Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn (1905–1975) was born in Nowo-Radomsk, Poland. She was raised in a Hasidic family and immigrated to Toronto with her family in 1914. She moved to New York at the age of sixteen, where she pursued a career on the stage; her first story was published in 1934. She published three collections of short stories before her death, in 1975.
In "Letters," from her 1954 collection Stems and Branches, we encounter what appears to be a classic immigrant story: Nina, the protagonist, is aboard a ship, bound for a new life. But she is not traveling from the Old Country to the United States; she is going from the United States to Rio de Janeiro. The relics of her old life that she must leave behind are not religious traditions or ritual objects but rather her preoccupation with an unfaithful former lover, which takes the form of a series of letters from him that she has been unable to part with. Hamer-Jacklyn thus transforms the familiar story of immigration and assimilation into a deeply personal psychological study. This interest in the domestic lives of her characters—and of women in particular—makes Hamer-Jacklyn’s work unusual as a piece of post-1945 American Yiddish literature, so much of which was concerned with larger cultural, religious, and sociopolitical questions. For her deft exploration of the inner lives of women, she deserves a place among the cadre of newly recognized and celebrated Yiddish women writers that includes Blume Lempel, Yenta Mash, and Miriam Karpilove. —Miranda Cooper
Nina stood on the deck of the ship watching the mountains of water rise and fall, murmur and rustle, white foam spreading in their wake. A flock of white seagulls floated along the waves.
Nina leaned over the railing of the ship. Her outstretched hand, trembling as it clutched a small box, was extended toward the sea. Soon she would open her hand and the sea would swallow up all the letters that had brought her warmth, promised her happiness, for so many years. She used to call it her “sacred box,” and because of it she had given away the best years of her life; now it seemed tainted, deceitful. She could neither keep the letters with her nor part with them.
She had been between water and sky for twelve days. Almost every evening, when the sky above the endless ocean began to darken, Nina would come out to the deck and station herself by the railing. For the life of her, she could not bring herself to fling the letters overboard once and for all, to let them decompose on the ocean floor. Day after day, she would stay until nightfall and then bring the box back to her cabin.
She would read them over one more time, and tomorrow it would happen, she decided resolutely. She wanted to arrive in the unfamiliar place free of the nightmare that had held her captive for half her life. She had given eighteen of her thirty-six years to Jacob Waldman.
Nina slowly began to walk back. The wind rumpled her black hair and made her dress billow as it propelled her back and forth. Back in her cabin, she turned on the lights. A pale face and intense blue eyes looked back at her from the mirror above the washbasin. Her lips trembled. Every time she came back with the box she was ashamed of her own hesitancy.
“What is the matter with me?” she murmured. “I have no backbone!”
She sat down on the bed and took out the letters. She would read them just once more. This would be the last time, and then into the sea with them forever!
This was the first letter, which he had written her eighteen years ago, from New York:
My Ninashke, my one and only!
Yesterday, when I left you, I felt so empty. I have left my heart, my soul, with you. Without you I am the loneliest person in the world. With you I am happy and fulfilled. To me, you are everything. You are young, beautiful, and smart. But youth has one drawback: it is impatient. I ask you, Ninashke, have a little perseverance. It won’t be long now until I get a divorce, and then you will be truly mine, in my eyes and in the eyes of the world.
So long, and keep loving me,
Your besotted lover,
And here was a letter from fifteen years ago, from Chicago:
My beautiful blue-eyed darling!
I know that you are a little mad at me, all because I didn’t come when I said I would. You have to understand, Ninashke, that I am the busiest person in the world. What can I do? The entire business lies like a heavy weight on my shoulders. No matter what happens in my life, you must know one thing—my love for you is eternal. It is as if I am a parched wanderer in the desert and you are an oasis. Have just a bit more patience. All will be well. My heart is yours. I’m sending you a kiss.
Your devoted lover,
And here was a letter from ten years ago, from London:
Oh, how happy I would be if you were here with me! Ninashke, we will go on the next trip together. I don’t want to travel alone anymore. I also wanted to tell you that I received a letter from her. Finally, she has almost agreed to a divorce. In London, my dear, there are a lot of beautiful women. But I don’t even notice them. I only have eyes for you. I haven’t met anyone more beautiful, sweeter, or kinder than my one and only Ninashke. Tomorrow I am leaving London, and with this letter I am sending you my new address in Switzerland. I have to stay there for several weeks. The whole time I will await a letter from you, my treasure. I want to know how you are doing. Do you miss me as much as I miss you? I’m sending you a million kisses.
A letter from six years ago, from Amsterdam:
My loving Ninashke!
I am not enjoying my trips. It’s no fun to be traveling for business. I would gladly give it all up for one hour with you. But what can I do, when we live in such a mundane world, surrounded by petty little people who make hypocritical rules? Ninashke, you are absolutely the only one who understands me and knows how deep my love for you is. All of my hard work is for the sake of the time when we will be together forever. Your patience and perseverance give me the courage to continue with my unhappy life. I’m sending you a kiss and yearning for the moment when I see you again.
Your eternal lover,
A bitter smile spread across Nina’s lips. So much love, and yet! But what was the point of reading? She already knew all the letters by heart . . . into the sea! She glanced out the porthole. No, no, not yet. She must read over just the last three before she severed herself from them forever.
A letter from two years ago, from Paris:
My bright treasure,
Who came up with the idea that Paris was the happiest city in the world? I know now that it’s possible to be in Paris and still feel isolated, dying of longing. Yes, dear, I miss you even in bustling Paris, where I feel like a fish out of water. Had I known that the time of my liberation was so near I would never have made the trip without you.
Sweetheart, our longtime dream is becoming real. And at this moment, oh, this moment—words fail me. When we are together I will finally explain all my plans to you, and I will hold you in my arms.
Yours to the grave,
And now Nina took out the letter with the long-awaited news—a letter from Reno:
At last, at last, I have obtained that little slip of paper we have waited so long for. Everything went quickly and very uneventfully. After so many years of struggle, I am finally free. Dear, you cannot even imagine how happy I am without the chains. I could take the entire world in my arms and kiss it. I am coming back, and coming back to you.
Nina recalled that after that her days had become feverish. She had prepared for her new life with so much hope. She bought clothes, shoes, new outfits; she purchased baubles. She met with Jacob frequently. They went out together often, without fear. Every day she waited for Jacob to take her as his wife, but he was so wrapped up in his business, and she had too much pride to remind him. She would wait until the proposal came from him. Those were ridiculous days: days full of happiness, and days full of accusations and bitter foreboding. Why was he putting it off like this? Why did he make so many little trips? What was he waiting for? How long would he leave her hanging? Nina suffered in silence. She started to have all kinds of suspicions. But she reproached herself for her impatience and nervousness; she must believe in him, believe!
Six months after his divorce, he traveled somewhere; always “business matters,” as he said. He was away for a couple days, a week, two, and she did not hear from him. She wandered around distracted, absent-minded. She lost sleep and suffered from headaches. She was constantly running to the mailbox, but there was never anything from him. It started to seem like her family and friends were whispering about her behind her back. They were keeping something from her. They treated her like she was terminally ill and only they knew. They avoided her, and when they did see her, they didn’t mention Jacob’s name. Finally, a letter came. It was his handwriting. With a trembling hand, she ripped it open and read the letter, from Florida:
It is not easy to write you this letter, but you probably know by now that I got married. It happened very suddenly. I myself don’t even know how.
Ninashke, things happen in life that we can’t comprehend, but they happen. I know you’re suffering, but believe me, I suffer too when I think about what you’ve been through. I also know, though, that you are good, kind, and understanding, and you’ll forgive me. Your noble character is one of the qualities I adore most about you. I want you to know one thing: I still love you, and I hope that we will see each other again in the near future.
Nina shuddered as she recalled what she had gone through when she first read that infernal letter. Something inside her died, and she had never been the same since. After his honeymoon, he came back to New York. He had the nerve to send her flowers, call her up repeatedly and tell her that he missed her, that he had to see her . . . The most horrible part was that she had become so weak. She felt her resolve not to see him anymore softening; she would stop resisting and meet up with him again.
She jumped at the chance to come to Rio de Janeiro when she got her aunt’s invitation; she made up her mind to escape to a faraway place and to destroy all the letters, obliterate all signs of her shame. She would cast the letters into the deep, and along with them his sorcery, the mysterious power that he had over her. She must not arrive in this new place with this bundle of lies. No, she must not. She would not put this off any longer!
Nina went back up to the deck. There was no one else there. The moon hung in the blue evening sky, casting silver patterns across the waves. A warm wind blew. Seagulls cried. Nina staggered to the railing, where she stood floundering, afraid that she might fall into the sea along with the box of letters. No, I’ll do it bit by bit, she told herself. For now I’ll just throw away one letter . . .
She took out a letter and released it from her hand. The wind seized it and carried it over the waves like an enormous butterfly. A quiet scream escaped from her; it was as if something had been torn from her insides. Suddenly the wind took hold of the letter again and blew it backward across the deck. Nina set about chasing after the letter, the wind propelling her forward. One moment the letter was nearly in her outstretched hand; the next it flew away. She managed to grab the letter and stood still, pouring with sweat. The wind seemed regretful, and Nina was too. With trembling hands, she opened the box and replaced the rescued letter, and began to walk shakily back to her cabin.
Miranda Cooper is a New York–based writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations from Yiddish have been published in Jewish Currents and Pakn Treger, and her literary and cultural criticism has been published by Kirkus Reviews, Jewish Currents, Tablet, JTA, In geveb, Alma, the Jewish Book Council, and the Yiddish Book Center. She currently serves as an editor of In geveb and was a 2019 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow.