While she received little formal recognition in her lifetime, Yente Serdatsky (1877–1962) was a writer of significant breadth whose diverse works reflected the lives of Jewish immigrant women and their struggles to reconcile traditional gender roles with radical politics and aspirations. A managing editor at the Forverts until 1922, Serdatsky’s work appeared in numerous journals and newspapers often in the form of short prose fiction or one-act plays.
Years ago, in the old country, in a Lithuanian town, he studied in a yeshiva. He “ate days,” going every day to a different family, seven families a week.””1.” And through the years, because the days changed, he got the idea that he should go out on his own and become one of the many residents of the town.
Each family had many members, all with different appearances, of all ages, and of all different abilities. He would become a Yiddish writer. Like many former yeshiva scholars, he would have enough interesting, unusual characters to fill thirty volumes.
But he never did become a writer, and he forgot about his characters—almost all of them, except one. She was a fifteen-year-old girl, the daughter of a poor family from whom he had “eaten days.”
The girl was pretty and cheerful. But that isn’t why he remembers her—he thinks all young girls are pretty and cheerful. He studied with her. She had a sharp, clever mind. He conducted intelligent conversations with her, as he would with a grown man. But this is also not why he remembers her—he is sure that all Jewish children are sharp-witted and smart.
He remembers the girl for another reason: at the time when he knew her, he received from his faraway home the tragic news of his sister’s death. His sister was about the same age as this girl and was totally unique—a lovely, beautiful girl, just like this girl. Even her brown, warm eyes had the same shine as his sister’s.
He was at that time no more than twenty years old, delicate and lonely, with a passionate heart and an empathetic soul. His passionate heart was full of sadness and pain. He spoke of his sadness to the girl, and she comforted him. The two young, sentimental adolescents, immersed in romantic Hebrew literature, imagined that they were brother and sister. They formed a strong bond.
It is permitted to stroke the silky hair of one’s sister, and so he did. Oh, how nice it was! Cool, sweet-smelling, brown, and with such a wonderful shine to it. Sometimes he forgot that it was no more than hair, and he fell to it with his hot, thirsty lips. Once, while he was having an intelligent conversation with her and she gave one of her brilliant answers, he pet her and kissed her smooth forehead near her temples where he could see her blue veins. But he did this with such holiness and passion, as though he were a godfather at the ceremony for a newborn child.
This was in the past, early on in their glorious, grand young lives, when everything is full of love and when everything is pure: friendship, love, grief. Now he smiles about those years, but now he is an entirely different person.
At the age of twenty-one he had left that city and come to America. In the arduous pursuit of success, he had forgotten all about that city and about the friends with whom he had studied. And later, when he began studying again with the goal of becoming a doctor, suddenly the thought of his sister, and of this young girl too, glimmered within his memory.
It wasn’t out of weakness of will, but his studies were difficult for him, and his studying late into the night wore him out. His sharp mind, which was used to forming clever insights about the Talmud, enjoyed and was satisfied with his difficult studies of new sciences. But his days at work were hard: it was hard to spend all day turning the wheel, producing one pair of children’s trousers after another, and for what? Was there any sense in it? This is what Hayim the peddler, who brought him into the shop, did with his life, though he certainly could have found something more interesting to do. But he had to sit next to Hayim, because if it weren’t for the trousers he would have no room, no books, and no bread.
These hard years passed. He had hardly noticed that he had turned thirty. He finished his studies and became a doctor. He didn’t remember how it came to be that a matchmaker wrote his name in a book of names, but several weeks later he found himself in the home of strangers. He liked the house, and he very quickly felt comfortable there. He liked everything about it—the old, worthy Jew, the graying, middle-aged lady, the two young boys dressed in white shirts with their quiet gentle conduct, and especially the daughter. She was around twenty-five years old, tall and thin with a stormy face and black Jewish eyes. Her voice was quiet and smooth, her hands were thin with long fingers, and her smile was graceful. She soon won his heart.
Several months later he married the girl. At that time it was difficult to make it as a newly minted doctor in New York. She had wealthy family connections in a small town in the Midwest, and they settled there. That was seventeen years ago.
* * *
Our doctor’s life, from then on, has been nice, quiet, and comfortable. He had his house built in a wealthy neighborhood, and he practices medicine for the wealthy. His wife, a thin, aristocratic lady with delicate manners, as befits a wealthy doctor’s wife, bore him three sons, each one year after the other. For several years she didn’t bear any more children, but as though to make their lives perfectly happy, six years ago she gave birth to a daughter. She is a good and worthy wife who manages a grand home. They often have guests in their spacious, comfortable rooms. They stay for meals, and a maid serves them appetizing dishes. The children, clean, quiet, and polite, sit around the table. They feel great love and respect for their parents, and the guests feel this same respect: it is rare to see a family so perfectly happy and nice.
There is not a single opening in the doctor’s life through which discontent could creep in. He had much to be thankful for, and it was in his peaceful and logical nature to count his blessings. He knows that life can go in many directions and that the path to fame and success is the most exciting of all. But that path is like climbing a tall, treacherous mountain. At its peak wine foams in goblets, young women sing, and crowns of laurels decorate your head. But people try to climb and they fall, they go and fall, trying to reach their goal. When someone does reach it, he become drunk with the wine until another, stronger man comes and pushes him off from the heights.… No, he is afraid of such a path, even though he is very talented—he writes beautiful poetry, and he has a clear, beautiful voice for reading from a stage.
He chose the golden middle path. The city he lives in is not a large one, and his social circle is also circumscribed. But he knows that he is the head of the whole circle. They are peaceful, content, not pretentious, and they look up to him because he is a doctor and because he is a smart and talented man.
Our doctor is not a pious man. In the old country he had become an atheist, but it doesn’t bother him that his wife keeps a kosher home, and the holidays and religious ceremonies are to him like decorations that punctuate the uniformity of life. Friday nights with their lit candles and shimmering glasses of wine on a table bedecked with a white cloth; brisses, bar mitzvahs, in his home or in the homes of others, all of this makes him happy, and all of it feels good to him.
When it comes to other things he certainly is no tsadik. He knows how great are the temptations and magic of women for generations and generations, as long as the world has existed. And he knows that many of his friends frequent hidden places of lust, where women dance, the men drink, and the blood flows hot in the veins around the heart… but he won’t go. He is something of a mystic; he believes that sin, however hidden, will float to the surface like oil in water. No, he won’t do that because of his family; he loves them too much.
The doctor is also not tempted by worldly things. He knows that there is oppression and injustice, that the way the world is divided is not fair. Those who work the hardest have nothing, and those who merely open their hands find them filled with milk and honey. He himself, in his position, belongs neither to the first nor to the second category, but some men in his position give away their lives to bring about justice in the world. He has respect for these people, but he cannot be like that himself: maybe he is too old and maybe he is too lazy… that’s why he is suited to another cause: his people are also oppressed among the nations, and they need a homeland of their own.
He gives a significant portion of his income and much of his free time to the cause of this homeland. He is even convinced that he will move there one day with his household and with all of his friends. He doesn’t see anything wrong with this. With the thousands of dollars he has saved he will build a home there and plant a vineyard. He will hire men to watch over his garden, and beautiful, dark-skinned Arab women in white head coverings and blousy shirts will do the difficult housework. He feels drawn to the noble mountains of Judah, to the burning sun of the Orient, to the Jordan and to the historic sites that have been passed down in legends from generation to generation. It is no wonder that he is almost always chosen as a delegate to conventions, and so he often is called to spend a few weeks far away from his home.
* * *
He has no one left in the little Lithuanian town where he was born. Everyone in his family has died, and it was good that there was no one left to need him. This thought stabbed at his heart, but he didn’t feel guilty about it. His conscience is clean, and the stabbing feeling doesn’t last long. He thinks of his life in the yeshiva from time to time. He doesn’t feel pride or sorrow in thinking about it. Truth be told, now he is much better off, but then he was so young…
In the early years of this life of comfort he often thought about the little girl that he had loved like a sister and who was such a dear child. But he was afraid to inquire after her very much: people might misinterpret his intentions. Because of that he doesn’t know much about what happened to her.
The thought of her stirs his curiosity. Maybe she is in need? She was, after all, like a sister to him, and he is so rich now. At the convention he looks every delegate in the face—maybe he will recognize an old friend from the yeshiva? Maybe the friend will know something of her?
* * *
It took a long time to find such an “old friend,” but in the end he did arrive. This was at the last convention, a year ago.
They spoke at length and got to know one another. Two old Jews, heavy-set, with balding hair, with crinkled eyes behind glasses, spoke now of the noble days of their youth, when they both learned in the same yeshiva and they both slept on the same bench. Now they are both wealthy, but this memory moves their hearts…
“Do you know who is here in the city? Take a guess!” his old friend urged.
He had already guessed; his premonition told him. He became very pale and stared at his friend with a look of consternation.
“I see that you’ll never guess! Do you remember that little girl Hannale Ptor? Nu, I’d like to earn a thousand dollars for every kiss you ever gave her. Why are you so pale? You were just a yeshiva boy then. I’ll give her a call on the telephone. At eight o’clock, after our meeting, I’ll take you to her house.”
As the doorbell rang, the doctor saw a thin, middle-aged lady in dark clothing with sad eyes and gray hair. But the joy that awoke in both of their hearts overtook the veil of time and made them young again: Hannale the little girl… those warm brown eyes… that beautiful dark hair… that delicate face with its high forehead… yes, it was her, her, her!
Her life was entirely different from his. A few years ago her husband had passed away, and she had also had two sons who both died in the old country. She is alone here, and who pays attention to a middle-aged widow? She works in a shop, rents a room from an old relative. Her only companions are her books, which she reads. She compares their sad heroes to herself and finds that they are not her invisible friends—she is jealous of the happy ones, and she often hates them…
For the first night in many years, the doctor was unable to sleep. All of those years that he had lived out in happiness. The noble mountain of joy and peace and success that the mighty arms of fate brought him began to quiver and fall. She is, after all, his sister… they are bound together, just like Avisholom and Shulamis, a bond of brother and sister. What should he do now? If only she was really his sister, from the same mother! Ach, how easy that would make things! He would have brought her into his home and said, “You’ve had enough of being alone, Hannale, enough of working in the shop. Now you have a gentle sister, my wife, and you have my heroic sons, your nephews, and here is my little daughter, you were once just like her… and here is a large room for you, full of sunshine, and a laden table, and clothes of wool and silk. Take it, take it, my dear sister, my wealth belongs to you as much as it does to anyone in my family…”
He would like to say the same to her now, but his wife, his children, his neighbors… how could he explain it to them? What could he say to them? They would make their own sense of it, they would come up with all kinds of ugly explanations… it could ruin his whole life. Everyone would be unhappy, and in the end she would be as alone as she ever was.
She understood him. He handed her a large sum of money, but she shook her head sadly. “She is right, the dear soul, she doesn’t need money in her lonely and sad life,” he thought to himself with a broken heart as he traveled home.
From then on he has become depressed, his fat body has become leaner, and he can often be found holding his head in his hands and thinking. What does he think about? Oh, many things. He thinks about the whole world, which he sees now in a new light. The middle path that he took now doesn’t seem so bright; his life lacks meaning, it is monotonous and empty. The friends he surrounds himself with now seem foolish and hard-hearted; all he would have to do is act in a way they don’t like, and they would all become his enemies. And he feels this way about his wife too… and his children. She is the only one, the sole person who still seems good to him, but she lives so far away from him. He thinks and thinks about how to change things so that his life would not be so difficult. His wandering thoughts are interrupted by the news from San Remo.””2.” In the streets, among his friends, he hears happy sounds, and almost everyone prepares the way for him to join the celebration. Then our quiet, peaceful doctor gets up, his hands balled into fists, and screams, “I don’t want to go there!” He wants to say that he cannot leave behind in need and alone the poor woman who is as dear to him as a sister… that his life has gone past him without holding any interest, that he is enslaved to the foolish and base desires of strangers. But how would saying such things help him? Would they understand what he was saying?
His friends look at him with confusion and fear in their faces. They aren’t overemotional like the sentimental, romantic French, so they don’t know that they have to “search for the woman” lurking underneath who is causing his fallen spirits. They believe completely in his authority, and following his lead the whole town does not take part in the celebration of the good news from San Remo. ▪
Jessica Kirzane is a PhD candidate in Yiddish studies at Columbia University and a teacher at the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor Hebrew High School at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
1. Traditionally, students in the yeshiva were supported by a system called “eating days.” They were sent to different families for each of the days of the week, where they were provided with meals.
2. The San Remo Conference, held in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920, was attended by Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, with the United States as a neutral observer. At San Remo the Allies confirmed the pledge contained in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. The resolution was celebrated throughout the Jewish world as a step toward the establishment of a Jewish state.