Commentary Magazine


The Eternal Values
A Story

This story was translated by Nathan Halper.

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“Harry, a bottle of milk an’ a quart of sour cream.”

“A whitefish, Harry. But fresh.”

“A couple of rolls, an’ a cream-cheese, an’ a . … .an a. . . .”

“All right, all right. Just a minute. I’ve only got two hands.”

The women, browsing among the cans of soup and fruit-juice, began to talk about Harry.

“He’s not feeling so good today.”

“Something is on his mind.”

“All dressed up, isn’t he?”

The women were right. Harry had something on his mind. And he was dressed up, too. A short, narrow-shouldered man, he darted up and down behind the counter. He lifted the glass door of the icebox. He pulled boxes down from the shelves. But his thoughts were somewhere else:

“He is here. Thank God. . . .The only one left. He is here now. Here, in the free America.”

A neighbor came into the store. .“Harry, you going to the boat?”

“Going? Sure I’m going. My nephew,” he explained to the others. .“He is coming from Europe. Saved from a certain death. . . .The only one left of my family.”

The store grew quiet. They listened; each woman had a similar story. Harry felt like a speaker on a platform. But his usual glibness left him, and he spoke in disconnected phrases.

“Nobody even knows what became of their ashes. . . .Pinchas, he is risen from the dead. He was in all the worst concentration camps.”

“He’s coming with his wife.” Harry began to add details. .“They just got married—in Belgium. You should see how she writes English.” He opened the drawer where he kept important papers and pulled out a pack of grey envelopes. But by this time the women had begun to get impatient. The milk-and-cream woman was inspecting her charge-slip. .“Harry, don’t forget to count the two bottles that I brought back.”

“I won’t! I won’t!” he growled. But as a matter of fact, he had been thinking of other matters: His brother (Peace be with him!). .The old times. The old home. . . .But where is the missus? Harry began to get angry. Why hasn’t she come yet? Promised to be here early. This is no ordinary occasion. This is for Hayim Ozer’s boy.

Hayim Ozer was the scholar of the family. And Pinchas has his name after grandfather Pini, Reb Pini the Reader.

Oh. . . .here is the missus!

_____________

 

The car on the El was half empty. Harry closed his eyes. He thought of the welcome they had prepared. His missus had talked about it for weeks. .“A party . . . ah,” he sighed, “that’s all a woman thinks of.”

He will invite the whole family. But only the older people will come, those of his own generation. What do the youngsters know about Reb Pini the reader? His own children, what do they know?

Not that he, Harry, has reason to complain. His oldest, Barry, has his own drugstore. The youngest, Jerry, is almost a professor. Only, he is a bit of a black sheep. That is, a bit of a “red” one. He got infected by his friends in the college. But that is nothing to worry about. Jerry is a veteran. Four years overseas, fighting for Uncle Sam. Even Sandra has straightened out. True, she runs around in slacks. And always with a cigarette, never out of her mouth. But she married a decent boy. No, he can’t complain. But as regards Judaism—that’s a different story. Lately, of course, they have begun to be aware. Barry takes a look at the Palestine news in the Times—especially if a bomb is in the headlines. Jerry argues that anti-Semitism and capitalism go hand in hand. He saw enough in Germany, didn’t he?

At Grand Concourse, Harry got off the El and walked through the long tunnel to the 7th Avenue Express.

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Now Harry began to get down to brass tacks.

Brother Sam from Brooklyn will certainly come to the party, and sister Sarah from Central Park West will probably be there too.

If they feel like chipping in, that’s all well and good. But he, Harry, won’t mention it. After the party, however, he’ll give Pinchas a check—a good check—a hundred! Maybe more? Let him have a couple of cents in his pockets.

He won’t do it in public. No, God forbid. But don’t worry, they’ll notice it.

Warmed by the coming meeting with his nephew, Harry became sentimental. It now occurred to him that it would not be seemly to give Pinchas nothing but a check. The boy comes from hell, from pain and suffering.

What is money? No. Man does not live by bread alone. Pinchas must be given a sign. A symbol. Something spiritual.

But what? Some furniture has already been bought. Clothes? That will come later. The missus will buy. She is waiting till they arrive, so she can get the exact sizes. Well, make the check bigger. A hundred and fifty. . . .Two hundred, OK?

But that is not it!

It was only at 96th Street that he got his inspiration. .The Eternal Values! Why didn’t he think of it before? There is the proper gift!

The Eternal Values was a book with a history. Ten years ago, Harry did a favor for a Mr. O’Connor. This O’Connor—a very decent goy, this one—wanted to give him a check. But Harry put his foot down. No check. Let him know that money is not a Jew’s all in all!

So O’Connor took a ride to the East Side, went into a book store and asked for a book, a book with Hebrew letters. Let it be something good. Bible, Prayers, Laws. Price is no object. Poetry? Poetry, that doesn’t hurt either. From time to time, Harry and O’Connor used to have a discussion on elevated matters. My God, your God. . . .O’Connor knew Harry was no ignoramus.

He brought him The Eternal Values. .A de luxe edition, almost a thousand pages. It had in it a bit of everything that’s good: the Bible, Sayings of the Sages, Maimonides . . .up to Bialik. So the book lies in Harry’s closet—gathering dust. Now, at least, the book will be used. He, Harry, has no time to look in it. When can he sit down with a book? And the children. . . . well, the children. . . .

Harry’s face clouded. Ah, it’s good that Pinchas is coming. Now somebody will look into the book. Give it to Pinchas. The book—and a check for two hundred and fifty dollars. There’ll still be plenty left for the children. No, three hundred dollars.

But he still felt uneasy. He felt that he was imposing on Pinchas. How? In what way? He could not put it clearly.

The lights of a local station twinkled. Suddenly, a story came into Harry’s mind, a story that he had heard back in his childhood:

A boy was on his way to school, carrying his siddur and a roll for his lunch. Along came a dog and snatched the roll out of his hand. So the boy took the siddur, threw it at the dog, and cried, “If you took the roll, take the siddur too. . . .You go to the school!”

Times Square!

The light was a pail of cold water. The underground journey had spun cobwebs in Harry’s brain. Light brushed them away now, and they drifted off between the skyscrapers, between the hotdog stands. He breathed the sharp air, the business air. He stopped being a philosopher. Harry was a Bronx storekeeper again.

He waved to a taxi. They started for the boat.

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Pinchas-Pierre and Modeste stood at the rail and eyed the crowd upon the pier.

“Do you recognize him?” she asked.

They were speaking in French. .“Who? Uncle Harry? I don’t even know him. When he left for America, I wasn’t even born yet.”

“Yes, I forgot. Because. . . .because of that . . .I am all mixed up.”

“Nonsense!”

“I don’t know. You scared me so much.”

They stared at the giant city, this mute Sphinx, keeping to itself the secret of their future. Modeste fidgeted nervously. Pinchas-Pierre could hear a few disconnected syllables, as if she were intoning a spell: “Pin-has . . . yum-tuv . . . ha-sunna . . . mik, mickey.”

“What are you murmuring?” Pinchas attempted to smile.

Modeste blushed. .“I don’t know. I am afraid of the first meeting.”

“Well,” he said. .“In the first place, it is ‘mikva,’ not ‘mickey.’ And, in the second place, you can forget the word. Here, in New York, they don’t have much use for it.”

“Good. Better that way.” She pushed her short blond hair back and posed before him, with her slender body, like a mannequin. .“How do I look now?” she said. Her girlish bosom strained against the tight-fitting sweater.

“How? A Flemish shiksa.”

“No,” she pouted. .“Seriously. Tell me.”

“Tell you? I am telling you. What do you want to look like? A rabbi’s daughter?”

Modeste’s face clouded and she lowered her eyes. .“I know,” she whispered. .“You no longer love me. I have no one. I am here alone . . .in a strange world . . . among strange people.”

Pierre’s arm slipped around her waist. “Don’t worry. It will be all right. You’ll see.”

Her eyes lit up. .“When I am with you, I do feel better.” She looked at the big city.

He was an old wanderer. It was nothing new to him to be in a strange land. But she had always lived at home, in the small fishing village where her father, Old Benoit, was the inn-keeper. There was a little garden, a few dozen fowl, a couple of pigs. Even while the Germans were there, she had felt that it was temporary, like a storm at sea, which in time blows over. The real storm began when they found Pierre, bruised and famished, in the loft of their barn. He had been in a little boat trying to cross the Channel. . . .

After the Germans were gone, Pierre took her to Paris. Oh, how she had tried to understand his friends, talking all the time in tiny rooms of small hotels. All that talk. . . .

Then, suddenly, they were here, across the ocean.

_____________

 

Harry began to make philosophy again. In the store, the customers kept buzzing.

“Harry, a bottle of milk!” “Harry! What time do the fresh rolls come in?”

“Rolls . . . they’ll come when they come.” Harry was thinking of other things.

He had seen little of his two relatives from the other side. He took them from the ship to their rooms in Brooklyn, and then, during the next week, the missus had shown them the ropes. She took them to buy clothes; a few things for the house. Took them for a walk in Prospect Park. The missus liked them, especially Modeste.

“A good girl,” she said. “Gentle. Like a dove. Only, she mixes so much French in her Yiddish. And her name, too. . . .Harry, how do you say ‘Modeste’ in English?”

Harry did not know.

He found it hard to think of his nephew as a man of flesh and blood. He had become a symbol, a principle. And, around this principle, Harry fought a battle with himself.

“Why?” he would argue. .“Why should Pinchas be the one to take The Eternal Values? Why Pinchas? What’s the matter with my children?”

After he got home from the ship, Harry kept raising the check that he planned to give Pinchas. Three fifty. . . . Four hundred. . . . When it reached four hundred and fifty, Harry began to see that something was wrong, that he was trying to buy his way out.

Out?

Out of what?

Slowly he began to understand those obscure thoughts that he had had on the Express. . . .Moses received the Torah on Sinai. He handed it on to Joshua. Joshua handed it on to the elders. The elders . . .till it reached Harry. Harry—who was trying to hand it on to his nephew, Pinchas. Why? Why his nephew? He, Harry, has children of his own. If it’s a good thing, why not hand it to his own sons? If it’s not a good thing, why give it to Pinchas? Pinchas has had enough troubles. He has been there . . . in that Hell.

But, for that matter, why should his sons suffer? They are Americans. They are native-born. Why should they bear a burden? Why should they have it worse than other American boys? In America, everybody’s an American. The Italians, the Spaniards . . .why, even the Poles.

Well, they had changed their name. Was Brandtwein. Now it’s Brown. Brown. Why not? What’s so good about Brandtwein? If they liked Brown, let it be Brown. America’s a free country. Still, a name that’s too Jewish can get in your way.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that Jewishness is done with. As regards religion, he himself, he’s not sure if there really is a God or not. But, as regards being Jews—What is a world without Jews? A world without Jews is like. . . .a wedding without musicians! Just imagine a world, a world with nothing but goyim. They drink whiskey, make war. . . .And what about the Torah? Nowadays they call it “Justice”. . . .What does a goy know about justice? That is, he does know something about it. He has socialism, parties, unions—but that’s not the same! That’s politics. . . .Now, a Jew, he who always gets beaten, always, in every generation, he knows the meaning of pain. .“You should know the soul of the stranger because you yourself were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” But—without Jews? If nobody gets beaten, then the whole world’ll be full of nothing but murderers.

Will there be no end to it? he wondered. Will we always have to suffer? As regards me, myself, I am used to having troubles. But my children are Americans.

_____________

 

As luck would have it, he came across a poem in the paper, a poem about the offering of Isaac. Harry never bothered with poetry. But there it was in his Sunday paper, and, absent-mindedly, he read it.

It was a hard poem. Yet, when he put his mind to it, he was able to chew its sense out of it. He could see what the author meant: Abraham led his only son to the sacrifice. Jewish fathers have to do the same in every generation.

At first, he felt funny about this, but then he got angry. Why? Why do you always have to sacrifice? Once in a blue moon, well. . . .But this poet wants it all the time. Every other day, a sacrifice. Why, in the whole Bible it happens only once. Then, in the second place, a ram happened to appear. So Abraham burned the ram instead of his son. In the third place, he was doing a thing that God specially ordered him to do. But this poet. . . .he probably doesn’t even believe in God. What makes him so crazy about sacrifices?

Well, all right, he means it as a symbol: Humanity, Justice. . . .But—why does it always have to be us? This is their world. So let the goyim beat their own heads against the wall!

And the inevitable happened. Harry lifted a box of eggs. Suddenly, his hands began to shake. A couple of dozen eggs smashed on the floor. Thirty-eight years in the store. The first time it had happened.

Trouble always comes in bunches. A few hours later, Harry spilled a bottle of milk on one of his best customers. He splashed the woman from head to foot. She was wearing a Persian lamb coat. The black lamb became white. The woman almost fainted.

“Here is your sacrifice!” Harry yelled.

The customers thought he was going crazy.

_____________

 

Harry put bottles on the table: cokes, sodas, beer, a bottle of whiskey, a French brandy—in honor of Modeste.

Quite a crowd came to the party. First came Louie, a relative of Harry’s wife, a cutter of ladies’ garments, and an expert on politics. Louie read the Communist Freiheit; he hated the Socialist Forward like poison. Louie had a bit of the cognac, and then asked Pinchas about the last elections in France.

Modeste had some cognac too. She gave it the approval of a connoisseur. Pinchas-Pierre grew nervous. Maybe she would say a word too much. But she saw Pierre’s glance.

“Kosher wine?” she asked. .“Isn’t it?”

Next came Sam, Harry’s brother from Brooklyn. Sam was an old Forward reader. He hated the Communist Freiheit. .His wife told a long story about the trouble they had closing the store an hour early. They had a drop of cognac. Then Harry’s missus brought the gefillte fish.

Over the fish and horse-radish, Freiheit and Forward had sharp words over the new Polish government.

Louie the cutter had landed an ordinary piece of fish, and as he had a good appetite, he finished his portion quickly and was the first to deliver an oration.

“Aristocrats! Militarists!” he attacked Sam in the plural.

The Forward, on the other hand, got a more complicated portion. A stuffed head. Sam kept digging up hidden treasures with his fork, dipping them piously in the pungent horse-radish. He did not dare interrupt this ceremony lest (God forbid!) one of the little bones should get stuck in his throat. But his patience snapped.

“Red dictators! Moscow agents!” he mounted a counter-attack.

Modeste listened. .Freiheit’s mother-in-law—Louie came with his whole family—told Modeste not to take it to heart. Modeste listened.

Still, it was lucky that Sandra and her husband chose this moment to arrive. Sandra kissed her new cousins, sat down near Modeste, and started to ask about the fashions in Paris. Then came Barry, the druggist, and his wife. Sandra went into the kitchen. She came back with two platters of blintzes. Barry swallowed half a platter. . . .Barry was a sport.

All of a sudden, important guests! Aunt Sarah and her son, from Central Park West. Aunt Sarah’s son is a reporter on the New York Post.

“Why! She looks Irish!”

Pinchas got frightened. But it was all right. Aunt Sarah, it is true, had a horrible fear of mixed marriages. But, at the same time, she had a deep respect for goyim. Her dream, therefore, was a Jewish daughter-in-law with an Irish face.

They brought the fat chicken soup. Then the chickens.

Modeste made a hit. Her English was good—she had once had a job with a family of English tourists—so she chatted with the young folks. Everybody liked her.

Finally, they all got up from the long table. They stood in the corners. They stretched in the arm chairs. Sam lit a thick cigar, gave one to Louie, the cutter. Louie took it, lit, puffed. But he was not mollified.

“If you think capitalism can buy me with a good cigar, you are missing your guess! You’ve got the wrong party!”

It was about eleven o’clock. Pinchas was leaving the bathroom when Uncle Harry cornered him. Shyly, Harry shoved a check into his hand. Pinchas put it in his pocket without looking at it.

In the hall when they were leaving, Harry took The Eternal Values from the closet. .“Take it.” He handed the volume to Pinchas. .“It’s good to have a book around a house.”

“Pa . . .” Barry said reproachfully.

“Why? Do you want it?” asked Harry with amazement.

“No,” said Barry. .“But it’s all covered with dust.”

Harry’s wife brought a rag. .The Eternal Values were dusted.

_____________

 

Modeste was happy. .“Oh, they are such fine people.” She threw her arms about him. .“I’m so happy,” she said. .“Come and give me a kiss.”

“This is America. It’s forbidden to kiss in the street. You’ll have to pay them a fine.”

Modeste laughed. “You got a check.”

In the subway, she put her arm around him. Pinchas took the check out of his pocket.

“Seven hundred and fifty dollars!”

“How much in francs?” she asked.

“A quarter of a million.”

“My God!” She was about to invoke Jesus and Mary. Remembering the holy book in her hand, she stopped in time.

“What is written here?” Modeste showed him The Eternal Values. .He took it. He turned the leaves.

“A little bit of everything,” he said, “Bible, laws, prayers. . . .”

“A sacred book. Truly.” She nodded her head devoutly.

In the house, she laid the book on the little table by the bed.

_____________

 

Modeste could not fall asleep. .“Pierre, are you awake?”

“Why?” he said sleepily.

“Read me something. From this book.”

“Now? Are you crazy?”

Many minutes passed. Sleep did not come. Suddenly, Modeste slid out of the bed. She put the thick volume on her knees.

Instinctively she understood. All had been said on Sinai. From the quarrels of Jacob and Esau . . .up to all that talk in a Paris hotel. Up to all the talk at a party in the Bronx. Everything is written here.

“This, this is it,” she whispered.

She closed her eyes. She remembered the saints, the stained-glass of the church in the village. She remembered the nights Pierre was hiding in the stable, the nights when he had told about the persecutions of Jews . . .concentration camps . . .man-hunts.

This book. They could endure it because of this book.

She stroked the binding. Yes . . . a great book.

“But,” she thought, “It doesn’t seem that they have used it much. . . .”

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