Everyday Jews, Chapter One

by Yoshua Perle, translated by Maier Deshell and Margaret Birstein

Everyday Jews was published in Warsaw in 1935. Its sex scenes scandalized the press, and Warsaw's leading critics aligned against the novel. But eventually the critical tide began to turn and Everyday Jews was acknowledged as a masterpiece of Yiddish modernism. For more on the book, see the attached essay by Josh LambertThe original Yiddish text is available here

The wailing of cats outside the window of our house startled me from my sleep. I was lying with my face turned to my father’s back, inhaling the sour smell of his heavy, hairy body. Father was snoring loudly, wheezing and rattling as if trying to expel a piece of phlegm from his throat. I raised my head a little to peek across his bony shoulder. A small kerosene lamp smoked on the dresser between Father’s and Mother’s beds. It cast a reddish circle of light on the low ceiling, throwing off quivering shadows between uneven patches of darkness.

 The two brass weights of the clock must have stopped moving in the middle of the night. One of the weights reached down to the top of the dresser and came to rest. The other hung in midair like a severed leg. I heard a rooster crowing in the distance, its cries mingling with the wailing of the cats and telling me that the morning was about to dawn.

I clearly saw that the other bed, in which Mother should have been sleeping, was empty. Smack in the bed’s center was a dark shape, indicating that a garment had been hastily tossed there. Mother, it seemed, hadn’t yet returned from the hospital, where she had gone last night after serving Father and me our supper.

I myself, a chubby kid swaddled in layers of clothing, had just returned from the day’s study at the Hebrew school, the kheyder. Father was still at the table, looking tired, mumbling the prayers of the Grace after meals. Mother plopped down my supper and then, wrapping herself in the large, grey woolen shawl, hurried off to the hospital to Moyshe, her youngest, and handsomest, son by her first husband.

Handsome he was indeed! Fathers of marriageable daughters had set their sights on him and sent matchmakers around. Moyshe had a round, dimpled face, like the full moon, ruddy cheeks, and a beautiful handwriting. He was already a full eighteen years old and worked for Israel the bookbinder, applying strips of paper decorated with birds and flowers, as customers requested.

He’d promised to paste those same birds and flowers on the four panes of our window and around the walls of our long, low-ceilinged dwelling. But Moyshe preferred taking girls out for walks, the flaps of his coat fluttering in the wind. He would come home so late at night that our maid, Jusza, the cooper’s daughter who lived with us and helped Mother with the household chores, always had to get up to let him in.

Who would have thought it possible? Who would have imagined it? One morning, Moyshe couldn’t get up. He moaned quietly and complained of stitches in his side.

Bespectacled strangers began coming to our house and Jusza, who now washed the floor only every other day, helped them out of and back into their overcoats. The strangers told Moyshe to take deep breaths, tapped his ribs, and wrote out prescriptions, to be rushed to the pharmacy, for little bottles of oddly colored liquids.

The windowpanes frosted over with a tracery of white pine trees. Sometimes the trees took on the shape of a ship at sea, sometimes that of a little old Jew in a nightcap, with a pointy beard.

Moyshe gazed at the panes with watery eyes. His face had turned gaunt and greenish, and brown blotches appeared around his eyes.

The sweet-sour smell of his medicines and perspiration permeated the room, and Mother kept forgetting to comb out her shetyl, the wig worn by married women. As Moyshe kept staring at the frosted panes, Mother’s chin grew more pointed and the veins of her hands stood out more prominently. Jusza, her black hair disheveled, pattered about barefoot and repeatedly crossed herself at her iron cot in the kitchen.

Father, coming home at night, would look about him, dull-eyed, and in a nasal voice ask, “Nu, how is he—Moyshe?”

But nothing more could be done for Moyshe at home, and so one weekday afternoon, without a by-your-leave, he was rushed to the hospital.

Father was standing in a dark corner of the room, reciting the afternoon prayers. A cold blue haze settled on the four frozen window panes, whose icy coatings now looked more like those of a ship underwater. Moyshe was padded with a pillow held in place by Mother’s woolen shawl and wrapped in the very coat he was wearing when he caught a chill.

I myself, a chubby kid swaddled in layers of clothing, had just returned from the day’s study at the Hebrew school, the kheyder. Father was still at the table, looking tired, mumbling the prayers of the Grace after meals. Mother plopped down my supper and then, wrapping herself in the large, grey woolen shawl, hurried off to the hospital to Moyshe, her youngest, and handsomest, son by her first husband.

An unknown Gentile in a yellow sheepskin helped Mother and Jusza get Moyshe out of the house. They propelled him forward slowly, step by step, as one would sometime shift a heavy wardrobe.

Outside everything was blue—the snow, the houses, the roofs. Moyshe was placed on a low, wide sleigh where he lay flat on his back, like a narrow, dead fish, his wrapped face looking up to the sky. Mother sat at his feet, facing him, her feet dangling onto the snow. Several women, heaving deep sighs under their frozen noses, called after them, “May he return in good health!”

The sleigh set off, gliding along the soft snow, leaving behind two broad ruts, like two incisions on a live body. The further it traveled, the smaller it grew in the deepening blue of the approaching evening.

Back in the house, Moyshe’s unmade iron bed, its rumpled bedclothes still warm, stood forlorn. Damp wisps of straw littered the floor. The medicine bottles along the windowsill seemed to have moved closer together, their necks inclining towards each other in a fraternal nod, and one of Moyshe’s mother-of-pearl cufflinks peeked out from under the table, like a white, dead eye.

 

At the hospital they drained water from Moyshe’s side and from the same side removed two of his ribs. He lay in a separate cubicle with two tall white windows. The bare, upturned branches of a tree looked in through the bluish panes.

Mother went to the hospital every evening and stayed through the night. By the time she returned, Jusza had already chopped some wood and was blowing into the open fire with puffed-out cheeks. A gloomy chill still clung to the walls. Father would be standing by the tiny flame of the kerosene lamp, reciting Psalms, when mother would return from the hospital in silence, her eyes red from lack of sleep. She would immediately stick her head under the tin hood that hung over the stove and that resembled a peasant’s cap, and she would start fixing Father’s breakfast, weeping softly into the pots still unwashed from the night before.

Dipping a morsel of bread into salt, Father would ask from across the table, “Nu, Frimet?”

With her head hunched between her shoulders and talking into the pots, Mother would answer, “He’s in need of God’s mercy.”

This morning, mother wasn’t standing under the hood above the stove. Outside, the cats seemed to have tired of wailing. Somewhere in the empty darkness of the room one could hear the sharp scratching of a mouse. The cot in the kitchen where Jusza slept creaked, but the mouse went on scratching. Jusza must have hurled something across the empty space for there followed a sound like the cracking of an earthen pot. I pulled up my legs and huddled closer against Father’s back.

All of the sudden there was a dreadful pounding on the door. Jusza leaped up to open it and, like a cork popping from a keg, a drawn-out shriek pierced the room.

“Leyzershi! Leyzer-my-crown!”

Dad’s wheezing snore stopped as if throttled midway. I sat bolt upright and saw Mother standing in the middle of the room, rocking from side to side, clutching her head between both hands, then dropping them limply to her sides as if gripped by an unbearable pain.

“Such a young tree! Such a noble soul!” Mother wailed, still rocking from side to side.

Now Father sat up abruptly.

“Hah! What happened?” His horse, drowsy voice echoed around the room.

“He’s gone!” Mother cried, spreading her arms as if crucified. “Leyzershi, I’ve lost him!”

Jusza stood beside Mother in a long nightgown, her tousled hair like a black sheep’s wool, clawing at her cheeks with both hands, all but tearing the flesh from them. She turned up the lamp. On the ceiling, the quivering red ring widened like a strangely distended eye. A draft swept through the room. I got out of bed and dressed quickly. Father set down a pair of blue feet onto the cold floor and groped for his slippers.

The four small windowpanes turned blue, and behind their blueness the faces of strangers suddenly appeared. A stooped old woman in a red, feather-strewn nightcap slowly sidled up to Mother and, inclining her head like a napping hen, gazed straight into her face. Our upstairs neighbor, a shrill-voiced woman, came running down the stairs in unlaced shoes, their tongues flapping.

Then fair-haired Fayvl, who sold us a quart of milk every morning straight from the cow, arrived with his battered can. Today, nobody went out to meet him, pot in hand. Two women, total strangers, pressed in behind him. One of them, a hunchback, looked around the room as if she’d lost someone there. The other, in steel-rimmed spectacles attached to her ears with two white ribbons, like a teacher in a girls’ school, shuffled about the room as if she owned it. She whispered something to Father through narrow shrunken lips.

Father gave her a sidelong glance, raised his black beard, and muttered, “Yes, yes. . . . Frimet’s son, my stepson.”

By now it was brighter, but no one turned off the lamp on the dresser. The woman in the spectacles, pointing at a clock, said, “It stopped. The clock. . . ”

At that moment the door burst open and Aunt Miriam almost fell into the room, her mouth pursed into tiny wrinkles that looked like deep-set veins, her small nose pointy and red.

I was surprised. All her life Aunt Miriam used to speak softly, with winks rather than words. Talking loudly, she maintained, was a Gentile custom. Jewish children ought to speak in a quiet manner, like the biblical Mother Rachel. Our Mother Rachel, she explained, was soft-spoken and never raised her voice. Now that same Aunt Miriam barged into our room with an alarmed, panic-stricken look. The shout about to explode from her lips was signaled in her round, wide-open eyes.

Mother, sitting in a chair, completely crushed, her head buried in her hands, seemed to have sensed that someone dear to her was in the room. Before actually setting eyes on Aunt Miriam, she leaped up and, with hands held out stiffly, threw her head back and burst into a loud wail.

“Sister dear, save my child!”

As though she had been waiting for her cue, Aunt Miriam let out a wail that pierced through to the ribs.

Father had stationed himself by the window, his face to the glass. Mother’s tears not only flowed from her eyes but also seemed to gush from her heavy, frozen garments. Suddenly she stood motionless in the middle of the room, as if struck dumb. The room became very quiet and she looked about her with inflamed, frenzied eyes.

Father had stationed himself by the window, his face to the glass. Mother’s tears not only flowed from her eyes but also seemed to gush from her heavy, frozen garments. Suddenly she stood motionless in the middle of the room, as if struck dumb. The room became very quiet and she looked about her with inflamed, frenzied eyes.

“Friment! Oh, Friment!” Aunt Miriam cried out and rushed to her sister.

But Mother didn’t seem to have heard her. She had changed into a different person, taller, straighter, unlike the crushed woman she had been a moment ago.

The people in the room huddled closer together. A slight tremor, barely noticeable, passed over their hands.

At that instant, Mother tore herself from the spot, lunged towards the wardrobe, tore open the doors, and not unlike—may God forgive the comparison—a worshipper who opens the doors of the Holy Ark during services in the synagogue. Only then did she burst into tears again.

“What good are they to my child now that he’s gone! Come and take them, good people!” she said, and, in an outburst of frenzy, started flinging Moyshe’s clothes about. “Pray for my poor child! Let God revoke this evil decree!”

Father pressed his face closer against the frozen pane. The good people grabbed whatever they could, stripping the wardrobe almost bare. Then Mother, her palms extended, as if she were carrying a child to its circumcision, ran out of the house.

The open wardrobe gaped hollow and dark. Father stepped back from the window and lowered the flame of the lamp.

Suddenly Jusza stood beside me, took me into her big, warm arms, and sobbed into my ear, “My poor, poor boy!”

The strangers in the room slipped out one by one. The sour smell of empty bellies hung in the air. Father sat down, as he did every morning, to recite Psalms, except that this morning his head kept swaying nervously back and forth as he repeated a word several times over, making it sound like the buzzing of a fly against the windowpane. On the low ceiling, the shadow of Father’s head kept swaying up and down, like the distorted shape of some outlandish being.

But God did not revoke the evil decree, and Moyshe, unfortunately, died.

 

I ran to the hospital, but by the time I got there its black gate was already locked. Two tall, thick-bearded Jews were arguing about something with a Gentile. Several women stood about, stamping their feet in the snow. A shaggy, mangy dog sniffed around the hems of the men’s long overcoats.

Shortly thereafter, Uncle Shmuel, Aunt Miriam’s husband, appeared on the scene. He stepped up to the tall Jews and, spreading his hands, said in his oily voice, “Died, just like that! Can you believe it?”

The two Jews turned their beards to Uncle Shmuel and gave him a surprised look. I was about to kick the dog when Uncle Shmuel set eyes on me and, smacking his thick, wet lips, said, “You’re here too? Who sent for you?”

And who had sent for him? Who needed him here, with that oily voice of his, running back and forth along the black gate, spitting into the snow, stopping the carts of passing peasants to poke the bags of grain they were hauling, asking what the grain cost, though he himself had never dealt in grain and hadn’t the foggiest idea whether grain grew in the fields or on trees in the wood.

Meanwhile, Father arrived, treading slowly and heavily, and soon after him, Aunt Naomi and Uncle Bentsien pulled up in a public carriage, a droshky. Bentsien, round and squat like a stuffed pillow, had difficulty getting out. So Aunt Naomi, she of the thin lips and pretensions to learning, held a shoulder up to him and Uncle Bentsien, leaning on it, finally managed to heave himself down.

There he stood, with his protruding paunch, panting laboriously. Then, looking about him and blowing air through his fleshy red lips, said, “It’s ice cold . . . a real frost. . . . Any idea what the temperature might be?”

No one answered. The mangy dog lowered his head to Uncle Bentsien’s galoshes. He drew back.

“Beat it!” Uncle Bentsien snarled.

The dog hung his head meekly and padded over to me. He looked at me with his mild, moist eyes, wagged his tail sadly and, had he been able to talk, would have probably said, “Your brother died, and all your Uncle Bentsien can talk about is the weather?”

Night had fallen imperceptibly. A flock of ravens flew up somewhere into the clouds. On both sides of the road the snow lay in patchy strips, here black, here blue, and here rusty white. Across from the hospital, on the porch of the tavern, two buxom girls in fur coats talked in loud voices to the stooping shadows of two men.

Only then did the black hospital gate open. Two weary, black-eared horses, their heads bobbing, were pulling a narrow black cart behind their scraggly tails. Father’s big hands lay on the cart’s burden as he followed along. All at once, a line of men formed, their black coattails flapping in the wind, looking like birds abruptly roused from sleep. Women came rushing up, shoving one another aside and tugging at the woolen shawls that kept sliding from their shoulders. Both Mother and Aunt Miriam followed close on the heels of the men, their heads tossed back and their mouths agape, like freshly slaughtered cattle. Uncle Bentsien and Aunt Naomi, riding in their droshky, brought up the rear.

The dog trotted beside me, looking down at his own steps and, from time to time, releasing angry snorts through the moist nostrils of his snout. A woman, a stranger, leaned down to me and, in a kindly voice, said that young boys whose parents were still alive—and may they live to be a hundred and twenty—were not allowed in the cemetery. So I went only as far as the inn, the Three Trees, about halfway to the cemetery. The cart and its company merged into a single black mass, as all wended their way to the final resting place.

Nobody accompanied me as I returned home, except for the stray dog trotting beside me, panting to the beat of his own steps.

The dog stopped at our door a step ahead of me. Did he know that this was where I lived? Why did his ears poke up like that?

I stopped too and shouted into his ears, “What’s your name? Burek?”

The dog shook his head from side to side, as if objecting to being called by such a common name.

I called out other dogs’ names, Lapke, Buket, but no, he went on shaking his head.

I felt cold. My heavy overcoat kept dragging at my shoulders. Finally I shouted into the dog’s ear, “Good night, dog!”

When I came into the house, Jusza was sitting alone in the kitchen, her elbows propped up on the small table beside the kerosene lamp, her chin cupped in both hands, staring blankly into the reddish-blue flame. At my entrance, her hands dropped from her chin and she rose abruptly.

“The funeral’s over already?”

“No, not yet.”

“You didn’t go?”

“Only as far as the Three Trees.”

“Hungry?”

“No.”

“You look frozen to the bone. Come here and sit down.”

She hugged me as if I were a sack of cotton wool or feathers and sat me down close beside her. Then, folding me into her large warm arms, she spoke right into my face.

“That’ll warm you up fine.”

She blew onto my stiff fingers, took them into her mouth, and rubbed them between her hands.

“Maybe you should lie down for a while, hah?”

I don’t know if I answered her or not. She left me sitting in the kitchen and went into the other room to make up Father’s bed. Then she undressed me, led me into the other room, tucked me in up to my chin beneath the featherbed, and seated herself at my feet like Mother used to do when I was sick with scarlet fever.

“Will they be back soon?” Jusza asked.

“As soon as the funeral’s over.”

“When will that be?”

“I don’t know”

Jusza went into the kitchen for a moment, where I heard her fussing with the lock on the door. It was very dark in the room by now. Only a narrow streak of light filtered in from the kitchen but it stopped halfway across the floor.

Jusza returned from the kitchen and sat down once again on the bed, but not at my feet. Her body gave off a sweaty warmth, exuding a sweetness that clung to the roof of my mouth and filled my nose—an odor unlike any other person’s I had known.

“You feel warmer now, don’t you?” she said, bending her large face over mine.

“A little,” I said, feeling Jusza’s odor seep into my throat and from there deep into my veins.

“You’ll soon feel warm all over,” she said.

I heard two dull thuds on the floor. Jusza must have kicked off first one shoe, then the other.

“Soon, soon,” she said hoarsely.

Drowsy, frozen, exhausted, I saw Jusza take off her red bodice and undo her blouse. Its laces must have gotten knotted, for Jusza’s breath turned into heavy panting as she sent forth a curse into the darkness: “Damn it! What the hell!” Then the featherbed heaved and I felt Jusza’s large, warm body beside me. My throat constricted, whether from fright or surprise I couldn’t say, and I snuggled up against the wall.

“Come here, come closer,” Jusza whispered, and pulled me back to herself. “Now you’ll get really warm. Give me your hands. Well, how does that feel?”

“Warm.”

“Put your head over here. Isn’t that warm?”

“Warm.”

“Poor thing. Your mouth’s so cold. It’s frozen.”

I pulled up my legs. The bed suddenly seemed too narrow for me. I couldn’t figure out why. Sleeping with Father I never felt so cramped, and Father’s body never gave off such heat. Why? Was it because her lips never stopped warming mine?

I had no idea how I fell asleep. I didn’t hear Jusza leave the room, nor did I hear Mother and Father come home.

By the time I opened my eyes, Father was sitting on the bed with his feet on the floor, pulling on his boots. Mother, her head wrapped in a kerchief, sat hunched on a low stool, like a child, rocking from side to side. In the kitchen, Jusza was chopping wood. The blows were sharp and quick, as if she were letting her anger out at some unseen antagonist.

Now I remembered! Jusza! What had happened with Jusza? Why was she now chopping wood? How long since she’d been warming my lips? And there was Father sitting on the bed, his back to me, while Mother sat rocking on the low stool. The gray walls that hadn’t been whitewashed in ages were tinged with a greenish, sleepy, early-morning light.

A small glass, with fingerlike impressions on its sides, stood on the window sill. A tiny, blue flame flickered inside it.

By now, Father had pulled on his boots. His yellowed prayer shawl hung down his back, crumpled like a page torn from an old Bible. He turned his beard to me, still lying in bed.

“Get up,” he said. “It’s time for the morning prayers.”

He pulled on his kapote, his shabby gabardine, and left the house. But not for long. He returned with two little men who looked around with great curiosity at the unfamiliar room. Father left them there and went out again, coming and going several times, until our room filled up with the unkempt beards of strangers in threadbare, weekday kapotes.

From the window to the wall and from the wall to the window, here and there, one could hear the hollow rumblings of an empty stomach. On the dresser and the wardrobe patches of shadow climbed up the ceiling, as though the room was too crowded to contain them.

Mother moved her stool over to the stove. From time to time, Jusza appeared in the doorway, holding a chunk of wood in her hand. I pressed deeper among the cold kapotes of strangers, scared to look at Jusza. The fringes of the men’s prayer shawls trailed along the floor like white worms. One of the worshipers, a man with a choked voice, was swaying back and forth over the table, swallowing every word.

Father, who was standing beside me, put his hand on my shoulder and pointed with his head to the prayer book, “Nu… nu…”

After they praying was done, the strangers began drifting out of the room. Their heavy, mud-caked boots shuffled across the floor as they filed past Mother, crouched on her low stool, and mumbled some words to her.

A musty smell of old wadding and soiled clothing lingered in the room. Two rumpled prayer shawls with yellowed fringes lay on the table. Father slowly unwound the stiff, shriveled leather straps of the phylacteries from his blue frozen hand.

And this is the way it was throughout the whole week of shivah, the seven days of mourning. Mother rarely rose from her stool, and Jusza, after chopping some more wood and attending to the fire in the stove, would seat herself on another low stool and, like Mother, begin rocking from side to side.

In the evening the aunts and uncles would come by to offer their condolences, bringing with them the silence of the snow outside. They sat there in their overcoats, glum-faced, never saying a word, neither on entering nor on leaving. They stayed for a short while, shrugged their shoulders, and returned to homes where no one had died and no one was in mourning.

Only two of the uncles saw fit to break the silence. Uncle Shmuel, he of the restless hands, couldn’t forgive Moyshe for having died, just like that! And Uncle Bentsien kept rubbing his chubby hands together, protesting to God about the weather.

“Can you believe what a winter it’s been? Coal cost the price of gold! So I said to my wife . . .”

Just then Aunt Naomi half-closed her sleepy eyes and, in her nasal singsong said, “Shouldn’t we be going, Bentsien? Heh, Bentsien?”

Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press. 

The New Yiddish Library's translation of Everyday Jews is available at the Yiddish Book Center bookstore.