Commentary Magazine


The Male-Forest of Tarnopol
A Story

How can one forget one’s dread of the forest of Tarnopol, although removed in time by a quarter of a century?

It wasn’t a forest of trees, for these were chopped down to the last one by the Germans and Russians and all the various hordes that ravaged Galicia in the years 1914-20. It was a forest of adult Jewish males, moss-covered with peyes (earlocks) and beards, tumultuous with voices of various degrees of formidability and rich in strange and menacing gestures.

These forbidding males, almost all, were fathers, and constituted mobile shelters to which their children, losers in a gang-fight, or aggressors who wished to escape a trouncing by the victim, scurried quickly, searching them out in crowded humid synagogues, or in jammed market places among stalls and shops and wagons laden with peasants’ perishable goods.

When angry, these fathers would pinch their children’s cheeks, like the flanks of the horses over which they haggled with peasants, or turn their ears half-way round like door knobs. They rarely laid their hands on another man’s child, however. But the scornful “nee-nee,” meaning “git!” with which they chased off another man’s child, was more smarting than the corporal punishment on their own.

On Saturdays and holidays all children made nuisances of themselves, pushing through in crowded synagogues vociferous with prayer, jostling the anonymous male figures enshrouded in prayer-shawls, tripping over adult legs to get towards their fathers or away from them. A disturbed male would suddenly freeze in his praying frenzy, peek from under the shroud, then lift it back, fold it around his shoulders, and give the jostling youngster a scornful look that discouraged the most venturesome.

The child’s father, if he were there, would hurriedly disentangle him from the congregation and hide him beneath his praying shawl from the stranger’s wrath. But children with no fathers slunk away like chastened dogs.

Saturday afternoons and all afternoons on which holidays concluded were the most trying for children without fathers. These were the afternoons when the adult males seated themselves at long tables in the synagogue, singing and praying and partaking communally of fish and haleh and beer. Children would cluster around the table, each group of children behind its father’s back, and even the meekest and humblest of men—the shoemaker, tailor, or water-carrier, sitting at the far end of the table—would strain and stretch and snatch from the communal haleh enough for himself and his children. The fatherless child would hang around shame-faced in his abandonment, and wince and smart still more when some other child’s father in a sudden upsurge of compassion would beckon him and give him some sardines on haleh. It was humiliating, like begging, yet no child could resist accepting the dole.

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I Was one of the fatherless children. A “live orphan”—meaning a child whose father had deserted his family. My father hadn’t exactly abandoned his family, but he was away in America seeking his fortune when the war broke out and couldn’t return, and adults used to whisper behind my back—and the child’s hunched shoulders and alert ears were tense with anticipation of the innuendo—who knows whether Baruch is still among the living, and, if he is, whether he won’t pretend that he is dead as many had done who had gone to America and left their wives behind. They were quite certain that I was a “lebediger yosem” (live orphan), but uncertain whether my mother was a widow or an aguna (deserted wife).

The war over and trans-oceanic mail resumed, one day we got a registered letter from my dad, containing dollars which my mother quickly exchanged on the black market, and a photograph of a man with gold-rimmed spectacles, which my mother intermittently peered at and hugged to her bosom as she sobbed: “Look, what’s become of my Baruch?”

The stranger in the photograph had a trimmed beard and no peyes, which aroused criticism among the adults, re-echoed by the neighbors’ children—“that Baruch has become a real goy in America,” and envy—because the trimmed whiskers and goldrimmed spectacles testified to father’s rise in the world, for only the affluent could afford gold-rimmed glasses and would dare trim their beards.

And as it is forbidden to invoke God’s name in vain, so I forbade myself to invoke father’s name too often, just bearing him in mind whenever a scornful male stared me down from underneath his prayer-shawl. Even in boastful conversation with other children I referred to him as “He in America,” and rarely said “Father,” for fear of an eiyen hara (evil eye). America was something special among countries and a father in America was something special among men, and I couldn’t believe that it had really happened to me. Perhaps I had lost my mind, and all this was a delusion and my mother and grandmother, brother and neighbors were all in on a great conspiracy to humor me as they humored the town loon who pinned potato-peels to his chest and boasted that they were decorations for valor given him by Emperor Franz Joseph himself.

But evidence grew that it was not a dream. There were, for example, the periodic registered letters from America, ceremoniously delivered by the postman. He was invited in for haleh and whiskey whenever he brought one, and as mother searched for her spectacles and a pencil to sign the receipt, the mailman would sit at the table, wiping his moustache and discoursing on the virtues of America and how fortunate the “Zhidi” were, in having relatives there. But as the evidence multiplied, so did my anxiety that it was all a grand hoax staged especially for me because of everyone’s compassion for a “living yosem.”

I was unconvinced even when my mother called in a dealer to appraise our furniture, and when she finally decided that she would rather distribute it among the neighbors than sell it for the low price he offered and expose it to the indignity of “falling into improper hands.” Nothing could really convince me, not even that last parting visit with mother to relatives and neighbors, when the sobbing was loud as at funerals and on the prescribed annual visits to the cemetery. When we returned from our relatives, there was a carriage waiting at our door, and, after some more tearful hugging and kissing, we piled in and were off to the railroad station on the first leg of our journey to America.

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Many things happened, and several seasons passed between that carriage trip and my first meeting with father. There were the many days spent in queues in consular offices, waiting for visas, humid days with people fainting from heat and tension and winter days with people collapsing from exhaustion; mother tightly holding my hand and pushing me towards stem officials at desks and pleading “for this poor child’s sake” when all other pleas failed.

It all culminated in another railway trip and incarceration in the immigrants’ assembly center in Danzig, with its barbed wire fences and steaming disinfection hall, where we were all forced under showers that spouted simultaneously ice-cold and scalding water, had our clothes deloused and our heads shaved, and were assigned places in a tremendous drafty dormitory cut up into innumerable rows of three-tier berths. I pinched my cheeks even then, and later too, when we were assigned our berths in the three-tier steerage dormitory of the vessel that was taking us to America, for I couldn’t believe that I had a father in America and that we were actually on our way to him.

When the passengers crowded along the railings on the decks for a sight of the Statue of Liberty and of their American kin waving to them from rocking little boats that had come out to meet our ship, I was down with chicken pox and high fever. It was in the ward for contagious diseases on Ellis Island that I first met my father. I was burning up with a temperature of 104, and eagles screamed above my head and breakers swept over me, pinning me down.

Above this confusion of pounding and screaming, the nurse’s voice came softly to me in several languages—”fater, father, daddy, tate,“—and my eyes focused on the low partition across the threshold where in a rubber cape, with rubber gloves, provided by the hospital, on his hands, stood a grey-bearded old man, tears streaming down his face. “Kind,” he said and his voice broke. “Mein kind.” I was overwhelmed with pity for that man. “It’s nothing, father, it’s nothing,” I shouted above the pounding tide, for the first time in my life addressing anyone as father. Until then all friendly males were “uncle” to me.

The nurse nudged the pitiful apparition of an old Jew, and he slunk timidly away—even as I had done, to escape compassion and the dole, when fathers distributed haleh to their children in Tarnopol’s synagogue in the twilights when holidays peter out.

But from then on, I no longer doubted. This was real. This was my father, tears streaming down his cheeks, timid even before a female nurse, unable to reach out to me across partitions, nudged and reminded when his time was up and guided away from me down cavernous, circuitous corridors. I felt let-down and yet happy, conscious that I would be more at ease with him than I might have been with the poised, elegant, omnipotent father I had dreamed of when his letters began coming from America.

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Many were the times I saw him cry after that.

The years of separation had not been easy, neither for father nor for mother. The routine misunderstandings between husband and wife were exacerbated by what years of abstinence and the strain of becoming re-accustomed to each other had done to their nerves.

Quarrels always ended with father slamming the door like a domineering male and slinking down the steps like a chased-away kitten, and letting himself in again near midnight, inwardly chastened but outwardly belligerent and taciturn, prowling in the kitchen for food. They had quarreled before dinner, and he had eaten nothing since breakfast. Mother, on her bed, leaning on her elbows—alert to the noises in the kitchen, waiting for him to speak first, but pride finally giving way to compassion—would call out: “Don’t rummage. I’ll go down and give you. Your dinner is still waiting.” Father, still proud and hurt, would grumble: “Do me no favors. I’m not asking you. I don’t want your food.” I would then slip off my bed, quietly so mother couldn’t hear me, and go into the kitchen and find father leaning sideways against the wall, his hand over his eyes as he held it during prayers, his shoulders shaking with sobs. I would go to him and stay there until he looked up and saw me. Sometimes he would push me off: “Go, go to your mother, you’re your mother’s son.” But more often he would pat my head and we would agree that I’d go to sleep if he did too.

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I resented my father’s meekness only on Friday nights and Saturdays when we attended synagogue. Recalling my fatherless years in the Tarnopol synagogue, awed by the fierce, forbidding men shielding their children in the folds of tent-like soiled prayer-shawls, I yearned for him to be the father I had dreamed of. He failed me inevitably.

The trustees of the East Side synagogues were, for the most part, untutored but affluent men, one-time tailors who were now jobbers and manufacturers employing scores of workers. It was their view that the synagogue was primarily a social center where at least once a week one could meet with landsleit for an exchange of gossip before and during services. My father was always a leader of the “learned opposition,” talmudic scholars who maintained that services should be prefaced by study. The synagogues were small and the laughter and loud talk of the “grobe yungen” (ignoramuses) would drown out the low sing-song of the scholars and confuse their abstruse dialectic discourse.

Often one of the “grobe yungen,” made restive by his inferiority, would reach across the “learners’” heads, pound his fist on their table, and willfully announce that it was time for the services to commence.

“Since when have you become that pious?” a “learner” would retort. “There is time for both, study and prayers. No hurry.” This inevitably precipitated a crisis, and my father always found himself in the position of spokesman for the “learners,” or “sheine yidden” (beautiful Jews), as the “grobe yungen” ironically called them.

And one of the “grobe yungen” would heatedly tell him off.

“We don’t need sheine yidden here. America judges people by their wealth, not by their beards,” he would yell, and father, his throat choked with tears, would hurriedly fold his tallis and, holding my hand tightly, hurry out of synagogue “for ever and ever,” expecting the other “sheine yidden” to follow him.

They never did. But out of the trustees’ sight they would visit father to prevail upon him to return to the synagogue and not to take the matter “to heart.” “Why should you let grobe yungen chase you out?” they would argue. These, however, were not the terms on which my father was willing to return to their synagogue. He expected the “grobe yungen,” the trustees themselves, to come and plead with him.

Soon envoys from other synagogues began visiting father. Mother would produce a new table cloth, serve steaming tea in glasses and cookies in a big bowl, as the envoys nodded their heads appreciatively at my father’s talmudic discourse and invited him to attend their synagogues.

“We are not like those grobe yungen, we want the sweet voice of a learner raised beneath our roofs on Saturdays.”

My father would accept their invitation and for the first few weeks feel truly elated. “Ah, they certainly know how to pay their respects to a scholar,” he would boast.

But the novelty soon wore off, and the “grobe yungen” of the new synagogue too raised their voices in talk and laughter and grunted when father pleaded with them to speak more softly. And soon one of them would begin making remarks within father’s earshot, and within less than two months father would be fleeing this synagogue too, as he had so often done before, and as his forebear Jacob fled before Esau, and as the Jews fled before Pharaoh.

Defeated, a DP from the neighborhood’s synagogues, he would pace the floor of our three-room tenement apartment, his fingers tearing at his face, his shoulders heaving with sobs. Mother, leaning on her elbow in bed, would call: “Enough is enough, go to sleep,” and he would turn on her angrily: “Who is asking you?” Offended, she would retort: “You yell like a meshugener, no wonder you can’t get along with people.” That was a stab at his heart.

I pitied him and pitied myself at such moments, as I saw the rapid shrinking of the great father image that sustained me in the awesome male-forest of Tarnopol.

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