Jonah Rosenfeld (1881–1944) was recognized during and after his lifetime as a writer who probed the depths of human psychology. His works foreground loneliness, displacement, social anxiety, and family dysfunction, themes that are clearly still relevant to a 21st-century audience. His stories are urban, domestic dramas that explore the often painful disjunctions between men and women, parents and children, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, self and society.
Rosenfeld was born in in Chartorysk, Russian Empire (present-day Staryi Chortoryisk, Ukraine). When he was thirteen his parents died of cholera, after which he apprenticed as a turner in Odessa and worked in that trade for the next ten years. He began writing in 1902, and his first published story appeared in 1904. In 1921 Rosenfeld emigrated to New York, where he was a major contributor to the leading American Yiddish-language newspaper, the Forverts, until 1935. He was a prolific writer and highly regarded by his contemporaries. He died in New York in 1944.
“Vrastata Trasmata!” is typical of Rosenfeld’s writings in that it features a main character who struggles with unexpressed feelings of alienation, having just arrived in New York as a virtually friendless immigrant from a European shtetl. The author foregrounds the frightening sense of dislocation many such newcomers experience on first entering a new environment with its unfamiliar lifestyles, social and class structures, landscape, and language. This story, however, is unlike many of Rosenfeld’s works in that the narrator’s observations of his new country and his feud with a former landsman—a fellow citizen in the Old Country—do not play out as tragedy. Although Rosenfeld raises questions about displacement and belonging, the story is essentially comic, highlighting the breadth of the writer’s talents—not only as a tragedian and explorer of the dark side of human nature but also as an author sensitive to the nuances and possibilities of humor. —Rachel Mines
After my old neighbor from back home picked me up from the ship, he didn’t take me to his place. Instead he drove me to another old neighbor’s, a landsman I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, since he’d left home nineteen or twenty years ago when I was still a boy, hardly more than a child. The only thing I remembered about him was the uproar in town before he went away.
This unknown landsman I was being driven to wasn’t the first of us to depart for America. But he was the first of an extensive, well-respected family, and that’s why his relatives had kicked up such a fuss when he left. In those days it was a blow to the pride of a family like his when one of its members went off to America, since no decent people did so back then—only good-for-nothings, horse thieves, and arsonists—or some poor woman who’d gotten into trouble with a guy and lost her prospects of ever getting married. Only people like that went to America, or, to be more precise, “ran away” or “took off” for America.
This particular man had also “taken off” for America. He’d had to go, and for a very good reason—he’d wanted to marry the servant girl who worked in his family home, this girl he’d been fooling around with. His respectable family weren’t worried about the fooling around, but when he started talking about formalizing his informal arrangement, his virtuous relatives came out unanimously against it: no, they couldn’t condone such a scandal. So, with no other choice, he’d had to run away to America with his maidservant and marry her there.
My landsman was obviously a decent fellow, but I still had no desire to stay with people I didn’t know. My old neighbor who was taking me to this landsman’s house—the stranger’s, that is—knew perfectly well what I was going through. He felt compelled to apologize: it was a shame he couldn’t invite me to stay with him, but he’d just gotten married last week, and it would be awkward for all three of us—him, me, and his new wife—to live together. While he was at it, he said I shouldn’t feel guilty living in the other man’s house, because I wouldn’t be freeloading. When I got a job and began earning money I’d pay for everything, room and board, just like a regular lodger.
“Are they poor?” I inquired.
My former neighbor explained that they weren’t poor people who needed the money but were taking me in as a favor to him. Also, they happened to have an empty room. It had always been empty—they didn’t rent it out—because they didn’t want lodgers in the house.
That was all very well, but I’d still rather be going to stay with people I knew. I think if I could have done that, I wouldn’t have felt so alone in this place I’d landed in—this anonymous big city, New York. I’d have been protected by the sheltering wings of friends from home.
This frightening sense of not belonging had first come over me when my ship was a few miles offshore and for the first time I’d seen the city’s gigantic, boxlike towers. At first glance these towers, with their many tall windows, looked like something out of a legend. I couldn’t imagine that people like me, or even remotely like me, had built them. Maybe the builders were the great-great-grandchildren of biblical giants, yearning to climb back into the heavens?
Imagine the worthless joker in a deck of cards, surrounded by kings and aces—what if he were alive, what if he had emotions? Finding myself here, in the middle of New York, I felt the same way. Was it any surprise I didn’t want to live with people I’d never met?
But my old neighbor who was driving didn’t ask me where I preferred to go, so with no choice in the matter I did my best to at least form a mental image of the man he was taking me to. I burrowed down into my collection of memories, concentrating fiercely on what I remembered of the uproar when he’d left. My thinking was this: since I could recall the fuss so clearly, it was unlikely that the man himself had faded right out of my mind. But on the other hand, even if I did manage to find him there, filed away in my archive of memories, would it make any difference? For me to feel comfortable in his house, he’d have to know me too—otherwise, all my efforts would be in vain.
The loneliness of a new immigrant is so all-consuming that I tried to console myself with the thought that he knew my relatives, at least, and must remember them. Of course my family wasn’t as upstanding as his. His relatives were thoroughly respectable, while mine were nothing but riffraff, wagon drivers, water carriers, and chimney sweeps. I myself was the most distinguished of the lot. My status came from my being a nobody, a plain and simple nonentity. However, even that put me in better standing than a chimney sweep or water carrier. My own father had swept out my landsman’s chimney more than once, and a chimney sweep, of course, is someone you don’t forget.
Driving across the Williamsburg Bridge, my old neighbor told me, “Look up ahead—that’s where Brooklyn begins. We’ve been in New York until now, but when we cross this bridge we’ll be in Brooklyn.”
“Does he live in Brooklyn?”
My neighbor nodded. To my surprise, my spirits rose when I heard that my landsman lived in Brooklyn rather than New York. Perhaps I felt better because in Brooklyn I didn’t see any tall towers like the ones in New York. As we drove past one wooden house after another, I relaxed a little, feeling more at home. The fact that my landsman—the one I was being taken to—was a stranger stopped frightening me so much, just because he lived in Brooklyn.
To tell the truth, even the wooden houses in Brooklyn weren’t anything like the ones at home. Our wooden houses were smaller, not two or three stories. The windows here were different, too, and the roofs were flat—I couldn’t even see them. Nevertheless, these houses built of wood made me feel more at home.
A little while later, when we’d driven more deeply into Brooklyn and I started to see trees lining some of the streets and picket fences with grass and flowers in front of some of the houses, I relaxed even more in the familiar surroundings. But my thoughts didn’t slow down at all.
Earlier, when we’d been driving through New York and I’d seen the tall towers, I’d been sure that’s where the rich people lived. Obviously, the taller the houses, the richer the people who lived in them. But when I saw those beautiful houses here in Brooklyn, surrounded by grass and flowers, I got very confused, and the question occurred to me: where are the poor people—where do they live? Well, anything goes in America, this land of hustlers—could it be that here in America there aren’t any poor people at all?
I couldn’t wait to find out, though I was too embarrassed to ask my neighbor. But in terms of my other landsman, the one I was being driven to, I drew my own firm conclusion: no matter what kind of a man he’d become here, he couldn’t possibly be rich. First, if he were wealthy he’d be living in New York, somewhere in one of those skyscrapers. And second, he wouldn’t be eager to take in a new arrival even if he happened to have three empty rooms, not just one.
After we’d driven some distance down a street with tramway lines running down it, our car turned into a quiet, tree-lined avenue, and my neighbor said, “He lives here, on this street.”
Fascinated, I examined the street where my landsman lived and where I’d be staying. The houses here were like nothing I’d seen before. At first glance, you might think you were looking at one long house that stretched the whole length of a block, from one street corner to the next. But I soon saw that this one long house was actually many smaller houses all joined together, each wall right up against the next. Why the houses were built that way—so that one house looked like a lot of little houses, or to put it the other way, so that a lot of little houses looked like one long house—I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
However, any of my lingering doubts that this long house was actually many smaller houses were dispelled when I noticed the railings out front, each surrounding its own little plot of land and dividing it from the plots on either side. These plots with the railings around them looked like family graves. So then the thought entered my mind: Do people live here and get buried in the same place, right next to their houses? A new immigrant can get some pretty crazy ideas!
Here and there householders were sitting on their little plots having a late afternoon rest, and while I couldn’t imagine how all these people just happened to be burial society volunteers, they were clearly relaxing after their accomplishments of the day. Most sat in pairs, a man with a woman, and even though I was a newcomer I could see by the way they were sitting that they were married couples. They sat there like men sit with their wives no matter where in the world they live: peacefully, uninvolved with each other. A few were deep in their newspapers, faces hidden. But in general, you could see these people were doing just fine in America—that Jews here didn’t have anything to complain about. True, I didn’t hear a word of Yiddish from these cemetery-plot attendants. But I did recognize their voices: Jewish voices disguised by a non-Jewish language.
We parked near one of the little houses that was joined up to many such little houses, which all together, including that one house, looked like a single long house. Like the others, this little house had its own plot with grass and flowers, and on the plot were two empty chairs that must once have been occupied—or would soon be occupied—by the inhabitants of the house and its plot of land that looked like a family grave.
While my neighbor and I were taking my three pieces of baggage out of the car, a kid of ten or eleven burst out of the below-ground entrance. He raced over to my neighbor and flung his arms around him, all the while gazing at me with curious, smiling eyes. My neighbor asked some question or other (in English, of course), and the boy answered, and then at breakneck speed, yelling “Pa!,” the kid raced back through the door he’d come out of a few minutes earlier.
Whether or not the man inside, this “Pa,” was busy, I don’t know to this day. All I know is that if someone is expecting a friend or even an acquaintance from the other side of the ocean, it shouldn’t take him as long as it did to come out and greet me. That itself brought home to me how little I belonged there.
Eventually the man showed up: a well-padded, short little guy. With his clean-shaven face, I got the impression of a priest, one who—praise God—is living pretty comfortably in this world with everything he needs. And if you can think of anything a well-off priest does in fact lack, well, my landsman had no shortage of that either.
He wasn’t wearing a vest or jacket. His belly preceded him, as if he were bringing it over to me especially. It was cinched by a belt that was holding up both his pants and his belly so that his belly couldn’t fall into his pants and his pants couldn’t fall off his belly. Actually, it wasn’t such a big belly—it was only as big as necessary to persuade a newcomer that its owner was doing just fine in America.
“Hallo, Mr. Grinshteyn!” My neighbor I already knew greeted my landsman that I didn’t know.
“Hallo, hallo.” And the stranger shook hands, first with my companion and then with me, treating us both with the same lukewarm detachment. He greeted me like a man greets a stranger when he already knows who the stranger is, as if he’s a distant acquaintance whose friendship he’s not interested in . . . and I felt as if someone had poured a glass of cold water down my neck.
We proceeded inside and everything went hazy before my eyes. Why? Because it was dark, even though the sun shone brightly outdoors. The window was tucked deep in a corner, allowing no light into the room but a gloomy pallor.
We weren’t in the shadows for long. My landsman struck a match and lit the gas lamp, and—this happens only in dark rooms that are never touched by the rays of the sun—along with the light, a feeling of home and comfort crept inside. That wasn’t all; the room was clean and tidy too. It had a bed, a table, a couple of chairs, and even a rug in the middle of the floor. To a newcomer’s eyes, this room was more than sufficient: it was magnificent. I couldn’t imagine a room like this in my father the chimney sweep’s house. Even in my landsman’s house back home, where his family still lived, I’d never seen a finer room.
My neighbor—the one who’d picked me up from the ship and driven me here—excused himself. He had to run off; his new wife was waiting for him with supper. He shook my hand and left. And when he was gone, I felt . . . I can’t describe it, but imagine what a dog must feel in a strange house when his master who’d brought him there leaves and abandons him. So as soon as my neighbor was gone, in an effort to feel more at home, I tried to strike up a conversation with my Mr. Landsman: “Your family sends their greetings.”
“Sure. How are they doing?” He spoke in an offhand way as if he were thinking, I already know everything he can tell me about my relatives. I felt like a blithering idiot. Get this: I’m bringing him greetings from his faraway family, and he’s acting like he doesn’t even care. After all, I was his only link to his relations. Even though we weren’t close and had nothing much in common, I knew them and saw them almost every day, not to mention running into his uncles and cousins every Friday at the baths and every Shabbos in synagogue.
I started unpacking my bags, but my landsman told me there was no hurry. I should eat something first, or if I preferred I could take a bath—he’d leave it up to me. Despite being hungry I took him up on his second suggestion: “Yes, I think I’d like to wash up first if it’s all right.”
“I’d do the same if I were you,” was his answer. He took my arm with as much ceremony as his father, the rabbi’s assistant, would take the arm of the synagogue’s caretaker to lead him out of the room, usually to the study hall, to show him something. With the same sense of occasion, my landsman took my arm and escorted me to the bathroom. That room of course was lit up brightly. All the light of the setting sun flooded in and was reflected in showers of glittering radiance by the white marble bathtub.
Having shown me what to do and how to do it, my landsman left, warning me to lock the door. Half an hour later, I’d just gotten into my underwear when I heard a knock. I almost died. Who needed in? Had my landsman forgotten to tell me something? I thought I’d done everything he’d told me to do and done nothing he’d told me not to, so who was knocking, and why?
I unlocked the door and opened it a crack. The kid—the same one I’d seen earlier—blurted something in English, and I didn’t understand what he’d said. “Can you please speak Yiddish?” I asked.
The kid gave me a roguish smirk. That smirk told me he’d understood my question but was refusing to speak a single word in Yiddish. After all, how much fun would it be for a brat like him if he spoke so I could understand him when it would be so much more fun if he spoke so I couldn’t understand?
Eeet eeet? One eeet, two eeets—what could he mean? A spurt of anger at my landsman shot through me. After all, he knew I didn’t understand English, so he should have warned the kid to tell me whatever he or his wife had wanted him to tell me in Yiddish. And if the kid couldn’t tell me in Yiddish they shouldn’t have sent him at all.
Realizing he could keep yelling “Eeet!” at me from now till eternity and it wouldn’t help, the little brat smartened up, stuck the end of his finger between his teeth, and bit it. I promptly caught on: he was talking about eating. But because I was so annoyed I pretended I still didn’t get it. Even if he stood there until hell froze over and yelled “Eeet!” at me and chewed chunks off his fingers, I’d act like I didn’t know what he was talking about. I couldn’t believe that a Jewish boy wouldn’t be able to speak a single word of Yiddish. Finally the kid lost patience. He yelled at the top of his lungs, in Yiddish, “Food!” Then he took off like a rocket.
When I came downstairs to the dining room I didn’t see anyone there. What I did see was a full-course meal on the table, with both hot and cold dishes: a meal fit for a king. The dining room was brightly illuminated; even the synagogue back home on Yom Kippur evening, when all the lamps were burning and the building was as full of candles as it was of people, wasn’t as bright as that dining room. Well, I thought, this was all fine and excellent—yet I choked on every mouthful. Only a woman who used to be a servant, I thought to myself, would have welcomed me with such a feast. If she’d done so at the second or third meal, I could understand it. But at the first meal, when she hadn’t even met the person who’d arrived to shelter under her roof, before she’d even had a chance to see his face . . .
Through the windows that looked out to the front of the house and its little plot of land, which looked, as I’ve said, like a family grave, I saw the couple sitting. He was still in his indoor clothing. She, on the other hand, was all dressed up as if she were about to go off to a party. From time to time I glanced out at them, especially at her. I’d known her for quite a long time—not in real life, of course, but she’d lived in my fantasies since I’d been a boy; she’d stirred my imagination ever since I’d found out why her husband-to-be had run away to America.
Now I saw a fat woman with messy hair. People said she’d once been pretty, but that was no longer true. What a scowling, dried-up, angry face she had, as if she were still carrying a grudge against her husband’s family who hadn’t allowed him to marry her back home. All right, I could understand that . . . but how was it my fault? What did she have against me? If it was beneath her dignity to have a lodger and cook and clean for him, she could have refused to take me in to begin with. And to have me live in her house and to take my money in front of everyone and yet to behave as she did—that wasn’t right either. But could it be she was acting that way because I was paying? Was that the reason? Was that why she’d put everything on the table before I’d come into the room—so I wouldn’t see her serving me?
When I stood up from the table the couple came in, and my landsman said, “Where are you running off to? Hold on a minute, we’ll all have some tea.”
That’s when I finally had the good fortune to be introduced to his wife. I’d already been introduced to her cooking, but not yet to her. She gave me her hand and asked, with ironic disdain, “So, what’s up with Yurop?”
Then her husband said something in English, and she flared up at him. Ignoring the fact there was a stranger present, she hacked out, as if she were chopping them out of marble, three sharp words in English: “Pleez, don’t bodder.”
I just stood there, feeling like such an idiot that even the witch had to feel sorry for me. She gave me a smile and asked me to sit back down. But she kept speaking English to her husband, and I didn’t know if they’d been doing so before, which would mean they were still talking about me, or if they were just in the habit of speaking English between themselves.
I gathered my patience and sat back down at the table; the wife took a seat at one end, and her husband got busy with the tea. He gave the first glass to his wife and the second to me. Then he sat down too, and the couple, as far as I could tell by their voices, carried on a friendly conversation. But my mood grew increasingly worse.
I took a sip or two of tea and then, making a big production of it, I stood up from the table. My landsman and his wife looked at me in unison, surprised and wondering what I was doing.
“What are you up to, where are you rushing?” he asked me.
“I’m going to my room,” I answered politely, not letting on how I felt.
“Do you have someone waiting there for you?”
“No, of course not, but . . .”
I hesitated, then snapped, “Do me a favor. Stop insulting me.”
He looked confused for a moment and said, “Who’s insulting you?”
“You are, both of you—you and your talking English in front of me when you know perfectly well that I don’t understand.”
The ex-housemaid flared up, shouting, “Get a load of this greenhorn’s nerve! In my own house he’s giving orders, telling me how to talk!” Then she switched back to English. The one thing I understood was this: the words in English that she was yelling at her husband—words about me—were far more insulting than the Yiddish words she’d just yelled at us both. My face burned and my ears got hot, and I could tell my eyes were shooting sparks. My entire being craved revenge any way it could get it. But what kind of revenge, and how? In a split second, I had my answer. I spat out these words: “Vrastata trasmata!”
Milady the maidservant looked blank. “What?”
I had no idea what I’d meant myself. Those two words had just jumped out of my mouth spontaneously, but it sounded like I’d just cursed them both with some filthy expression. So when I saw that my words had struck home I repeated them: “You heard me! Vrastata trasmata!”
“Harry, why aren’t you saying anything to him?” the wife shrieked. Her husband cautiously sidled over to me and said, “Tell me, mister . . .”
“Mister, he calls him! He’s nothing but a greenhorn!”
Then she came over too—or to be more precise, she got right into my face. “I want to know exactly what you said!”
“You do, do you? And you’re allowed to talk about me in a language I don’t understand?”
What happened after that isn’t important. But everything comes to an end, so I’ll end by telling you how it finally turned out. It went like this: right after this little incident, my landsman got on the telephone and called my other neighbor, and he, poor soul, had no choice but to come over that very same evening, put me and my bags into his car, and take me back to his place. Poor guy, that was the last thing on earth he wanted to do.
On the way to his house, I told my neighbor in great detail how that couple had treated me, from the start of my visit right up to the little incident at the end. He burst out laughing, slapped me on the back, and said, “You’re all right! You’ve got what it takes! You’ll do just fine in America.”
Rachel Mines received her PhD in English from King’s College London (UK). She lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she teaches in the English Department at Langara College. Her first translation of Jonah Rosenfeld’s short fiction, “The Inheritance,” appeared in the Pakn Treger 2015 Translation Issue. Rachel participated in the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Fellowship Program in 2016, and her translation project, The Rivals and Other Stories by Jonah Rosenfeld, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2020. She is working on a second collection.