An excerpt from Iberflants
Avrom Rives (pseudonym of Avrom Naimovitsh, 1900–1963) published his first stories in local Yiddish magazines while working as a railway laborer in his native Poland. Emigrating to Palestine in the late 1920s, he became one of the founding members of the Yiddish Writers’ and Journalists’ Clubs in Palestine. The excerpt below comes from a novella-length story entitled Iberflants (Transplant, 1947). The story centers around three young kibbutzniks, and in contrast to most Zionist literature of its time, conveys the unwelcoming, unfriendly, wild nature of the land—a land they have to tame.
Hills and mountains rolling into rough marshy plains unfolded into the distance; behind them, more stretches of land led all the way to the wadi. It was land that rustled with the sounds of galloping wheels and bouncing melodies, sounds that came from the concealed creases and crevices of the barren land.
At the sloping base of the heights, young people hammered stakes and poles into untouched earth that was still covered in wild grasses and peculiar herbs. With every crack of the hammer, grassy roots leapt into the humid air. Men who were hungry after a day’s toil tugged at thick ropes, the palms of their hands splitting and cracking under the strain. They were occupied fastening tarpaulin sheets to tent poles.
“The hammer, Siyomke, pass it over. Can’t you see I’m losing my grip here?”
“That’s how it goes, comrade. Pull on it!”
Kneeling down, young people busied themselves with the poles and the edges of the tarpaulin tents. Struggling against the hostile winds that pulled and slapped hard against the sheets, they tied the stubborn rope to the earth; the wind whistled furiously in protest.
Soon a tent stood tall, pointing to the sky. There another tent took root. They blossomed all around, one after the other; in the strong winds, they looked like maids in flapping blouses. It seemed at any moment they would take each other by the hand and spin into akarahod dance.
On the other side of the mountain, in the nearest valley, dark Bedouin tents crouched low against the terrain. Ten Arabs dressed in jellabas that fluttered in the wind set out of the camp together. Curiosity burned in their black eyes: What were these people doing here, these Russians, in the wilderness? They scaled the slope, all the way to the peak. They paused at the top, their long garments beating in the wind like black flags. The whites of their eyes flashed with amazement as they took in the sight of the tents at the foot of the mountain. “What are these Russians doing here?”
One of the men set off down the slope, and the others followed. As they drew closer to the camp they saw young people in short trousers bustling from one tent to the next, carrying work tools.
Siyomke approached the men. A tall youth with a bronze face, Siyomke contemplated his Bedouin neighbors from beneath his corn-blond lashes. With sharp eyes he measured them from head to dirty, barefooted toe.
With faces rugged from the hot desert winds, the Bedouins remained unshaken by Siyomke’s unwelcoming glances. They’d sized him up, this foreigner. The land wouldn’t easily accept the unknown smells of the footsteps of strangers from far away. The Bedouins’ affected humility soon disappeared. They were looking for work and asked Siyomke to employ them. They’d be good neighbors, they said. Siyomke met the concealed cunning in their faces with a sharp eye.
“Well,” he said, “come back tomorrow, and we’ll give you an answer then. Go in peace.”
As evening descended on the camp Siyomke felt full of unrest. He’d been given the job of watching over the machinery they’d sent over from a neighboring village. The first day of work here had left him feeling nervous; the earlier visit from the Bedouins played on his mind. He would consult the committee members about the offer. In any case, planting the forest was work commissioned by the government, and surely their Arab neighbors had a claim to part of the work.
In the distance, from the Bedouin valley, dogs could be heard pulling at their chains and barking wildly in the direction of the mountain, in the direction of the camp. The sound filled their hearts with fear. Siyomke felt yet more nervous. The noise continued, and the dogs showed no sign of settling down. Their constant yelping sounded like a bell warning of fire.
* * *
The group consulted one another in Siyomke’s tent. A tallow lamp cast a feeble light over the disheveled crowd that huddled together on the beds; it threw strange shadows on the tarpaulin walls. From inside the tent, the dark night outside felt darker still. Spiegel, a man who was older than the others and had specks of silver in his beard, spoke with supplicating eyes. His tin voice rang out in a tone more suited to prayer than to a conversation about the camp.
“These Ishmaelites,” he said, “this is a problem we can’t just ignore.” He leaned his head to one side. “Of course, we’ll have to give them a bit of work, if they really mean to help us.”
“Yeah, right!” said Reuben, his hair falling over his brow. Reuben was the type of man to speak fast and get worked up quickly. He pressed his hand to his eyes and flicked the hair away from his face. He’d answered the Arab problem a long time ago. Why did they want to put the discussion back on the table?
Siyomke sat on the bunk scowling. The bloodstained years of work had made him hard. He was offended by the words now being spoken in the tent: men’s deeds should speak, not their mouths. He silently received his comrades’ complaints and quietly determined to go his own way that evening. He gave a sigh like the sound of a bow over a double bass string. Tonight he would be on guard duty.
“Come on, Mikhael,” he beckoned to a pensive kid who hadn’t uttered a word during the evening’s conversation. It was as if the land and the agricultural work here didn’t concern Mikhael, as if he were wrapped in a fog of silk veils.
Outside, the night became see-through blue; pieces of silver coal rained down from the skies. The gibbous November moon poured blue light over the swampy plains, over the crepuscular tents that silently hearkened to the distant surroundings with bated breath.
Siyomke and Mikhael went off together, stumbling over the long, taut tent ropes. Siyomke loved Mikhael’s companionship during guard duty. He would happily pass the time in his company. Mikhael was well versed in Siyomke’s painful silences: he understood the nuances in his sparse speech, the torment that had plagued his friend’s heart since as early as he could remember.
For his part, Siyomke had found in Mikhael a friend. Mikhael was just a boy; he had wide, green eyes and would often wander through the kibbutzes and villages of Israel, letting the land cleanse him of the worldly woes that had accompanied him here from his Polish shtetl. Siyomke had brought him to the village and welcomed him into the kibbutz. Every couple of days Mikhael would receive a letter from a girlfriend of his in Tel Aviv. Siyomke didn’t think of Tel Aviv as the real Israel; it was instead an assemblage of all the Jewish ghettos of the world. Siyomke smiled at the thought of his friend’s correspondence with the girl.
He and Mikhael set out then into the night; it was their job to protect the camp that evening, and their ears listened for every rustle of a field mouse or the sound of a chameleon stealing though the wild grasses and mountain stones. Wrapped in a winter coat, Mikhael stuck close to Siyomke; he was in good spirits, and he spoke to his friend in allegorical silence. He spoke of wandering fraternity: first they’d been strangers; then, wordlessly, they’d become engrained in each other’s hearts—friendship. Hands outstretched, weary of searching, yearning for brotherhood, they still felt disappointingly distant from one another.
Siyomke was too fixed on the task to hear Mikhael’s heart stirring. All his senses were fixed on catching the smallest quiver in the blue night. A shiver ran all the way down to Siyomke’s bare, muscular legs.
“Shh,” he suddenly said to Mikhael. “Quiet… I think there’s something on the slope there.”
From the hillside, something dull seemed to roll down into the valley. A dog barked. Everything became still. There was a clapping sound. Again the dog yelped. Silence then again rang in their ears.
“I think it’s okay,” Mikhael said boldly. “The Bedouins would be too scared to come here.”
Siyomke frowned. “Don’t speak so soon. I wouldn’t trust my own footsteps, let alone the Bedouins.”
“Have you never seen death?” Siyomke asked, laying a hand on Mikhael’s shoulder. His eyes bore into Mikhael’s, waiting for an answer, but his sharp look soon softened, and he turned and stared off into the foggy distance as if searching for far-off snowy lands, for the places he and his people had been torn away from, to be transplanted here in this desolate terrain.
Mikhael followed Siyomke quietly as if he too were meandering through fields of his own thoughts. Disquiet roared in his mind, and he wanted to speak to his friend, but something kept him from talking.
Siyomke saw himself as an uprooted trunk from a distant land. He felt as though Mikhael was far away from him now. Mikhael felt the same way: he was envious of Siyomke’s strength and daring, of the broad shoulders that signaled heroism, of the chiseled figure that Siyomke cut in the darkness.
The swampy plains squelched in the blue-rose night. They were celebrating a wedding of crickets, and the valley was spinning with sounds, bubbling, fizzing, screeching, and rumbling hoarsely. The noises rose higher, as though tunelessly strumming on broken shards of pottery and glass, waxing like the moon, chiming silver in the troubled skies that spilled blue light onto the swampy marsh. Suddenly a pack of jackals howled. The sound tugged at the friends’ hearts as if the animals were mothers whose children had been taken away. The creatures choked and ran off with a crazy laugh.
The two friends stood still in front of the camp. Siyomke was afraid that everyone was lying asleep in bed, snoring into the night, while here the earth was twisting and reeling. Had they all forgotten they were supposed to be on watch tonight? To the devil with them!
Siyomke went into a tent and grabbed one of the sleeping men by the feet.
“Out of bed, you idiot!” He jabbed a second man in his side. “And you, fool, what do they call you? Have you all forgotten about guard duty?”
Mikhael waited alone outside. To him it seemed as though the tents were wrapped in prayer shawls, resting their heads in the bosom of the nighttime, rocking back and forth on the earth. A suffocating scream was suddenly heard from one of the tents. Everything went silent. Mikhael quickly ran to the tent, and Siyomke soon came after him.
“What was that?”
“What?” someone answered from the darkness.
They heard a wild scraping sound.
“I was dreaming. Maybe it was a jackal. To hell with them! Even they don’t let you sleep.”
Siyomke lit his torch. He saw a disheveled young man with red eyes in the bed. He was smacking his lips as though he were spitting out a piece of forbidden food.
“Dreaming? What do you mean, dreaming?” Siyomke yelled. “Get out of bed, goddamn you! Do you think I want to hear all your nonsense?”
One of the others pushed Siyomke angrily through the tarpaulin flaps, out into the cold night.
* * *
It was already after midnight when Mikhael came into the tent, cold through to his bones. He had done two watch duties, patrolled the circuit around the tents several times. Spiegel came in after him. Siyomke, the third man in the tent, took a moment for himself before entering. He wasn’t ready to lie down yet. He wanted to keep an eye on the more inexperienced members of the camp that first night. It would be no use, though. “Our trusty leyl shoymrim, our very own biblical night watchmen,” he muttered. “The good-for-nothings.”
Mikhael crawled under the covers, exhausted, and soon he was snoring in the stuffy tent.
Spiegel stayed awake, fussing over his cot. He wanted to talk. But to whom? He might as well have spoken to the trees. He lit his tallow lamp so he could read a little before going to sleep, as was his way. But he couldn’t manage. Nothing could be read. He blew out the flame and darkness rolled thickly into the tent. Mikhael’s snoring interrupted Spiegel’s thoughts. He wanted to tell his friends his thoughts: they’d arrived at a good place in history, a place where they could look after one another. This was the inheritance they’d received from their forefathers, from all the way back to Cain and Abel.
“They’re such savages, the Bedouins.” Spiegel couldn’t understand why they wanted to encircle the camp now in the middle of the night and commit who knows what.
“Our parents recited the shema, the evening prayer, to protect themselves from demons in the night,” Spiegel thought. “Guard duty is the same as our parents’ shema.” He tossed and turned on his cot, and sleep failed to take him. Thoughts ran through his mind, one following the heels of the other. How long had it been? He balanced the ledger of the years of his life. How painful. How the years disappear. Only yesterday he was sitting among his teachers, people who were immersed in the Torah and the Talmud. He hadn’t wanted life with a wife and children, prayer and commentary. He’d cashed those possibilities in for a practical life, a life of deeds—to help build the Jewish country.
“Have you ever had any dealings with the Arabs?”
“Mikhael,” said Spiegel, “are you awake?” He heard a sigh from the other cot. Mikhael didn’t answer and continued to snore into the darkness.
In the nighttime, Spiegel imagined barefoot Bedouin women on the swampy plains. They were dressed head to toe in dark cloth; they wore proud expressions and carried terra-cotta vessels on their heads as they went to the well to fetch water. Their muddy ankles were shackled in bracelets. Carcanets of silver coins and cords of sky-blue beads adorned their necks. Loose, naked breasts hung beneath their tatty rags. On plains where no shoe-wearing foot had ever trodden, Spiegel pictured cheerful young Jews striding along in work boots. In his mind’s eye he saw them laying pipes that would pump water from deep down in the earth. There’ll be enough for Isaac and for Ishmael, Spiegel mused, making peace with his own thoughts.
The Bedouin women with the water jugs on their heads once more paraded around Spiegel’s imagination; their eyes burned like glowing embers, filling him with sinful thoughts. Among the women of his reverie, Spiegel picked out the face of his wife, Brayne. Over the years he had almost forgotten her.
“Khalas, enough,” he said to himself in Arabic. “You can’t go back for the sacrificial offering once you’ve set it on the altar.”
He flung himself on the bed, frustrated with the flood of thoughts gnawing at his mind. From under his pillow, newspapers and brochures spilled onto the ground.
Exhausted and with tired circles under his eyes, Spiegel dragged himself out from under the waterproof camp-bed sheets to attend a call of nature.
“Shonim oykhzin…” Spiegel began chanting a Talmudic verse. “If Levi and Yehudah hold a shawl and each claims ‘I found it,’ then each must swear that he does not own less than half of it, and they should divide it.”
The three-quarter moon silently glowed silver in the night sky, watching over his deeds. Like a hunched willow lightly dusted in gray snow, Spiegel made his way to the tent and slipped back into the warm cot.
“Hey, sleepyhead. Hey, Mikhael!” Spiegel whispered into the darkness. But Mikhael was unmoved by the night watchman in the neighboring bed who wouldn’t just close his eyes and sleep like everyone else.
“What is it?” Mikhael said grudgingly.
“The shawl, Mikhael, it’ll be enough for all of us.” The idea wouldn’t leave him alone. The answer to one thought posed a question to the next.
“What are you talking about?” Mikhael groaned.
Spiegel finally had it all figured out. Silk veils surrounded his thoughts and began to lull him to sleep. He lost control of his fantasies, which became like blurred worlds. Trying to catch his ideas was like chasing the unknown through a blinding fog. His softening warm breath rolled into the silver drifts of air.
Avi Lang, a 2013 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, currently teaches courses in English language and culture, translation, and United States history at Nanterre University in France. Avi fell in love with Yiddish in 2006, when he took a course at Oxford with the renowned and much-missed Yiddish translator Dr. Joseph Sherman.