An excerpt from “You Have to Yell” by Joseph Opatoshu
Translated by Shulamith Berger
Yiddish novel Hibru,
by Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954) portrays the professional and
personal lives of teachers, young immigrant men from Eastern Europe.
It is set on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1910s. The title
refers to Hebrew schools, supplementary schools boys attended on
Sundays and on weekday afternoons after public school was finished
for the day. The Hebrew schools provided students with a Jewish
education and prepared them for their bar mitzvahs. This excerpt,
chapter 6 of the novel, focuses on the budding romance between Green,
one of the teachers, and Bessie, the daughter of the President of the
Hebrew School where Green teaches. The setting is the bohemian milieu
frequented by the Jewish intelligentsia of the time.
Translated from Yiddish by Shulamith Z. Berger.
Chapter title supplied by the translator.
Thank you to Dan Opatoshu for granting permission to publish the translation.
The scene in the “Green Paw” was rollicking. From a distance, the narrow two-story building resembled a peasant’s hut. The small low-ceilinged rooms were jam-packed with people. An unpainted wooden ladder-like stairway with a handrail led to the restaurant. It swayed and groaned under the slightest weight as if it was about to snap in two. Kerosene and candle lanterns cast a dim light in the corridor. The doors in the hallway were painted with images of green animal paws and bird claws; they might have been a sorcerer’s magical handiwork. The small rooms were crowded with people seldom seen on the streets of New York. The men were dressed carelessly, with faces which betrayed worry even while they laughed. The women wore mannish clothing; at first glance, their bobbed hair and the cigarettes in their mouths made them appear to be boys dressed up. They gave the impression of people who sleep by day, and at night, when the rule of law and its obedient children slumber, they creep out of their tiny bedrooms, slink unnoticed along the tenement walls, and scurry to the Village.
Young men and women sat at tables painted green, drank, smoked, and the uproar seemed to hover over their heads like steam; it irritated their throats. Unglazed pottery, long-necked pitchers, and clay jugs hung on the walls. They looked like antiquities excavated from the depths of the earth.
The owner of the place was short and broad-shouldered. He was dressed, God alone knows why, in a capote–like Hungarian national coat with a wide green sash wrapped around his stomach, tied in a knot at the right side. The bowl of a smoking pipe, a half-circle decorated with colored beads and claws, peeked out through the fringes. As he ran from table to table with a small pipe carelessly dangling from the edge of his mouth, he took orders and chatted with each patron in that person’s native tongue.
His wife was older than he; a brunette who wore loose, loud clothing and sported strands of coins awkwardly wound around her neck and bare arms. She looked like a Spanish street singer. A black velvet band wove through her trimmed dark hair which fell over her cheeks, creating a more youthful appearance. She sat down at different tables, drank with the customers, collected money, and put it in the folds of her dress, fashioning it into a pocket.
A group of young men and women sat at a long table singing, “The Yanks are coming” to the melody of the Yiddish song – the lament of the poor yeshiva student — “Mai ka mashma lan der regn; What is the rain here to explain?” A few people sitting nearby – who weren’t Jewish – joined in.
Across from the group sat a young non-Jewish man with a woman at a small table. Both had bloodshot eyes. The man sketched the woman’s portrait on the wall. She was so thrilled she grasped his hand and kissed it. The man jumped up with a start even though he could hardly keep his balance. But no matter what the circumstances were, he couldn’t let a woman kiss his hand. He pressed his lips to hers and stammered, “You, mustn’t, a lady mustn’t…”
“Ah,” the woman lifted her hand from her heart with a grand gesture, kissed him again, and proclaimed, “it’s an honor to kiss such a hand!”
The man fell to the woman’s feet, hid his hands so she wouldn’t find them, and kissed her dress. She searched for his hands, struggled with him; they landed in each other’s arms and stayed there.
The neighboring crowd didn’t even notice.
The editor of the Getsen Diner, the Pagan, sat in a corner on a mattress proofreading, surrounded by his colleagues.
When they entered Bessie stood and gaped. She looked all around, taking everything in. Anyone who saw her could tell she was here for the first time.
Someone recognized Green. Everyone at the table rose, applauded, and sang “the Yanks are coming, coming, coming…” to the Yiddish tune.
A forty-something year old man with hollow cheeks, a twinkle in his eye, and a small round saucer-like bald spot, spotted Bessie, got up to make room, and offered his hand to Green. He looked at Bessie again, and said, “Hello, Green! Why don’t you introduce me to your lady?”
“If you’d give me a chance…” Green retorted, defending himself as he turned to Bessie, “Shlomo Mandel, this is Miss Schultz!”
Mandel held Bessie’s hand in his for a while. He sized her up, trying to gauge what kind of impression his name made on her, and if not for a bunch of wise guys who seated themselves at the table he would have told the young woman, who had just heard his name for the first time, that she had just been introduced to the greatest Yiddish novelist.
The crowd at the table quieted down for a while. Mandel was cheerful because a girl was sitting next to him. He exchanged glances with the others at the table and nudged Green, “Why don’t you introduce her to everyone else?” And before Green had time to answer him, Mandel took Bessie’s arm and started imitating an emcee, “This is none other than our great humorist, Moshe Hozek the Mocker; now I will introduce the so-called great Yiddish novelist, Zalkind.“
“Why not the greatest?” someone called out.
“Because I’m the greatest!” Mandel answered, bursting out laughing at his own witticism, and continued, “Big. Big is a painter, his paintings grace the walls of the ‘Green Paw;’ and Weiss is the greatest Yiddish critic.”
“If Weiss is the greatest, then what am I?” asked a young man with blonde hair.
“When I become a fan of yours, you’ll be the greatest!” Mandel laughed so hard, he fell onto his chair.
The crowd joined in the laughter. It was the first time Bessie had spent time with a group like this. She felt lucky and took every opportunity to show Green how grateful she was. She looked at the few women at the table, examined their clothing, their bearing, and was sure she could rival them all.
Mandel jingled the change in his pockets. “Guys, let’s order some wine!”
Silver coins began to fly. A pale young man with a black beard, made-up like an actor, collected the money and Mandel called loudly to the owner,
“Uncle, come over here!”
The proprietor pretended not to hear, as though it was beneath his dignity to be addressed in Yiddish, and he went to other tables. Mandel gestured at the proprietress to beckon her to come over. “You speak Yiddish, don’t you?”
“Yes, I learned it here.”
“Where, in the ‘Village’?”
“But you do speak Yiddish?” Mandel stroked her hand and his eyes widened.
“What’s your name?”
“I mean in Yiddish?”
“Regina!” She tossed her shoulders and the strands of coins clinked.
“In Yiddish your name isn’t Regina, in Yiddish you’re probably Reyzel, aren’t you?” he put his arm around her, “Nu, Reyzele, how about a glass of wine?”
She twisted out of Mandel’s arms and ran off to another table where a group was about to leave.
The proprietor brought over a few pitchers of wine and some glasses. The crowd started to drink and grew even more high-spirited. While they were singing the chairs moved — seemingly of their own accord — and the men revolved around the radiant women, like flies surrounding a flame. Bessie’s fingers intertwined with Green’s; she bent over and whispered in his ear, “Is this a Jewish place?”
“But who’s that sitting on the mattress?”
“That’s the editor of the Pagan.”
“It’s a monthly journal, it’s called the Pagan.”
“What is he, an Indian?”
“What gave you that idea?” Green laughed.
“I don’t know, Indians are idol worshippers,” Bessie was flustered.
“No, he’s Jewish, we Jews deal with everything!” he squeezed her hand harder.
An almost completely gray-haired older man sat with a Jew with long hair, a born bohemian, at a small table behind Green. No one knew where he was from or what language he spoke. Green noticed that the proprietor sat down and listened to the gray-haired man talk about Edward, the English king, as if he knew him personally. When he took out a gold watch and said it was a present from the king, the proprietor hitched up his capote–like Hungarian national coat, winked at the long-haired Jew and interjected in Yiddish, “He thinks he met an idiot who believes him!”
Green pointed out the gray-haired man to Bessie,
“You see the old man at the table, he’s the “gentleman” Oscar Wilde wrote about in his De Profundis. When Wilde was led to jail in shackles and the crowd jeered and spit at him, the old man was the only one who tipped his top hat and greeted him.”
A man stood in the doorway looking around. His eyes rested on the young non-Jewish man with the woman, who were sitting arm in arm. The young man, sensing someone looking at him, turned his head, his face the color of putty, and extricated himself from the woman’s arms. The man walked a few steps, stopped, and addressed the woman, “Lucy, I beg you, go home, the baby’s crying!” She didn’t answer him. With one animal-like move, he leaped at the young man, grabbed him by the throat and hit him so hard that his head jerked back, as though it was made of rubber. Then he hissed through his teeth,
“You skunk! What are you doing with my wife?”
Green saw the gray-haired man take them aside and convince the woman to go home. He comforted the young man who sat and whimpered, either because he’d been beaten or because the woman was gone, and Green reminded himself of Wilde’s words, “Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.”
An unshaven young man entered from the kitchen. Everyone had a smile ready for him, they all tried to catch his eye in order to greet him. But he didn’t look at anyone; he made his way through the crowd, went directly to Mandel and sat down. The group around the table became livelier. Now everyone knew they could now order whatever their hearts desired on the young man’s account. The proprietor and his wife stood near him taking orders and kept complimenting him effusively. The weary young man didn’t pay attention to anyone. He shooed the proprietors away and complained to Mandel, who could hardly understand him, “It’s not good to be the son of a great man! Not good!”
“Go invent a telephone yourself!” Mandel suggested to him, speaking partly in Yiddish.
“It won’t help!” the young man whispered into his ear, “People still won’t call me by my name, no matter what, I’ll always be known as my father’s son!”
“You want to become famous?” Mandel took his hand, “I have a plan for you!”
“What sort of plan?”
“The theater,” Mandel began, “won’t make you famous. That’s nothing new in America. I have something else for you. Listen to me and publish a weekly Yiddish newspaper. Why are you smiling?”
“They’ll all say I’m wasting my father’s money!” He planted his fists on the table and rested his chin on them.
People were dancing on the second floor, waltzing right over everyone’s heads. The thin ceiling swayed under the dancers’ feet. One hearty jump might send the boards crashing down. The crowd couldn’t stay still. People rose to the rhythm and every man searched for a woman to dance with.
Green put his arm around Bessie’s waist. Glowing, she cuddled up to him. She didn’t ask where he was leading her; she ran up to the second floor with him.
On the shining floor in a large, semi-darkened hall, a few couples danced to the beat of a waltz. A tall, thin man sat playing the piano, he looked like he was playing with his entire body.
Green flew with Bessie. She seemed so light he didn’t even feel her in his hands. He circled around, flitted with her from corner to corner; whenever he spotted an empty bench, he danced towards it, but each time a couple materialized and took the bench, so he kept whirling around.
They remained standing, looked at each other, grinned, and sat down happily. They each felt they ought to say something even though they understood each other at a glance; and Green, putting his hand on hers, asked a run-of-the-mill question, “Nu, how do I dance?”
“Fine, very fine!”
A young man with a feminine waist entered with a woman.
Lifschitz and the woman approached a bit closer; Lifschitz motioned to Green,
“I’d like to introduce you: Mr. Green, a Yiddish poet, and this is Miss Mayer.”
“A pleasure,” Miss Mayer repeated several times and sat next to Green, “This is the first time I’m actually meeting a Yiddish poet.”
Green was angry at himself for being flustered when he heard the woman’s name even though he wasn’t sure if she was really the millionaire Mayer’s daughter or not. He introduced Bessie, noticed that she also seemed taken aback; he was tempted to say something to offend Miss Mayer, but remained silent.
“I see you’re here for the first time,” Lifschitz said. He brushed his knee with a silk glove and looked pleased with himself.
“Why are you so sure?” Bessie looked at him and felt herself blush.
“Simply because I’m seeing you here for the first time,” he laughed, and his full cheeks became rosy, like a girl wearing make-up.
“So you know everyone here?” Bessie forced herself to smile.
“Just about everyone,” he glanced at his watch which was buckled around his wrist with a leather band, “I’ve come here three times a day for the past ten years. It’s been through five owners during that time and the crowd, you understand, is a select one, so a new face stands out! I’ll show you, I just walked around with Miss Mayer,” he leaned towards Bessie as he spoke, cupped his hand over his mouth and lowered his voice, “she’s the youngest daughter of Mayer the millionaire. Everyone looked at us. They recognized immediately that she’s not from the ‘Village.’ Yes, I know everyone here. Most of them don’t know that my name is Lifschitz, they all call me Beethoven.”
“So you’re a composer?” Bessie asked him.
“No,” he made a face and looked like an embarrassed girl, “I’m a critic. If you’re interested in music and read Di Tsayt, The Time, you should know my name. I write twice a week under the name ‘Leo.’”
Bessie felt guilty since she’d never heard his name, reddened, was uncomfortable that she had blushed and stammered, “Read it, of course I’ve read it! That’s you? I’m pleased to meet you!”
Lifschitz melted with pride, started to get up, and playfully held his hand out to Bessie. He looked like a young woman who had just received her first compliment. His thoughts were confused. He couldn’t sort them out; they started in the middle, like the elusive origin of a string hidden in the midst of a ball of twine. He realized the silence was lasting a trifle too long; it might interfere with Miss Mayer’s conversation with Green. He started saying whatever entered his head, “Yes, Green and I are old friends! I was also a Hebrew teacher years ago, but it’s good I’m through with that. I don’t understand how I managed then. Now I spend more on cigarettes than I earned as a teacher! I argue with Green – what do you need it for? Green is a very talented person. I know a lot of people and if he weren’t so stubborn, I would have already found something for him! Let’s not kid ourselves, if I hadn’t torn myself out of the East Side at the right time, what would’ve become of me? A comrade! The same fate as thousands of others, who throw away their best years, ruin their careers, so a few demagogues, their leaders, can live like noblemen!”
“According to you, Mr. Lifschitz,” Bessie interrupted, “there are no honest people!”
“There are, but not among leaders of political parties, every leader, almost without exception, is a demagogue! I’m convinced that the most genuine, interesting people are tramps and millionaires. They both don’t need to flatter anyone, they don’t need favors from anyone… Yes, what was I getting at?” Lifschitz wrinkled his forehead, “Yes, last week I was invited to Hildheim for dinner. He’s the youngest brother of the copper magnates. During the meal he read poems by a young Serbian poet, interesting poems – I happened to have Green’s most recent cycle of poems with me and read it to him. What should I tell you? He couldn’t believe someone could write poems like that in Yiddish and pleaded with me to bring Green to him. You’d think that’s good, eh? Is there a better opportunity? Green claims that if Hildheim wants to see him, let Hildheim go to him, he also has an address. I tell you it’s crazy! Me, for one reader like Hildheim I’d give away a few hundred readers from the East-Side! But never mind,” Lifschitz smiled, “You’ve got to forgive Green! You know he’s a great poet?”
“Of course I know!” Bessie answered proudly as she blushed.
“I also write poetry,” Lifschitz threw in nonchalantly, as though he wasn’t hinting at anything. “It’s only for myself, I don’t publish. By the way, do you have time tomorrow?”
“Why, what’s happening?”
“Tomorrow evening Caruso is singing La Bohème.”
“I know. He’s performing in the stadium at City College. But I couldn’t get tickets anymore.”
“If you don’t have anything against it,” Lifschitz got up and bowed, “you can join me in my box.”
“On the contrary,” Bessie thanked him, though she really wanted him to leave her alone. She was angry with Green for talking to the millionaire’s daughter for so long and forgetting all about her. She planned to hint to him that she’d like to go home.
“So where should I meet you tomorrow?” Lifschitz asked her.
“What?” Bessie was startled, “Where should we meet? Call for me at 7 o’clock. Good, come right at seven, will you come?”
“What kind of question is that?” Lifschitz took out a notebook, “Where do you live?”
“Give me the book, I’ll write it down.”
In the meantime, Miss Mayer got up, said goodbye to Green and offered her hand to Bessie, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. ‘Auf wiedersehen’!”
After Miss Mayer and Lifschitz left, Bessie sat looking strained, her eyes downcast. Green didn’t know what it meant and inched closer to her.
“What is it, Bessie? Are you angry?”
“Of course I’m angry!”
“For… you know…”
“That’s forbidden,” he cradled her chin.
“You left me sitting so long!”
“But weren’t you sitting with Lifschitz?”
“He’s a fool!”
“Are you really angry?”
“Of course I’m angry! She leaned her head on him.
“I don’t understand why you had so much to say to Miss Mayer? After all, she’s a total stranger.”
“Because she’s a stranger — that’s exactly why there’s something to say,” Green smiled.
“If she weren’t a millionaire’s daughter…”
“What?” Green interrupted her.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Bessie!” He waved his hand dismissively and turned away from her.
Suddenly he felt hemmed in. He wanted to uproot everything, spare nothing, if only he could stay free. Bessie propped up her head with her hand, puckered her upper lip and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were wet, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Green couldn’t bear to see her cry, felt his anger cooling, and turned to her.
“Nu, Bessie, calm down!”
“But I love you!”
“Don’t say that, my child!”
“Because your father won’t have a teacher for a son-in-law!”
“So I’ll come visit you, okay?”
“My big boy! You know, Lifschitz invited me to go with him to the stadium tomorrow. Caruso is singing. Should I go?”
“Go, why not?”
“And it won’t bother you?”
“Why should it bother me?”
“I want it to bother you!”
“You’re being silly.”
“So why would it bother me if you went with someone else?”
“Because you’re being silly!”
“My dear boy! You know, I really always believed that a poet is a different kind of person, free of all the ugly things we do, isn’t that so? Listen, what is Lifschitz? A critic?”
“He’s a nothing!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Green regretted his words and wanted to take them back, “He’s a very capable young man… writes about music… also writes poetry, what more do you want?”
“No,” she snuggled up to Green, “I won’t go with him.”
“If you don’t go, I’ll be angry with you!” Green said as he draped his arm around her.
“No way am I going!” she protested coyly.
He laughed, hugged her, and covered her with kisses. They sat happily in the half-empty hall near an open window, didn’t pay attention as couples occasionally danced by, didn’t notice the night spinning and turning or how the black web of daybreak had started to unravel here and there and transform into light stripes.
The sleepy proprietor, clad in a loose robe, poked his head in every once in a while to see if he could finally close up, and said something to himself.
At dawn they went out into the street. It was still. They walked arm in arm with their heads held high. A middle-aged Italian man collecting barrels of garbage stopped the wagon, looked at them, nodded his head as though it brought back a memory, emptied a garbage barrel into the wagon, urged the horse on, and whistled.