By Izabella, Translated by Anita Norich
As with many women who wrote Yiddish prose, biographical sources about the writer called Izabella are scant and sometimes contradict one another. Izabella (née Beyle Friedberg, aka Beyle Spektor and Isabella Arkadyevna Grinevskaya) published at least four Yiddish stories between 1888-1891. Sources claim her date of birth as 1852, 1853, 1854 or 1864 and her death as 1938 or 1944 in Constantinople or Leningrad. She was the daughter of the Hebrew writer A. Sh. Friedberg, and briefly the wife of the writer and editor Mordkhe Spektor, who published her first stories in 1888-89. These were “The Orphan” (“Der yosem: novele,” in Hoyz-fraynd), “A Groom on the Installment Plan” (“A khosn af oystsoln,” Der familyen-fraynd), and the story translated here as “Among Strangers” (“In der fremd,” Hoyz-fraynd). An additional story was published in I.L. Peretz’s Yiddish Library in 1891, “Unbearable” (“Nisht oysgehaltn,” Di yidishe bibliotek). Sources also indicate she was a prolific translator into Russian (from Polish, German, French, Italian, English [though that is unlikely], Armenian, and Georgian). Izabella became a follower of the Baha’i faith and wrote two plays in Russian about its teachings; she traveled to Baha’i communities, settling in Constantinople in 1910. Lev Tolstoy, who was also interested in the Baha’i faith, wrote in praise of her first play. In fact, it is primarily Baha’i sources, rather than Yiddish sources, that provide details of her life and work.
It may help readers to know that Zikherraykh’s name is ironic, meaning “securely rich” in Yiddish. The names of the towns are equally meaningful though not at all ironic. Deriving from Russian, Golodovke is the town of hunger, Nedikhanov, the town where people cannot breathe.
The third whistle. Reb Zerakh Lilienthal clutched his beloved family to his heart, kissed them, and boarded the train. He did not have the strength to wish them well yet again. His throat was so tight that he could not speak. He felt tears about to fall, but he knew that a man must not cry. Still, as soon as the train began to move, he felt the hot tears flow over his cheeks and beard like a teeming rain.
He could still see his wife, Freyde, through the carriage window as she broke down, falling into the arms of the older children and surrounded by the younger ones.
His heart broke. To have just one more minute! Just one more glance at his unfortunate, downtrodden family, to speak just one more word of comfort to them! But no – some power drew him further and further from all that was dear to him. They were standing there as if shattered, with broken hearts, crying bitterly as he was being carried into the dark night.
It seemed to him that he had been swallowed by some evil beast hurrying him away from those who truly loved him as they stretched out their hands to rescue him. Where? Where was the beast rushing?
Wait! Stop! He wanted to scream that it wasn’t too late, that he could still run back.
After a while, the clang-clang-clang of the train began to slow down and a long whistle announced that they were nearing a station. Here, Mr. Lilienthal could have gotten off the train and taken a different one that would have brought him back home within a few hours. But he did not do that.
By the time the train reached the next station he was no longer so conflicted, though he was even sadder and his heart even heavier than before. The old, familiar thoughts tore through his heartbreak, the thoughts that had kept sleep from him for so long, that had finally pushed him from his home to God knows where.
No, no, one must be a man, he said to himself. If luck doesn’t come to find me, I must go seek it out. Enough of these foolish feelings, longings, tears. I won’t help my beloved family with that. Truly, it’s hard for me to part from them indefinitely. And no wonder: the past twenty-six years have seemed like one day. I was at home the whole time, never traveling away for even a day. Perhaps that is the greatest wrong I did them, and God has punished me so that now, when my hair has turned gray, I must wander from place to place, because I never did so in my youth.
Lilienthal was plagued by such thoughts. He could not escape them. He had been a bookkeeper his whole life, working for the town’s richest man. He had always received his salary of eighty rubles a month on time and had lived peacefully and securely, blessed by God with a growing family.
All his life, he was known in his town as a quiet, calm man. He and his family were nicely dressed. The household was well managed. The children were raised as God commanded, and his wife, Freyda, was an excellent housewife. She was even able to put aside some money for their daughters’ dowries.
Lilienthal had been happy and had never wanted things to change. Suddenly, though, the wheel turned, and his employer Zikherraykh had trouble paying his salary. Zikherraykh’s audits began showing higher expenses and lower income. Lilienthal understood what that meant for his future.
He thought for a long time and consulted his wife about what to do. Finally, they reached a decision: Freyda must open a shop and earn a living from that until God helped Zikherraykh’s business to improve, or until Lilienthal found another job.
And that’s what happened. Freyda used the few hundred rubles she had painstakingly saved over their twenty-three years of marriage to open a small herring store. At first, the little shop and its slimy herrings did well.
Two years passed. Zikherraykh went bankrupt. Lilienthal hoped to get another position, but his shtetl, Golodovke, had only one such Zikherraykh who could pay a bookkeeper eighty rubles a month. Whenever there was an available job in town younger men swarmed like ants, applying to work even if it meant working for free at first. They were no worse, and perhaps actually faster at the job than an old bookkeeper with his outmoded methods.
For two years now, Lilienthal’s family had been drawing its entire income from herring. Eventually, they had to take the children out of school and, one by one, bring them into the business. Eventually, Freyda replaced the beautiful, clean coat she had always worn with a smock smeared with brine. The children wore oily aprons, dipping their frostbitten hands into the barrels of herring.
In the beginning, Lilienthal stayed home and dealt with such things as the paperwork, negotiating with sellers, doing the accounts, signing IOUs (no business can function without borrowing money), paying bills, and sorting the dirty coins into piles. His clothes remained clean and tidy. But he began to see that he was living off his wife and children. He felt as if he were choking on every bite he put into his mouth. When they sat down to eat, he saw their frozen hands and faces and couldn’t bear knowing that he had been in his warm home while they labored.
“No, I can’t do this anymore,” he would mutter to himself, and he began to come into the store more and more often. But he was just taking up space there, hindering his wife and children in their work because they were always careful not to smear his clothes. That bothered him even more. He asked that, once and for all, they stop worrying about him. He wanted to work with them in the shop, to no longer be the privileged member of the family. He began to dip his delicate hands into the barrels for every little coin he could earn. He did not rest until he too, like his entire family, had immersed his soul in brine.
Freyda was not pleased with this and constantly yelled that he was a much too expensive helper for her. She often reminded him that finding a job that paid forty or even thirty rubles a month would be more productive than his work in the shop, where he earned no more than a shopgirl who was paid a ruble a week in exchange for doing more work than he ever could.
Lilienthal knew his wife was right, but where in Golodovke was there a Jew whose business could afford to pay a bookkeeper even thirty rubles a month?
It all added up to a clear conclusion: the shop could not possibly support all of them. Their expenses kept growing, their hands were left emptier, and their hearts heavier and heavier. His oldest daughter was already twenty-three years old. Who doesn’t know what it means to be a twenty-three-year-old girl in a shtetl like Golodovke! This year, too, his son had to appear before the draft board. His younger daughter was already seventeen and said she wanted to go out on Shabbos, dressed properly. And there were still more children at home.
Lilienthal spent sleepless nights worrying about his plight only to be greeted in the morning by the same incessant question: how will this end? Leafing through the history of his life, the past seemed to him like a joyous dream. How is it, he would ask himself, that I lived so peacefully, lying down with a carefree head and waking with no worries? Was I really the sole supporter of my family, honorably earning eighty rubles every month? They didn’t know then about the dog’s life of a shopkeeper. They didn’t roast in the heat of summer or freeze every winter’s day. What has become of them over these past three years? My wife has aged before her time. I see that she is always worried, overworked, freezing. My daughter’s faces are blue with cold and their hands are red and swollen. What kind of husband can I give my eldest now? The bit of education I gave her will keep her from marrying someone like the servant of our neighbor, the salt merchant. But a young bookkeeper, a teacher, or someone with a similar position won’t want her now. What have I done? What have I done to them?
Such were the anxieties that wormed their way into his heart and chased sleep from his eyes.
All his thinking finally led him to a clear decision: he had to leave Golodovke.
“The world doesn’t end with our shtetl,” he said to Freyda early one morning, “and a man like me, who wants to work honestly, devotedly, and diligently, can find work. You’ll see, Freyda, we’ll once again live as we used to. With God’s help, I’ll pull us out of the brine.”
Freyda agreed that her awful livelihood had become too much for her and she clung to the hope that her husband would once again be able to support the family.
From that day on, Lilienthal abandoned the idea of the herring store. He went to the rich men of the town and got letters of recommendation addressed to their rich friends in the big city, Nedikhanov, where he intended to go.
It had been several days since Lilienthal left home. He had already called on all the people for whom he had letters of recommendation and his high hopes were half-gone.
It was Friday evening, his first Shabbos away from home. On the table in his small room there was a white tea kettle, a glass, a saucer, and a tin spoon. From the other side of the wall, he could hear the tinny sound of an accordion and a hoarse voice singing the kind of song that can’t be printed.
Lilienthal looked around his half-lit room and a sudden, awful, sharp longing pierced his heart. The Jewish Sabbath eve! What a unique well of holy joy such an evening holds for every Jew who spends it with his family. How he missed his family now, and how they must miss him!
He imagined his Freyda, as always, coming from the shop. She and the children would rid themselves of the scent of salt-encrusted herring. In honor of Shabbos they washed themselves, combed their hair and put on their clean Shabbos clothes. They gathered around the table set with wine for Kiddush, challah covered by an embroidered cloth, lit candles. Freyda combed the youngest child’s hair and then went to bless the candles. She waved her hands over the candles three times, covered her eyes, and her tears fell onto the white tablecloth. Their youngest child, who stood the entire time leaning against the table and sucking his thumb, looked at his mother, burst into tears, and asked: “Mama, why are you crying?” The other children, sitting in all the corners of the room, quietly swallowed their tears, not daring to look at one another. But Freyda gathered her courage. She bit her bottom lip, picked up the youngest child, wiped away his tears, and said, “Children, today is Shabbos; we mustn’t cry.”
No one wanted to sit down at the table where their father’s chair stood empty. There was no father to make Kiddush. There was only emptiness and desolation.
“Where is Papa eating tonight?” the children asked themselves. “At whose table is he making Kiddush tonight?” Freyda wondered. But no one dared to speak aloud. Quietly, tearfully they ate their meal, leaving the table earlier than usual.
These thoughts made Lilienthal so sad that he grabbed his hat and ran into the street. I have to find a Jewish house where I can smell the Shabbos aromas of tzimmes and fish, he thought. Even if it’s only through a window, I must see Jewish children who will remind me of my dear, dear home!
That evening, Lilienthal wandered through the streets of Nedikhanov for a long time. He passed large windows brightly lit by gas and electric lamps. The lights were too bright, too white, cold, and strange. He sought the rosy glow of tallow Shabbos candles and kerosene lamps.
After six weeks, Lilienthal lost all hope that the recommendation letters would help him in this strange place. His pockets grew lighter and lighter. What should I do now? he asked himself for the hundredth time. When he looked through windows into the front rooms of the rich people of Nedikhanov, he choked up, feeling as if a bone was stuck in his throat.
What should I write to my family? How do I tell them the truth? Their only hope rests on me. . . . No, I don’t dare. I can’t go back like this. Maybe I haven’t tried absolutely everything! I ask people for a position, and they look at me like I’m mad. Then I feel ashamed, as if it’s my fault that my nose is too Jewish, my coat too long and in the old-fashioned Golodovker style. That’s not the kind of employee they need. No, I won’t ask for a bookkeeper’s job. I’ll be a servant. I’ll polish shoes, carry water, anything to earn a ruble to send to my wife and children.
He lay awake for a long time that night, preparing a speech for one of the rich men to whom he had brought a recommendation letter.
Early in the morning, he went to see about a job, but it was Monday before he was lucky enough to find the rich man at home, enjoying his tea and smoking his cigar. The man was in a good mood.
“What’s new, my friend? I believe you were here once before?”
“Yes, I brought you a recommendation letter. But I’m not here about that.” And, with fire in his heart, Lilienthal launched into his speech, asking for the possibility of getting any work at all.
The rich man smiled and said the work he was looking for was already being done by his manservant and his maid.
“I’d advise you, my friend,” he added, “not to rely on the false hope that you’ll find a position here. You’d be better off going home to find work. A Jew in his own town is never lost. Perhaps you don’t have enough money to travel? Don’t be shy. Say so. I can give you a note for a free ticket.”
“I don’t need charity!” Lilienthal answered proudly, straightening his back. Then, with a dignified bow, he took his leave.
Back on the street, he no longer knew where he was. It was still quite early and clerks, merchants, and workers were hurrying to their jobs. They looked well-rested, neatly dressed, and happy.
Oh, you fortunate people, Lilienthal sighed, looking around at them. You have something to do. You have somewhere to hurry off to. But me? Am I good for anything in this world? Is it possible that I’ve slid down so far from the path that I’ll remain lying by the wayside for the rest of my life, seeing the whole world pass me by? Everyone has a purpose, everyone has his place. But do I? Do I alone have neither a purpose nor a place in the world? God is my witness that I am not jealous of those who travel in comfortable carriages, nor those who walk by proudly carrying their briefcases. I want to work hard, to bend my back just like those others who bend under the loads they carry, just like the man who stands on this corner in the cold all day long selling matches and cigarettes. But how does one get to do that? How does one even begin?
Steeped in such thoughts, Lilienthal walked the broad sidewalks of Nedikhanov, stumbling into passersby. Suddenly, he lifted his head, his face brightened, a new hope shone in his eyes. One could see that he had come up with a plan, that he had made a decision.
Two more weeks passed during which Lilienthal tried to find some kind of work or business, until his last kopek was gone. What happens now? he asked himself. He now knew hunger, cold, want.
His heart, his head, his entire being answered him. Home! Home! To rest on his own bed, to warm himself at his oven, to eat his fill at his table, and to tell his family of his sad heart.
But how do I get back home now? There’s not a kopek in my pocket, not even enough for a pound of bread, let alone a ticket. He remembered the rich man who had offered him a free ticket.
With a deep sigh, he lowered his hat over his eyes and went to that rich man….
It’s hard, very hard, he thought as he was sitting on the train going back home. It’s hard for a Jew to climb out of the muck once he’s fallen into it.
Anita Norich is Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. Her most recent translations include Fear and Other Short Stories by Chana Blankshteyn (forthcoming from Wayne State University Press, 2022), and Kadya Molodovsky’s A Jewish Refugee in New York (2019). She is also the author of Writing in Tongues: Yiddish Translation in the 20th Century (2013); Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Literature in America During the Holocaust (2007); The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer (1991); and co-editor of Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (2016), Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Context and Intertext (2008), and Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures (1992). She translates Yiddish literature, and teaches, lectures, and publishes on a range of topics concerning modern Jewish cultures, Yiddish language and literature, translation studies, Jewish American literature, and Holocaust literature. She is a 2021 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, translating Celia Dropkin's novel Di tsvey gefiln (Two Feelings).