The Inheritance

Written by:
Yonah Rozenfeld
Translated by:
Rachel Mines
2015 / 5775
Part of issue number:
Translation 2015

Excerpt from Rivals

Yonah Rozenfeld (1880–1944), a protégé of I. L. Peretz, published his first novel, Dos lernyingl (The Apprentice), in Odessa in 1904. In 1921 he immigrated to New York, where many of his stories appeared in the Forverts. Although largely forgotten today, he was a prolific writer, publishing more than twenty-three titles, including many multivolume works. In “The Inheritance,” Rozenfeld demonstrates how familiarity and nostalgia can turn the most unlikely of objects into talismans of memory.

My mother, may she rest in peace, lay in childbed just once a year; but my father, may he rest in peace, took to his bed twice, sometimes three times a year . . . because of his teeth. There was only one difference: when my mother was in labor, her groans and cries lasted a few hours, but my father’s birth pains drew themselves out for weeks, until his tooth came out into the light of this world.

Whenever he returned from the country doctor with his pulled-out tooth, he would show it to us kids, just as our mother would show us the infant she had just delivered. Each of us inspected the tooth. I, the oldest, held it between two fingers, and it would give me a strange feeling to touch and reflect on this bony, living thing that still had bits of bloody flesh clinging to it. And I took more pleasure in my father’s tooth than in my mother’s baby, because the entire time my father had carried that tooth around in his mouth, our house was a literal hell. We kids weren’t even allowed to look happy, let alone play pranks. But my joy rarely lasted long because often, right after one tooth was pulled, another began aching. Years later I realized every single tooth must have tormented my poor father, but given that one always hurt more than the others, he felt the pain only from that one. Then, after the tooth that hurt more than the others was pulled out, a new candidate immediately appeared.

Adding up the days and weeks, I can say with confidence that for six months of each year, my father walked around swathed in a handkerchief fastened with two tight knots, hard as stones, on top of his head. The knots protruded from his hat as if an egg were lying under it. And his beard was a mess, completely turned under, like a black plank plastered stiffly to his neck. It was a great pity to see both his beard and his neck. You got the impression that his beard was not a beard and his neck was not a neck, either.

As is generally the case among people who suffer from toothaches, my father’s pain began in a less severe form, and he’d use milder remedies. For example, he’d fill one cheek with smoke from a strong cigar. Or he’d take a little 90 percent alcohol and hold his head to one side; the burning liquor would scorch his entire row of teeth, his gums, his cheek, and half the side of his tongue, and he’d hold it in his mouth for a long time, until his saliva watered it down, and then, when it was entirely diluted, he’d spit it out. Sometimes he’d try applying a clove of garlic with pepper or various other home remedies. Every treatment the women suggested was attempted, and so for months my poor father went around constantly smelling of spirits and garlic.

After that began the days and weeks of real pain, and he’d start using more radical remedies, one of which was paruvkes. My mother would fill a shallow basin with boiling water and throw a thick shawl over my father’s head. Then my mother would throw one or two red-hot stones into the hot water, and the water, like an infernal cauldron, would begin to boil and seethe. My poor father would stand bent over that hell, his mouth open to the steam fuming from the basin. This was supposed to cure him. When my father would peel himself out of the shawl, his face would be completely wet and red, and his eyes would be bloodshot. He would wipe his face, then fall like a murdered man onto the sofa, stretch out, and fall asleep, just like after a steam bath.

That was always the final attempt at a home remedy. If it didn’t work, I knew he would have to go to the country doctor, who knew nothing about fixing teeth, just pulling them out.

Like every pious Jew at that time, my father kept each freshly pulled tooth so that when he died at the end of a long life it would be buried with him. And from year to year the tooth family grew in number. They were kept in a little room, in one of many small, lidded cubes in a box. I kept my treasures there: buttons, nails, little bits of porcelain you could use to strike fire in the dark, small lumps of pine resin, rusty old pens, a piece of rubber from a shoe (people once wore shoes made with rubber), and many other fine things that I’d sometimes withdraw from their little cells. Each time I went to check up on my treasures, I was drawn to my father’s teeth. I had to see them; I felt I was somehow related to that bony family. Yes, they were my relatives, strange relatives, my father’s teeth!

Those teeth should have been put into my father’s grave, may he rest in peace, but they were not. As it turned out, nobody thought of it. Of the ten children he had brought into this world, not one was present at his death (my mother had died before him). As if it weren’t enough that strangers had to take the trouble to bury him, must they also concern themselves with his teeth? So the teeth remained in this world, waiting until their eldest son (I don’t know what relationship a father’s son has to his father’s teeth), that is, until I, the eldest son, returned to town fifteen years after my father’s death and visited the house where he’d breathed his last. The first thing the man who lived in the house told me was that a box of ours was in his attic, and I could have it if I wanted.

I was delighted to see a memento from home. The man quickly left. In a couple of minutes I heard heavy footsteps in the attic, and I waited impatiently.

I recognized the box immediately, despite its thick coating of dust and the impression of a hand with five fingers on its top, clearly revealing the old man’s touch. With a thumping heart I opened the box and then, one after another, opened each little lid. And so I opened one compartment and saw . . .

A strange sadness overcame me, sadness mixed with a strange joy. Hard little people, who stayed solid and unchanging, as if the man in whose mouth they had lain still lived, waiting to take them into the grave with him. And again I experienced the same feeling I’d had as a boy: that I was looking at a kind of family—my own, close relatives—my father’s teeth.

“What should I do with them?” I asked the man.

“Nothing,” he answered. “Take the box and leave them inside as they are now.”

It’s been ten years since I received this inheritance. I have explored many cities and countries, and I always carry the box of teeth with me. I don’t know why; it’s a kind of emotional thing. I know that if I were to conduct a debate among my readers, all of them, aside from quite a small percentage, would tell me to throw them out, my father’s teeth. Yes, I know, but I can’t do it. This inheritance is all I have left of my departed father.

Click here for the original story in Yiddish.

Rachel Mines is a writer and translator based in Vancouver. She teaches in the English department at Langara College.