- Written by:
- Moyshe Efron
- Translated by:
- Oliver Elkus
- Spring 2020
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2020
If not for a particular grupe fraynt (group of friends), it’s fair to say Moyshe Efron’s work, along with what we know of his personal life, would’ve been long forgotten by now. With the absence of a publisher, we have this indeterminate group of friends to thank for the posthumous publishing of Efron’s only collection,Tzvishn shotns un andere dertzeylungen (Among Shadows and Other Stories), in which we find the following short story, “A kholem” (“A Dream”). As chronicled by this group of friends, Efron was born in the shtetl of Luna (near Grodno, in present-day Belarus) in 1883 and died in New York in 1944. In the preamble to this collection the group cites Efron’s only previous published work to be a small treatise that he printed and bound himself as a boy of twelve or thirteen years old while enrolled at Yosef Kharif’s then-famed private yeshiva for gifted students. Though he was considered something of a prodigy at the time, he apparently reflects on this composition only in jest, referring to it as “childish nonsense.” This “remarkable sense for self-critique,” as his friends called it, along with his “modest and reclusive nature,” is to credit for his failure to publish any later works. Furthermore, Efron described his writing in general as nothing more than a form of “intellectual hygiene.” This is particularly amusing when considering the nature of Efron’s short stories: most end abruptly, frustratingly inconclusive, thus stressing character development over plot line. Read in retrospect seventy-six years after his death, the stories give the impression of a Yiddish-language predecessor to the much celebrated, specifically Jewish American motif of “stories about nothing.” —Oliver Elkus
Between two and three was the silent hour in Ms. Rosen’s boarding house, and this was also Ms. Rosen’s resting hour. At this time she would retire to her tiny room on the second floor, settle into her wingback chair by the window, and gaze outside, into the sky, or into herself. This little room was for her alone, as she entertained her rare guests mostly in the dining room downstairs. Here in the little room stood her narrow bed, a small dresser, a stool, and a set of shelves, half for her books, half for her bronze and porcelain baubles. On the walls—a picture here and there. Everything neat, clean, modest, and tasteful. Downstairs in the reception room, she was Ms. Rosen; here by herself—Sarale, Sarale once again, although there was no one to call her such. She did however hear her name: from the walls, from the furniture, from the air, from herself. Sarale, the erstwhile young girl from Warsaw, the way she used to see herself. She’d been in New York for over sixteen years, but she’d been busy, extraordinarily busy, so the whole stretch of time hardly seemed significant, and so she had sustained the past and hadn’t let it part from her.
In one respect she remained some small bit the Sarale from long ago, or maybe even from longer ago, as far back as her childhood years—in her most frequent wish to remain alone a while, with her thoughts. In her mind she’d relive the events of the day, hearing over and over again the reverberations of phases and feelings long-since past. In this way she had, as if wanting to preserve the past, contemplated it again and again, and often found something new, and thereafter something newer yet. It wasn’t always that the desired feelings came, but it also didn’t matter. She would remain sitting and waiting patiently until the moment the sweet feeling of rest and calmness would come, when even the outside world around her seemed calmer and calmer, becoming in deeper concurrence with her thoughts.
Very early in her life Sara began to feel in her a certain personality, an individuality that wouldn’t dissipate but rather would remain forever faithful to itself. “An inner Sarale,” she would call it. Once, upon approaching a group of her friends completely unnoticed, she heard one of them say: “That’s Sarale for you, what, you don’t know her?” Sara understood and couldn’t help but smile that they too knew of the secret, inner Sarale.
Another incident from that time—when she was ten years old—stayed lodged in her memory. She once accompanied a young girl on a trip to an old childless couple. She thought she was entering a house like all other houses. However, she soon encountered a room with more books than she had ever seen together. On a table she noticed, among others, a beautiful new book in Hebrew. She knew in her heart that her father would die to read this book. “Lend me this book for my father,” she motioned to the unfamiliar head of household. The old man was taken aback; it was an inviolable law not to lend any of his books. He couldn’t part from his books; they were his children. “Who is your father?” he asked. Her father’s name was completely unfamiliar to him. “My father loves good books as he loves his own life,” she added. She caressed the book with her hand and begged the man with her eyes. He began to smile, patted her on the head, and gave her the book. Her father couldn’t believe his eyes when Sara carried him the tremendous volume. His face beamed with a rare joy over his fair little daughter, over the book, and over the interesting new acquaintance, while he already knew that man by reputation. Sara’s father was a morbid old man, easy to upset, mostly preoccupied with himself. Their house, in those years, consisted of two separate groups: the father on one side, and the mother with the older daughter of eighteen years on the other. Sara leaned more on the side of her lonesome father. There was also her younger brother, Leybele.
In the initial moment of her father’s great surprise, more than anything the little girl was delighted with the great wonder that she had chosen from all other books the one for which her father yearned, as he assured her. And how wonderful it was to her to hear her father say that he would go and visit that man. In later years, when the incident would come to mind, she would think of the intangible bond that formed then between her father and her, his youngest daughter, and of their silent understanding from that day on. More than anything it pleased her to see that lonesome, hard-tempered man suddenly happy as a babe in arms.
Wondrous old happenings from so long ago . . . would she, the ten-year-old girl from those days, be able to imagine such a great wonder that years later, in the far and wondrous America, in some house in New York, there would sit a woman thinking of her and her wonderful childish capers? The woman was already thirty-five years old now and was the owner of a boardinghouse. This was no other but her, the Sarale from long ago.
How much had happened in that time! Her father was dead. For that reason alone she came to America; her sister remained in the old country with her husband and children. Everyone here was completely unfamiliar to her. Her mother was also dead. She was alone here, totally alone. And her brother Leybele, who knows where her brother is? Her brother left home a boy of all but thirteen or fourteen years old, and she never heard from him again. He left just before dawn, and this alone would’ve made it a night to remember, but his leaving was also bound with yet another thing no less memorable. She saw that night for the first time in her life, for the only time, a warm, bright bliss that she would carry with her until her very last moments. It was a dream but realer than reality. The most remarkable thing was that the content of the dream vanished together with the dream itself. All that remained was the memory of the light, and the warmth, and the thought of the goodness that it gave to the world.
The dream was composed of three parts: firstly, pure, lucid dream; followed by something that was half-dream, half-reality; and finally an even deeper, more euphoric sleep. In the middle of the dream she sensed that something was hovering over, so she snapped herself out of her stupor. She awoke in an instant. She sensed her brother was near but didn’t bother asking how it was that he managed to creep up to her—how disoriented she was from her dream and all—so she drew him in to her, as if to take him with her there, into the dream she was so suddenly forced to abandon. She sensed the warmth of his lips; “How nice, how very nice,” she thought, and soon after, in not but an instant, she was back there, in that same moment, fast asleep.
When she finally awoke, the dream had already escaped her. She began searching for her brother, but he was nowhere to be found. He left only a few words to convey that he was going away for a very long time. It caused quite a commotion. Her mother accused her of aiding and abetting. She and he slept in the same room. There were a few rubles missing from the dresser by Sara’s bed. Sara, however, hadn’t yet let her dream completely elude her; after all, a new world had just unveiled itself to her. Her heart began waiting for an indiscriminate yet irrefutable fate. What’s more, she considered her brother’s departure in the light of her heightened spirits that bright morning. The young man had watched, and also most likely heard, saw, had a premonition, and left their wretched house. A new light had begun to shine for her too . . . if only he had confided in her his secret plan, no doubt she would’ve given him the last of the rubles she had stowed away. As she would recall, her brother came to her in the precise moment that her dream ended. Such a dream could last no longer. He came to give his slumbering sister a silent kiss before his departure . . . came to her of all people . . . a silent kiss, fearing she might give him away. She was glad she was awake at that particular moment so sweetly to receive his tenderness. In time that moment, which was kept secret from everyone, came to Sara’s mind less and less; of her brother’s tenderness, however, she thought often. When the thought of traveling to America first arose, she knew in her heart that she would find her brother there. The entire duration of her trip over the sea she naively believed that the first person she’d see at the port would be him. Later, having already settled, she sought him often in the New York papers. She also sought him just after her wedding proposal, and when the engagement so bitterly ended.
No, Sara was not a dreamer. On the contrary, she had a certain practical sense about her, not at all moved by the commotion of New York life. She came to New York on her own, a young woman of all but nineteen years, with very little money and nothing more than a recommendation from an acquaintance in Warsaw to one of their friends here. A fine worker, she quickly beat a path to a good job, worked, learned, and made a few dollars. In time she became acquainted with Miss Merkin, a young woman who managed a boardinghouse. This sort of work was more suitable to Sara than working in the factory. It didn’t take her long to grasp the fundamentals, and she quickly fashioned a place for herself. It went well from the very start. She was an apt and able proprietress, neat, precise, with a fine manner to boot: a brunette, thin, and by then middle-aged, she appeared younger than her years in her smooth maneuvers. A most essential characteristic was the mysterious light in her dark eyes when someone would tell her something serious. The speaker would often think that their narrative had much more substance than they had initially believed. A young poet from California that stayed at her boardinghouse once remarked, “It often seems to me that the written word is much poorer than that which was in mind, but as I read it over in your eyes, it seems much, much richer.” He hadn’t intended it a compliment.
Her boardinghouse had given her economic autonomy, freedom, and experience. She had met so many kinds of people there. But after her first year, she also met the man who would account for that which she considered the sole shameful stain on her life. I shouldn’t have trusted such a man, me with my extraordinary sense. The whole fling lasted no more than a couple months: the meeting, the living together, and his ultimate decampment. He fled with what little money she had . . . he could’ve had her youth, her heart, her hopes, and let her keep the couple hundred . . . and no less an educated young man . . . she didn’t know where to go to escape the embarrassment. She would’ve run away if not for her duties and responsibilities to friends. For the two weeks after that, she sought her brother through personal advertisements in the papers.
A hopeless admirer from years past, who until then never had the courage to make a pass at her, heard of the incident and came to make a case for himself. After a couple weeks he came back with an ultimatum: he would marry another if she would not give him her vow. He could no longer be alone. He carried out his ultimatum. Certainly funny . . . he nonetheless remained her admirer—visiting her to this day, even bringing his wife . . . this too is maybe a bit funny. Merely an embarrassment or something funny? No, it was romantic too. It was something that moved her deeply, that she would never forget, of which she remained proud, but also very sad . . . how incomprehensible it all was. Why, for example, did she let him go, the young poet from California? Was it because he came too soon after that embarrassing incident? Maybe she wanted to punish herself? She remembered that feeling well. She also remembered the pride that was excited in her childhood: she wanted to show that she didn’t need anybody, that she could stand on her own . . . but more than this, she believed, it was something else. In all honesty she longed for the years before the incident, wanted to remember how she was back then, closer and closer to the innocent years of that euphoric morning, the morning after the dream. And yet she often had to confront the paradox of her nature: “to that for which she longed and that from which she recoiled.”
“Do I love Peggy?” she once asked herself shortly after liberating her mind from a series of thoughts about the affair. In her words there was an undespairing irony about her situation, but no low regard for Peggy. She loved Peggy and appreciated her. Peggy was the Irishwoman, of Sara’s same age, who worked for her. At first Peggy had looked a bit too simple to her, a bit too prosaic. But a short conversation convinced Sara that one should not dismiss Peggy. Sara had expressed her appraisal of Peggy’s competence and work ethic.
“That’s what you pay me for,” she answered so dryly that Sara found herself a little disappointed.
“So you mean to say everything is bought and sold?”
“Yes,” Peggy answered, “absolutely so; I certainly wouldn’t work without pay . . .” And after, she added: “But I also won’t stay long with those I don’t like.”
Sara admired the look of iron will in Peggy’s blue eyes while she spoke. From then on the two were more comfortable with each other. Yet Sara knew they lived in different worlds and had a different way of thinking. Peggy was surprised to find out that Sara spent her hour of rest not with sleeping but with wakeful reverie. She wouldn’t let anyone through to Sara in that hour, assuming that Sara was sleeping. What else could she be doing in there?
“What do you think about, Sara?” she asked naively.
“I’ll tell you what I thought about today. I remembered an incident from a couple of years ago. I went to visit a family I knew, old friends. I went in: the same apartment, the same old furniture in the same old arrangement, only strange faces were looking back at me, unfamiliar faces. I looked around and recognized my own photograph on the wall. Not only, mind you, was I some oddball guest unexpectedly dropping in on these strange people, but they also had my picture, my print, as well. In short, my friends had moved to Chicago and sold all their belongings to these people, including my photograph, together with the apartment. A photograph they practically begged me for. That’s beside the point, I’ve already forgiven my friends, I haven’t given them a thought, but the whole scene seems to me strangely comic. How do people get accustomed to living so completely conformed to someone else’s house?”
“What’s so funny about that?”
“Not funny? Then why are you laughing?” Because in truth, Peggy was laughing wholeheartedly.
“I'm laughing about how strange it is that you pay attention to these things.”
What reminded Sara of the previous incident was something that, in that moment, she couldn’t get into with Peggy. “What makes a home?” she asked herself. She had seen a model home before. A few lonely pieces of furniture, a mirror, a lusterless portrait, perhaps of a person who had long since passed away, and another portrait. This was a home. She also thought of another sort of home, of a home where the spirit, the “I,” builds for itself its own inner world. How limited, how poor, it seems, is the home, when one considers what it’s composed of: one thought, and another thought, a portrait of a person; a landscape of a beautiful morning or evening from the past, the recollection of a friendly word, of a look, and a shadow of a dream . . . Among such “furniture” sits the “I,” here it manipulates, here it creates. This is its home. Deprive it of this and it remains homeless.
One Wednesday afternoon at the usual time, while Sara sat in her room on the second floor, she suddenly heard Peggy’s frantic footsteps climbing the stairs up to her room. She knew right away that something important had come up; Peggy wouldn’t disturb her rest otherwise. She went down to meet Peggy and found her friend Miss Merkin with a young man. She gave the young man a good look, and something shuddered within her. Another look and she fell to the nearest chair and broke out crying. It could be no one but her brother.
It was nothing more than an accident, a happy accident, the way Sara found her brother. Her brother came in from Boston that day and booked a room with Miss Merkin herself. When giving his name he suddenly blurted out “Rosen” instead of “Rose,” as he called himself now. That was all it took, and he thanked God that it all had happened this way. He came to New York almost completely empty-handed, which meant he would have the opportunity to look about more freely—one shouldn’t rush these things. Sara was deeply moved that she was in a position to help her brother. Leo Rose smirked at Sara’s naivete.
“You don’t know me, my dear sister. What, did you think I’d be completely lost without you?” He laughed good-naturedly and stroked her hand like a child. That her brother could take care of himself pleased her very much. She saw the brother who, as a mere child, set out into an unfamiliar world.
The conversation came the following evening, two or three days after Leo Rose was able to get a good look at the city. He thanked God no more for himself than for his sister.
“You should thank God”—he assured her—“for this happy accident. I am going to set you on firm ground . . .” His meaning was that her institution was not in the right hands, and he asked her to let him see the value of the house so that she might remodel, rebuild, and expand. It made him laugh to see how his sister recoiled from his plan.
“Are you getting dizzy, Sara?”
What he had done in Boston he hadn’t made clear enough. She heard him say that Boston wasn’t worth the trouble that he gave it, although he was, a few times, “at the very top.”
“Did you lose money?” she asked.
“Maybe, and maybe sometimes I didn’t let something go, or let things get out of hand . . . Don’t worry, my dear sister, just as I don’t worry.” Leo hadn’t yet had any earnest exchange with his sister, although he wasn’t frugal with his words. He hadn’t even asked, as one would expect, what had happened with them in the house those first few years after his departure, how it was that she, Sara, had come to be in her current position. Sara became impatient and felt her heart begin to race. Often in the middle of an otherwise typical exchange with him she would nearly, albeit totally unexpectedly, blurt out the question: “Do you know, my dear brother, how much I have thought of you? Called out to you?” Or, on another occasion, eavesdropping on one of his conversations with someone else, her lips might silently whisper, “I heard you leave that wondrous night . . . I wasn’t asleep like you thought . . . I can still feel you now.”
She made many attempts to get him to open up to her, to return with him to the years of their youth, to that night. It was possible that he hadn’t understood her, or possible that he had a reason to avoid such a conversation. Either way, she hadn’t succeeded in bringing him to the requisite mood. One evening she had him over. She had the feeling that this time “it would happen.” She prepared her room and herself for the occasion: pleasant light, the right clothes, the whole atmosphere, even the coffee in the electric machine boiled affably.
“Sit down, Leo,” she said sweetly, “no one will bother us here”—and she waited. But it was impossible to get his attention for even a passing minute. He complimented her coffee, remarked that she had organized the space very nicely, although a bit too simple and modest for his taste, and immediately began to discuss his plan to demolish the wall. She made another attempt, and another after that, this time without the fanfare, but with the same results. She began to despair that she was waiting on something that might never happen. She did, however, wait. One weekday morning in the large dining room downstairs, when they were finished with breakfast, Leo suddenly mentioned his running away from home. Sara, Peggy, and Miss Merkin were all there, but only Miss Merkin listened long enough to hear him out to the end. Sara was the first to get up from the table, with an uncertain fear about what she might hear. But she couldn’t remove herself completely and began pacing around from one side to the other, into the room and out again. The words of her brother’s story hit her like stones . . . They’re laughing in there, her brother and Miss Merkin . . . something’s funny. There wasn’t a single thing the poor boy didn’t run into that night—it was pitch black, after all—until he felt what he was looking for . . . It was funny, but did she really need to stand there and listen to the whole thing? She did, however, remain listening, while she affected preoccupation and pretended to not hear them at all. Didn’t hear them—she now listened sharper than before in order not to miss, if possible, even one single word. The boy reached the dresser safely at last, finally grasping tightly what he had been searching for. Now, is that to say he was a free man already? It didn’t end there! Miss Merkin actually gasped a little, no less from what she heard than what she expected to hear. Meanwhile, there stood Sara, holding a plate in her hand for no apparent reason. And the entire time she was avoiding giving him even a peripheral glance. She didn’t understand what it was taking him so long to say. She already knew how it ended: it was dark, and he ran into her bed, which stood by the dresser. It was funny, but he might be making it out to be funnier than it actually was . . . Yes, it was just as she had predicted! So when she heard him shouting with a resounding “Smack! Right into Sara’s arms!” she brandished the plate she was still holding as if to demonstrate the “smack” part. Peggy grabbed the plate out of her hand just in time. Where had Peggy come from? She looked Peggy in the eyes and saw that she was only trying to help with the dishes. She was certain that Peggy didn’t understand the true meaning of her temper; she was relieved and left.
She went up to her room, though it was not the usual time, two in the afternoon. Upon entering she remained standing by the door. Her first thought was that something had changed, or that she had mistakenly entered the wrong room altogether. No, all appeared to be in order. Should she lie down for a while? Do just the thing that Peggy thought she had been doing all this time? Sleeping, however, she would never have time for. She leaned against the door where she was standing. That dream hadn’t eluded her, she thought. Him, Leo, him with his “smack,” he sure had, though. What could that dream have been about? How could she know now? A dream, what’s the difference? A dream? No, more than a dream . . . otherwise she wouldn’t regret that she had so suddenly forgotten it. It was more than a dream—perhaps it was better that she had forgotten it . . . perhaps it was better this way. With that thought she finally set herself down in her chair and slowly closed her eyes: now she would think of nothing at all, now she would try to get some rest . . .
Oliver “Ollie” Elkus is a Yiddish teacher and translator who is currently translating his first full-length book project, Mayn tatns kretshme (My Father’s Tavern) as a 2020 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Ollie also likes to bake bread, play drums, whittle, and drink tea.