Chone Gottesfeld was born in 1890 in Skala, Galicia (today Skala-Podilska, Ukraine), where he spent his childhood years attending heder. As a teenager, Gottesfeld studied in Czernowitz and Vienna before eventually immigrating to the United States at age eighteen. Most famous as the humor columnist of the Forverts and as a playwright, Gottesfeld worked odd jobs in Cleveland and Philadelphia before settling down in New York, where he also served as president of the Yiddish Writers Union for many years. Gottesfeld died in January 1964.
Vos ikh gedenk fun mayn lebn (What I Remember of My Life), Gottesfeld’s memoir from which this piece is excerpted, is written in Gottesfeld’s distinctive, straightforward style. At once humorous and bitter, judgmental and sympathetic, Gottesfeld’s recounting of his journey to America immerses the reader in the overwhelming homesickness Gottesfeld experienced even as the train pulled out of Skala, his alter heym. Through his eyes, the reader feels Gottesfeld’s trepidation, loneliness, and deep disconnect from the other Jewish immigrants, who seem to express nothing but jubilation and excitement at the prospect of their new lives in America. In the hands of anyone else, the story would be wholly depressing. In the hands of a Yiddish humor columnist, it is nuanced and riveting. —Sophia Shoulson
On the Way to America
The train left my shtetl. The farther it went, the faster it moved.
I looked out the window. Trees, fields, and farmers flew by.
Earlier, before the train began to move, I would have been able to see my father, my little sister through the window, but I was too afraid to look. My heart had been too weak. Now I wished I had seen them. Just one glance out at them. But it was too late. I was sure they stood out there until the train left, wanting to see my face. But I did not appear. They waited in vain. The train ran away, taking me along with it. They went home with broken hearts.
No one cried during the farewells. Even my mother did not cry. Their pain was so great that it held back their tears. My little sister Tsine, my sweet, little sister, gave a shriek that spoke for everyone.
Reb Chaim Eliyahu, the passenger from my shtetl sitting next to me, was silent for a while. He considered me. I met his gaze, and he began to speak to me, reprimanding me: “Nu, do you really have to leave your parents and travel so far away? I see tears in your eyes. You miss them already. What now? Where and to what are you traveling? It is a treyf land, indeed, where Shabbos is not really Shabbos and yontif is not really yontif. They don’t even fast on Yom Kippur! Tisha B’av is ignored. So why are you going there? To eat a hunk of meat? They say you eat meat there every day. Even though the meat is all treyf. I would be too disgusted to eat it. Feh! Sheygets teshaktseyni—vile sacrilege! Phooey!”
I told him there is also kosher meat, with kosher butchers, rabbis, religious Jews, schools, and storytellers. I began to explain to him that I have an uncle there, Fishke, who davens in tefillin every day and hears a different preacher teach Torah every Shabbos.
Reb Chaim Eliyahu did not let me explain and cried: “America is as treyf as a pig! The very ground is treyf. The moment one steps on that ground with a single foot, one becomes treyf, too. It’s Sodom over there, everyone sins openly, in public. They have no shame there. Someone’s wife, my wife, everything is mixed up.”
I let him say whatever he wanted. I realized there was no point arguing with him. He would shout and refuse to hear what the other person was saying. He was not the only Jew like this in my shtetl, and I couldn’t help but think that it was good that I was leaving it behind.
In Hamburg, the German port city. In a few days a ship would come and take me to New York.
There were many people in my hotel—or my “immigrant quarters,” as they were called—mostly Jews: men and women, and for the most part young people. A great number arrived together with me and would continue on the same ship.
We arrived at dusk. A fiddler played that evening. People danced. They tried to get me to dance too. A young woman whom I have never seen before stretched out her hand to me, asking me to dance with her. I didn’t. I apologized and told her my feet hurt. How could someone who has only just left home, and who already misses it, get up and dance?
I stood and looked at the dancers. It was as if they were possessed. They would finish a dance, kiss, and keep dancing. The faces of the dancers were aflame. They were so happy. I was surprised: they had only just met; most hadn’t known each other before then, only an hour earlier they had never met, and now they were kissing? Already they were in love!
How is that possible? How can one fall in love so quickly? Rayzl and I waited two years before she gave me a kiss. And Golde, my cousin whom I had known for many years, I never dared to kiss—and yet, here, they kissed the moment they saw each other for the first time.
So I asked myself: How could they be so happy and raucous? They had all left someone behind in their hometown, their alter heym: a father, a mother, a brother, a sister. Did it not tear their hearts to pieces to remember their mothers and fathers? I was told most of them were married and were leaving behind husbands, wives, children. Their children were likely longing for their fathers. The wives were longing for their husbands. And here I saw a gentleman dancing on his toes, taking a lady, pressing her to his breast. His face was aglow with happiness. He danced as if he were dancing for the very first time. He threw his feet around seemingly without a pattern. It seemed that the most important thing was the embracing of the lady, not the dancing. What was going on?
And all of this was happening before we’d even taken our places on the ship. What, then, would happen in America? The place must be utter chaos.
But maybe the chaos was better: the freedom, where you need not marry a woman you did not know through a matchmaker, the way it happened in our shtetl.
I looked at all of these young women, all powdered and made up, and I compared them to my beloved Rayzl, or my cousin Golde—what a difference! They didn’t wear a hint of makeup on their faces. They had divine grace. They didn’t need makeup. When Rayzl laughed, the sound flew through the air and everyone breathed in joy. When Golde smiled, it filled everyone with good will and love. What was a bit of makeup compared to that?
I thought, if Golde and Rayzl had been one person, one woman with Rayzl’s cleverness and charm and Golde’s goodness and love, that person would be an angel. God hadn’t wanted to put all of that cleverness and all of that goodness in one person. It would have been too much. Instead, He divided it between Rayzl and Golde. And now, I found I had no interest in the young women dancing before me.
Yoynele the Butcher
One of those who wasn’t dancing was a small little Jew with a small little beard, wearing a large brimmed hat under which a yarmulke peeked out. No one invited him to dance. And whenever someone did invite him, he did not accept. His yarmulke would have stood out among the dancers. He sat and looked, staring at the feet. His gaze followed the feet as they flew across the hall. He smiled. He laughed, he kvelled, he delighted.
I heard how they whispered about him, how in his alter heym he was a butcher, how he was called Yoynele the butcher. How did they know that? In an immigration camp, you learn things quickly.
The dance ended. A young woman who had been dancing with someone else came to sit next to Yoynele the butcher. I saw how Yoynele regarded her, feasting with his eyes. Indeed, he quickly began a conversation. They spoke casually, saying words that meant nothing. Suddenly, I saw honey begin to drip from the butcher’s lips. I heard words like “beauty,” “darling,” “sweet angel.” I was certain this was not his wife, for I had never heard a butcher speak to his wife like this. Perhaps this was a relative, I thought, which would permit him to speak like this. Even though earlier they had sat as though strangers. I listened further and heard her say to him: “What would your wife say if she heard you speaking like this to me?” He replied: “Why bring up my wife? Have I done something horrible to you?” The young woman laughed. She appreciated the joke, and I learned from it that he had left a wife back in his alter heym. Emboldened because she liked the joke, he asked if she would like to accompany him outside for a walk. She said to him: “You’ve only just met me, and already you would like to take a walk with me. Isn’t it dark outside?” He answered: “With an angel like you, one can easily walk in the dark.”
The little butcher realized that I was eavesdropping on their conversation and suggested they move to a different bench. When she stood up, he looped his arm under hers and they headed outside to the street.
They were gone, and I thought: “What is happening here? A butcher talks like this to a woman he has never met before. And he does this before he has even boarded the ship!”
So perhaps my countryman Chaim Eliyahu was right after all, when he said the very ground in America is treyf? . . .
Sonia the Revolutionary
On the ship.
I’d seen Yoynele the butcher only once on the deck of the ship, cozied up to some young woman—another, not the one whom he had called “darling” in Hamburg. I’d seen that first woman enjoying the company of another man. This was on my first day on the ship. Later, I lost interest in the love affairs of others. I became involved in a love affair of my own.
Her name was Sonia.
I fell in love with her when I heard her singing a Russian folksong with a few others:
Zhal’ mne tebia
It means: Russia, Russia, I pity you.
The melody spoke to my heart. I had sung along, expressing my longing for my shtetl.
Sonia sang sincerely. After the song ended, we introduced ourselves. She was blonde—she looked like Hermine, the blonde with whom I’d had a fling in Vienna. There was, however, a big difference. They both spoke of love, but very differently. Hermine spoke of her love for me. Sonia spoke of her love for humankind, for revolution.
Hermine had spoken very little. Her blue eyes had spoken for her. Sonia spoke, and spoke, and spoke. She described how she had suffered in Siberia, bringing tears to my eyes. Her tale of how she had cleverly escaped Siberia filled me with joy. She spoke with hatred of the tsarist regime, she spoke against all rulers and tyrants, including the rich, the capitalists.
She explained to me that her mission in America was to fight against the capitalists and to free the workers from capitalist tyranny.
When I agreed with her, she embraced me and gave me a kiss.
When she spoke with love and sympathy about the workers who worked long hours, lived in shoddy apartments, and couldn’t provide enough food for their children, I was the one who embraced and kissed her.
These were holy kisses, given for the sake of her ideas, not simply for the sake of kissing her.
Sonia had taken away my longing for my shtetl, for my parents. I was entirely obsessed with her, and I forgot about everyone and everything else.
Sonia explained to me that she was traveling to stay with a rich uncle, a capitalist, but she would not be staying with him for long—only for the first few days. Then she would find work to fund her independence and begin organizing strikes and fighting the capitalists, including her uncle, the “bloodsucker,” as she called him.
She told me this was how I should deal with my uncles as well, if they were rich.
When I mentioned my parents, my brothers, my sister, she laughed at me. Everyone has a father, a mother, brothers, and sister, she said, and so what? “To be preoccupied with one’s parents is bourgeois, chauvinistic, and sentimental,” she quoted from a speech given by a famous revolutionary. “One must love humanity, not one’s parents,” she said.
At first, I did not agree with her. Slowly, however, I came around to the conviction that working to free the world was paramount.
At night, I would dream of starting strikes against my uncles in America; in one dream, I threw a pair of scissors at my uncle Dudi, injuring him. This upset me, wounding my own flesh and blood, and I told Sonia that I regretted hurting my uncle. She told me I had “bourgeois intuitions.” We quarreled passionately. When I woke up startled and realized it had only been a dream, I was relieved that I had not hurt my uncle and that I had not quarreled with Sonia.
At Ellis Island
On Ellis Island. After the officials examined us and let us through, we waited for our relatives to come and take us away. I stood, looking across into Sonia’s eyes, which were shining and sparkling with the energy of revolution.
“May you become a true revolutionary,” she said to me. “You must fight and fight. They may be your parents, your brother, sister, uncles, cousins, but you must fight against them. Forget about your shtetl! Think only of humanity, of the proletariat, of a world made free. Down with the capitalist order!”
Her speech was drowned out by someone shouting, “Sonia!”
A Jewish man approached us, with a big belly and a golden chain across his chest. Behind him followed a stout Jewish woman with big earrings in her small ears. Sonia kissed them both and cried, “Uncle! Auntie!” . . . I elbowed my way toward them. I waited for her to bid me farewell. She didn’t look in my direction. She was busy kissing her capitalist relatives. I thought: “She must want to kiss them thoroughly before she starts fighting with them.” I let her.
I waited a little longer, then called out: “Sonia! Sonia!” She pretended not to hear.
“Sonia, someone is calling you,” said her aunt.
“Eh, bah!” She made a gesture with her hand which seemed to mean “He’s not important” and refused to look in my direction.
She left quickly with her relatives, without saying goodbye to me.
What does this mean? I asked myself. As soon as she saw her rich relatives, she didn’t want anything to do with me. So perhaps my countryman Chaim Eliyahu was right after all, when he said the very ground in America is treyf.
And perhaps it is not America’s fault. Perhaps Sonia had been a liar since her alter heym. Perhaps her whole story, of being stuck in Siberia and then escaping, was a lie. She spouted all of these revolutionary phrases at me, and I fell in love with those phrases.
I sat on Ellis Island and waited for my relatives to come and take me away to New York. A large group of people from my camp were waiting for their relatives as well. Many were my ship brothers and sisters. The rows began to thin out. Relatives would come, they would kiss, then they would all leave. Those who remained were unhappy; they grumbled, they complained, they were impatient, they were jealous of those whose relatives came earlier. They all wanted to arrive in America a bit faster.
It didn’t bother me that my relatives were late. I knew they would come. It didn’t bother me that I would arrive in New York a bit late. On the contrary—I was relieved to have the opportunity to sit and think. Perhaps, once I reached New York, I would not have time for thinking. I have often loved to be alone with my thoughts, to lose myself in them.
Sonia, the revolutionary with whom I spent time on the ship and with whom I’d had a short love affair—I couldn’t get her out of my head. What a liar! She had spun yarns about sitting in Siberia, working for humanity, for the revolution. She had deluded me into forgetting my father, my mother, and I had simply nodded in agreement. But the moment she saw her wealthy aunt with her big earrings, she fell upon her, kissing her, and didn’t want anything to do with me. She had commanded me to forget my mother. She is not worthy of my mother’s toenail.
And what would happen when I met more liars in America? Would I believe them as well?
I would be cautious from now on. I would watch out for liars. When someone spoke, I would weigh and measure their speech. I wouldn’t believe anyone.
From today onward I would only worry about myself. I would provide for the well-being of the Jewish people later, when I had become rich. First I had to make something of myself, standing on firm ground.
In the middle of my thoughts I heard someone calling my name, and before me stood my uncle Moyshe.
Sophia Shoulson is the Richard S. Herman Senior Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. She is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she wrote her senior thesis on early 20th-century Yiddish folklore studies, and she was a participant in the 2017 Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center.