By Sarah B. Smith, translated by Dan Setzer
In 1908, Sarah B. Smith (1888–1968) got some stories published in the Forward, and that same year she was the first woman hired as a staff journalist by a Yiddish newspaper, New York’s Morgn-zhurnal (Morning Journal).
Her beat was New York courtrooms, and for several years she wrote a column about interesting cases, both big (like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire) and small.
A compilation of her news articles entitled Who is Guilty? appeared in New York in 1919. Each story in Who is Guilty? is a full courtroom drama in miniature. “Fear” is from that compilation.
This was one of those trials where everything goes too slowly, and the witnesses speak quietly, half mumbling.
She was sitting, shattered, at the defendant’s table. Her white head was distraught, hanging down on her chest. Her whole appearance was that of an elderly, or at least middle-aged, woman. But when she lifted that white head, she looked at you with big young eyes, and very deep in those big eyes you could see the signs of her pain. Also her face was young except for two deep wrinkles by her mouth that spoke of great sorrow.
In the courtroom there were only men. Except for a few journalists, the guard at the high doors had not allowed any women to enter.
“The testimony is not for a woman’s ears,” he said each time a woman wanted to come in.
The charge against the old/young woman was “assault,” and the accuser was her own husband!
The sensationalism the guard by the door deemed not proper for the ears of a lady would come from the statement of her husband!
But those who were waiting for it were disappointed, because the husband was a very reluctant witness. In clipped phrases and a weak voice he answered the questions from the district attorney.
When the first two witnesses, a policeman and a doctor, testified that they had encountered the man injured, his head cut by a bottle, the wife seemed indifferent. Only when the husband got to the witness chair did she seem curious, and with pressed lips she looked at him with a long, penetrating stare, which got him mixed up, and, stammering, he gave his age: “Thirty-eight.”
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with sympathetic brown eyes and a brutal aspect to his full red lips.
Under his right ear was a deep red cut, only just healed, that ran nearly all the way to his square chin.
When his eyes met those of his wife, he quickly took out a white handkerchief and covered the cut. His hand shook.
His voice was unsteady when he answered the district attorney’s question as to who injured him.
“With a bottle.”
“I . . . I . . . I can’t talk about that. I have said enough; I don’t want to be a witness.”
The more the district attorney asked and the judge insisted, the more he struggled with his words, stammering and denying until he managed to squirm away from their questions.
When she took the witness stand in her own defense, the woman’s face was very calm except for her lower lip, which was bluish-white and trembled noticeably.
“Your age?” her lawyer asked her.
“Thirty-five,” came her quiet answer, and throughout the courtroom you could hear a murmur of surprise: “Thirty-five and already gray.”
“Did you throw a bottle at your husband’s head? What was in the bottle?”
“Yes, a patent medicine, which I have been taking for months to build up my strength, but it did not help.”
“Why did you do it?”
“Because . . . because . . .” her pale face turned bright red, and through her translucent skin one could see how the blood ran through her whole face. “I was very nervous that evening. I am always nervous. That day the children had behaved badly. I couldn’t do anything with them. My head felt big and heavy and my mind felt muddled. My youngest child is two years old. When one child reached eighteen months old, I always had another one. The first three didn’t bother me. I was still young and strong. I had plenty of energy and I could still work. But since the last three I have forgotten I’m a person. Working around six children and still having to sew for them if I want to get them clothed is beyond my strength. It’s the worst with the youngest. I never have the time to give him a little air. And since he was born I have been praying G-d that he will be the last. The thought of another child drives me crazy. When my husband smiles at me I hide . . . I am afraid of him . . . I am afraid of myself . . . On that evening I was so tired, so upset, my husband wanted to embrace me. The fear of having another child made me wild . . . The bottle of medicine was nearby, and without thinking I threw it at his head. All I saw was blood. I had forgotten that once he was my beloved. I don’t want any more children!”
Exhausted, she fell silent.
The jury said “not guilty,” and sent her home to go back to work.
Sarah B. Smith (1888–1968) was born in Hungary and came to the United States at age fifteen. She learned Yiddish after coming to America. She was the first woman journalist to be hired by a Yiddish newspaper.
She went on to publish several plays and novels and became known as “The Queen of the Shundroman”—The Queen of the Trashy Novel. One of her plays had a successful run on Broadway, and another was turned into a Hollywood movie, My Girl Tisa, starred Lilli Palmer, Sam Wanamaker, and Akim Tamiroff.
She was a true pioneer for women in journalism and literature. Her novel The Woman in Chains depicts the trials and challenges of a woman determined to break out of the traditional constraints of marriage and motherhood in order to realize her longing for a life of artistic creation.
Dan Setzer did not grow up in a home where Yiddish was the first language. His father married a gentile girl, assuring that his son’s mame loshn would be English. However, Yiddish was all around him, with phrases his father would drop and words and phrases tossed around by his aunts, uncles, and cousins. He once asked his father to teach him Yiddish, but his father declined, claiming that he did not remember it. Most likely the real reason was that he had no idea how to begin teaching a language he had learned effortlessly at his mother’s knee. So Dan took two years of Yiddish in night school at Baltimore Hebrew College. Beyond that he is self taught. Dan has translated seven Yiddish books and posted them to the Internet free for anyone to download and enjoy, including some rarely translated shundroman—trashy novels.