Chapter 13 of Hibru by Joseph Opatoshu, translated by Shulamith Berger
The novel Hibru, by Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954), portrays the professional and personal lives of teachers, young immigrant men from Eastern Europe who wander like lost souls in the land of opportunity, seeking a livelihood, meaning, and love. It is set on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1910s. The title refers to Hebrew schools, supplementary schools that boys attended in the afternoon after public school. The schools provided students with a Jewish education and prepared them for their bar mitzvahs.
This selection is Chapter 13, with a new title provided by the translator. It opens with Mr. Friedkin—the novel’s protagonist and the principal of a Hebrew school—in a state of agitation precipitated by his colleague Ziskind’s declaration of belief in Jesus.
Friedkin wandered around lost in thought for several days after the scene at Ziskind’s. He realized that until now he’d never let life touch him; life had passed by him like a shallow stream flowing between high shores, never jostling nor leaving a trace on him. He was sorry that he had frittered away more than half his life on nothing more than the pursuit of creature comforts. The children in school exchanged puzzled glances. They couldn’t understand the change in Friedkin. He treated them politely, like adults, and the children responded and sat calmly. For the first time in years he didn’t feel worn out when he dismissed the class. He walked down the steps briskly, cheerfully exchanged greetings with the teachers, and thought he was on his way to a new life.
Friedkin got ahold of a New Testament, stayed up late at night, and read it diligently. This went on for a few days. Very often, poring over the New Testament, he recited the words mechanically, without understanding the meaning, and perverse thoughts crept into his head about a Jewish Pope, Jewish cardinals, and about the missionary, Ziskind. He fantasized himself sitting on the Pope’s golden throne. He knew it was impossible, yet he imagined receiving Jewish deputations regarding blood libels and issuing papal bulls to all the nations decreeing that blood libels are ugly, false accusations of ritual murder leveled against the Jews. Every time he thought about blood libels, it brought to mind the scholar Daniel Chwolson, a convert from Judaism but a great advocate for his people. Friedkin then transformed himself from a Pope to that professor in the czar’s court, determined to demonstrate the greatness of the Jews to the world. He soon grew sick and tired of the New Testament.
On top of that, Shoshana came over almost every evening, leaving him little time to think of much else. He gradually forgot about the incident with Ziskind. Shoshana’s visits also grew distasteful, and he thought about how to distance himself from her. Just then the secretary of the school handed him a letter of dismissal, notifying him that he must look for another position at the end of the term. The news thoroughly unnerved him. It drove everything else out of his head, and all Friedkin could concentrate on was finding a concrete solution. He curried favor with the secretary of the school, hinted that he’d marry his daughter at any time, and wrote poison pen letters about a teacher, Green, accusing him of violating Shabbos—nothing helped. As the time for him to vacate his position grew closer, he became more despondent. He realized he had no one to pour his heart out to, that he was still a stranger in New York; he might as well have just gotten off the boat yesterday.
And here stood Shoshana with wide-open arms, desiring him just the way he was, and he grew warmer at the thought. He told himself that she was a seamstress, she could open her own place, and if it were successful he’d be set for life. Every time he contemplated breaking up with Shoshana, convinced he’d soon find a better match, she would, as if just to spite him for the thought, visit him in progressively lighter, see-through clothing. She wouldn’t leave him alone, toying with him like a cat with a ball of yarn. The more she tempted him, the more he wanted to escape, but all he could manage to do in the few hours before she visited was to parade around his room all dressed up.
Shoshana came in and didn’t greet him. She sat with her hat on, and like a person with something to hide, she looked down at the floor helplessly, without saying a thing.
“What’s wrong, Shoshana?” Friedkin asked.
She looked at him with watery eyes, her lips trembling as though she were about to burst into tears. She bit her lower lip with her white teeth and stayed in the same position.
“Shoshana, say something, what is it?” Friedkin went to her and touched her gently on her shoulder. “Did someone hurt you?”
“Nothing; leave me alone.” She twisted as though she wanted to shake off his hand and wept quietly.
“What’s going on, Shoshana?” Friedkin implored her. “Why are you crying? You’ve got to tell me; I’m not a stranger. Did someone offend you? Why aren’t you saying anything?”
She looked up, wiped her eyes, opened her mouth, and sobbed even more fiercely. Friedkin began kissing her hands, not even knowing what he was saying: “Shoshana, why are you crying? Please, tell me! Nu, Shoshana?”
“I can’t,” she said in a low voice.
“You’ve got to tell me!” Friedkin kept kissing her. “You mustn’t be ashamed in front of me! What, am I a stranger?”
Shoshana gasped and clutched at her heart. Her head bobbed as though she were about to faint.
“Some water?” Friedkin jumped up. She nodded. Friedkin brought a glass of water, sprinkled her face, poured a bit into her mouth, and stretched her out on the bed. She came to, motioned for him to sit next to her, and asked him to loosen her corset. Friedkin unbuttoned her corset, put another pillow under her head, and begged her to calm down. All of a sudden Shoshana got off the bed, sat down on the rocking chair, and without looking at Friedkin, just barely got out the words: “I’m pregnant.”
“What?” Friedkin opened his eyes, like a calf being led to the slaughter.
“Exactly what you heard.” Shoshana started crying again.
“How can you be so sure?” Friedkin drew closer.
She didn’t answer, hid her face in her hands, and burst into sobs.
This time, Friedkin clenched his lips, stiffened his chin, didn’t say anything, and started to pace across the room. Thousands of thoughts ran through his head in that one minute. None of the thoughts stayed with him; they flew in all directions and he suddenly felt drained. He lowered himself onto the bed, looked at her awhile with dazed eyes as though he had just woken up, and again asked, now with a smile, “You’re really pregnant?”
“You don’t believe me!” Her nostrils quivered and tears flowed from her eyes. “Where should I go, then? What would you have me do?”
“I don’t know why you’re crying.” He suddenly went over to her. “It’s from me, you say?”
“She stood wild-eyed, like a mother defending her cubs.
“I believe you, I believe you,” Friedkin stammered in fear. “Why are you crying? It’s my child, you say. Good! Good!”
Shoshana took a few steps toward Friedkin, looked at him as though she were thinking of saying something, put her hands dejectedly on his shoulders, laid her head on his chest, and wept quietly. Friedkin led her to the bed, sat down next to her, and tried to comfort her. “I beg you, Shoshana, please calm down! Crying won’t help at all! Nu, Shoshana?”
She started to wipe her eyes, leaned against Friedkin’s shoulder, avoided looking at him, and was silent.
Friedkin sat forlorn. He had often daydreamed about getting married, but now the prospect felt like a rope thrust around his neck by a hidden hand, poised to suffocate him at any moment. He observed Shoshana’s profile, with the delicate dark hairs on her cheek, so thin they almost curled; he felt the hot breath from her nostrils, and he shuddered. He couldn’t comprehend what she wanted from him. He felt everything around him constrict and couldn’t breathe, wishing he could be free from her.
“Why are you quiet?” Shoshana instinctively interrupted the silence and snuggled up to him.
“What am I supposed to say?” Friedkin shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“I see you’re suffering.” She ran her fingers through his thin hair, wrinkling her forehead a bit as though contemplating what to say. “You know, a man suffers more beautifully than a woman, quietly; it’s truly tragic. With a woman, it’s melodramatic. You know, I despise self-satisfied men with fat faces. . . . A man who chases women, a ‘ladies’ man,’ I don’t like that, that’s not a man. . . . I don’t mean a man ought to be indifferent to women, but a man whose mission is to enjoy women and who wastes days and nights for the sake of a kiss is, in my opinion, worse than a man who is a gambler! And I promise you,” Shoshana hugged Friedkin with her bare arms, “we’ll have a comfortable home and the main thing is, whatever you earn will be fine! If you’ll make ten dollars a week, we’ll live on ten. Do you get more?”
“Of course,” Friedkin answered, feeling that now they had switched roles. “My salary from the school alone is sixteen dollars a week. With private lessons, bar mitzvahs, I can make twenty-five!”
“So we can truly save.” Shoshana’s spirits lifted. “That’ll be useful. . . . I’ve also laid away a few dollars. . . .”
“My salary from the school alone is sixteen dollars a week. With private lessons, bar mitzvahs, I can make twenty-five!”
“So we can truly save.”
They looked at each other and laughed. Shoshana kissed his eyes, brushed his ear with her lips, and whispered softly, “Tomorrow we’ll go look for rooms, all right? You’ll see how clean I’ll keep everything; every corner will be spick-and-span! Do you know how good a cook I am? I bake, too! We won’t make an official wedding; why waste money? It would be a pity! We’ll go to a rabbi and have a Jewish ceremony, with a chuppah. What do you say?” she cajoled him.
“All right,” Friedkin answered, feeling the rope being pulled tighter around his neck, and for the last time he tried to free himself. “Shoshana, how are you so sure? I mean, how do you know that—”
“I mean,” Friedkin stammered, “how do you know that . . . Did you ask a doctor? I mean, are you really sure you’re pregnant?”
“What am I, a little girl?” Shoshana was offended. “You’re talking, please forgive me, like a . . . Why wouldn’t I know? And I’ll tell you the truth: the first minute I felt miserable; now I’m happy. When a woman loves a man, she wants to have his child!”
Friedkin didn’t respond, just leaned his elbows on his knees, set his head in his hands in despair as though he’d suffered a tragedy, and stared into space.
Shoshana took his hand, stroked it, and clung to him, instinctively understanding that she mustn’t be lighthearted now; the mildest flirt would distress him even more. She didn’t say anything, letting the mood grow more serious. Then she sighed deeply and began: “You know, it’s an ugly world! When I think about it, I haven’t had a minute of happiness in my life!” She looked at him for a few moments, took his hand, held it to her right cheek, then the left, let go, and became even more earnest.
“I was never a child! When I was five, after my mother died, I had to raise my two little sisters. I washed them, combed their hair, took care of the house, and whenever one of my sisters fell and hurt herself, my father would slap me. My father was a fierce man, an angry man. I never heard a good word from him. I remember it as though it happened yesterday.” Shoshana again took Friedkin’s hand. “I was seven years old. I got a new dress for Pesach, and the first day I wore it outside, it got caught on a nail and ripped terribly. Did my father ever beat me! Oy, did I hate him then. Later I survived a pogrom, hiding in a garret for over a day and a night. What do you know from that? Then the journey to the Land of Israel, with a group of orphans. . . . I’ve been through a lot!”
“Oh, that’s right, you’re from Kishinev . . .” Friedkin said.
“Yes, I lived through the first Kishinev pogrom.” Shoshana’s eyes flashed like lightning. It seemed as though she had told the story many times before, knowing it always impressed. “I lay in an attic, didn’t make a sound, and sucked on my finger. And when I got even hungrier, I took that finger out of my mouth and chewed on another. You’ll laugh, but every time I switched fingers, I felt better. My father sat in a bundle of straw. Every once in a while he stuck out his head to see how I was doing. He comforted me by saying that soon someone would send us something to eat. Strange, whenever I think of my father, I remember what his eyes looked like then—huge, terrified, like a crazy person’s. It bothered me that he discussed matters with me as though I had grown up overnight and actually become a mother. Every time he moved around the attic, I was terrified, as though the bundle of straw were walking, not my father. And every time, I called out to him, as if to convince myself we were safe at home, that this really was my father.”
She grew silent, wiped away her tears, and was sunk in thought.
“And what happened in the end?” Friedkin had grown curious.
“What do you think!” She heaved a sigh. “At dawn, just when we decided to go down, a few hooligans came up to the attic, scattered everything, and one shoved his hand in the bundle of straw as he passed it and pulled my father out.
“I’ll never forget how he looked then. His beard had become so thin that you could count each and every hair. He avoided looking at me, ashamed, and with wide-open eyes he threw himself at the feet of the goyim, embraced their ankles, kissed them, and cried with a peculiar, piercing voice that shot needles through my entire body.
“I covered myself up more, squeezed my eyes closed, and was suddenly filled with hatred—why didn’t I attack the goyim, bite off one of their fingers? I think I pressed my eyes shut, but I still saw the goyim search him and take everything he had. A young sheygets punched him in the face and he fell on his knees, covered with blood. I felt like everything was exploding inside me, I so badly wanted to attack the sheygets. I bit my fingers and pinched my skin—how can I let a sheygets attack my father? I was sure that as soon as I’d stand up, someone would hit me over the head with a crowbar.
“They kept beating my father. They ripped off his clothes, wanted to know where he hid money, but he only groaned and begged them to stop. He kissed the hands that beat him, kissed the feet that trampled him, and suddenly cried out, ‘Reyzele! Reyzele! They’re killing me! My daughter, they’re going to murder your father.’
“For the first time, I heard my father, who’d always terrified me, crying and pleading for me, his eight-year-old daughter, to save him. I swallowed hot tears and bit my right hand until I drew blood, asking myself why didn’t I get up from my spot. But the fear that I’d be beaten over my head with a crowbar stopped me dead in my tracks, and I didn’t move a muscle.
“Meanwhile, a young peasant grabbed my father by his scrawny beard and started to lead him away from the attic. My father was bloody, with these wide-open eyes, and he looked so pathetic that I shrieked. I forgot that I could be killed. I couldn’t bear to watch them hurt my father; I flung myself at him in one leap, twisted my arms and legs around him, and screamed, ‘Tate, don’t go! Father!”
“I felt a pair of strong hands seize me, lift me up, and as I flew down to the stone floor I saw sparks in front of my eyes. . . .”
As Shoshana told the story, Friedkin gazed into her eyes, carried away by her experience, and sensed that she was gradually gaining stature in his eyes. He forgot all the issues married life entailed and wondered why he had always been so afraid of getting married. Everything looked rosy. He didn’t want to think. He knew that others supported wives and children on even less money than he earned.
Friedkin’s mood brightened. He complimented Shoshana and laughed. Even though he didn’t want to think about anything, he pictured the meals “she’d cook for him and the furniture she’d buy. He didn’t quite believe that he was going to become a father so easily! What was the difference between yesterday, when he was still just a bachelor, and today? He used to lie awake in bed at night fantasizing about his wedding, and now, suddenly, a woman confided in him that he’s already as good as married, that soon he’ll be a father. He looked at Shoshana, noticed her tousled hair, her black eyes, and wanted to find something similar to himself in her. Although there was no resemblance, he found some part of himself mirrored in her face when he looked into her eyes for a long time.
Late at night he escorted her home. He was happy and planned to go looking for an apartment the next day and stand under a chuppah the day after.
When Shoshana entered her building, Friedkin remained outside. He listened to her walk up the steps, rest on every floor with a sigh, then close the door and lock it. And suddenly everything was still. He was tired and just stood there a while, envious that Shoshana could go to bed right away. Then he shlepped himself home.
The silent streets and the people who were hunched over scurrying here and there, disappearing into dark buildings, affected Friedkin, and his good mood gradually disappeared.
Someone came toward him from a side street. This very tall stranger walked quickly and flapped his arms like wings. Friedkin instinctively wanted to play it safe by crossing the street, but he reminded himself that he was getting married and would soon need to protect his wife. He gathered his courage, went toward the stranger, and trembled. He took another few steps, couldn’t endure the tension, and started to step off the sidewalk when suddenly he became calm and his fear melted—the stranger was wearing glasses.
Permission to publish the translation of this chapter of Hibru is courtesy of Dan Opatoshu, grandson of the author.
The photograph at the top of the page, also courtesy of Dan Opatoshu, depicts the author, Joseph Opatoshu (center, with arms folded), surrounded by Jewish schoolchildren. The sign on the lower right reads, "A hartsikn borekhabo undzer libn gast yoysef opatoshu" ("A hearty welcome to our dear guest Joseph Opatoshu"). Another, on the lower left, reads, "YIDISH undzer shprakh SOTSYALIZM undzer ideal" ("YIDDISH: Our language - SOCIALISM: Our ideal").
Shulamith Z. Berger is the curator of special collections and Hebraica-Judaica at the Mendel Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University. She studied Yiddish at the Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in Yiddish Language and Culture and at Columbia University with Dr. Chava Lapin, Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter, and Dr. Sheva Zucker, and holds a master’s degree in American Jewish history from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School. She was a 2015 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. While this is her first literary translation, she has previously contributed to the Pakn Treger. In her article " Ritz with a Shvitz," Berger explores the same bustling world of the Lower East Side.