You Should Have Been There
An Excerpt From Yudis
Miriam Karpilove (1888–1956) was a prolific author of serialized novels, short stories, plays, and sketches. Born in a town outside of Minsk, she immigrated to the United States in 1905, where she settled in New York and also spent significant time in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where several of her brothers lived. Her work was popular and oriented toward the concerns and perspectives of women.
Yudis (1911) was one of Karpilove’s first published works, following on the heels of her play In di shturem teg (1909). The epistolary novella follows the protagonist, Judith, and her melodramatic, tumultuous romance with Joseph, a Jewish intellectual from a well-off family. The letters that form the basis of the novel are all in Judith’s voice, and we are told in the introduction that they were found in Jacob’s possession after his suicide. The letters chronicle a relationship over many years: small-town girl Judith meets and becomes infatuated with Joseph and his passion about the politics of Jewish advancement. They carry on a secret long-distance romance and plan to smuggle themselves over the border together and make their way to America. Joseph makes a cowardly last-minute decision to remain behind, Judith doubts Joseph’s loyalty, and their pledges of friendship and promises of eternal love go unfulfilled. The letters betray the frustrations of Judith’s limited knowledge of Joseph’s activities and whereabouts, as well as the stress to their youthful romance caused by anti-Jewish violence, Joseph’s political activities, and Judith’s emigration. These larger political upheavals receive a tangential status to Karpilove’s primary concern as a writer of romance: the dramas of the heart.
This excerpt begins as Judith leaves for America after waiting for Joseph to join her on her journey. He never arrives and is upset at her refusal to consummate their affair in an inn while they were fleeing across the border. After Judith crosses the ocean, the distance between them enlarges Judith’s longing for her lover even as her doubts and jealousies about Joseph’s fidelity leave her feeling helpless. —Jessica Kirzane
September 9, 1904
My ship will soon depart. My belongings are already on board, my name is listed on the manifest alongside those of other passengers. I am going.
I look at your picture in the locket you gave me on that happy-unfortunate evening in the inn. The little diamond on the gold cover looks like a lonely star to me. I look at your picture. I feel the lack of you. You should have been here.
* * *
The few words that I received from you, written, it appears, when you were in an agitated state, were not enough to change the fate of my whole family. My staying with you would have meant leaving their fortune up to chance. And after all you are still subject to your parents’ whims.
I am going now and will wait for you there. Do not despair. We will slowly but surely forge the bridge to our happiness.
Not long ago I was feeling so weak and helpless. Now I feel an unfamiliar strength growing inside of me. I believe, Joseph, that I will be strong enough to do what I must, what my fate requires of me.
I kiss your picture in the locket. I will wear it over my heart. And I carry you in my heart.
October 5, 1904
My dear Joseph!
I have just arrived. In between greeting and embracing my relatives, I write these few lines to you. I made it through the difficult emigration checkpoints and across the stormy sea, and I came out whole and unscathed.
I was expecting to have a letter from you waiting for me here. It will surely arrive tomorrow or the next day. When I receive it I will write more. For now, I am very tired.
I did find two letters waiting for me here from my family. They write about how they miss me,
October 7, 1904
I received your letter today. I read it three times. I wanted to make it into something more than it was. Yes, I know that when your heart aches because the one dearest to you has gone away, it is hard to write. Your pen falls from your hand, your thoughts are carried away in the direction of your beloved. But rarely do words fail you entirely. You could at least have written a telegraph.
The whole of my journey I thought only of you. I almost felt that you were there beside me.
I avoided others and locked myself away in my longing for you. I wanted to be alone. The laughter and songs that surrounded me only made me feel more lonely and orphaned.
One of the passengers traveling with me, who had been disappointed in love, caught my attention by speaking about love. He dismissed the idea of true love and called it nothing more than motion sickness. What he said put me in a bad mood. He was like a messenger of evil spirits sent to persecute those with hearts that believe in and hold on to love.
The journey seemed uncomfortably long to me. You weren’t there with me.
My uncle and aunt were very welcoming. My aunt cried with joy. I remind her of her home, her youth, and my mother. I am already dressed in American clothes. My shoes are still the shoes of a greenhorn, but who looks at shoes?
Here, I have a cousin Benny, a cousin Mike, a cousin Jessie who has many golden teeth, and a cousin Sadie, a very noisy girl. They all speak English and a very broken Yiddish.
They gave me my own room. The window looks out onto the gray wall of a six- or seven-story building. We live on the second floor. In my room there is a large bed, a small table, and two chairs. I sit on one of the chairs now, writing you this letter. My heart yearns for you. How far away we are from each other now!
Joseph, you will not have to wait before receiving an answer to your letters. I will expect a letter from you every day. Every day. And if one evades me today, or tomorrow, then I will wait until the next day for it.
October 12, 1904
A feeling, an exhaustion from feeling too much, sweeps over me and tries to free itself from control of my thoughts. One thought follows another, crashing into one another and shattering.
Should I send you the shards of my thoughts? I didn’t find many whole thoughts in your letter either. You write that my spirit will be close to you. Oh, Joseph, why are we fooling ourselves? I don’t have you, and it’s me that you want, not my spirit. I’ve thought about it over and over again and I have made some semblance of peace with it. I used to think of you as some kind of a god, but once I compared you with other people I recognized that you are more human than I had thought.
Yes, it isn’t your fault that you were created with such a passionate nature, that you forget about the angelic nature of love and are only interested in its human component.
What can I do to show you how much I love you? This is a matter of belief, of feeling. There was a time when we understood each other implicitly, when you could read in my eyes what I felt about you.
Joseph, it’s so hard for me. My heart aches. It pains me. But no, I don’t want my letter to end in tears. I know that you can’t stand it.
October 20, 1904
When I took your letter from Jessie today, my heart was pounding. She laughed at her greenhorn cousin who spends too much time on “letters.” “We don’t waste our time on such foolishness, do we, Louie?” she said to her “friend.” He is studying to be a doctor, and they’re paying for it. They give him money to study, and when he finishes he will have to marry her.
“It’s true, you receive so many letters. Who are they from? I have some ideas . . .” he asked.
“They are from the kind of people who like to write often,” I answered.
I went off to be by myself. I read your letter and I felt strangely grateful for everything:
For my uncle, who says every time he sees me that I am a pretty girl and I should find myself a wealthy husband.
For my aunt, who won’t stop bewailing the fact that I am a poor orphan, and who helped me find work so quickly (in America everyone works) and who will allow me to pay for everything she gives me as soon as I want to.
For Jessie, who doesn’t want to introduce me to her friends until I learn English. It will take me a long time to know English well, she says. Her “friend” says otherwise.
For Mike, who cries and complains right under my window when I’m trying to write or think.
For Sadie, who laughs at my greenhorn shoes and who shows me how people in America walk, stand, sit, talk, open and close their mouths.
And I am especially grateful for you—I saved you for last. You know that “the last evening is the loveliest.” I am grateful that you had the help of your friends to cheer you up. Too much yearning will cost you your health. I know that Ana Andreyevna doesn’t understand why anyone would ever want to leave Russia. But you understand . . . And why shouldn’t you tell her that I am not one of those who goes out into the wide fields pursuing holy work, where everything is so full of joy? Russian students love to be happy, and they demand it more than the Jews do.
Be well and be happy. Maybe I won’t write any more until I receive your answer to my letter. I hope in the meantime to earn your gratitude.
November 9, 1904
Yes, I hope that you are pleased to know that somewhere far away, on the other side of the ocean, a heart beats for you. You anticipate and read my love letters that call out to you and draw you toward me. But do you know what I decided today? I won’t “tempt you with love from afar” anymore. From now on, I will only write letters in response to yours, even if it takes you a month or more to write to me. Why should it matter? My heart tells me that it may take longer than a month for you to write.
You write that someday you will be happy again, even if it’s only for a moment. What you meant to say was, “I could have been happy once, even if only for a moment.”
But I had to stand in the way of your one moment of happiness. Your “happiness” makes too many claims on us. It wants too much of us. There could be so many moments of joy, but your moment demands to occur right away, and not later.
I didn’t write to you about the storm we encountered in the ocean, because I didn’t want to scare you. Do you want to know how I survived the storm? The storm on the ocean, I think, was no greater than the storm inside of me, in my sea of emotions. The first storm, which was written up in the newspapers, has long ago passed. I’ve written to you already something of the second storm, its sister.
My work in the silk blouse factory is going fairly well, but I wish I was earning more money. Do you see how materialistic I’ve become?
Send my regards to your little sister. I hope that she is feeling better. It was kind that your friend came to sit with her for an evening.
Be well and happy.
PS: I will inquire for you about what life is like here for the intellectual community.
November 15, 1904
Maybe it’s true that your parents are simply not good people. It is hard to agree with them. But I also don’t trust your new friends either. Joseph, your belief in them led you to do something that I would have told you not to do. Do you know which one of your friends wrote me these lines?
“Some men love to take on new ideas and ideologies. You can never trust such a man’s love. It’s better to swear it off. Men like that forget those who are far away and only love those who are close at hand.”
I don’t trust or have respect for anonymous letters, but I think you had better find out who is the man—or woman—who got my address from you and represented you to me in such a bad light.
November 20, 1904
Perhaps you are right, Joseph. But whose fault is it—mine, for suspecting you? Or yours, for letting other people speak ill of you?
You are so good for wanting to come here for my sake. But you must know that your “for your sake” both cheers me, on the one hand, and also insults me a little on the other. For my sake—and not for yours? Doesn’t being here matter at all to you, for your own sake?
But enough about that. I’d rather tell you my news: I now have a better position than before and I’m earning twice as much money.
Today I’m sending Misha money for a warm winter coat and boots. My mother is afraid he’ll catch cold, and he seems to share the concern. He asks too often if it’s as cold in America as it is at home. He also asks what a person like him can do here, whether he’ll have to study first or if he’ll be able to go right to work.
Berman is thinking of going to Palestine. Heniya is also interested in going. Rokhl and Shimka are learning how to sew and studying English a little. I send them books to help them learn. What else can I tell you? It’s already twelve o’clock at night, and I have to get up at seven.
Be well, and write more often.
December 11, 1904
My love! Only just now have you made the discovery that we are growing apart, and that I love you much too much?
Does that mean that you don’t love me too much? Do we not love each other the same amount? You see, at least we can agree on this one point . . .
But it seems I’m writing to you too much about myself. I will answer your questions about our intellectuals here in America. You seem to be so very interested in this question. How very practical of you.
There aren’t as many people here who give lectures as there are at home. Education here is free, both in the elementary schools and in the institutions of higher learning. The Russian-Jewish youth who study distinguish themselves here in many ways. In comparison with them, the American-born students only excel when it comes to sports.
Your friends seem to be very angry at America, since they are writing such bad things about it. They must have placed too many hopes on her, they expected too much. They feel disappointed. The truth is, many intellectuals here face difficulties: some of them are simply not suited to life here, others can’t adjust to the work conditions, and so on. But the devil is not as terrifying as they describe. In any event, they don’t have the spiritual woes they faced at home. If they really looked for a cultural life and uplifting cultural work, they would have nothing to complain about.
No, my love, it’s not so hopeless here.
January 5, 1905
Today it is three months since I first came to New York.
It’s been two weeks since your last letter—fourteen days, three hundred thirty-six hours, every hour consisting of sixty minutes, every minute . . . what’s the point of such an accounting?
Joseph, why did you ask me whether you should come here or not? I took you to be so much stronger than you are!
Joseph, I must tell you that all the things you did not describe in your letters to me I read about anyway in my mother’s letters. Your aunt and Aaron told her that they will soon have to go to a wedding of a wealthy couple in your town. They said it will be happening soon. You saw the bride and she saw you, and you came to an arrangement. They asked my mother what kind of a present they should bring you.
Now I understand what you meant when you said, “Dreams and reality, desire and life, longing and circumstances . . .”
Perhaps “damned nature” will make fewer “unhappy circumstances” in your life than you will encounter in the “damned land of dollars”? Who knows what true happiness is? It used to be that you thought that you found happiness with me. But what kind of happiness could you have with me? I can’t give you any more than my heart and soul.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t tell you to come here and I will not. Your heart will tell you what to do.
PS: Should Aaron have been the one to write a letter announcing your wedding? There’s no reason to suspect him of doing it out of ill will. Or maybe there is? Oh, it’s not worth even talking about it. Judith
Jessica Kirzane is an assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the editor-in-chief for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Her translation of Miriam Karpilove’s novel Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse, 2020) was supported by a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship.