Jonah Rosenfeld, a prominent contributor to the Forverts in the 1920s and ’30s, was known as a writer of psychological fiction. His stories, which examine the painful disconnections between individuals, lovers, family members, and social classes, probe the limits of personal identity, gender, and social roles. “Call It Destiny” focuses on the mental processes of its protagonist, Zelda, who cannot acknowledge to herself that her upcoming marriage has nothing to do with love or even social duty but rather is motivated only by the status it might bring her. Her internal dissembling is represented by the letters she exchanges with her husband-to-be—and with a second, mysterious correspondent.
It was, it seemed, destiny: Zelda, who was well past her prime, had just gotten herself engaged when God sent a war to the world, and her fiancé was called up to serve in the army.
He and Zelda had met just a few times, and while she wasn’t altogether thrilled with him, she was thrilled with being engaged, so deep in her heart, she was grateful to him.
When the rumor started to spread that they’d be drafting people his age who had temporary exemptions, Zelda’s fiancé went to see her to talk things over. Should he injure himself to get out of serving? He’d done so a few years ago, which is why he had an exemption card in the first place, though now he was better. But Zelda wouldn’t hear of it. She preferred that her fiancé be a soldier, because if he got out of the draft, people would think the man she’d chosen to marry had something seriously wrong with him. It was in God’s hands, she thought; if she were destined to marry an invalid, let it happen without her participation. If he were wounded in battle she wouldn’t break off the engagement, but if that happened, no one would have anything to gossip about because she’d obviously chosen a healthy man in the first place. And if he came home safely, that would be even better, from her point of view.
“If you want my opinion, I’d say don’t do it,” she told him, her tone cool, as if she were a distant acquaintance of his rather than the woman he was going to marry. “This is beyond your understanding—it’s in God’s hands. If it’s your destiny . . .”
That was all she had to say. She could hear the insincerity in her own voice and was afraid he’d hear it too. But was it her fault that she didn’t feel anything for this man, that he was a stranger to her, that she’d accepted his proposal only because he’d wanted to marry her when nobody else had? No, she’d made up her mind: God would decide. If her fiancé came back alive from the army, he’d be her destined husband. Even if he came back wounded, she wouldn’t leave him, because if that were to happen, she’d obviously been destined to marry an invalid. But who knows? A thought sparked suddenly in her mind, a little flame igniting: what if he did come back safe and sound? What if he returned as a hero with medals on his chest, gold and silver in his pockets? Suddenly, the man sitting there across from her vanished and her feelings welled up for the man who’d come back to her decorated with medals, pockets full of gold and silver. Maybe this whole situation was the opposite of what she’d thought at first. Maybe this war was a stroke of luck for her.
In her eyes, dull as spoiled cherries, eyes whose light had been snuffed out long ago, a light appeared, its glow spreading over her spinsterish face. At that moment she looked like an abandoned house in which a person with a burning lamp appears, suddenly, at night.
Zelda’s fiancé sat there glumly. You had to feel sorry for him. Here he’d come to talk things over with this woman he’d met only two months ago, a woman whose advice he depended on more than the advice of people he’d known for decades, and things had turned out so strangely.
“Does this mean you’re saying I shouldn’t?” Those were the last words he spoke to her.
“No, you shouldn’t,” she answered fervently, as if she were focused on nothing but his own good—though actually she was only delighted he was asking her what to do, and that his fate, the fate of a young man, lay in her hands.
Every morning Zelda went to the post office to ask if she had a letter. She walked proudly, her expression serenely confident, as if her fiancé had found a good job out of town. Standing on the post office’s porch were other young women and wives, together with older men and women, waiting for letters from fiancés, husbands, and sons in the army. Many of them had the washed-out expressions born of long, anxious waiting; their eyes looked lost, their arms hung limp, as if their lives had lost all meaning. Zelda stood placidly in their midst, content that she was like the others now: she had a fiancé, she was getting his letters. As far as she was concerned, that was the whole point of her being there. So every morning she pretended to ignore the other people, to be entirely occupied with her own thoughts, to be interested only in the man who was writing to her.
His letters were always exactly the same: one day he was here, the next he was somewhere else. His health was good. He forgot to inquire after Zelda’s health, which she found quite annoying. He seemed to think nothing was going on in her life, and even if there had been, it wasn’t important; only he was important, his life, his health. Zelda was always disappointed with his letters; she kept looking for something about herself, hoping to see the words that a man should write to his fiancée. She looked for a tender word, some expression of warmth, and she never found any, and whenever she finished reading one of his letters she felt vaguely resentful.
Eventually the letters stopped coming. Oddly, it didn’t occur to Zelda that her fiancé might be somewhere dangerous, his life in continual peril; she just thought that he’d stopped writing to her. And because she was so convinced of this idea, she tried to convince everyone that she believed he’d been killed. Deep down inside herself, she thought it would be better if this story, and not her hidden suspicion, was the truth.
Despite all this, she kept up her daily trips to the post office. She went because other people hadn’t received any letters for a long time either, and they were still going.
One day there was a letter for Zelda. But to her great amazement, when she glanced at the address, she saw that the handwriting wasn’t her fiancé’s. She opened the letter right then and there, and again a stranger’s writing met her eyes. Her heart started to pound; her eyes blurred so that she couldn’t read. Like anyone else in her situation, she wanted to devour the letter in a single breath but was so impatient that she couldn’t understand a thing. When she did manage to make out a word, it stood there all by itself, rolling around in her brain like a button in a sewing box: theoretically useful, but never actually needed because there’s nothing for it to be sewn to.
Slowly, Zelda fumbled her way off the porch, still holding the letter open in her hands. She was far too anxious to bring it home and read it there. But after a few steps she stopped. Who was this “unknown, esteemed young woman”? She glanced at the signature: a stranger’s name, a name she didn’t recognize. She took in a few words from the letter’s middle, but they were incomprehensible; they had nothing to do with the man whose letter she’d been expecting, and nothing to do with her.
“Having gotten to know your fiancé,” she reads, “with which we’ve lived very well”—no, that can’t be right; she’s skipped a few lines. “I’m completely alone.” What is this? Why is he writing to her like this? And what about her fiancé? No, she can’t read any more. She’s trembling, and the words she’s just read are spinning in her brain . . . strange words, written by a stranger to his friend’s fiancée . . .
The people who’d been waiting had dispersed, leaving the post office porch and the street in front of the building empty. Some had left with letters and others without, some with good news, others bad, and now no one remained on the street except Zelda. Yes, she’d gotten a letter, only it wasn’t from her fiancé but from her fiancé’s friend, and she didn’t know what he’d written, and she was afraid to find out. Over her head hung the gray autumn sky, dripping scattered, chilly drops, and everything around her, all of nature, was empty, naked, and dark.
Still holding her letter, Zelda wrapped her shawl around her arms and hurried off home. The minute she opened the kitchen door, her mother, who’d been standing by the stove, demanded, “Well, did you get a letter?”
Without answering, Zelda walked straight into the next room. Her mother followed her, ladle in hand, repeating, “So, did you get a letter?”
Zelda pulled off her shawl and her mother, seeing the letter she was clutching, knew the answer to her question. But Zelda’s distraught expression worried her mother more than if there hadn’t been a letter at all. She went straight over to her daughter and, looking deep into her eyes, stammered, “What’s he written?”
Zelda wanted to answer that the writer was someone else, not “he,” and she would have said so if only she’d had a clue what the “someone else” had written.
“I got a letter,” she murmured quietly, as if speaking to herself, “but I haven’t read it yet. I’d rather read it myself first.” Then she turned to her letter, reading silently. She did her best, using all her determination, to read slowly and carefully, not skipping lines, not leaving anything out. The letter went like this: he, the writer of the letter, had served in the same military company as Zelda’s fiancé. They had bunked together and gotten along well. Zelda’s fiancé had read him all the letters he’d received from Zelda, and also the letters he’d written to her.
“Let me hear already—what’s he written?” Zelda’s mother raised her voice impatiently, seeing by her daughter’s expression that the news wasn’t good. Zelda was getting impatient herself, but she held tight to her resolve to read everything in the right order. “He was a fine and decent young man,” she read further. “Was!” That word leaped in her mind. She burst into tears and flung herself down on her bed.
“Oh, no . . . was he wounded?” her mother quavered.
Just at that moment Zelda’s younger brother Leyzerke came in. He was a skinny young man who’d had to register for the army; he was so gaunt he looked like a beanpole in the autumn after you’ve stripped off the vines. He walked in without saying a word, as if he already knew what had happened. He wasn’t surprised by his sister’s tears because he was so consumed by his own problems. He sidled over to his sister, plucked the letter out of her hand, and began to read it to himself.
“I want to hear too!” their mother demanded.
But Leyzerke, absorbed in his own troubles, paid no attention to his mother and calmly went on reading. His mother, seeing his unruffled expression, forced herself to wait until he’d finished and was ready to tell her what the letter said. Finally Leyzerke tossed the letter onto the table. “Well?” she said.
“What an idiot!” he proclaimed, giving his sister a long, pitying look.
“What do you mean, idiot?” their mother asked, looking relieved, and after thinking it over a few minutes, she added, “Thank God . . . but what does he say, then?”
“What does who say?” snapped Leyzerke impatiently.
“How should I know? You’re reading the letter, and you’re asking me who wrote it?” his mother retorted.
Leyzerke, still deep in his own worries and too impatient to think about anyone else’s, raised his voice. “It’s not written by ‘him.’ It’s written by somebody else!”
“Somebody else? What for?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Leyzerke was losing his temper.
“Stop torturing me!” the old woman yelled, slapping her head with her hands. “Just read it! Read it, I want to hear!”
So the young man, mind on his own problems, calmly read the letter while his mother and sister cried. Its author described how he’d buried Zelda’s fiancé according to Jewish ritual, but he went on to say a lot more about himself than the dead man. He wrote that Zelda’s fiancé had been his one and only friend, and now he was completely alone—he’d lost all his friends, everyone he knew, when the enemy captured their city. Now he didn’t even have anyone to write to, and without that, his life in the army, which was difficult enough, had become simply unbearable, so he was imploring the young lady to write him as soon as she recovered from the blow she’d suffered; he was begging her from the bottom of his heart. He’d answer her letter as soon as he got it.
“Well, what are you crying for?” Zelda’s brother asked. “Maybe the person you’re actually destined to marry is him.”
A few days later, Zelda answered the stranger’s letter. Oddly enough, after she’d written the first line or two, she realized she didn’t feel like writing the words she knew she ought to write to a stranger; instead, she wanted to tell him things she’d never wanted to tell her fiancé. Her heart ached with pity for this man who’d been torn apart from his relatives and friends, this solitary man for whom her solitary heart longed. . . . Could it be that this was her real destiny? In the back of her mind a thought stirred to life . . . could it be?
Her pen raced. She didn’t have to think about the words—the letter wrote itself. Each syllable was imbued with warmth, kindness, yearning. She didn’t think about what might come of her letter; she expressed her feelings completely, and the result was a beautiful, emotional letter in which one lonely heart called out to another.
A week later, Zelda went back to the post office. She went every day, and the other people there, knowing her fiancé had been killed, were surprised. Who was she expecting a letter from now? But these days, nobody else mattered to Zelda. Her thoughts were all for the man, and her eyes were bright with longing.
Original Yiddish published as “A basherte zakh” in Jonah Rosenfeld’s Gezamelte shriften fun Yonah Rozenfeld (New York: Yonah Rozenfeld ḳomiṭe, 1924), Volume III.
RACHEL MINES teaches in the English Department at Langara College, Vancouver, Canada. She has been translating and publishing Rosenfeld’s short stories since 2015 and is preparing a collection for publication by Syracuse University Press. She was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2016.