While searching for some old books in our attic, one afternoon, I found a crumbling prayer book, loosely wrapped in…
Sylvia Rothchild’s grandfather was one of the millions who left the hard life of 19th-century Europe to find a new life, by no means easy, in America. He left a moving personal record which offers some glimpses of the realities of that historic epoch, and of the pattern of Jewish personality and individuality that marked the first-generation East European pioneer here. Mrs. Rothchild here offers a translation of her grandfather’s memoir together with her own preface.
While searching for some old books in our attic, one afternoon, I found a crumbling prayer book, loosely wrapped in brown paper. A mouse had nibbled at the wrappings and I opened it, planning to wrap it more securely. In the middle of the book I found a small notebook, its pages yellow, the ink faded a pale green. In the middle of the first page was written, “Dos Bashreibung Fun Mein Yugent.” Underneath it was the signature “Josef Neuberger.” In smaller letters at the very bottom of the page was written, “Blessed is the Name, Adonoi is God.” The pages of the notebook were densely covered with tiny Hebrew letters. The words were a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. It took several weeks before I could understand the writing. The gimel that made the g sound, the mem that made the tn, were written identically. The zayin and ches were indistinguishable. Words and whole sentences were abbreviated. The Hebrew, of course, was written without vowels, and consonants stretched frighteningly along line after line. It was, however, written for his grandchildren and I could not put it aside until I had rewritten it in my own hand and translated it into English.
I am one of Josef Neuberger’s twenty grandchildren and I knew him until I was almost thirteen. We were good friends, as close as an old man and a young girl can be.
I still have a box filled with the presents he gave me, not ordinary presents, real treasures. There is a little porcelain bird, a dinner bell with a painted parrot seated on a perch, a paper weight shaped like a lion. In many folds of tissue paper lies a shell necklace, with a mother-of-pearl heart in the center, too heavy to wear. Beside the pink satin handkerchief, a souvenir from Rachel’s tomb, lies the last present he gave me. It is a bottle, shaped and painted like a fish, with a cork protruding from the mouth. Pie gave it to me on my twelfth birthday. It was filled with wine and he cautioned me to save it for the two of us to drink on my wedding day. He found such treasures on pushcarts on Hester Street and Rivington Street, painted them, took them apart if it was possible, so that when given, they were unmistakably his.
Josef Neuberger was always spoken of as a remarkable man, not great, not brilliant, not, God forbid, successful, but nevertheless a giant among men. If I had not my own memories, I might have thought, like others who had not known him, that his family had made him larger than life; that they had conjured up a giant out of worn old memories because they needed a strong man to lean upon. He was, actually, an impressive figure. When most grandfathers were small, bent, shriveled people, he was tall, taller than his children. He held his head high. His reddish beard was brushed and neatly parted in the center, his clothes were always clean and pressed, and his calfskin shoes gleamed. He carried an ebony walking stick which he flourished when he talked. The gilt dog’s head on the top of the cane jumped like a puppet in his hand.
He came to the graduation exercises of my junior high school and my teacher was delighted with him. She shook his hand up and down while he smiled and said, “zehr fein, zehr fein.” He couldn’t speak a word of English and seemed so unconcerned about it that people usually apologized to him because they couldn’t speak Yiddish.
“Now there’s an aristocrat for you,” I heard Miss Maguire say to another teacher. “Such distinguished bearing! You just don’t see people like that nowadays.” Miss Maguire put her arm around me when we said goodbye and she congratulated me on having such an elegant grandfather.
When I was very young, all the Biblical heroes had my grandfather’s face. When he wore a flowing white robe and jeweled skullcap on Passover, he looked to me like a smaller version of the Almighty Himself. In spite of his imposing mien, however, he rarely seemed solemn or forbidding. He rode his grandchildren up and down on his boot, and playfully pinched their bottoms. He enjoyed throwing babies in the air, while their mothers squealed with fear. He was proud of his strength and once showed us that he could lift a chair high in the air, holding only one of the legs. He told stories to anyone that would listen and after his dinner on Saturday, he sang Z’miros until it was time for his afternoon nap. My cousins and I fought for the privilege of brushing his beard and untying the laces of his shoes.
As I grew older, I separated my grandfather from the vision of the Almighty that I carried and gave him instead the role of the Lord’s watchman. It was he who must not know of the ride taken on the Sabbath, of the forbidden food tasted, of all the numerous transgressions that tempted us on all sides. When we were uncertain of some course of action, he told us what the Lord would accept and what was repugnant to Him. With the “thou shalt not” so plainly in view, even small sins brought us more fear and discomfort than pleasure. If his children and grandchildren strayed from the path he set for them while he was there to lead them, it was not because they opposed him but because they were not strong enough to oppose the society in which they lived. Again and again, I heard my aunts and uncles say, “I try to live like Mama and Papa. I do the best I can,” their voices showing plainly that they did not think they were succeeding.
My grandfather presided over the celebration of festivals and holy days like a king over his court. On Passover he conducted a Seder, and led the family in singing until the small hours of the morning. The neighbors sat in the hallway to listen until we went home. On Purim, he watched while all the grandchildren, and some of the children too, masqueraded and performed for him. He gave the Chanukah money to the children and received the first fruits of his daughters’ ovens on Succoth and Shavuoth. They all came with delicacies to tempt him and watched jealously to see whose he would taste first. On the High Holy Days he wore a tall silk hat to the synagogue and sat up on the platform facing the congregation. After the services were over, my cousins and I walked home with him. We all lived in Williamsburg then and the walk was from the synagogue on South Fourth Street and Marcy Avenue to Division Street. Broadway was crowded with the traffic hurrying to the Williamsburg Bridge and there was neither a traffic light nor a policeman where Broadway and Marcy Avenue intersected. My grandfather did not stop for traffic. He held his cane high and, single file, like a family of ducks, we crossed behind him, while cars screeched to a stop all around us.
All of his waking hours not spent in prayer or study were passed at a crude wooden table near his bedroom window where his paints, brushes, and drawing materials lay always ready for use. My grandfather painted signs, pictures, bottles, coconuts, and trays. The signs were in Hebrew, in German, or in Gothic script. The pictures were a strange collection of primitive work. He had never studied art or even visited a museum. There were many peacocks, painted on black velvet, blue ones with silver-spotted tails, red with gold, some all the colors of the rainbow. There were many country scenes painted on white oilcloth in lieu of canvas. In his tenement apartment on Avenue C in lower Manhattan and again on Division Street in Brooklyn, he painted a distant world of barns, ponds, ducks, chickens, deer in the forest. He seemed more concerned with the design of the whole picture than with the problems of perspective. I remember a farmer’s wife standing next to a house, her head reaching the chimney, her waist higher than the door. Ducks that waddled next to chickens were sometimes ten times their size. The water in his ponds was wet though the sun shone like a flat gold piece in the sky. In his dining room there was a large picture of the sacrifice of Isaac. A huge angel perched on a dwarf apple tree, his wings drooping to the ground. The apples were made of tinsel paper, from chocolate-covered cherries that we saved for him. He glued them on in glittering circles that shimmered in the candlelight on Friday night. Some of the pictures were flat almost like Egyptian drawings, or the illustrations in the old Passover Haggadahs; others were realistic scenes of snow heaped high in the fields, lambs in pasture, and deer with gentle eyes. There were recognizable portraits of his favorite rabbis, with the intricate detail of the beards, the fur of the shtreimel and the folds in the caftan caught with pen and black india ink. Every few years he found a new medium. Bottles were irresistible. Nothing that could hold wine or water escaped his brush. For a while he covered two-foot squares of oilcloth with apples, grapes, and pineapples. He framed them as pictures and then added two handles so that they could also serve as trays. When he tired of the trays he busied himself with coconuts. He painted hideous faces on the rough, edible part, cut a small circle on the top of the head, with a knob on it so that it could be lifted easily. The coconuts were natural collectors of old jewelry, hairpins, paper clips, and rubber bands. There was a Dutch shelf two feet lower than the ceiling in the dining room, where I slept, on which the coconuts stood in a row leering at me.
I spent many pleasant hours with my grandfather while he taught me to copy his ducks, his dogs, houses, and figures. While I covered the pages as he showed me to, he told stories of his childhood. I listened carefully, but I remembered only isolated incidents, never gleaning enough to reconstruct a way of life that I could visualize. My parents did not talk of their early days. It was as if they had purposely forgotten the details. I often wondered about my grandfather. What were his beginnings? What was the source of his dignity, so nicely balanced with humor and gentleness? I looked into his memoir eagerly, hoping to find the spring from which his complicated spirit flowed; the patience, the desire for beauty and perfection, the individualism and faith, all bathed in innocence that was not cloaked in foolishness.
After many months with three dictionaries at my side, this is what I found:
Josef Neuberger’s Story
The time has come to set down the story of my joys and troubles, but I sit staring out of the window, asking myself why I try to do this. I awakened from my nap only half an hour ago, and my eyes are still heavy, but not as heavy as my feet. Each day as I lift one leg and then the other to pull on my boots, I marvel at what a burden they have become. These same feet took me barefoot in the mountain snow, barefoot while I held my boots in my hands, loath to spoil them on the wet ground, and now I can scarcely lift them to tie my boots.
When I came into the kitchen to wash, Eltse was sorting kashe. It was in a little mound on the porcelain table and she shoveled it into a dish with her fingers, carefully pulling out the black specks. She had been ironing while I slept and the kitchen smelled of steam and starch. The two hot flatirons were still cooling on the stove.
I have spent more time looking out the window than writing. From the fifth floor, I can, thank God, see the sky as well as the rooftops. It is well worth climbing five stories for that piece of sky. It must surely seem like a prison down in the dark lower stories, especially for those who have no windows in the front. Strange that I have never become accustomed to the ugly flat rooftops.
I see them as fresh each time as the first, fifteen years ago, when I thought that the city had been devastated by fire and that the roofs had been burnt off. I can see the people, the wagons, and the cars below, scurrying like so many insects. With the fire-escape bars between them and me, they are on exhibit, like animals in a zoo.
In our comfortable room with the mirrored oak buffet, a china closet filled with glass and silver, and a round table on thick carved legs, the words I prepare to write seem like strangers to me. I am a stranger to myself. Yet how can one help but wonder at the many lives a person can lead, so many and so different that it is a miracle that one knows who he is. That alone is reason to write, to look again at all the lives I have known, at all the roads He has spread out for me. I ask myself whether I write this for my children and in truth, I think not. What can I tell them now that I haven’t told them already? What that is new can they learn now that they have little ones of their own to teach? They are in His hands now, not mine. Perhaps, however, those little ones will read this some day and learn that a life doesn’t hang ripe, like a fruit waiting to be picked, but that each of them will have to make his own. Each one must plant his seed, tend it carefully as it grows and for each moment of carelessness or foolishness, pay and pay. Of course, whether things go one way or another depends upon one’s mazel. Should they ever wonder what I mean by mazel, let me explain that to be mazeldik, that is, to have mazel, supposes three things: first, that all the doors one comes to should be found open and welcoming; second, that whatever work a person finds to do should appear easy for him; and third, that he and his work should find favor in the eyes of all who behold them. Every man, naturally, has such mazel as He has ordained, sometimes good and sometimes bad, however it pleases Him. And I? Some doors have shut angrily in my face, many things that I have tried to take in my hands to do have fallen apart before I could even begin, but for reasons I cannot know I have still found favor in the eyes of those around me. The pleasure I have found among family and friends has made it impossible for me to argue with the Lord of the world, strange as His ways can be.
Now I will begin the story of my youth and my early life with my family. It is a tale of wandering from village to village, from city to city, a search for a simple livelihood that did not end until a brief while ago, a search that used up the strength of a family as the years ran by.
I was fifteen years old when my father chose a bride for me. We went to see her during the week of Passover. It took us three hours on horseback to travel from Ferescul to Gebirge, where she lived with her father and her grandmother. Her mother had died when she was very little and her father had an inn very much like our own. Eltse was small and so shy that she didn’t say a single word to me all the time I was there. But she was very pleasant to look at, with a wealth of brown hair on her head and skin the color of cream. She moved very quickly, but her face was serene and her voice soft, not shrill like some women’s. I remember my pleasure at her tiny ankles. The women in my family had ankles like tree stumps. Her father gave me a beautiful silver watch worth ten Even when, the finest present I had ever received. My father, may he rest in peace, left the bride forty gilden. We stayed with them from Friday until Sunday morning and then went home, not to return or write to each other for four years.
At home there was no talk of a livelihood for me. It was understood that when the time came I would find some small business that would earn us our bread. I spent the four years studying at the synagogue, occasionally helping my father in the inn or my uncle in the forest, where he employed many men to fell the trees.
Even when it was time for the wedding and my new clothes were prepared, when the pantry was filling with the baked goods and meats that we would take to the wedding, I had no idea of how I would support my bride. Our family traveled to the wedding together with a wagon of strudel, lekach, and fluden, with herring, wine, and brandy besides. There was my trunk of new clothes, with new boots half a yard tall, and a new fox-lined coat that was my great joy.
It was May, and the wedding was outdoors. The trees were covered with blossoms and it seemed that only good things were possible. There was dancing and feasting for a week and then the guests went home and my little wife went back to her tasks and I looked for things to do, during the three months kest. There was nothing in her village to keep us there when the three months were over and we decided to return to Feres-cul, where my parents lived. I had heard that there was a mill there for sale and we prepared to buy it. We packed our clothes, the pots, pans, and linens that were part of the dowry, and arranged to travel on a splaf, a flat raft made of thirty or forty logs tied together. The splaf traveled on the man-made waterway between Kanyateh and Vish-nitz. We were traveling only five of the ten miles. The splaf was used in warm weather, when the water tumbled noisily over the dam, carrying with it whatever came in its way. The water was full of large stones, roots, and branches and it took a strong and skillful man to manage a splaf safely. In the winter-time, the water was a thin sheet of ice and horses with cleats on their shoes pulled sleds along the frozen way.
The morning of our departure, the grandmother decided that she would come along and visit my parents for a few days. We were all busy packing and finally I loaded our possessions on the splaf, the trunk of clothes, the bedding, and household goods. I wrapped rags around the trunk and tied the smaller packages to the logs so that I need not worry that they would fall into the water. When I was ready, I helped Eltse on and sat her on top of the trunk and then went back for the grandmother. “Is it safe?” she asked me, pointing to a deep crack between two of the logs. She was really frightened and clung to the railing of the dock until some of the other passengers mocked her. “The crack was there when you were young and beautiful, old one,” someone said. I pulled her away from the rail and put her on top of the trunk, next to my wife. Eltse comforted her and gossiped with her to distract her from her fear and I watched the driver, marveling how he maneuvered the splaf through the boulders and stumps in the water. The sun was warm and the water sparkling. There were willows along both banks bent into the water like girls washing their hair. We passed some wild ducks, some fisherman on the shore. People waved to us, little children hooted, and we heard halloos from the wagons that passed on the road along the water’s edge. Then with no warning, without a chance to catch a breath, the peace and quiet was broken by a tearing sound and my feet parted of themselves beneath me as the splaf began to break in two. By the time I regained my footing and turned to my dear one, the logs had broken apart, pouring the people and trunks into the water. I hurried to my wife, who was struggling to keep the old lady afloat. The water reached to their necks, but the current was strong and they were so frightened that their fear alone could have drowned them. I held on to the two of them and together we made our way to the shore, our clothes heavy weights about our legs, our shoes deep in the mud that tried to suck us into the earth. When I saw my charges safe on the ground, I returned into the water to see what I could find of our possessions. Those that were tied to the logs had already gone downstream. The heavy trunk was deep in the mud, entangled in branches, sopping with water. I reached down again and again. It was impossible to lift it. Finally I opened it. The water had already seeped into it anyway and everything was ruined. I came back to shore with a small handful of wet clothes and linens, all I could carry, and we sat together on the shore as dumb and bewildered as the other survivors. Next to us lay the bodies of two who had lost more than their possessions. The driver was one of them. We all looked out on the water on which there was no vestige of the accident. The sun still shone brightly and the leaves shimmered on the trees. It was hard to thank Him for our lives, sitting there wet with all our possessions in the mud. My dear one sat biting her lips, silently, not crying for all of the years of work that she had lost, though when I thought of my new fox-lined coat that I had never worn and would never even see, my lips trembled. The old one wailed and sobbed and we could say nothing to comfort her because she said again and again, “I knew and I knew and no one listened to me.”
We went in a wagon the rest of the journey and came home to my father’s house empty-handed. But we bought the mill anyway. My uncle lent me the money and we had nothing else we could do. Did I say we bought the mill? It was the mill with the two stones and the hard dirt floor that bought us. Not only did it buy us but it was ready to devour us alive. It was a silent mill, with few customers bringing grain to grind. It earned us the water for our kashe, but the kashe we had to earn for ourselves. After a few hungry months, when we had imposed too long upon my father, who had other children to provide for, I left my wife at the mill and went to work in the forest for my uncle. His land was a day’s journey away. My job was to supervise the thirty young men who cut the trees, to keep them at their work, to stop their fighting, to make sure they made a full profit for Uncle David. The forest, however, is a proper place for animals and when human beings go into it to live it treats them just as it treats the bears and the wolves. We slept on the hard, bare ground, winter and summer. We ate mame-lige and brinze for breakfast, dinner, and supper. On the Sabbath, for a change I ate the mamelige cold instead of warm. Meanwhile my wife struggled with the mill alone.
When I finally came home after three months, I came with a cow that I had bought with eighty precious gilden. The cow was as big as a deer, but the milk poured out of her just as well as out of a cow for a hundred gilden. This visit, however, was so unsuccessful, that to this day the month in which it occurred gives me a feeling of anxiety. The second day that I was home I had a visitor, an envoy from no one less than His Majesty Franz Joseph himself. He knocked loudly on the door and walked in. His clothes were as bright as a bird’s, but his expression as dark as the blackest year. He came to remind me that I was twenty years old and that I had not served in the army, I, without whom they could hardly get along.
I did not sleep that night. Here we were in debt, with a mill that we could not keep, and though it could not keep us either, we could not part with it because no one else wanted it. Our first child was stirring in his mother and the prospect of four years in His Majesty’s service seemed too much to bear. One could always buy one’s freedom, but what would I use for money? Early in the morning, before the birds were up, I went out on the doorstep, rolled a cigarette, lit it as if I were going to enjoy a smoke, and then after taking a few puffs, I pressed it against the sole of my bare right foot. First one burnt hole and then another. The sweat poured down the sides of my face, mixed with tears. Then I rubbed some dirt into the sores and waited for them to fester. The next day I made a crutch so that I could walk and when the officer came again I told him that I had tried to extinguish a fire by stamping on it and had burnt my feet.
He trusted me just as I trusted him. When I told him jokingly that it was better to lose a bargain with a clever man than win with a fool, he did not laugh. “You’ll serve,” he said angrily. “You can pay the hospital bill for the cure and then you’ll come and serve.”
Well, I did not serve. I paid the hospital for its services and myself for the pain, but I kept irritating the wound with all kinds of caustic substances, and it did not heal. Four times they called me and each time I still limped. The swelling that went down on Monday came up on Thursday until they grew tired of looking at me, almost as tired as I was of them. Meanwhile, my wife, though happy to have me at home, worried about the outcome of the foolishness. She enjoyed the cow and we both reveled in the butter and the cheese that filled our empty larder. In my absence she had been baking rolls and cakes that she sold to the inns and wealthy homes, and the broken ones, the misshapen ones that she could not sell, gave us a feast every day now that we had a glass of buttermilk and a piece of cheese in addition.
Just as we began to take our little cow for granted and to love her as a useful member of the family, she was taken away from us. How? How can a cow be taken away? Not stolen, not shot by a hunter accidentally, not suddenly afflicted with a sickness. She stood blithely in the meadow, this cow of ours, in my Cousin Samson Meyer’s meadow, that is. We didn’t have a place to pasture her. A summer shower, out of the ordinary in October, began to fall out of the sky. A small clap of thunder, a larger clap, a streak of lightning cracked the heavens in two and the rain poured not only down, but sidewards also and even leaped up from the ground as if to go back into the sky again. And a bolt of lightning, with the whole earth beneath it, with forests and fields, with empty roads and rivers, chose my little cow for its target and killed her instantly. That night I sold the meat to a Gentile for five gilden. Should he ever remember to pay me, I will gladly take out my little book and inscribe the date.
I was tired, tired of calamity, tired of threats about the army, tired of the forest and the mamelige and brinze and even more than weary of the useless mill. Without telling my wife what I proposed to do, I traveled to Vishnitz, to learn a trade. I put my pride aside and apprenticed myself to a painter for fifty greitzer a day. After three months, I received a pleading letter from my wife, who had heard that instead of hunting for a business I was wielding a brush and staining my beard with paint. She begged me not to shame her by turning to a laborer’s work, only to come home and together we would find a way to keep from starving. Not too sadly, I parted from my painter boss. Just as I was leaving Vishnitz, however, I met an uncle of mine, David Sherf. I told him, when he asked how it was with me, that I was without a livelihood, my wife with child and a mill I could only sell to an enemy my only business. He seemed really sorry for me.
He had with him two horses and a wagon that he was taking to market. He expected to get as much as a hundred gilden for them, but listening to my story, he recalled that with two horses and a wagon one could earn ten gilden a day easily, without lifting a hand, by buying salt in the mines in Kose and carrying them to Yablentz. That was all there was to it, he said. I would get it on the wagon in Kose, take if off at Yablentz, and bring home ten gilden a day. Since I had not seen ten gilden in a week since my marriage, except of course in the forest, it seemed an irresistible proposition. But where could I get two horses, I who a short while ago had lost a cow? But everything was easy for my uncle. He offered me the two horses for only eighty gilden and said that I could pay him at my convenience. For the moment it seemed that all my problems were solved. He gave me the horses there in the market place and I went directly to Kose for the salt. The air was cold and biting; the blades on the wagon-sled slid quickly over the ice and made the journey easily while I counted how many weeks it would take to pay for the horses, how much money I could save by Pesach, what a wonderful bris we could have on sixty gilden a week. Finally I put the load of salt on the wagon, paid for it and turned around to Yablentz and home. I turned, but the horses stood where they were. What was the matter? Nothing was the matter. These horses just did not like to pull a load. They took two steps and sat down for a while as stubborn as donkeys. It seemed that I pulled the horses and the wagon together. The journey home, which was to take me two days, took me and my fine horses five days. When we came to Stebnitz at the foot of the hill, they stopped completely. They wouldn’t move an inch. They stood waiting for me to pull the wagon. I pleaded with them, they didn’t move. I beat them, they didn’t stir. It was twilight and I thought surely that I would remain there and freeze to death with my masters. Finally I sat down and wept and begged, “Dear God in heaven, help me for my wife and child’s sake if not my own. What have I done to deserve such a thing? Why should a man have to die of cold and hunger because two horses are lazy?” Nothing stirred on the snow. I saw not a soul, just sky, water, and a mountain, and me in the middle. Then as I sat despairing, I heard a shout from the other side of the water. “Halloo!” someone called. “Take you over the hill for twenty greitzer.” “Yah!” I called back. “Come and I’ll pay you.” Twenty greitzer, if he had asked fifty, could I stay there all night? He came from across the water with two half-dead horses. He tied them before my own, called out, “Veyohl” and in no time we were at the top of the hill. When I stopped at the inn on the other side I was like one rescued from the grave. But I was not to be much more comfortable than before. Cold, hungry, frozen as I was, I did not dare sleep in a warm bed. If I slept, what would become of the salt that had already cost me so dearly. It was so cold that birds fell dead and frozen with the snow, but I slept in the barn, at the foot of the wagon.
I brought the salt to Yablentz Friday before sundown, only a small vestige of the load I had bought, and then I had to unload the frozen pieces, without losing even more. But what is the use of telling anything further? Any of the young Gentiles who carried salt from Kose to Yablentz earned if not ten then surely five or six gilden a day, and I the great businessman who deals in horses could scarcely eke out three gilden. Why? Because my aristocratic horses did not like to work for a living. I should have sent them to the Yeshiva and let them spend their days in study. In study and eating, for they ate up whatever little they earned. Finally, only a few days before my son was born I was so steeped in hatred for them, for all the misfortune they had brought me, that half in earnest, half in jest, I said, “A little miracle, dear God, put an end to these horses before they make an end of me.” And He heard me so quickly that I could scarcely stand the shock. I came into the stall the next morning to feed the noble beasts and one of them was lying with his legs in the air. It appeared that he had fallen and his good companion had trod on him. The standing horse looked at him without regret, as though he had accomplished something out of the ordinary, a helper to the Lord of the Universe, an executor of miracles.
Where was I now? In search of a livelihood for a change. Mine had blown away as the summer blows away, leaving the whole world naked and bare. My son was born, and we made merry at the bris and the pidyon ha-ben but we sang more than we ate. My wife could make a fine repast out of a handful of sawdust, but she was not well and who else could make something out of the air. Many times we would find on Fridays and holidays that a basket of food had been left at our door. We never knew where they came from until my Aunt Miriam died and the baskets came no longer. She was a rare woman indeed, almost too good for this world. I am sorry that my children could not know her.
My uncle came running to see me when he heard about the horse. He had almost despaired of ever getting his eighty gilden. He took the good horse, so good it should have been drowned before it was born, and left me the other, which was almost, but not quite dead. In fact there was still a large spark of life in him. A peasant offered me thirty gilden for the horse, he was sure that he could cure him. But Samson Meyer, my cousin, who heard him make his offer, said, “Don’t be a fool. If he can cure it, «o can I.” Then you can get fifty gilden for him in the spring. He was so sure and so insistent. He even offered to take the horse back with him and feed him. “Whatever my cow leaves, he can have,” he promised. Finally I let him persuade me. He persuaded me, but He was persuaded otherwise. On the way to Samson’s house the horse laid himself down on the ground and died and took with him to the other world my thirty gilden. My cousin tried to comfort me, “I’ll make it up to you. It’s my fault. I’ll pay you thirty gilden for my mistake.” But he didn’t say when and I never found out.
Twenty years later, when my wife and children were ready to leave for America, my uncle collected the payment for his horse. When he came to bid them goodbye he took back with him a bundle of pillows that they had wrapped to take to the boat with them. The debt was finally paid and my aunt could add to the collection of pillows and blankets heaped in the middle of each bed which already reached halfway to the ceiling.
The next dream? Everyone said, “Josef, you need an inn, not horses. A man who can talk to people, who has some learning behind him, and many friends as you do, has no right to confine himself to dumb animals. With your reputation for good fellowship, with your family and friends alone, your fortune will be made.” I told myself that if three men look at you and say that you’re drunk, it is surely time to lie down and go to sleep. Now how many had told me about an inn? Enough to convince me. On the road between Kose and Yablentz, not far from the hill, I built a house with my own two hands. And with God’s help I finished it and opened it for business. We served meals and drinks and provided a few beds for overnight guests. All kinds of people stopped with us. The family, however, did not always understand that they were to pay for our services, and other guests did not come often enough. I remember well the night our second son was born. There was a storm outside that drenched the whole world and shook the houses and trees as if they were made of paper. We had four guests that night. The inn, however, was only one large room and my wife needed it for herself that night. I apologized to the guests and begged them to find another place to sleep. I can still see them going out into the rain, grumbling, angry at the child that wanted to come into the world. The son was born, a beautiful boy, and some of our lodgers remained long enough to come to the bris.
The inn brought us no prosperity. It was not as bad as the mill, but still not enough to keep us fed. The only other thing I could do was go back into the woods for my uncle, mamelige and brinze, and an animal’s life. Reluctant as I was, I went. It was not easy to leave a woman alone at an inn with little ones of her own to care for. The peasants who came to drink would never leave until they were drunk. Once drunk, they would try their best to kill each other. Once one took another’s eye out with his gun. They would tell my wife, while they still could talk, “If we fight don’t be frightened, we won’t hurt you. Take your children and hide yourselves on the stove until we are finished.” They never did touch her or harm her, but the fear and the worry were harm enough. I would lie night after night on the hard ground and think of how she fared there alone. Once I came home unexpectedly, to find I could not leave her there alone any longer. Eight young hooligans spent the afternoon at the house. They departed so full of drink that they could hardly stand, but when they came out of the house, they thought of a lively thing to do. They picked up handfuls of rocks and threw them at the house. Eltse and the children were on top of the stove, feeling the house shake all around them, fearful for their lives. I heard the commotion long before I reached the house. When I came in sight of the devils I was so angry that I could have killed them. One at a time, I picked them up, beat them, and threw them down on the road. Those beatings earned me the title of “hazak” an honor not often given to a Jew. But it was safer with the peasants to be feared than loved. This, however, was the end. I knew I could no longer leave my family alone. I wrote my uncle, thanked him for treating me so well and helping make my life so easy and pleasant. I told him that it was time that I brought my family to a city, or my children would only know of the brawling life in a tavern and never be able to talk to people. I decided to sell the inn and finally found a buyer who paid me five hundred gilden for it. Then we set out for
Lenkovitz, near Zemovitz. Lenkovitz was not really a large city, but after living in the woods so long it seemed like a metropolis to us.
I bought a lumber yard in Lenkovitz. It seemed like a good business. It had earned its owners kashe and wheat, fish on Friday, and meat for the Sabbath. Like the others before me, I went to Yablentz to buy wood. My uncle was pleased to hear that I too was dealing in wood, and he even gave me a present of some lumber, almost enough to build a house for ourselves. I took that as a hopeful sign, never before had my uncle given me anything for a present. I brought the wood back to Lenkovitz, an investment of two hundred gilden, ready to open my business and build a house for us to live in. Temporarily, I had set up a rough shack, no larger than a succah, with a good brick oven for cooking. We planned to live there until I could obtain a permit to put up our house.
What does the Almighty do? He brings a flood to Lenkovitz that floats the whole town away. Our little shack was high up on a hill and from our window we could see the water rising and rising, houses swimming on the water, people in boats where forests and fields once were. The lumber yard was at the bottom of the hill and we saw that swim away as if we had not paid for it. The water came up to our doorstep and began to recede. My lumber yard was left unrecognizable and not until six weeks later did the water recede sufficiently so that I could see if I could find anything of my investment of two hundred gilden. I found very little, salvaging only enough to build a house, with little to sell, though there would have been plenty of customers had I had some lumber to sell.
It was necessary to have a building permit in order to build a house in Lenkovitz. Jews did not get permits without great sums of money. I, of course, had no money. The peasants in the neighborhood came to see me as soon as I had bought the land and told me quite plainly that if I should try to put up a house without a permit, they would promptly burn it down. They said, however, that with a permit I could do as I pleased.
I thought about the matter for a while and then went to the mayor of the town, and brought along a present for him, a bottle of very fine schnapps. “What do you want?” he asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “Only that you taste what I brought you.” He did me a great favor and tasted a little. I let the taste speak for me. After all, how can one know a stranger? One who bears goods gifts must surely be good himself. Meanwhile he took one taste and another and called to the kitchen that potatoes should be put on to bake. It didn’t take long before he became quite gay and exchanged all manner of familiarities with me, jokes about the town, about the flood, about women and such things. Then cautiously, but firmly, I told him that I had a small request to make, one that he must not refuse. He leaned back in his chair and said that for his part all things were possible. I told him then that I wanted to build a small house but was afraid that my neighbors would not let me if I did not have a permit. I showed him my receipt for payment for the land and then took out the paper requesting a permit, already filled in, and gave it to him to sign. He called his wife and asked for the seal. She moistened it carefully arid pasted it on the paper. “Here you are,” he said. I left the schnapps and hurried home. I immediately began to build. The next morning a crowd of people came to inquire about my permit. There was no friendship in their faces, but when I showed them the seal they turned themselves toward town to see the mayor. The mayor had slept well, and when he awoke he had forgotten about me, about the seal, and my house. When the villagers were done with him, they gave him reason to forget the taste of the schnapps too. But I built my house with neither the approval nor the friendship of my neighbors. We lived in Lenkovitz for eight years, never earning a proper living. I decided again to sell my house and my business and go to a large city either to work or find a business. We came then to Lemberg [or Luov].
LEMBERG was a large city with much business, much work, and many, many poor people. Here, I said, if I am miserable I will be no worse than the others. I sold the house in Lenkovitz and took my children, who by this time numbered seven, and traveled to Lemberg.
We searched until we found a place to live. The only thing we could pay for was a tailor’s shop. It was one large room. The tailor worked there all day with his assistant and we had the room all night. The rent was six gilden a month, a terrible price for so little. But my wife, my children, and I, and two boarders, besides, lived there for several years. My children were able to find work in the city, though I walked the streets from early morning till late at night, and found nothing to employ me. Once in a while I found something for a few days but the wages were no more than seven gilden a week. Still, if it had lasted a week I would have felt myself lucky. If it weren’t for the children’s earnings we could have starved. Itzik, my eldest son, earned eight gilden a week, of which he gave me five. Chantze earned sixty cents, Brantze two gilden, and Rachel fifty cents. The others earned nothing.
We lived on old bread and herring, and it was a sad Sabbath that did not find even that on the table. I remember such a Sabbath, when I wanted to borrow a gilden. I came to a man who could lend one, offering my tallis as collateral. But the value of talleisim was small in Lemberg and I had to return home for my coat. I borrowed the gilden and we had more than enough to eat.
When the children grew older and earned more we took other rooms, and paid as much as twelve gilden a month. But in all the time in Lemberg we always lived from hand to mouth and there were many times when the hand went to the mouth empty. One evening the children came home from work and found nothing to eat for supper. I asked them to pretend that it was Yom Kippur, to go to bed without complaining, and in the morning there would surely be something for them. But God brought the morning and forgot the breakfast. Again I promised them, go to work, when you come home there will surely be something for you.
Such days and nights were not infrequent in Lemberg. Our dear God gave us the strength and patience to bear it. Not only to bear it, but not to bow our heads before it. Of all of us, my good wife was the strongest. At a time when we went hungry every other day she found a wallet with a hundred gilden that the landlady had lost. A hundred gilden was a fortune for us, but she returned it. I don’t know what For my children would have done. But in returning it she made me richer than by keeping it. For the moment, it seemed that we could afford to return it. Each day I ask for her only strength and health, that she may yet be happy with the children for whom she suffered and struggled so much. Many times, during the lean years, I thought that our children were fortunate indeed that their own mother, and not a strange woman, had borne them.
The time came when we could not bear the bleak future of Lemberg any longer. My parents had married off their youngest child and gone to Palestine to die. My older sons were soon to be threatened with service in the army. The hope of the world was in America and we, who had nothing to leave behind, were ready to go. I went first with my two eldest children, and as soon as we had saved enough for passage for the others my wife came with them.
Earning a living in America was a different problem. Here there was no shame, except for a lazy man. One put oneself in harness and worked. It was not possible to grow rich, but I was no longer concerned with riches. It was more important that we were in no danger any longer of being hungry or homeless. My sons and I were all painters. We painted tenements and stores, synagogues, covered with murals, wedding halls, and endless apartments. I thanked Him every day for the chance to work.
The work, the hard work, is done now. My sons and daughters look out for me. Our needs are not great. I have no complaints against the Lord of the Universe. I wish for my children and my children’s children an easier life than my own, but when they reach my years may they not be less satisfied than I. Let them remember too that more important than an easy life is the strength to withstand whatever life He gives.
There it ended. I was thirteen years old when he died. I remember watching in awe while all the adults I knew, and many I had never seen before, crowded his house, the hallways, and the street outside. Many wept loudly and wrung their hands. I had loved him, but I couldn’t cry, though my knees were weak and the ground shifted beneath my feet. It was much later that I knew that they wept not only for him, they wept because fathers die; they wept for innocence and certainty; for an old order that was dying, that they could not keep and could not bear to throw away. Surely some wept because the Lord’s watchman was gone and they were not sure that they could commune with Him alone.
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From the American Scene: The Story of Josef Neuberger
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.