And he shook his head over the difficulties of organizing fishponds and threading a way through bureaucracies in Haiti. “But they are a beautiful, wonderful people.”

He meant the perfume of Haitian women, the great gold hoops of earrings, and the sliding, enticing walk of those women. There were wonderful things in Haiti. A sensual walk served not to clean the ponds, or keep the spry safe from the voracious frogs, or feed the grains into the stream at the proper steady rate.

“—a wonderful, wonderful people, anyway. But they don’t know anything about fish.”

He was lonely and I was married, with small children in the house, and thus he became uncle, grandfather, guide, and patron, in return for a place to sit and talk about Israel. “We can learn from these beautiful, wonderful Haitian people,” he said. “They know how to dress so beautiful. They can sit and do nothing and smile so. We need to learn some of that, too.”

In the meantime, Monsieur Gerard, his colleague, learned to plant fish in the ditches, flooded fields, and waterways. I traveled with them by jeep into the markets of Les Cayes, St.-Marc, Jeremie, Jacmel, and up the mountain from Port-au-Prince to Kenscoff—pine and eucalyptus, a sudden spring in the perpetual humid August—and everywhere now tilapia could be bought for a few pennies in the marketplace. Tilapia is a stubborn little African fish which grows eagerly in salt, brackish, or fresh water, in ditches, streams, rice fields, ponds, and puddles, breeding handsomely everywhere, provided only that the water remains warm. It had not existed in Haiti; Tal brought it from Africa. Planted occasionally, it grew throughout the island. Tal guessed that the fish, installed near the mouths of streams giving onto the Caribbean, had been carried to the mountains by birds; or perhaps eggs had clung to the birds’ wings and then been dropped in mountain sources. The upstream magic of fertility.

We stood in the market at St.-Marc and looked at some cooked fish in a pan. “Combien?” I asked.

Deux cob.”

Que-est-ce que c’est?

Poisson juif.”

They had never seen a Jew, but somehow they knew by the “telejiol”—telemouth—that this fish was to be called Jewfish. In another village it was called poisson Israélite. And in another poisson Assad, because it had been found first in this locality on lands belonging to a man named Assad, a Lebanese. The telejiol works like magic—but not perfectly.

Tal played with my children, counseled my wife, told us his troubles, and said to us: “Someday you will visit us on the kibbutz.” Amid the drums of voodoo ceremonies, the crazy golden age of Haitian prosperity—generals in Eisenhower jackets tailored in Jamaica, much aid from elsewhere—it seemed odd to remember the nation of of Jews far away and for which this man longed. “It is not so much luxury, but it is nice,” he said. “If they let us live, you will see swimming, culture, fine things. This could be a beautiful, wonderful country, also.”

I took ill with malaria and he sat by my bed. I thought I would die, but he was smiling and so I knew I would live.

He told me about the other Israeli in Haiti—Schwartz, a tomato farmer. He was a Jew who called himself an Israeli, and therefore Tal considered him what he said he was, though he spoke no Hebrew. He grew tomatoes with cheap Haitian labor. He planned to ship them to Florida. He would get rich on delicious little year-round Haitian tomatoes. He borrowed money and took the necessary uniformed military Haitian partners. They grinned at sharing with him. Sometimes they came to inspect the fields and took a bite from a tomato and when the juice ran down the lovely front of the Eisenhower combat jacket, an aide ran forward to wipe.

Suddenly there were new taxes. Why new taxes? Schwartz wanted to know.

Taxes, everyone knows about Haitian taxes, but Schwartz didn’t know. It was a game they played with foreign businessmen—not Brown & Root, not the big companies from Texas, but with the tasty little innocents like Schwartz. Schwartz didn’t know what he was doing.

However, if he increased the balance of the partnership, an arrangement could be made about the taxes. How to do that? A colonel, squeezing deliciously into a tomato, little pink seeds on his chin, suggested that his share be doubled.

“But twice 50 per cent is 100 per cent!” cried Schwartz.

The colonel made a lightning calculation. “Yess,” he said.

“That leaves nothing for me!”

The colonel’s lips bubbled fresh tomato juice. He agreed. Yess.

“Impossible, impossible!” Schwartz wailed.

“Possible,” said the colonel, a resourceful mathematician.

Schwartz found himself one midnight being awakened by gentlemen in a police Buick. He finished the night in jail. He passed a few more days in this place. A Haitian jail is as bad as a Syrian one, especially when a man’s partner is not only an army colonel, but also a police colonel. A Syrian jail might be worse, but a Haitian jail is bad enough.

Tal found the correct channel for the money and got him out. “Go home, not to America,” he said. “Son, you’re not a tomato rancher. Don’t try to do something you can’t, such as raising tomatoes in Haiti.”

“I’m not really an Israeli,” said Schwartz, “It’s very complicated.”

“Well, be one. It’s your last chance. You’re no bargain, Schwartz.”

Tal sat by the bed in which I was recovering from malarial hepatitis, smelling the damp ticking of my mattress, and told me that the poor fellow was just a confused Jew from middle some-where-else who thought he could purify his soul with tomatoes and dollars. He had a tattoo on his wrist. A survivor, but a war casualty. Tal shook his head mournfully. “The trouble we get into,” he said. “In Israel it’s different. Different trouble. I don’t think we can make anything with Schwartz, but he’s tired. He thinks all you have to do now is grow the tomatoes. He should go home to rest.”

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It was tempting to make the Israeli fishing expert the bearer of my hopes for a Jewish hero in life and a Jewish community on earth. And I surrendered to that temptation and hope. Amid the smell of mangoes and wood-smoke, the hot winds of black history, the humid simmering of Port-au-Prince, I had found a few black, Roman Catholic, voodooesque Jews. The traders of a hundred years ago, a hundred and fifty years ago, yesterday, had wandered so far, trying their luck, and died after planting their brown Cohens, Goldenbergs, Weiners, Levis, Schneiders, on this forgotten island. In the mulatto population of Haiti there were also French, Germans, Danes—one family of beautiful coffee-colored girls with Scandinavian faces, finally achieving the smooth tan which Danish women always want—and gloomy Poles from the village of Casals. And Jews. Who? Whose?

Where do I ever find them?

Wherever I am. Within myself.

Where is that?

It was in Haiti just then, amid the descendants of, among others, the gloomy Poles. But also there was the beautiful Dr. Goldenberg, plump, brown, diplomée from the Cornell Medical School. “They use makeup,” Tal said. “They walk so. They dance so. Our women can learn from them even now,” said the man who disseminated the Jewfish. He would have liked his daughters on the kibbutz to learn the secrets of Creole grace from the languorous doctoresse, Felice Goldenberg.

To fix in the mind a good man is a difficult task. What do you remember? Kind smiles, a habit of amiable judgment? Heroes make extraordinary sacrifices in moments of danger, but Tal merely took friendship from me and gave his own in return. He was a good man, and what I remember after the fish-farmer’s love of fish was his joy when they spawned in a tricky pond. “Look! There will be good spry!” And that he watched the beautiful Haitian girls avidly and in all innocence. The desire to find small perfections in womankind and in nature constituted the hope in his loneliness for country and family.

The persistence of Jean Berlin, his grin, shrewdness, secret knowledge, his handsome roars of Haitian laughter: “I’m the only one in the family who remembers. Of course, I’m a Catholic like everyone else.” Delighted and maliciously elated because of his grandfather from Berlin. “I know, I know anyway.”

My friend Cohen, the anti-Semite, who found a business to suit his temperament. He imported Manischewitz Kosher Wine, sweet and thick, and advertised it for Saturday nights. Kosher was the magic word he blandished, magic first of all for himself. He understood the Haitian tradition of fear of the white stranger and longing for his potency; the mysteries of the alien people had formed his own disturbed soul. Fountains of youth and aphrodisiacs have always been popular in Latin and Caribbean places. The anti-Semite, Cohen, felt pleasure surge through his body at the menace and promise of the Word. He would profit from it himself. “Kosher!” screamed the newspaper announcements. “Guaranteed to be kosher! Try it and see! Try it tonight! If it doesn’t turn out to be kosher, your money back!”

The tailor in Jacmel with his bad eye and his attendant court of brownish children, squatting in the dust of a dying colonial town, dying forever, dying for many generations, dying forever and persisting in life. He sat by his machine and we groped for our few words of Yiddish and finally spoke French and Creole with each other. Two Jews in Jacmel, finding Creole their common lanugage for saying that they have a nostalgia for a town they had never seen, Jerusalem.

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Haiti was a land without Jews, no rabbi, no place of worship, no community, and yet one Jew, Shimon Tal, made it a Jewish place for me. In the cemetery there were Jews buried, with crosses over their graves.

When I recovered from malaria, I wanted to go with Tal to Jacmel to meet old Schneider. “I’m waiting for that,” Tal said.

We took a jeep, bucking and churning over the rocky dry streambeds into the isolated village. I asked myself how the squinting Jewish tailor, dry as a pod in the sun, survived that Haitian male vanity which leads every man to seek to be the coq du village. Well, for one thing he seemed to have most of the children of the town. He rode with the vanity. He removed himself into himself, and observed his children, blood of his blood, growing their own souls, compounded of Schneider and of Haiti. And old as he was, teasing with me, he had touched his own balls for luck against the stranger.

Suddenly dust, chickens, speedy black pigs in the road, and the leaning nightmare craziness of Jacmel. I expected to see the tailor sewing in the street, as I had first seen him. But it was an overcast day and maybe he was indoors. “Où est Monsieur Schneider?

Pas conne,” said a child, and ran away. I was sure it was one of his sons. He stood as far away as he could, giggling and shouting, “Pas conne.”

Of course he knew.

Où est Schneider?

In his house, open to the street, the sewing machine stood dusty on a base of slats in the corner. He had died and was forgotten—weeks dead. He had died and was not forgotten. There was a ceremony that night for the rest of his soul.

In the hounfor, the temple outside town in the brush, an all-day ceremony was going on, three drummers urging the congregation into a whole series of voodoo possessions by the new god Ibo-Juif. Tal and I strolled over. Evidently Ibo-Juif was a happy god. The celebrants were drinking the blood of a bull recently slaughtered, catching his blood in pans laid at the slit belly. Gleaming mulatto boys, all named Schneider, danced about us, with firm tiny erections after so much excitement and laughter. It was slaughter and homage for the disappeared tailor from the Ukraine. His Haitian family danced, seeming to climb in the air, hauling invisible ladders after them as they climbed, and only the shriveled morose wife sat exhausted by her weeping in a corner of the zinc-roofed shack. Waves of drumbeats swept over her grief. The boys grabbed their genitals for luck and consolation in the time of the death of their father.

Tal and I stood silent. Then Tal’s lips were moving. He ignored the need for ten men, he ignored his own atheism. He was murmuring the prayer for the dead. Later I told him he should have held himself at the groin in that all-purpose Haitian curse, blessing, and reassurance of power in the midst of ultimate powerlessness.

_____________

 

We returned to Port-au-Prince almost without speaking to each other except for the necessary collaboration of the road. I stood in a stream to guide the jeep forward over a mud bank; Tal showed me how to spin a jack tool when a tire blew out in a stretch of dried ruts. By the time we reached the outskirts of the capital—market women, dogs and chickens and pigs in the road, peddlers, the mobs of hungry-eyed children staring with dead sugar stalks in their mouths—we could talk of other things. His family, my family, fishing, the Artibonite dam project which would stand as an uncompleted ruin when the Magloire government fell.

“You will visit me at Nir David?” Tal asked. “We have found a Roman mill. Underground waters which was tapped maybe three thousand years ago. Were tapped?”

“Yes.”

“You will come to see with your family?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

He was hugging the wheel of the jeep with both arms. “You are thinking about it?” he said.

“Haiti is enough traveling for awhile. The Jews of Haiti are keeping me busy enough.”

He looked at me puzzled, the sweat running in rivulets through the dust on his face, and then realized that he knew enough English to understand me correctly. He smiled broadly. Haiti has no Jews.

I learned in Haiti that to be a Jew required nothing at all (I was well equipped with that). And this ignorance led to a powerful understanding, that history really exists and therefore I am a part of it, and there is no oblivion anywhere but in death, no salvation anywhere but on earth. It seemed unfair to abandon lonely men to that lonely place, the kingdom, empire, and republic of Haiti, but fairness played no part in it, for them or for the starved children on the road. That Jews had always been there and left their mark was nevertheless a profound comfort to me. The continuity of suffering is a paradoxical form of reassurance, but it can happen like that anyway. It was possible to survive anyplace; it is necessary to survive somehow.

As Haiti became a land filled with Jews, so my heart was filled with the sense that I was no different from those lonely men who would die on the mountain at the edge of the Forêt des Pins, or had already died in St.-Marc or Jacmel, or in the erosion of time as their sons forgot who their fathers were. Their sons do not forget; or if they do, nature does not, which shapes them; and if nature does, history finally does not.

Reconciliation also brings practical joys. My tradition, Cleveland and Jewish, would not let me populate Haiti with ghosts and spirits; that would be superstitious and a waste of a good education; and I could remember how my mother always wanted me to be another Jewish doctor, and then contemplate with my new genetic eyes, with my mother’s passion for medical degrees and my friend Tal’s for erotic good sense, the luxurious walk of the mocha-colored doctoresse, Felice Goldenberg.

_____________

 

When I left Haiti a few weeks later, I had troubles in the customs house with an officer who wanted to put mysterious taxes on my belongings. He was that cool official, known the world over, who makes others sweat. The sun beat down murderously on the zinc roof; fingers turned slimy as I tried to fill out forms; he knew exactly what he wanted and the heat could not touch him. Amid the shouts, groans, and shrieks of stevedores, the dust and reek of the port he remained calm, wearing military khakis and a khaki tie with a question mark embroidered on it. My wife asked him what was the question and he answered: A blanc will never know. Même pas une blanche.”

He grinned and showed his teeth and his charmed face looked as if it knew it could open up and send the flies reeling in his life’s sweet breath. I argued for my rights against the taxes he had invented on the spot, export duties on my own shirts, inspection duties, impôts de passage. I called out the names of my friends in the military, in the government. Finally he shrugged and said, “Give me half of the tax.”

“No, that’s ridiculous.”

“A third.”

“No,”

“Then ten dollars,” he burst out, “for my time which I have wasted on you! I’ve got to get something from you now.” And he grabbed himself for magic against defeat by a foreigner.

I felt evil myself for beating him down so fast. It was too easy. Yes, now I would give him a ten-dollar bribe, and hope that all my suitcases got on board.

It was not difficult to offer him the money. It required no special envelope, slyness, or tact. During my year and a half in Haiti I had learned the basic techniques. Take money from pocket, hold it between two fingers. Recipient extends palm and pauses a moment submissively. His eyelids fall dreamily. Look nonchalant. Let bill touch hand. Hand closes; the heat of two bodies shimmers invisibly; it is an incomplete communion, celebrated through the intermediary of abstract work and goods in the form of cash.

Tal was there to bid us goodby and Captain Prosper said, “That is why I make things so easy for you. Monsieur Tal has brought us the poisson Israélite.”

“Thank you very much,” I said.

“You are also Israélite?

“He is an Israeli. I’m an American.”

“The Republic of Haiti declared war on Germany twenty-four hours before the United States. Good thing you did, however, you North Americans. And the Republic of Haiti voted for Israel in the United Nations—I know my history—though it is said that certain Zionist agents purchased the vote of Haitian diplomats. Alas. The foreign service was corrupt in that period—”

I had heard the story.

He opened the door courteously, and we stepped out of the cookery of the customs shed (zinc roof, heat reflecting crazily, like scooting mites across the eyes), out onto the wharf, where the gang bosses’ screams of abuse replaced mechanized loading equipment. Captain Prosper fingered the raised question mark on his tie. “One of our first visitors was a Jew,” he said. He grinned happily. “Christopher Columbus.” And roared wth laughter. The ten-dollar bill stuck out of the pocket of his veston Eisenhower. “Columbus brought syphilis to the island, destroyed the Carib Indians, and made room for civilized Dahomey people, also Ibos, also Yorubas. Personally, I happen to be descended straight from an Abyssinian prince, and we go back, as you probably know, through Sheba to the King of the Jews.”

_____________

About the Author

Herbert Gold is the author of the forthcoming My First Murder, among many other novels. His non-fiction books include Bohemia and Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth. A previous memoir by him, “In Bellow’s Company,” appeared in our September 2005 issue.




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