Erev shabes on a New York Trolley
- Written by:
- Joseph Opatoshu
- Translated by:
- Shulamith Berger
- Spring 2018
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2018
“Erev shabes on a New York Trolley” is the fifth chapter of Joseph Opatoshu’s nov-el Hibru , originally published serially, a chapter at a time, as Lehrer (Teacher) in Di naye velt (The New World), a weekly socialist newspaper, during 1918 and 1919. As the combination of both titles indicates, the book is about teachers at afternoon Hebrew schools on New York’s Lower East Side. This chapter, which is untitled in the original novel, focuses on the Friday afternoon and early Shabbos evening adventures of one of the teachers, Green, and Bessie, the daughter of the president of the Hebrew School where Green teaches. Green and Bessie are friends whose relationship is on the cusp of romantic involvement. The chapter is set in several New York locations: Green’s apartment, apparently in the Bronx; the Botanical Gardens and environs; a trolley ride from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, where Bessie lives; and Shabbos dinner with Bessie’s family, the Schultzes. The dialogue and descriptions in the chapter deepen the reader’s understanding of Green and Bessie’s personal relationship, as well as the broader picture of the lives of Jewish immigrants and the urban milieu they inhabit.
Thanks to Dan Opatoshu for permission to translate and publish.
Green sat in his room copying a speech from the American Orator for his bar mitzvah student.
He got tired of copying, pushed the paper aside, and lit a cigarette. He was frustrated; he was wasting away his days teaching in a religious Hebrew school when all over the country people were opening secular Yiddish schools. Yesterday he heard how a class of boys and girls had sung one of his poems. He was thrilled and was now convinced his work wasn’t for naught. His perpetual doubts about writing in Yiddish disappeared. He even had a plan to make Yiddish an international language. Someone merely had to write a Yiddish work that would rock the world; even goyim would start to study Yiddish. It couldn’t be simpler.
He glanced at the speech he had transcribed, returned to his humdrum existence, took out his thin black watch, and wondered why Miss Bessie Schultz hadn’t arrived yet. He was pleased that a young American woman, a graduate of a teachers college who spoke awkward Yiddish, spent time with him, translated his poems into English, and took an interest in the secular Yiddish schools. He was certain that Mr. Schultz was planning to appoint him principal and felt sorry that Friedkin would lose his position because of him, although he believed that the Friedkins of the world were the curse of the American Talmud Torah school system.
Green paced around the room. Every once in a while he took a women’s wide comb out of the top pocket of his freshly laundered Palm Beach suit, held up his head proudly, and combed his unruly hair, only for it to flop down again instantly in strands over his forehead. All in all, he conjured up either a dandy or a hair-dresser.
He longed to get rid of Madame Bliash, a woman of forty or so who worked in the Women’s Protective Social Service Agency. She had been tormenting him for the past few weeks with love letters and threats. Today he had received yet another letter from her in which she cursed him, called him a murderer, asked him to visit her that evening, and threatened to poison herself.
Green knew it was all a lie. She wasn’t going to poison herself. As she was writing the threats, she was putting on makeup and powdering herself so she’d look younger.
He thought about Mrs. Shapiro, the mother of the boy he was teaching for his bar mitzvah, and decided that he must escape women.
There was a knock on the door.
Green quickly hid Madame Bliash’s letter and went to the door. “Who is it?” “Me.”
“Oh, Bessie! Why are you standing behind the door?” He opened the door.
Instead, Madame Bliash stood in front of him wearing a linen Norfolk outfit that trailed down to her feet. She sported a small men’s Panama hat circled by a cream-colored veil that she had tied together casually in the back. It fell over her shoulders like a wing. A mishmash of perfumes assaulted his face.
When Green saw Madame Bliash, he was taken aback. He wanted to close the door and tell her that he doesn’t want to see her anymore, but he forced himself to smile. “Hello, it’s good you’re here. I was just about to visit you.”
Madame Bliash entered, sat down on Green’s cot, threw her hat off, fixed her hair, pursed her lips, and blurted out, “Really? And where would you have left Bessie?”
“What do you mean?” Green stole a sideways glance at her and stumbled over his words, tongue-tied, as he said, “I would have brought her with me.”
“You must know that I have no use for babies; I don’t run a kindergarten.” She squeezed her lips sourly into a snout, got up, and paraded around the room with her hands clasped behind her back.
She buttoned up her jacket, ran her hand through strands of his hair as she passed, and said softly, almost coaxingly, “Come, Green, let’s go to the beach. It’s so hot . . .”
Green felt a heavy haze of perfume envelop him. He was worried that Bessie would arrive at any moment; he gently moved his head away from her hand and begged her, “I can’t go now, I’m very busy. You see?” He showed her the speech he was rewriting. “I have to finish this within the hour.”
“You mean you want to be left alone.” Madame Bliash looked as though she was straining to understand. When Green didn’t answer, she straightened up and hissed through her teeth, “Don’t worry, I won’t spoil your Bessie. Innocent young women don’t wander around Chinatown until all hours! What I can tell her is—she should wash her head.”
“But what’s this all about?” Green pounded the table with his fist. “I’m begging you, leave me alone!”
“What do you mean, what? You think you’re going to step on my toes, draw my blood while I’m alive?” Madame Bliash splayed her hands in anger and bent her fingers with their sharp, manicured nails, sparkling like a cat’s. “A person shouldn’t even treat a scoundrel this way. No, I’m not leaving! You’re a Don Juan, and I’m going to poke out your snot-nosed girlfriend’s eyes!”
They heard someone running up the steps and then there was a knock on the door.
Green sat bewildered for a minute as though he didn’t quite know what to do, blanched, and then opened the door. Bessie entered, two dark Bordeaux tulips in her hand. Her upper lip was curled so sweetly that her teeth, in contrast to her dark complexion, were dazzlingly white, and there wasn’t a passerby who could resist a second look at her face. She wanted to hug Green, but when she saw Madame Bliash, she froze in the pose of an unfinished movement. Madame Bliash greeted her like a dear old friend.
“Hello, Bessie, darling! How are you? You look marvelous. Oh, it’s good you’re here.” Madame Bliash fussed with her hairdo. “I’ve been working on Green for over an hour to convince him to read at the literary evening for the striking dressmakers, and I haven’t succeeded. I’m sure you can!”
“Mr. Green, really, why won’t you go?” Bessie asked him.
Green smiled, buried his face in the tulips, and made a face. “It seems to be a beautiful flower, but it has no scent.”
“People say tulips are like beautiful young women,” Madame Bliash interjected. “The prettier, the emptier.”
“Mr. Green, do you promise?” Bessie pressed him.
“What matters is”—Green shook his head and his hair fell in his eyes—“if Miss Schultz says so, I must. I actually wrote a new poem today. I consider it a master-piece, the best thing I’ve ever written!”
“Ah, Mr. Green”—they both wheedled him in unison—“read it for us, please!”
Green took the papers with the bar mitzvah speech, stood in the middle of the room, and read with pathos, “Worthy father, dear mother, friends and honored public! Today I am thirteen years old . . .”
Madame Bliash roared with laughter. Miss Schultz didn’t understand, but seeing Madame Bliash, she also laughed and asked Green to explain.
Meanwhile, Madame Bliash sat down and jotted a note to Green. She wrote that although she is above all petty issues and is flexible, he mustn’t think he can just toy with her. She asked him several times, for the sake of heaven, to be sure to remember to come over tonight.
She sprang up, seemingly satisfied, playfully donned the Panama hat, turned up her veil, and took a quick look in the mirror.
“Now I’m leaving. Good-bye, Bessie. Come by some time, maybe when you’re on your way somewhere else! And you”—she turned to Green—“don’t forget: a week from Sunday, exactly 8 p.m. And as for your ‘masterpiece,’” she laughed, “leave it at home.”
“At last, finally?” Green muttered under his breath, escorted her out, and thanked God that he was rid of her.
At the door she handed him the note.
Once Bessie and Green were alone they felt more at ease and smiled. Bessie sat at the table, and before Green realized what she was doing, she had piled up every piece of paper and every book, and a mountain of sheymes, scraps with God’s name, grew on the table, seemingly ready to be tossed out.
“Miss Schultz, may God be with you, what are you doing?” Green put his hand on the pile of papers. “What are you doing to my manuscripts?”
“Oh, excuse me, Mr. Green.” Bessie caught herself, realized what she had done, helped Green rearrange the papers, and asked, “When are we going to Greenwich Village?”
“In the evening. It’s still too early.”
“You know what?” Bessie took his hand. “Come over. We’ll eat dinner together and go afterwards, all right?”
Green furrowed his brow. He was in a quandary and began to stammer. “Why are you going home now? Stay here, and if you’re hungry, we’ll go to a restaurant.”
“No, Mr. Green.” Bessie smiled, revealing two teeth. “I promised to go home. It’s Friday night, did you forget? Come, my mother cooks such good fish, sweet, the way you like it. Please come, won’t you?”
Green didn’t answer. He wondered why Friedkin had suddenly come to mind, thought about the sweet fish, and smiled.
“To tell you the truth, Miss Schultz, it’s been so long since I’ve lived with a family that I feel awkward around older people . . .”
“Oh, come,” Bessie said coyly as she shifted, reminding him of a kitten groom-
ing itself. “You’ll feel at home, you’ll see. You already know my father; he’s such a good person, and I’ll tell you a secret.” She giggled and waited a bit in order to pique his interest. “My mother likes you. She says you must be very smart . . .”
“Really?” Green was a bit flustered.
She took his straw hat, placed it rakishly on his head, studied him from all sides like a model, and laughed heartily.
Green joined in her laughter, took Miss Schultz’s hand, and looked into her eyes. She couldn’t bear it, turned away from him, and opened the door. “Come!”
Above the small wooden houses, not far from the Botanical Garden, stretched a blue sky, shot through with blood-red stripes. Here and there the strands unraveled and the threads branched out in the sapphire sky like pieces of rainbows. The stripes grew darker, wider, blended together, and swam in the sky, turning into colored mountains, rivers, and animals.
They walked arm in arm silently and watched the sun set. There were green lawns on both sides of the street where girls played tennis and ball and lounged in rows on the grass singing and chatting; with their colorful, flowing clothes and light steps, they seemed to float in the air, and from a distance it looked like all the birds of the zoological garden had been set free.
Green was in a good mood. He looked at the eyes of every girl who passed by and thought they were all pretty.
They boarded the trolley. It climbed uphill. A piece of the Botanical Garden un-folded in front of them. Small dwarflike evergreen trees stood in rows as far as the eye could see. Between the trees, in a small, still pool of water, a few white ducks dunked; they looked like wisps of transparent clouds.
Green forgot where he was. He gazed at the dwarf trees, at the water, felt the blue stillness around him become part of him, and was convinced that a prince and princess, also dwarves, would imminently appear.
The trolley stopped. He had no doubt that Miss Schultz was thinking the same thoughts as he; she had to be. He pointed at the small trees and turned to her. “All that’s missing is a prince and a princess, right?”
She opened her eyes, looked at him as though he’d lost his mind, and laughed. “I don’t understand what you mean. Speak plainly to me.”
Green caught himself. He was a bit taken aback and explained what he meant.
The trolley went down the hill and with a clang of a bell turned onto a dirty street. Endless rows of pushcarts stretched out on both sides of the street. Doughy Italian women wearing kerchiefs like small-town Jewish women were surrounded by little Italian children. They went from one pushcart to the next, bargained, and gestured with their hands, finding good buys. Their screams were deafening and welled over their heads as they grew hoarse. The strands of red beads, long gold hoop earrings, loudly colored silk clothing, Persian shawls, the clusters of women with children around every stoop, their chattering, the pushcarts with vegetables only Italians ate, the heaps of garbage at every step of the way—the street was a shtetl of its own in the big city of New York.
“How do you like the Italian neighborhood?” Green turned to Miss Schultz. “Whenever I’m in places like this it seems to me that there isn’t really a New York. There are only neighborhoods—Galitzyaner, Hungarian, Slavic, Chinese . . .”
“And what about Fifth Avenue?” Bessie interrupted him.
“What, do you really think that Fifth Avenue has anything to do with America?” Green smiled. “Believe me, Jewish Hester Street is intrinsically more American than Fifth Avenue.”
An older Jew, a peddler, loaded down with baskets full of wine hanging from his shoulders, stepped onto the trolley. He stood to the side, peered around like a frightened rabbit, and tried not to meet anyone’s glance. Every time the streetcar jolted the baskets hit his sides. The passengers laughed at the way the Jew was hunched over with the tip of his beard tucked into his vest. They scrutinized him as though they thought he was Chinese and made jokes at his expense. Green heard his neighbor, a Negro, explain to his wife who was sitting next to him that the peddler is a “Catholic Jew,” and that Jews who work on Shabbos and shave their beards are “Protestant Jews.” Green laughed so hard at his explanation that every-one in the car stared at him. He stood to give the Jew his seat. The peddler became bolder, seemed more at home in the company of a fellow Jew, and poked Green’s knee as though Green were an old friend. “Have you been here long?”
Green exchanged glances with Miss Schultz, smiled, and answered: “Not long.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m also from Poland!” The peddler snatched his beard from his vest with joy and pointed with his thumb at Miss Schultz. “Your wife?”
He saw that Miss Schultz was holding her sides with laughter, realized his mistake, shoved up his black straw hat, which had fallen over his eyes, and asked naively, “Certainly your bride?”
He didn’t wait for an answer and took out his watch, worried that he would get home late for Shabbos. He saw that it was getting dark, his lips tensed with worry, and he grumbled to himself, “Just to spite me, the trolley is dragging today!”
“Did you at least do some business?” Green asked him.
“God be praised, nothing to complain about.” The Jew became serious. “I earn something, my children earn something, we get by!”
“And don’t you miss home—Poland, I mean?”
“And so what if I miss it? I’ll never go home again. My children are all here; I don’t have anyone there. Of course, I can’t deny that life at home had more flavor. I don’t know if I’d want to live there now, but believe me, even though I’m a poor man, I’d still spend fifty dollars for a ticket just to stroll through my shtetl again.”
The peddler sighed, lost in thought for moment, and concluded, “People tell me that I wouldn’t recognize it, it’s been built up so much the past few years.”
The trolley stopped. Miss Schultz grabbed Green’s hand and walked toward the exit. “We’re here!”
They entered the house. Mr. Schultz came to meet them. He greeted Green warmly, ushered him into the parlor, and called for someone to bring tea. A Shabbos-like aroma of cooked fish wafted in from the kitchen.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked offhandedly.
“I met Mr. Green near our house,” Bessie answered without thinking. “I invited him in.”
Bessie’s lie grated on Green’s ears. He recalled Madame Bliash and thought that in this respect all women are identical.
Mr. Schultz took out a pair of glasses from a leather case, wiped them with a paper dollar, put them on, spread a Yiddish newspaper on the table, and started to read.
Mr. Schultz came to America when he was eighteen. He brought a packet of Hebrew writings with him, dreamed of becoming a poet, quickly looked around, saw that no one needs poets in America, and, like thousands of other immigrants, he began to peddle on the streets. After a year he opened a small factory, Schultz & Co., with a partner. They started to make a line of cheap pants and were the first to send peddlers with bundles of merchandise around New York to places where Slavs and Italians worked. Mr. Schultz started to work himself up. He competed with the established firms, and the more immigration increased, the faster his business expanded. Newly arrived Jewish immigrants, greenhorns who didn’t want to work on Shabbos, came to him, were satisfied with whatever they got paid, and worked the same long hours they had worked back home. The company kept getting bigger. In a short time it moved to a six-story building, which was only possible thanks to the tremendous numbers of immigrants. Wherever Jewish peddlers were found, hundreds of dollars streamed to Schultz.
As the business became self-sustaining, Schultz started dealing with his portion in the World to Come. He bought the Machzike Torah synagogue, where he was president; founded the Talmud Torah school; devoted himself to community matters; welcomed Torah scholars; and hoped that his home would become a Beys Vaad le-Hachamim, a place for sages to gather.
Outwardly he scarcely changed. Many of his longtime workers, most of them learned men, visited his home freely on Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and yontef to drink a glass of wine. He lived in an ordinary apartment in his own building and conducted himself like a welcoming, rich head of a household.
Bessie brought in two glasses of tea. She served one to her father, the second to Green; she herself sat down at the head of the table, took the Yiddish newspaper, and began to pronounce the Yiddish words so comically that everyone laughed.
“She speaks Yiddish ignorantly, like a goy!” Her father sipped his tea and turned to Green. “You know, I decided to fire Friedkin; you’re right, the man is completely unsuited for the position.”
“You ought to have done it long ago.”
“Do you know anyone who could be a principal?”
“Not right now. You don’t need to worry; you’ll find someone.”
“Would you consider taking the position?” Mr. Schultz smiled and looked at Green to see what kind of impression his words made.
“I would consider it,” Green hesitated.
“What do you mean, consider?”
“I’ll tell you the truth: it will seem like I pushed Friedkin out.”
“Friedkin will stay,” Schultz reassured him. “He’ll even get the same salary until the end of the term, but he won’t be the principal anymore! And I’ll tell him to look for a new position for the winter term. Nu, what do you say?”
Green didn’t answer immediately, and as though thinking it over, not wanting to show how pleased he was, and trying to appear indifferent, he said, “Good.”
Madame Schultz poked her head in. “It’s time to light Shabbos candles, isn’t it?“ When she saw Green she smiled sweetly and turned to him. “Hello, Mr. Green, you’re going to join us! Nu, nu, no excuses!”
Schultz took off his glasses, put them on the table, and went into another room, and they could hear him reciting the prayers to usher in Shabbos.
“I’m afraid,” Green turned to Miss Schultz, “your father won’t let you go to Greenwich Village.”
“He doesn’t have to know.”
“And if he asks where you were so late?”
“He won’t ask; he goes to sleep right after we eat.” “And your mother?”
“My mother also goes to sleep.”
“Bessie, Bessie,” her mother called from the dining room, “please get the candlesticks from the safe.”
Bessie busied herself with the iron safe, which occupied half the wall; she twirled the head of the lock to the right numbers as per the combination and opened it. She removed three pairs of silver candlesticks and a menorah-like silver candelabrum, smiled at Green, and left the room.
Green felt uncomfortable. If he hadn’t been a frequent guest at Bessie’s parents, nothing would have troubled him, but this way, he felt as though he were taking advantage of their trust in him, so is he any better than Friedkin?
When Mr. Schultz finished praying, everyone entered the dining room. The room was so brightly lit it was almost blinding. The entire family sat according to age at a table covered with a white tablecloth. Mr. Schultz poured a glass of wine, stood to make kidesh, and looked at the door as if he were waiting for someone. A Jewish man pushed in a padded cart with Schultz’s father, a paralyzed old man. Everyone was so used to the grandfather that no one even glanced at him. The old wrinkled grandfather, whose eyes were frozen in one direction, kept opening and closing his sunken mouth like a fish drinking. Green met the old man’s stare, felt cold chills, and turned away. After kidesh the Jew wheeled out the cart. No one said a word about the grandfather, as though he hadn’t been in the room. Mrs. Schultz, the baleboste, sat next to her husband, serving portions of fish, and when half the people at the table had already finished eating, she made room for herself, leaned on the table with both elbows, sat over a bowl of fish, and ate with gusto.
“Nu, Mr. Green, how do you like my fish? Is it sweet enough?” the baleboste asked him.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t eaten a piece of fish like this in a long time,” Green answered.
“You know,” Schultz poked his wife with his elbow, “fresh fish really tastes better.”
“They’re robbing people blind, those thieves!” his wife answered. “They don’t know how much to charge for a pound of fish, nu, it’s outrageous. Do you know how much I paid? Sixty cents a pound!”
Schultz drank a shot of whiskey after the fish course, passed the bottle to Green, tried to calm his wife, and said, “Jews need to make a living. So that’s what they charge! What’s there to talk about?”
“Smart aleck.” His wife banged her fork on the plate. “Lucky for you, God helped you and you can afford it. How many people do you think can pay such a price?”
“Don’t start up!” Mr. Schultz stretched out his feet on a chair and buried him-self in the newspaper.
It took so long between courses that the younger children left the table, went to lie down on the plush ottoman near the window, and fell asleep one by one.
“It’s no wonder,” Mrs. Schultz explained to Green, “that the children fall asleep in the middle of the meal, they do so much in a day! They don’t stop for a minute.”
Green was bored; he already wanted to go outside. Bessie noticed it; she nudged his foot with her shoe. He caught himself, met her glance, and they both smiled.
While they were eating dessert tzimmes, Mr. Schultz appeared drowsy, got up from the table, excused himself to Green, remarked that he was feeling a bit under the weather, and said, “Children, please make my bed.”
Mrs. Schultz finished her glass of tea and sat in a rocking chair listening as Bes-sie talked. As her head started nodding little by little, she opened her mouth, and her snores could be heard all over the room.
“Ma, please, ma,” Bessie took her hand.
She woke up startled, as though she’d been splashed with cold water, claimed self-consciously that she hadn’t been asleep, and got up and excused herself. “The heat is exhausting. Good night, Mr. Green.”
At the door she remembered that the children were sleeping on the ottoman and gave a start. “Let me, Bessie; I’ll put the children to bed.”
“I’ll put them to sleep.” Bessie stopped her mother. “Go to sleep, please.” “All right.”
The candles were about to go out. They crackled as though someone had poured salt on them, and the room filled with smoke. Everything—the chairs strewn about, the leftovers on the table, the burned-out candles—created an atmosphere that made Green ache for a familiar Friday night at home when his parents were al-ready asleep and he tossed in bed, not knowing what he wanted, and everything in him longed to call out.
“What is it? Why are you so lost in thought?” Bessie came in, all dressed. “Come, I’m ready.”
JOSEPH OPATOSHU (1886–1954) was born in the Stupsker Vald, near Mlave (Mława), Poland. In 1907 he immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. He worked at first in a factory and later became a teacher in a Jewish elementary school. He studied at the Cooper Union in the evenings and graduated in 1914 with a degree in civil engineering. Opatoshu joined the staff of the new Yiddish daily Der Tog in 1914 and wrote a short story every week for the newspaper until his death in New York in 1954.
SHULAMITH Z. BERGER is the curator of special collections and Hebraica-Judaica at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University. She was a 2015 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. She blogs at http://blogs.yu.edu/library/. Her article “Moyshe Levin (Ber Sarin) of Yung-Vilne and His Solo Publishing Venture for Children” was recently published in Judaica Librarianship.