Moyshe from Modvelt
(Excerpt from a novella)
By Roberta Newman
As Itsik drove down from the bungalow colony in his father-in-law's bouncy-springed old car in the dark, he whistled to keep himself awake. He'd left Myra and Shirley up there to enjoy themselves because he could only stay up there on the weekends. He couldn't take off so much time from work in the pharmacy. The other husbands were going to carpool back to the city at dawn on Monday morning but he hated to get up so early so had decided to drive back on Sunday evening.
After a day of swimming and sun, his body felt both refreshed and tired, and he was wary of being lulled into slumber by the monotony of the path thrown ahead on the pavement by his headlights. Almost the only other light came from the occasional mysterious glow of the eyes of rabbits from the grass verge on his right. They were like accents to the tune he was whistling, like the delicate pings of triangles in the percussion section of an orchestra.
Once, he thought, he would have been eager to write down this image and use it in a poem, in a novel, but now it was no use to him. You couldn't put such things in a play script or a screen play. And the rabbits' eyes glowing would be impossible to capture on film. He imagined himself mentioning this to Rafe Phillips, his backer. But no, Phillips was all business. His arranging to fly Itsik out to California to make a Yiddish film, the first since the war, with a Hollywood studio was strictly a business investment for him. "We got plenty of Jews who will be coming over here in the next few years who will want to see moving pictures in Yiddish!," he'd explained to Itsik. "And even in Europe they're crying out for movies."
This landscape of New York that he was driving through now was both massively and subtly different from what he was used to from Poland, from the marshes and forests and flat, open land of his childhood. Even when it looked not so dissimilar, as with these woods flashing by, the smells were all wrong. He knew the landscape would be more different still in California: it would be an entirely alien world, a hot desert with palm trees, with a different light, he hoped. He couldn't imagine it being night there ever, only bright and sunny, even though he'd seen California at night in the movies. But perhaps it was make-believe and it never really got dark there. Maybe the night itself was an actor and not a real thing.
The thought of night depressed him suddenly, as well as the awareness that instead of the sprightly "Bei mir bist du sheyn" he was now whistling something else, a Chopin nocturne or at least something resembling one. The facade he'd maintained all weekend to please Myra and Shirley had sneakily been breached by the California night thoughts, and seeping through like water, other images. The letter from his cousin had only really been a confirmation of the fears he'd managed to control all during the war, when the letters from home stopped coming, but seeing it there on the page in Mendl's spiky blue handwriting had been indescribably shocking.
Since then, Itsik had been tormented with wondering what he had been doing at the moment of his mother's and sister's deaths. Had he been laughing at a joke on the radio, smiling at a customer in pharmacy, or worse, eating or sleeping soundly in his bed? Had they been thinking of him, calling out to him, while he remained as silent and unresponsive as God? He sometimes felt a strange numbness when he looked at Myra, Shirley, and his father-in-law Sol. Something about the skin at the outside corners of their eyes seemed alien to him. It crinkled when they smiled, but otherwise seemed as smooth and glossy as marble. This was entirely normal, he knew, but it made him feel lonely for some reason, as if they were a different species than him. But it was no better when he was with Jews like himself, who had been born in Europe but who had come here at a young age, in adolescence or as young men and women. They had all evolved into something new and had sloughed off their old European skins — he, too. Their Yiddish was permeated with English words, like "vinde," "lontsh," and "smoking car."
He stopped whistling Chopin and picked up with a medley of the least Jewish and most American big band music he could think of. The effort of coming up with show tune after show tune and staying on the road was enough to chase all other thoughts from his head. Ahead was the George Washington Bridge already and the twinkling lights of the city. It was too late, at least, for there to be much traffic. He should be home in Brooklyn in less than an hour.
On Saturday, Itsik was back on the porch of their bungalow, waiting for Myra and Shirley to finish dressing for the evening's entertainment. That Redner fellow from Argentina was supposed to perform in the social hall that Miller, the bungalow colony owner, had put up to serve as anything from a casino to a synagogue, like a bungalow with its insides torn out. On Saturday nights, they sometimes played bingo there or the men played cards. But this Saturday night was a special occasion - a performance by a real professional, Moyshe Redner of the well-known Modvelt troupe. It had a good reputation; was supposedly as avant garde as its name, "Mod(ern) world," promised. Itsik had to admit he was curious about this Redner. Myra told him that she'd had a few chats with him over the past week.
He was always amazed how much cooler it was in the country than in the city. He stretched his arms over his head, leaving his cigarette in his mouth. The sun was going down. The crickets were starting up, a sound he found strangely mysterious — exciting for some reason, yet dangerous, too, hinting at night and its unseen sounds. It made him feel like having sex with Myra. They hadn't in weeks, but here he was, back in Spring Valley on Saturday night after being away all week, and she was looking prettier than usual.
Shirley was the first out onto the porch. She'd dressed up, he saw, in a halter-top dress with candy-pink stripes. Her hair was up in a ponytail.
"Is that lipstick?" he asked, mildly shocked. She was growing up, was fourteen already. Her lips were a bit smeared-looking, though, and the sandals she was wearing were chunky and childish. She looked, he thought, like a child playing dress-up.
She blushed and mumbled something.
"What? I didn't hear what you said."
"Ma!" she called, ignoring his question. "Hurry up. We're late."
"Coming, coming," Myra chirped from within and they could hear the sound of heels tapping on linoleum coming toward the door. The sun was slipping rapidly down behind the pine trees on the hill as Myra opened the door and joined them on the porch. In the dimming light he noticed that she too was extremely dressed up for Spring Valley, as if she were going to a real theater performance in the city. She had perfume on, too, and its spicy hothouse smell mingled with the smell of coolness and grass in the air around them as they walked over to the social hall. Itsik slapped at a mosquito and fought the urge to snap at Myra that her perfume was attracting bugs. Now that she was here beside him, his amorous mood was gone. He no longer felt desire for her, just strangely irritated that her high heels were digging into the grass, making her teeter as she walked. Both she and Shirley seemed quiet and distant, and he felt lonely. Had they missed him during the week? In the city, during the hot evenings in the apartment with Sol, he had missed them, even though their absence was a nice opportunity for him to sit down and do some uninterrupted work on his screenplay. Sol usually fell asleep in his chair by nine at the latest and the sound of the typewriter or dance music on the radio didn't bother him. But now Itsik was here with them, with his family, and he just felt sad and jumpy.
In the social hall, he, Myra, and Shirley found three seats together, near the back, though it was already crowded with almost all of the thirty-odd residents of the colony and their weekend visitors. Myra began fussing with her wrap, a purple sequined shawl that was silkily slipping off her shoulders. Shirley was staring straight ahead and sitting bolt upright in her chair. He wondered which boy she had put the lipstick on for. Could it be that teenager, twisted around in his chair and staring moonily at her, trying to get her attention? The boy, the son of the new people next door, looked like a sheep, woolly-haired, with big, dull eyes. There was a disturbing hint of facial hair on his top lip. Itsik frowned. Wasn't fourteen too young to have a boyfriend? He stole a glance at his daughter. Maybe all they were doing together was holding hands. That was what he had done with his first "girlfriend" as a teenager and the daringness of it had set his heart pounding. But things were different here. Maybe he'd better have a talk with Myra. Was she keeping an eye on Shirley?
As a few more stragglers came in, Miller came to the front of the room, where a space had been cleared for the performance. "Friends, ladies and gentlemen," Miller announced, standing with his legs planted apart and occasionally bringing his left hand up to about chin level, as if holding a phantom microphone. "I want to welcome you to our social hall tonight for a very special occasion."
As Miller introduced Redner, "a famous actor trained in Warsaw," explaining that he was "just stopping off for a bit of rest and relaxation" before returning to South America, Itsik looked over the "stage," which was bare, Redner having apparently decided to do without scenery. There was only a chair, a bench, and a table with an unconnected telephone. He imagined that they were in for an evening of prewar cabaret material, and as soon as the actor came out and began his first number, a ditty about a man from a small shtetl who arrives in Warsaw and marvels at city life, he saw he was not wrong. But as the songs and monologues continued, he noted with both appreciation and discomfort that some of the material was quite sharp-edged and satirical. Surely it was over the heads of most of the audience? Those whose comprehension of Yiddish was sufficient laughed at the funny lines; others looked as if their minds were wandering. But this Moyshe Redner, Itsik saw, was a shrewd performer. He kept the monologues short and interspersed them with melodious songs (some sung a capella, in a rich, expressive baritone, and others to the accompaniment of a balalaika played tentatively by Ira Green, recently back from the service). And he even threw in a few American ballads of the crooning variety.
Itsik subjected the actor to a detailed appraisal. Would he cast him in a movie or play, and in what role? Redner had presence, there was no mistaking that, but he wasn't good-looking or young enough to be a leading man. He was tall and graceful, but a bit too thin. He had wonderful velvety brown eyes and a full head of tousled, black hair, but there were sharp grooves bracketing his mouth, as well as the beginning of jowls. His teeth were startlingly white in his tanned face and he reminded Itsik of an ostrich—those long limbs and big long-lashed eyes. Could he play a comic role? Despite his sharp wit and good timing, there was something too lugubrious about him, though he would make a wonderful sad clown. And a villain was out of the question—Itsik couldn't imagine him playing a gangster—but a dark, tortured soul could work.
Itsik looked forward to meeting him after the show. Of course, he couldn't offer the fellow anything, but he imagined himself one day, in the future, being in a position to do something for him. You never know. And the idea of being in such a position, that of a famous screenwriter and no longer needing to work in a pharmacy, sought after by everyone for advice and favors, was one of his favorite fantasies of the future. His mind wandered.
Moyshe announced that he was now going to move on to something in "a different mood," and would perform something new for them, something he himself had recently written, what he liked to call a "sound-poem." He snapped his fingers and Ira, who had left the stage to stand by the door, flipped off the light switch. For a moment the room was completely dark; then a light went on—an improvised spotlight that Miller, standing on the bench to one side, trained on the center of the stage. Into this pool of light, Moyshe sauntered, wearing a black suit and a fedora, and carrying a long pole. He began to move dreamily in and out of the beam of light, sometimes twirling himself around the pole, slow-motion, with movements like that of a puppet, as he declaimed a long poem in Yiddish. It was hard to say what it was about: there were references to locomotives, Argentinean pampas, clocks, and traffic. He made his own sound effects, too, such as "tick-tock, tick-tock," and whistles that sounded like steam engines. Some of the words seemed to be made up, at least Itsik couldn’t recognize what language they might be. They didn't sound like Spanish. Or Polish. Or Russian.
He wondered what Redner was getting at here. Surely this was not the audience before which to premiere such material. Itsik was embarrassed for him but resolved to make a point of saying something intelligent and appreciative about just this particular number when they met later on. This abstract, non-narrative style was not for him—in fact he found it pretentious—but he respected its daring quality. Sometimes, late at night, when he was sitting at the typewriter, or with a moistly inked pen over the lined copybooks that he liked best for writing, he too felt himself on the point of giving way to some sort of lyrical outburst, to a collage of sensations and feelings. But he always pulled back. It would be like a shriek, a scream, to write that way. He imagined blank stares, the pity-filled glances of bystanders at a tragic accident, himself lying mangled on the street. No, for him it was more satisfying to shape it all, whatever "it" was, into a story line, with characters who were neither him nor his audience, but who moved according to a choreography well-understood by everyone, with what was deep underneath tantalizingly concealed, and only partially revealed by the plot, the dialogue, the set, and even the music: a coded version of life that everyone understood.
Itsik shuddered. What eccentric thoughts was this fellow provoking in him with his grotesque performance? It seemed to him that this Redner was like a small boy having a tantrum in public, or howling with fear, and he felt suddenly exasperated with him. He felt grief and sorrow? He was afraid? They were all afraid, not just Moyshe Redner. It was amazing, he thought, that human beings were so terrified of, and unable to accept, the idea of change and death, which was, after all, such a natural and inevitable thing. Maybe that was the true curse of being human: to be always afraid of ending, of nothingness. Made in God's image, they couldn't accept that discrepancy — God goes on forever, but individual human beings don't.
Myra struggled to keep her mind on the words that Moyshe was reciting. She felt like a student who would later be quizzed. So this was an example of the new material he had told her about during their walks over the past week, walks in which it felt that they had discussed everything worth discussing. They had made up silly rhymes, come up with suggestions for names for pet dogs and cats, and created fake Jewish lineages for well-known world personalities, such as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. But they had also traded life stories, discussed their tastes in music and art, talked about the war and Palestine. Each day, they had traded news about the Exodus, their admiration for the defiance of the refugees who had been refused entrance to Palestine by the British, and their refusal to either disembark from the ship or return to Europe. "Ever since the bad news started coming from Europe," Moyshe had confessed, "I've been feeling empty, unreal. I can't reconcile my memories of Poland with the knowledge that everything I once knew is gone and almost everyone I knew is dead."
She had tried to imagine what this felt like, picturing the block she lived on in Brooklyn a smoldering ruin, the Workmen's Circle school empty, and all her students dead or dispersed all over the world. Hadn't there been times during the war when they worried that the war against Germany was going badly, that Hitler could win? But she had never allowed herself to imagine the worst.
"When you were touring with your troupe in the refugee camps in Europe, did you also go back to Poland?"
"Last summer? No, I wanted to go back to Nasielsk and Warsaw to see if I could find anyone, but I would have been the only Jew then trying to get into Poland. Everyone was getting out. It was right after the pogrom, the one in Kielce."
She shuddered. She'd read about it. A mob had gone on a rampage after a false rumor spread that Jews had kidnapped and killed Polish children. Many of the Jews who had made their way back to the city after the end of the war were killed in the violence.
"I felt empty," Moyshe continued, "but now I feel something else because of what's happening in Palestine, in Eretz Yisroel. This time we'll fight back, we can fight back. Even if we all die, if it's a second Masada, it will mean something. To tell you the truth, Mirele," he said, using her Yiddish name, "but please don't mention it to anyone — I see myself there, doing something, maybe even with a gun in my hands."
Myra felt a thrill of excitement mixed with dread. "But aren't you going back to Argentina at the end of the summer?"
"I don't know," he said, as they continued to walk along. He gave her a sidelong glance. "We'll see."
It wasn't until Itsik had come home the night before that she had started to feel bad, even guilty, about her long walks with Moyshe. She wasn't overjoyed to see her husband. Instead, everything about him annoyed her: his amiable, rambling way of speaking, his shortness of stature, the way he wouldn't roll up his sleeves even on the hottest days. But he would sometimes also, perversely, wander around in an undershirt when it was very hot. She felt suddenly critical of his fair-skinned sweatiness, the gingery hairs curling on his arms. Luckily, he had been very tired and fallen straight asleep as soon as he laid down on the bed, so they hadn't had to have their usual tense moment about whether to become intimate or not on a Friday night.
She shook herself back to the present and wondered if Moyshe was performing the show for her. She was both thrilled and scared. While she wasn't sure she understood entirely what he was doing, she did appreciate the rhythmic sound of his voice, the way he seemed to savor every word. His imitation of mechanical sounds reminded her of some of the more modernist Yiddish poetry she'd read when she was younger, or some surrealist poems that she had occasionally heard on a local Yiddish radio program a few years back. She hadn't been able to entirely understand the point of the poems, their words and rhythms. Now she watched Moyshe's body move and she was filled with despair.
What right did she have to be mooning over Moyshe like this? Her husband was sitting right here beside her. Itsik was a smart, talented man, too, she told herself. But maybe she wasn't smart and sophisticated enough for either man. Perhaps it would have been different if she had been raised in Europe. But then she would be dead, she found herself thinking reflexively, as she had recently begun to do whenever this fantasy arose. Her parents had been smart enough to get out.
She looked around her. Itsik, she was proud to note, was looking intently at the stage, seeming to follow what Moyshe was doing. The rest of the audience looked stunned, like cattle.
Later, in the soft, cricket-filled Rockland County night, the two men sat on the porch of the bungalow, smoking and drinking from the bottle of schnapps that Pop, her father, kept in the car. Myra sat there with them, nibbling at one of the cookies she'd put out. Shirley had declined to join them, and sat inside reading instead. She too had kicked off her shoes and was barefoot, though still in her candy-cane-striped dress, tendrils of hair drifting slowly out of her ponytail. It was lucky that she hadn't yet changed into her pajamas, she had laughed, when they told her there would be company. She seemed older to Myra suddenly. In the past, she wouldn't have cared if a visitor saw her in pajamas. Vaguely, she was pleased that Shirley was taking an interest in her appearance. Maybe they could go shopping for clothing together in the fall without her having to force Shirley to come.
Now out on the porch with the two men, Myra felt her bad mood begin to ebb a bit, encouraged that it was so easy to slip into the role of smiling hostess. Acting the part somehow made her feel it: nothing was wrong, everything was delightful, how convivial. You put out a nice spread, Mrs. Mekler... Sweetheart, do you have any more of those salted almonds?
It was as if there were now two Moyshes in her head, the one sitting here, a charming guest, and the Moyshe of the past few days, who loomed menacingly in her mind's eye, as if in close-up. But the energy radiated by the Moyshe sitting here was diffuse and he seemed smaller, shrunken-down. His head, she noticed for some reason, was smaller than Itsik's. The two men would take quite different band sizes when it came to hats.
"No one has yet told the story of all that's happened in the last few years," Moyshe was saying, leaning forward in his chair. They had all been discussing the latest theatrical season. "It needs to be told—in literature, in drama, and in the cinema."
"True," Itsik sighed and took a drag of his cigarette. "But I don't think people want to see or read about such things. They've seen enough newsreels. My backer wants me to produce comedies for now, light entertainments that will cheer people up. I'm working on a romantic comedy set in Brooklyn. Four sisters from the same family take very different paths in life."
"But maybe you'll do some films about Palestine?" Moyshe speculated. "I think, more and more, Jews are interested in what's going on there."
Itsik shifted in his chair, re-crossing his legs. "Well, we'll see. Phillips wants to start with something safer, less emotional for now. He's worried that if it's too political we won't be able to get permission to show it in Europe or in Palestine."
"Pah!" Moyshe waved a hand. "Showing a Yiddish film in Palestine—good luck. I hear that in Tel Aviv they throw eggs at the stage if an actor utters a Yiddish word."
"Still, that may change," Itsik insisted. "Once the British are out, the Jews can come, and they will. They're not going to instantly know how to speak Hebrew. They'll need some entertainment in their mother tongue."
"Why are they so against Yiddish there?" Moyshe shook his head. "Do they think that if they hear a Yiddish word it will magically transform them back into the pale, cringing Diaspora Jews they once were, wiping away their tan forever? That Hebrew they speak sounds like it has sharp edges, it has no softness, doesn't sound natural in the least. Whenever I hear it, it sounds like people on a stage declaiming poorly. "
Myra couldn't shake the feeling that Moyshe himself was declaiming, as if he were performing, not quite as if he were onstage, but as if for a hidden camera. He had made his little speech about Hebrew without looking directly at either of them, staring off into the distance. She could tell that Itsik had noticed this, too. There was an indulgent smirk on his face.
"But... do you ever think of going?" Moyshe continued, turning now to look at Itsik. "To Palestine?"
Itsik frowned and once again seemed to squirm slightly in his seat. The subject of Palestine seemed to agitate him, Myra noticed. She watched him, curious. All week long, she had engaged in deep, heartfelt conversation with a near-stranger on the topic, but he and she had never once discussed Palestine, much less the idea of going there.
"I've been an immigrant and once was enough for me," Itsik said. "Twenty-five years ago and I still only feel like a New Yorker and not like a 'real' American. I think I'm too old to be much use over there. I'm not up to draining any swamps or fighting any Arabs." He lifted his arm slightly as if to indicate how weak and flabby it was.
"Nonsense!" Moyshe said and waved his hand dismissively. "You're a young man yet. And you think there aren't any storekeepers or even writers there? There are plenty."
It was true, Myra, thought. Itsik was only forty-seven. Older than her by almost ten years, but still, hardly an old man. "I wish I could go," she said.
Itsik looked at her. Moyshe met her eyes and gave a small, cautious smile.
"I mean, if I was younger too, and didn't have a child, maybe I'd go." She blushed, half-expecting Itsik to suggest that she was joking, or speaking foolishly. But instead he seemed genuinely curious.
"Why?" he asked detachedly, as if she were a stranger he was meeting for the first time at a luncheonette counter. "What would you do there?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said, seeing in her mind's eye a bright landscape, a bird's eye view of a land in a shape she was familiar with from maps. "I could teach. Or I could go and work on a kibbutz — planting vegetables, taking care of chickens, or whatever needs to be done." She saw herself, radiant and full of purpose, planting radishes in sandy soil, a kerchief over her head. She would be called Miriam there, pronounced in that new type of Hebrew: Miri-am, with the accent on the last syllable. Moyshe was right. The type of Hebrew taught now, so different from what you heard in the synagogue, did sound sharp-edged. She liked it — it was clean and modern and new.
It was odd to speak this fantasy out loud. She carefully avoided meeting Moyshe's eye, fearing that Itsik would somehow pick up on something.
Looking at the dreaminess in Myra's eyes, Itsik could visualize for himself her pastoral fantasy. Of course, she had never in her life planted anything; she was a real city girl. A bungalow colony was about as rural a place she had ever been. But he didn't have the heart to say anything sarcastic. There was something sad about Myra this evening, he felt. And the image of her as a Jewish peasant in Palestine was sort of exciting, too, if a little bit frightening. He imagined murderous Arabs, swathed in white headdresses charging toward her on horses. What would Myra's life have been like if she had never met him? he wondered. Perhaps she actually would have become a Zionist, gone to Palestine as a nurse or teacher, like one of those Hadassah women.
"And you?" he turned to Moyshe challengingly. "Have you thought of going?"
"Yes, of course," Moyshe replied reproachfully. "What Jew hasn't? You don't want to go, but you've thought of it, imagined it — don't say you haven't. What Jew hasn't imagined himself in the role of the hero, fighting the Arabs, the British, playing the starring role in the movie? Even if in the end, you decide not to go, to stay in your fat, comfortable America. The real story is happening there and we're nowhere near it — we're entirely offstage."
The camaraderie Itsik imagined had been developing between him and the actor all evening dissipated with the words "fat, comfortable America." Was it possible to feel shame, numbness, and anger simultaneously? And then the moment passed—he didn't care. He began to whistle, a Yiddish theater tune, and didn't stop even in the face of Moyshe and Myra's puzzled stares.
"More schnapps?" he broke off to ask, raising the bottle.
Copyright © Roberta Newman 2012
Roberta Newman lives in New York and is an independent scholar, writer, and researcher specializing in Jewish history and culture. Recent projects include serving as Illustrations Editor and Director of Archival Research of both the print and online editions of The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe and consulting on photo research for a new Russian Jewish museum now being developed in Moscow. She is the co-author, with Alice Nakhimovsky, of How to Live a Paper Life: Yiddish Letter-Writing Manuals from Europe and America (Indiana University Press, forthcoming). Her short story, “Gone,” was published in Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Vol.7, No. 2 (2010).