"Letters"

A short story

Hersh Dovid Nomberg was a writer and activist born in 1886 in Mszczonów, near Warsaw. A protégé of Peretz, he began publishing poems and short stories in 1900. Along with Sholem Asch and Avrom Reyzen, he went on to become one of the most influential Yiddish writers of his generation.

By 1908, however, Nomberg had become more involved in politics than in prose. He was one of the organizers of the 1908 Czernowitz language conference and served as a member of parliament in the Polish Sejm between 1919 and 1920.

Many of Nomberg’s stories deal with the theme of alienation, depicting lost and lonely characters trying to find their place in the modern world“Briv” (“Letters”) is an epistolary romance of sorts, with a twist.



Yankev Bender, a tall man of about thirty with a thin, pale, clean-shaven face, paced back and forth across his room, his brow furrowed, deep in thought.

On the table lay a letter he had just received from Rokhl, the very girl he had not let out of his sight for the last two years. He could think of nothing else. Whenever he walked past the table, his gaze fell unwillingly upon the letter.

His mind was anything but clear, yet he had a strong feeling of satisfaction and triumph and was uncharacteristically invigorated; in such a state he could have paced around the room for two or three hours, giving himself over entirely to those light, wavering thoughts and emotions. And with that he felt a sense of relief, as though someone were calmly stroking his hair, whispering, “You are a serious, worthy, decent man, Bender.”

All the while, the words that Rokhl had carelessly let fall in her letter echoed in his fantasy: “After everything that’s happened, I have to admit that I didn’t know you. Do you love me?” And each time those words came to mind, a contented smile played on his lips, and he remembered what Rokhl had once said to him: that his laugh was strange, that even when he laughed his face retained its usual earnest and sad expression.

Back when she had said those words, he had taken them to heart and they had rankled. Now, though, the idea evoked pleasure, even pride, like everything else that passed through his mind.

His musings were interrupted by the creaking of the door opening behind him. The maid, a young, pretty Christian girl, passed through the doorway and stopped, as if afraid to come any closer.

“Would Sir like some tea?” she asked.

Bender nodded, smiled, and said, “I’ll have some tea.”

The maid looked particularly pretty at that moment; the green lamp lit up her face and chest, adding a certain charm to her simple beauty. As usual, she stood still awhile. Everything about Bender struck her as peculiar: his intolerable gaze, his curt, snappish answers, and his nervous, agitated movements, all of which offended her female pride.

She was used to young men chasing after her, trying to kiss and grab her, young men she had to rebuff and push away. Bender didn’t say much to her and never tried to kiss her; he never even touched her. And yet whenever he took even one step toward her she panicked and turned pale. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to pounce.

Bender, in good spirits, turned to her with a smile. “Does Mariasha have a fiancé?”

“A fiancé? Where would I get a fiancé? I don’t need one.”

“But . . .”

Bender felt suddenly uneasy and would have been happy if she left the room, but she just stood there by the door and said with a laugh, “I did have a fiancé. I was engaged for two years. If I had enough money, I’d be married by now.”

“Good, good, you can bring in the tea then.”

The maid left and returned with tea. Once again she idled by the door, looking at the back of Bender’s head as he hunched over the table, lost in thought. He felt her burdensome nearness; he went out of his way not to turn around.

“I will try to give you my heart, bare as it is; I want to be myself with you.” He stared for awhile at the paper in his hand and then started to write.

Eventually she left. Bender got up and resumed pacing, composing a letter to Rokhl in his head.

“I have never told a lie and I never will,” he thought in proud agitation. “I will try to give you my heart, bare as it is; I want to be myself with you.” He stared for awhile at the paper in his hand and then started to write.

Dear Rokhl,

I have only just now received your letter, which filled my heart with such gratification and joy that I hasten to answer you, paying no heed to the gravity and the seriousness of the question you have presented. I want to speak for once from the heart, to explain things to you, my dear, and at the same time to make my feelings clear to myself.

I have already told you that ever since I found a job and started leading a decent, regular life I feel unsatisfied and miserable. My nerves are even more on edge than before. One after the other, my old acquaintances distance themselves from me as if I had committed a terrible sin. And to tell the truth, I do feel like I’ve sinned . . . why? I don’t know. Perhaps because I’m used to living in dirty, cramped rooms rather than eating my fill or sleeping well. I’m used to going hungry; in a word, I had made my peace with poverty. It’s always hard in the beginning. I’ll get used to it and then I’ll live like everyone around me, come what may! You could call me “bourgeois,” one of the crowd, but there’s one thing I won’t let them take away from me, one thing I know for sure: I’ve never lied. I’ve never even wanted to lie. And yet believe me, my dear, from my childhood up to now, I’ve never managed to talk to someone without having the unpleasant, shameful feeling that I was hiding something from them, that I was giving myself airs, that I was not who I said I was. But with you, my dear, I’ve spent many hours without having that distasteful, guilty feeling. And even now as I write to you, my heart feels free and true.

You were surprised by my behavior the whole time that you were here. I did not say a single clear word to you. Not once did I press your hand lovingly; that must surely have offended you. I understand that, but what could I do? You have to understand that for all my searching, all my striving, and everything that has filled my life with meaning, so to speak, that after my ten years of wandering, I was left with nothing that I would consider important. You, my dear, are the only thing I have left. I have thought about you a great deal. Could I pick out a word from the dictionary to say to you? Could I lie to the only creature to whom I felt a connection? No! I could not do that; you are too dear to me. And I did not want to feel like I had sinned against you.

Do I love you? Yes, certainly.

I remember one evening in your room; you laughed and looked very beautiful. Your hair and your whole tender, young body seemed to laugh with you. The piercing fire that used to burn in your black eyes, pushing me back each time I wanted to get closer to you, had gone out. You were pure levity and joy. And I remember that each time you laughed I felt as though a waterfall were crashing down upon my brain; I grew tired and lay down on the sofa. You came over to me and pulled me by the hand. I seem to recall your saying, “Look how he’s stretched himself out!” And—that moment is vivid in my memory—it was like a powerful current flowing through my whole body. I wanted to embrace you, fall upon your neck and cry. But I couldn’t in front of the others. And when you pulled away from me, my whole body shuddered, as if in a fever. A great lightness overpowered me; my head was empty and I felt only the current, forever frozen inside me. . . . That night when I got home to my room, I felt that I was no longer alone or isolated—and I was happy. But the feeling was only temporary, and many, many times I wanted to say something to you but I couldn’t.

You no doubt remember last summer at Shvues, when we went for a walk together just outside the city. We left our companions to themselves and walked ahead, just the two of us. Suddenly you ran up onto a little hillock. You were very pretty then, young and fresh and full of life. You stood there like a tree in full bloom.

I remember your face, your hair and the last rays of sunlight that played on them, your eyes that looked with such softness and longing at a small house standing far in the distance; how they sparkled, bathed in light. I remember the look that you gave me and how you suddenly jumped down from the hillock with outstretched arms . . . at that moment I wanted to run toward you, embrace you. But I was too late: the others had caught up with us. Something always prevented me; that feeling always died in my heart before it had a chance to come out into the bright world.

On your departure, as I accompanied you to the train station, I thought the whole time about doing something—but I held my tongue. I didn’t know what to say. A few minutes before the train started to move, I felt that everything would stay the same as always. I dreaded the moment when you would disappear and there would be nothing but an empty space before my eyes. I thought something would happen, that I would cry, or laugh, or scream . . . and I came home with an empty heart.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I’m starting to get dizzy. I hear people speak about love, hate, jealousy, and various other things. Sometimes I think that it’s all just talk, that they are not sincere, that really there is no such thing as love, or hate, or jealousy, or anything like that. There are only thousands of different ephemeral emotions, which bear no resemblance to each other. It is only the individual who changes from one minute to the next. And when I think like that, I feel better. In those moments I feel that I’m better than the others, a feeling of pride that I have carried for many years. Then I say to myself, I can’t live because I’m clever, because my eyes are open. It only happens rarely though. Normally I think, “What if?” Who knows? Maybe my heart really is so corrupted, maybe only my life is so fragmented. Maybe the fault lies in the ten years I spent wandering without family or friends, without a home, without a female companion?

I’m telling you all this so that you’ll know the state of my soul, so that you’ll understand why I held my tongue and did not utter those few words that could have bound you to me. I said nothing because I wanted to be sure, because I did not want to lie.

If I had already loved at some point in my life, I could have compared my current feelings to those of the past and I would have known. But I had never loved, never embraced, never kissed a woman . . .

Bender suddenly stopped writing. His face contorted into an unnatural scowl, his mind reeling as it did whenever he remembered an ugly incident three years ago in another city, with a different girl whom he had treated in a similar manner to Rokhl. Once, when they were alone, he embraced her without warning, and she pushed him away, screaming: “Scoundrel!”

A few seconds passed before Bender’s head cleared, and he noted down the word three times on a scrap of paper: “scoundrel, scoundrel, scoundrel.”

He paced several times around the room before continuing the letter.

There’s one thing I know for sure. From childhood on, in moments of heightened excitement, whenever I shook with laughter, there was always one thought hiding in the corner of my mind: “If you wanted to, Bender, you could be calm.” That voice always spoke from deep inside my inner being.

So, my love, I burden you for nothing with reading my letter. Forgive me. I have to be what I am, at least for one living being, for you.

Do I desire you? Yes! How easy it is for me to answer such a question. Yes, yes, and yes! What’s more, I feel that apart from you, I have nothing, that living without you is impossible. I have no friends, no family, no trusted companion. My acquaintances distance themselves from me; there’s nothing to connect us anymore. I’m lonely, full of revulsion and disgust.

It will be good here for you, my dear. I will love you, ah, how I’ll love you! I can picture it now: We’ll sit together at lunch. I’ll stand up satisfied and agreeable and I’ll kiss your forehead, your beautiful forehead. You don’t know how deeply I can love; my heart has never been lacking.

The door opened and the maid came in to take his glass. Bender put away his pen. The maid brushed against him with her shoulder, picking up the glass, and he stared at her absentmindedly in silence.

“Would Sir like anything else?” she asked.

“Hmm.” He smiled crookedly and stood up. The maid left the room.

Bender was left alone and looked at the letter, at the sheets of paper with writing on both sides, and yawned.

He was already sure that he would not send it, that his present bout of agitation was no different from his previous ones. His tendency to philosophize and ponder was a foolish, childish habit that had poisoned his life for as long as he could remember.

“What I’ve written here to Rokhl,” he thought, “I could have said to any remotely good-looking girl. I could even have said it to the maid.”

The sheets of paper lay scattered on the table. He was afraid to read them through from beginning to end. Once again he felt overcome by exhausting thoughts, and to distract himself he lay down on his bed and started humming a Russian song. His heart wandered longingly to that female being, the subject of the song, who boated across the river with her lover one fine evening. He was intoxicated by the feelings of a full life, of joy and desire, of the health and strength with which the song was filled. In his imagination he saw the boat, sails unfurled in the wind, the stillness of the water, the evening air. He felt the strong, healthy body, a young, ruddy face . . .

But suddenly, he did not know from where, a sobering thought came into his mind.

“I don’t know what’s happening around me! I’m a fool!” he cursed himself, pacing angrily across the room. “What do I even want? What is my desire? What am I philosophizing about? I want to live. I’m tired! She wants to marry me; why turn my nose up at it? Do I not have the right to take a wife? Who am I afraid of? Who? Why?

“Lies, lies, lies,” he added angrily when he remembered the words of the letter: I can’t live. “Lies. I can live, I can!”

The thought that, in reality, he was incapable of living like others, that his laugh was a sort of sigh, as Rokhl had once said; that thought weighed down on his heart. He bit his lower lip in rage, and with frenetic hatred he went back to the table and started writing Rokhl an entirely different letter:

My life, my soul!

I keep reading and rereading your letter and can’t believe how happy I am. Here it is in front of me, a letter written in your own hand, your small, pretty, white hand. Oh! How much I would love it if you could see what’s happening in my heart! You, you are talking to me. I read each word, each letter, and I wonder and ask myself, am I really happy? Do you belong to me, Rokhl? And I love you, how I love you! Because it was only due to so much love—my heart was filled up to the brim—that I could not speak. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to turn the holiness of my love into something mundane. We are happy, after all! This very minute, I received your letter, and I can’t hold back my feelings. I kiss you and love you forever without end. My life and soul, I am yours, yours, yours! Imagine: after ten years of wandering without a spark of love, without a spark of life, I’ve suddenly become happy, the happiest in the world, because you belong to me, my dear love. I kiss you and press you to my heart. Tomorrow I’ll write to you at length and discuss everything in detail. My happiness has made me drunk; I’m crying, shedding tears of happiness, yours . . .

Yes, I can. The thought came through Bender’s mind as he finished reading the letter. And with the feeling of a conqueror, he leaned back in his chair, staring in front of him. The first letter lay there, put aside in the corner of the table, and it waved silently like the hunted, insulted truth, demanding that which belongs to it: the juices of life, blood and marrow.

“Well?” he asked himself. Should he send the second letter?

He read it through again and pictured how Rokhl would read it, how surprised she would be to hear such words from him, how hard it would be for her to reconcile the tone of the letter with his usual behavior, with his usual way of speaking.

He sat awhile longer in silence, tired and weary, his head empty, without a single thought.

“What will I do?” he asked himself again, and he found a new combination: bringing over the little bottle of glue, he stuck both letters together and wrote with a red pencil on both sides: “Choose!”

“A good solution,” he thought, and fearing that he would change his mind, he quickly put both letters into an envelope and went out.

The sun shone large and bright, white snowflakes circling in the wind. The shops were already starting to close up. Bender ran quickly to the end of the street toward the postbox. He opened the flap, ready to throw the letter in, when suddenly he held himself back. In his imagination he could hear the flap clapping closed, and he shuddered at the thought that he could consider doing something so irreversible.

“Even more laughable,” he said to himself, wondering why it never occurred to him that sending both letters at once was even worse, even more shameful, more pathetic and disgusting.

He let go of the flap of the postbox, tore the letter to shreds, and let the wind blow the pieces in every direction. “I don’t need it. I don’t need anything, I don’t need anybody."

A girl walked past, brushing against him with her body, and he remembered what he had written about the strong current that flowed through his body when Rokhl had taken him by the hand. . . . The letter in his hand was already soaked by the melting snow. He was cold. His feet started to freeze; in his haste he had forgotten to put on his galoshes. He let go of the flap of the postbox, tore the letter to shreds, and let the wind blow the pieces in every direction. “I don’t need it. I don’t need anything, I don’t need anybody,” he mumbled to himself walking home, hunched over with quick steps.

***

Bender paced around in his room for a long time. Thoughts, heavy as lead, trudged through his mind. He wasn’t thinking about Rokhl anymore but taking stock of his life. Everything that went through his head, all of his thoughts and deeds, the whole ten years of his wandering, it all seemed like one long chain of pondering and philosophizing and lamenting, like something unnatural that aroused only disgust and scorn.

He wanted to drive the thoughts from his head, but they seemed to cling to his brain, running away and coming back and filling up the space like a swarm of flies that cannot be shooed away. The room was full of cigarette smoke. From outside the white rooftops looked in. The clock struck two. “I need to be in the office tomorrow morning,” he thought. He stopped in the middle of the room and looked upward, letting his arms hang limp toward his feet, and said aloud, clearly and precisely, word by word, like a pupil reciting a lesson:

“And–if–I–want–I–can–be–calm . . . completely calm . . .”

His shadow, on the floor below him, aped his every movement, but remained silent.


Daniel Kennedy is a teacher of English and Yiddish based in Paris and a two-time Yiddish Book Center translation fellow, in 2015 and 2016. He holds an MA in American literature from University College Cork, Ireland, and teaches Yiddish online through the Bibliothèque Medem Center for Yiddish Culture in Paris. He spent his first fellowship year translating a collection of Nomberg’s short stories. Kennedy’s current project is Zalman Shneour’s 1905 novel A toyt: shrift fun a zelbstmerder a tiref (A Death: The Writings of a Delirious Suicide), which Kennedy describes as an “avant-garde page-turner.”