In An Italian, American Yiddish writer Yoysef Opatoshu (1886–1954) provides an intriguing look into intra-Jewish relations in the New World. A writer read widely on both sides of the Atlantic, Opatoshu is remembered both for his stories portraying the richness of the American Jewish experience as well as his historical novels about Jewish life in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. A master of multiple literary voices, Opatoshu was also associated with the New York–based modernist Yiddish literary group known as Di yunge (The Young).
Just before dawn, when it was still quite dark, Leyzer, an old Jew, a tailor, woke up very tired from a bad dream, which he actually couldn’t recall. He wanted to fall back asleep. His wife, who slept opposite him on a cot, sat up and wiped the condensation from the window to see what the weather was outside. She then coughed several times to let her husband know that she was awake and called out: “Leyzer, are you sleeping?”
“What’s the matter?”
“What do you have to say about our daughter? I haven’t been able to sleep all night!”
“And I did sleep?” Leyzer replied as he pulled a half of a cigarette from under his pillow, lit it with a match, and took a few puffs. “Believe you me that since yesterday, when the girl told me she’s going to marry that young man, I have been out of my mind!”
“You mustn’t sin. He is after all a Jew,” said Leyzer’s wife as she rolled out of bed so that her husband could hear her better. “But I still feel the same as if our daughter plans to marry an Italian!”
“What, is he any better than that?” Leyzer responded after taking a long draw from his cigarette while leaning his elbow on the bed. “He doesn’t look Jewish at all! And how do you like his name? Have you ever heard of a Jew named Alghazi? There was a Gypsy in our village with the same name, as sure as I’m a Jew!”
“Well,” sighed Leyzer’s wife, “he comes from the other side of the world, straight from Turkey or somewhere. I don’t understand his language, and just because he knows a few words from the holy tongue, am I supposed to be happy? And who knows, he may not be a Jew at all!”
Leyzer did not respond further. By nature he was a man who kept his silence. He took the last draw from the stubby cigarette, groaned, and began to dress. He lit the gas light in his little shop, where he ironed and repaired old clothes, and then unlocked the door. He fired the oven in the kitchen, took his tallis and tefillin bag from its hook on the wall, and told his wife it was time to get up. He left the shop and went to the nearby study house for morning prayers.
Following the service, the sleeve of his left arm still rolled up from the placement of the tefillin, Leyzer approached the rabbi, lost for words and not knowing how to begin.
“What’s the word, Leyzer?” asked the rabbi as he smoothed his long, well-combed beard in an attempt to help Leyzer out of his awkwardness.
“I wish to ask the rabbi for advice.”
The rabbi took Leyzer by the hand, walked a few steps with him, and stood next to his prayer stand with a slightly wrinkled brow. “How may I help you?”
“You must know if there are Jews in Italy.”
“Certainly there are Italian Jews. Long ago, there were very large communities of Jews in Italy!”
“I mean to say,” Leyzer spoke in his confusion, “are they Jews like us?”
“Yes,” the rabbi answered with a gentle smile. “The difference is that we are Ashkenazim and they are Sephardim.”
“But they don’t speak Yiddish,” said Leyzer, holding out his hands in a quizzical stance.
“No, it’s true that they don’t speak Yiddish, but what’s the difference? In any case, Yiddish is not our true language!” The rabbi simultaneously smiled and wondered why all of a sudden Leyzer was asking him such questions.
“And it is permissible to arrange matches with them?” Leyzer asked, shrugging his shoulders.
“What do you mean? Of course it is permitted,” smiled the rabbi while he took Leyzer by the arm. “What has happened, has a match been proposed with a Sephardic boy?”
“Who’s talking about matches?” responded Leyzer with a look of panic as if asking for help in saving his life. “Some boy from Salonika charmed his way into my daughter’s life, and she is threatening that if I oppose the marriage, she’ll go away with him to a rabbi and marry without my consent!”
“So he’s a Turkish Jewish boy and not an Italian,” said the rabbi, stroking his beard.
“Who knows anything about him?” said Leyzer, doubled over in panic. “And so he comes from Turkey; does that give him a greater lineage? He still doesn’t have a Jewish face.”
“If he is an honorable young man,” said the rabbi with deep thoughtfulness, “I do not see why you should be opposed. Sephardic Jews have as noble a lineage as Ashkenazim. Is it not true that Maimonides was a Sephardi?”
Leyzer didn’t know what to answer. He nodded to let the rabbi know that he understood. He stood for a few minutes, rolled down his sleeve, and stammered, “May the rabbi take no offense that I burdened him with this issue. I wish you a good day!”
“A good day, Leyzer,” said the rabbi. He escorted Leyzer a few steps and then stopped. “If he is an honorable young man and they wish to marry, I don’t see why you should be opposed at all. Perhaps it is the will of heaven! Just because the groom is from another country, I see no negative outcome to this marriage. In years gone by, Jews often made matches of this sort. When it is time for the marriage canopy, you know where I live.”
“Certainly, of course,” said Leyzer, a bit bewildered.
“Look, we are landslayt, from the same town, after all,” said the rabbi, stretching out his soft scholar’s hand in parting. “Good-bye, Reb Leyzer, good-bye. May God reveal that it is indeed the will of heaven and may you live to experience great pride and happiness!”
Suddenly, Leyzer felt exalted. The rabbi’s handshake and his good wishes elevated Leyzer. He placed his tallis and tefillin sack under his arm and from the mere thought that he would soon tell his wife all that had transpired Leyzer felt soothed. But the closer he came to his house the more the exultation diminished. He pictured his future son-in-law, Alghazi, with whom he couldn’t exchange two words in Yiddish. He forgot the rabbi’s approval and all that the rabbi had said and once again he had the feeling that he was giving his daughter to an Italian.
Stephen Simmons resides in Portland Maine.