The Powdered Corpse
By Rachel Luria, translated by Jonah Lubin
In this story by Rachel Luria, the fear of the loss of Jewish culture that permeates American Yiddish literature is permitted a grotesque and horrible manifestation, when Anjuta dies on a hot erev shabbos in New York. Her Jewish community, simultaneously too liberal to deal with the death and too bound to the institutions of the Old Country, is paralyzed. The body is decaying quickly, so an old, assimilated girlfriend of Anjuta’s hires a non-Jewish undertaker in secret to prepare Anjuta’s body and place it in a coffin, a la goy. For the first time in her life there is makeup on Anjuta’s face and a summer dress on her body. To the horror of her relatives, who still call her by the familiar, Yiddish name Khone, she is in death stripped of the agency of gender expression. And her dead lips are forced to smile.
When she was alive, Anjuta did not wear makeup.
When she was alive, she had wrinkles on her forehead and at the corners of her mouth. Her face was sallow and her mouth was sunken. And her black hair was always chastely combed.
Always dressed in a black skirt and a blouse, her only ornament was a white collar with a braided band on her breast. Sometimes it was red; more often it was black. That depended on her mood and what was going on around her. Her moods folded into the hard, stubborn wrinkles around her mouth.
That’s how Anjuta was when she was alive, modest and severe in her old-fashionedness, as if encased in a Torah ark.
And when Anjuta died she was laid down in a goyish coffin polished to a shine with a glass cover. The wrinkles on her face, incised over the course of her life, were carefully effaced by the undertaker’s practiced hand. The sunken cheeks—filled out to youthful fullness, rosily powdered. A drop of rouge, subtly applied, colored the deathly blue lips, and her hair was combed a la pompadour. Dressed in her sister’s white picnic dress, she laid there primmed, powdered, and painted in the pretty goyish coffin with the glass cover.
Yes, the undertaker had outdone himself; never, not even in her younger years, had Anjuta looked so pretty . . . So pretty and so stylish . . .
Sincere, modest Anjuta had become a powdered corpse, dressed up like a shameless flirt.
This is how it happened:
Anjuta died on a hot day at the end of Tammuz on a Friday evening. She died without language, taking a final, unnoticed look around her.
The neighborhood where she lived was liberal, impious, and when confronted with death, unsure of what to do with the dead.
Her sister Hania wept and lamented and would not leave the room. Maybe she would still escape what had only been five minutes of death, and perhaps not yet death at all . . . She was still lying on the same cushion they both slept on. Everything was still both of theirs . . . Everything in the room.
Friends wanted to take her out—they thought it unseemly to mourn the dead so Jewishly.
One claimed: liberal people need to know that death is, scientifically speaking, what follows life, when all is said and done. The earth needs the dead to grow fat and grow beautiful flowers.
But that was of no comfort to Hania. Her sister Khone was dead.
Night fell in the meantime; tomorrow was Shabbos, and what can you do with a corpse then . . .
A Chevra kadisha was called upon, and their answer was they’d have to wait until after Shabbos, when the first stars shine, or early on Sunday. A second and a third Chevra also had the same answer.
So the body had to stay in the room.
Members of the union for “Universal Freedom” arrived, as everyone tried to figure out how to bury the remains as quickly as possible. It was a hot evening, and nobody could get their hands on any ice . . .
Among the friends was Julia, an old girlfriend of Anjuta who had been married to a Christian professor. Without anybody knowing she ordered a goyish undertaker and paid him well to do a good job.
When Hania saw her chaste and quiet sister Khone coquettishly primmed, powdered, and painted she fainted from terror. She flew into a rage, screaming how could they have done that. No one could reason with her; it was her misfortune after all. In misery the mind is turned upside down . . .
And yet everyone who saw Anjuta as a dead flirt in a goyish coffin recoiled at the audacity; Anjuta, who when she was alive had been so simple, so beautiful and proud of her ugliness!
An old frum aunt came from Brownsville, crying: she screamed “Khonele, Khonele!” and struggled to reach the coffin. They didn’t want to let her. But she fought her way through and, seeing Khone, was shocked and screamed out “Shma Yisroel!”
“That’s not her body. Where is it?” she cried.
“Yes, that’s Khone. Look at what they’ve done!” Hania began to cry once again.
There were those who laughed at Hania and the old woman and those who cried with them.
And dead Anjuta lay in the goyish coffin, powdered, painted, wanton in the white dress. Her dead, red lips smiled.
Rachel Luria was born in Lithuania in 1886. She arrived in United States at age 12, where she began to write Yiddish literature. This piece comes from her 1918 short story collection Modne menshn. She has not often been translated. This should change. Her work (primarily short fiction) is thematically interesting, formally inventive, and very entertaining. She died in New York in 1929.
Jonah Lubin is a translator, writer, and MA student at the Freie Universität Berlin. He has previously worked as editorial intern for In geveb and Yiddish fellow for the Forverts. His translation of Freed Weininger’s Yiddish space poetry Alef, beys . . . recently appeared in In geveb, and his translation of Spook, a German expressionist novel by Klabund, is coming out from Snuggly Books in 2022.