South America is also America; and “From the American Scene” this month takes us to Bogotá, Colombia. How does a Jew live in such an odd, faraway place? The poet Jacob Glatstein found out from a fellow-traveler on an ocean voyage, and the account appears in his book Ven Yash is Geforen (1938), the first volume of a prose trilogy based on a trip to Poland before the war. Mr. Glatstein will be remembered by readers of COMMENTARY for his story “Citizen God” (May, 1947), and his long poem “The Bratzlav Rabbi to His Scribe” (November, 1946).
You’re traveling from New York, so I’ll try to give you a slight description of what it’s like where I live. Imagine that you’ve gone mad, God save us, and you’re set on going to Bogotá. When I say to you Colombia, Bogotá—with the accent on the a—you just hear names. If you know geography, well and good! In any case, you don’t really know it. You get on a ship in New York and you go for seven days on the ocean until you arrive at a small town, Carthagena in Colombia. What a blessing, you’re in Colombia! But wait, no farewells yet! You’re not there yet! Your troubles are just beginning.
“You take a train to the Magdalena River. The Magdalena is the true ‘Sambatyon’ and the little red-bearded Jews who live on the other bank are us ‘apes,’ the peddlers who hustle and bustle to keep the pot full.
“So we’re at the Magdalena. You travel by boat. Boat!—What a boat!—A wreck, a wooden box that drags along—one day, two days, three, four, five! And then all of a sudden you’re on a train. What happened? The Magdalena is indisposed. Right there it’s her whim to have a waterfall, which is good for neither boat nor passengers. So you go around it on a train until you reach the Magdalena again and continue on your way. After a while you come to a small town and take a train again, but this time to Bogotá, with the accent on the a.
“The train goes up and up until you’re four thousand feet high, riding along by a coffee forest, with beautiful plantations, and the coffee drying in the sun. Coffee trees like it that high, in the cold mountain air. A coffee sapling, about as tall as a man, loves to have you slave and slave over it. Let me tell you, it’s like the building of Pithom and Raamses before you get a little coffee in your cup. It’s no sitting back and watching the coffee grow: you have to nurse the tree and keep it happy before it’s any good to you. . . .
“Well, so you’ve had a free lecture and just because you’re riding to Bogotá. Serves you right! You ride along like that for hours and hours, passing all those pretty villages, and then you come to Bogotá. . . . I’ve buried my best years there.”
The tall Bessarabian settles down and begins to talk about how he went to Ecuador in 1922, when he was twenty, from there to Peru, and in the very first year he made ten thousand dollars peddling.
Why Ecuador? Why Peru? How does this happen to a Jewish boy? Well, you don’t ask questions of life. It was a friend who got him to go to those places. To this friend he owes thanks for the good fortune that sticks in his throat like a bone.
In Peru, a thousand young men were already there—peddling. And he had always been a promoter, an organizer; he made himself manager of the peddlers. He loaned them money and merchandise, and he made his thirty per cent profit.
But in 1925 the atmosphere in Peru suddenly changed for Jews. The peddlers had to run off and of course they forgot to pay their debts. He went bankrupt.
Chile is also a country. So he popped up in Chile, dealt in hides, and pretty soon he had twenty-five thousand dollars. The Supreme One is a Father, and a hard-working young man doesn’t get lost. With his twenty-five thousand dollars he came to Bogotá, Colombia, in 1929.
Thus began the chapter “Colombia”—“may it sink into the abyss!”
In Colombia he found several wealthy “Russian” coffee magnates and a few hundred Jewish young men—or “boys” as they are called there.
“Why ‘boys’? Very simple—because they aren’t married. That’s where all the trouble is. You see? Four hundred young Jews go around, peddle, make a nice living. And if one of them wants to set up a home—as the Bible teaches—to lead a respectable family life, there’s no one to do it with.
“Go deeply into our situation—a whole country without Jewish brides. No shadchan and no badchan, no marriage broker and no wedding bard. It’s a terrible pity. Everything is with the buttered side down, because there’s no Jewish wife with tender hands to take a fellow by his ear and say to him: Time to amount to something. Without a wife, what does life amount to?—hustle and bustle, no roots, nothing. Jewish houses stand empty and lament, and around the houses are trees and they lament too. Life is as normal as a pea on a wall, and just because there’s no Sarah, no Rebecca, no Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Braindle, Zlota. Not one to be had! So you walk around like half a person—one half is in Bogotá and the other half, the mate, doesn’t exist.
“Bogotá has about thirty established Jewish families that haven’t been long in the country and haven’t yet had time to raise marriageable daughters. The few there were we caught up at their own terms, and now we’re waiting for the young ones to grow up like waiting for the Messiah. What can you do? No Jewish girls!
“So you go around hungering and a bachelor. Some of the boys went off on the adventure of intermarriage with the Spanish-Indian-Negroid girls, but they’ve been no great success and are very poor examples for the other boys.
“Why we don’t import some Jewish girls? Let them be ugly as death, cross-eyed and pock-marked, for us they’d be like angels out of heaven. With us their luck would shine like the sun! We’d chase them, we’d fight over them—duels! We’d sing serenades to them under their windows! But—ach!—what crazy woman is crazy enough to come to Bogotá?”
“But how does life flow in general?”
The Bessarabian takes his time. Calmly, deliberately, but with a flow of words that have been lying deep, deep within him, he plucks at my heartstrings on behalf of this marooned tribe of his; he tries to throw on my shoulders responsibility for these newly-acquired relatives in this out-of-the way community. My poor shoulders, which already bend lower and lower under the weight of Jewish brotherhood, Jewish blood—a whole world of Jews! Not only Rumania, Poland, America, Russia, Holland, France; there are Hindu Jews in Calcutta, yellow-skinned Jews with almond-shaped eyes in China, Yemenites, even Falashas; there are Arabian Jews in Algeria, Spanish Jews in Greece; and if that wasn’t enough, now he comes along with this new trouble—Jewish suffering in Colombia.
“Maybe the climate’s good for the natives. But not for Jews—cold, rainy, dreary. You go around all the time with a sour face. In Peru, it rains—within reason. In Colombia it pours, and it drenches body and being.
“What holds the young men together? Loneliness.
“We have a kind of society—Ezrah, mutual aid in case of need—for those who have to be set on their feet again. Yom Kippur also brings us together a little. But it’s not a Jewish Yom Kippur. We remember the prayers—Kol Nidre and Unsahne Tokef—so we hire a room where we gabble some liturgy. But the whole year long we’re without religion, neither Sabbath nor holiday, and we work like mules.
“Do you think we have a shochet? Not even a shochet for the few score Jewish families and the ‘boys.’ Little by little we learn to eat treife meat, may it bring us no harm! A while ago we bought a little land for a Jewish cemetery. A few young men turned up their toes and had to be buried in the Christian cemetery. So we worked until we bought a strip of land for ourselves for after 120 years. So death is taken care of.
“But life is bitter. Don’t think I yearn so much for the shochet, or the prayers. If we had at least something, at least what is known in refined language as ideals, it wouldn’t be so bad. If not a prayerbook, let there at least be a Yiddish book, a newspaper. But to have nothing at all—you simply become lousy. If you’re not religious, at least be informed, at least know what’s going on in the world. But we’re nothing but ignoramuses.
“So we’re back where we started—healthy young men go around without wives, can’t establish a home. Nevertheless they don’t do any fasting. But what else can we do? A man can’t sleep, night after night, all alone in a bachelor’s bed. You can’t hang a lock on human nature. You can’t show the thumb to the Evil One, who won’t let himself be swindled or driven off by incantations.
“We’re so hungry for wives that some of us pick out a small Colombian girl while she’s going to school. The young man immediately negotiates the marriage and brings her up. For the Colombian parents it’s a stroke of luck. The Jew pays all her expenses and rears a wife.
“We have several couples like that. The Colombian women have even become converts, and so far things are going along smoothly: the women are accustomed to their husbands from childhood on. One of them, a delicate child, fainted twice last Yom Kippur, but she completed the fast. And even though they’re so much younger than their husbands, they stick to them, their ‘governesses’ who raised them for little wives almost on their knees. But such fortunate cases are an exception. How many people can have the patience to pick a small girl and sit down and wait?
“In short, you see for yourself it’s far from a pleasant life. When Sunday comes you go around all morning collecting the debts of the week. In the afternoon you sit down to some card playing. On this you expend a great deal of passion and also lose two or three hundred dollars. Then you take a bath to wash off the dust that collects during the week, and you sit down again to play cards. At night you go to a dance hall where you hire a girl for six cents a dance.
“The next day is Monday. You get up with a bitter taste in the mouth and go back to working like a mule.
“Passover is somewhat of a break. Some forty young men get together in a house and stuff themselves and get drunk. The Haggadah isn’t read. The gluttony, however, is a souvenir of the holiday. And there you have our entire spiritual life. It’s lucky that the Jewish cemetery is flourishing and waiting for the end!”