By Levi Aryeh Arieli
Translated from Hebrew by Stephen Katz
The sleep of a healthy man is like a peaceful journey on the seas, a voyage on night wings into morning and the sun. People who remain awake at night may be likened to those standing still while the ones asleep are on the move. Behold! The second hour past midnight sounds, the hardest road of deep sleep, a recompense for the hardships of the day, is already behind us. The chest heaves as it slowly draws in air, pleasurably sighing deeply as one continues the journey among the dense forests of dreamland and foggy-blue thickets of vision in the kingdom of shadow and night.
A double journey was the sleep of the passengers of the enormous ship “Palmyra” that made its way to the shores of North America on a chilly and quiet November night. The skies were the hue of black velvet, their edges pale as if the waves lapped up the blackness of the sky’s skirts all around. The mighty giant beneath guarded within its waters for safekeeping all the secrets of the mighty ones above. But — who knows? — could the more mysterious puzzle be, perhaps, that iron leviathan, it and all its contents, that slipped in smoky sighs and vapor through its bosom? Like a tower enchanted by the magical designs of the prince of sleep, it plowed its brow through the surface of the waters. The passengers and their children were asleep in their cabins, their fists held tight. Also asleep were the dogs that the old Irish man brought with him, quiet in their chains. The waves sang to all a lullaby and the stars winked their eyelids and slumbered, too.
Only one soul, for many a night already, knew no rest and did not taste of the pleasures of sleep. Dvorah’le, the young widow’s daughter making her way from the Ukraine to her brother in Chicago, a girl of eleven whom all the passengers knew by her black eyebrows and sad eyes, though very few have heard her voice: silently and mournfully she walked about all these days, as if consumed by a mighty and powerfully inconsolable grief. She shunned the company of adults and children, staring for long hours at the waves, thinking how cold they were, how black it was there, in the depths below, how terrible it would be to fall in there, horrible, terrifying, like over there, in that town…
And at night…oh, how this child was tormented at night! Especially on quiet nights! The sawing sound of snoring drifted about from adjacent cabins, a dress hanging on a hook swaying hither and yon together with its shadow as the ship rocked, while some strange shadow contracted and stretched out in a corner over there; not scary but strange, so strange. All were asleep, some among them muttering a silent and broken utterance. Her mother, too, was asleep, and so were the other two female passengers on the lower bunks of their cabin. Beneath the blanket, Mother’s braid peeks out. She turns her head so as not to see it. What is this? Does she hate her mother? — No, no. Does she pity her? — No, no. Or is it yes, yes, a little of both: she hates her a little, pities her a bit, and even scorns her some. Yet, it seems that this is not all of it. She cannot raise her eyes and keep them on her mother’s face. And Mother, too, refrains from looking in her direction, as if afraid of her stare. The torments are great — and who can contain them? She must not look at that beloved face. They are strangers to one another, strangers forever. And everything, everything since that bitter and horrid morning.
For long and desolate hours each and every night the memories, like ropes, rise and coil as if to strangle the poor girl, draining her of blood and vigor. Consider that day… Yes, though for several days before, frightening and blood-curdling rumors spread from mouth to mouth about the band of “Whites” making ready to come to town, about the horrific acts they committed in the nearby villages. But on that morning the anguish in every home rose to a level that brought a suffocation to the throat and a distress in the chest to rob one of breath, all the way to a strong desire to just lie down, close one’s eyes, stop breathing and not see all the horror and abomination that this day is bound to bring. Dvorah’le’s father, gloomy and with eyes extinguished, as if still wanting to believe that “it makes sense” to work on a day like this, at times took the adze in hand and began to work. Yet every once in a while the tool slipped out of his weakened hands. Finally, powerless, he abandoned his work, removed his apron and dropped as a rock on the bench leaning against the wall, while his legs sank half way into the pile of curly, cheerful shavings that accumulated on the floor. His contorted face looked as if he drank poison down to the last dregs. Arousing pity more than anything else, his two hands remained hanging, dangling at his sides as if demanding to know: what are we here for? —
— For how long will you stay at home? — Dvorah’le’s mother asked in a suffocating, weakening voice — you must have heard that in Bratolyubovka they executed only the men. These killers only seek the lives of men, as Pharaoh in his time. For how long, then, will you sit and wait? Take Borukh’l and hide somewhere with him...till tomorrow, or the day after…I know…maybe…
Tears choked her. Afraid, Dvorah’le and her nine-year-old brother stared at their father and mother with a bitter and fainting spirit. Why does God punish us? — the children asked themselves — aren’t Jews better and more righteous than the goyim, so why then?...Isn’t God righteous, and loves the righteous? — does He not have the power to kill all the evil goyim in one day?...
That’s easy to say — muttered father despairingly — where does one escape to? And the two of you? How? Only to save my soul?...
But there was no time to think it over and make plans. From somewhere, far away, as if from the city’s outskirts, yet so stirring and blood-curdling, savage cries, screams of calamity and inhuman pain, voices begging over one’s soul and praying to die without torture reached them…Father jumped from his seat, snatched the shoes Mother was putting at the moment on Borukh’l, grasped the child in his arms while putting his right shoe on the left foot as he walked hurriedly and confused and pushed the other shoe into his pocket and, pale as death, slipped out.
Where will you be? — called the woman after him in a faint moan — where are you headed?
The man did not look back; he only waved his hand despairingly and vanished.
Then they came…three. Two went to the adjacent room and began to empty out the dressers and chests, and one, about forty, bearded, with a face flushed with wine, remained here and heard Dvorah’le’s muffled groans while she hid beneath the bench in the heap of shavings. He bent down with a satisfied grumble that rolled out from deep within his throat to his wide and hairy nostrils, and began to rake through the shavings this way and that and suddenly, as if not expecting it, grasped the girl’s thin, trembling hand. Then Dvorah’le witnessed her mother through the screen of shavings, on her knees crying and imploring:
Please do not, please…kill me please, but do not harm the girl…
His satisfied grumble became louder as he, meanwhile, began to drag the girl from under the bench while placing his second hand on the grip of his sword so as to draw it out of its sheath. Then the mother began to scream as if struck by an arrow and then to kiss his hands and feet and beg, in a broken and faint voice:
Have pity, mercy, dear sir, you, too, must certainly have children…here is my life in place of hers…here, kill me please…do with me as you wish…
For a moment, the great sweaty hand was still latched on Dvorah’le’s arm. Then he let her go, and then…and then…there was a strange and horrible thing, very strange. What is he doing to her? — the girl asked herself, while all frozen in a loathsome horror as she watched through the layer of shavings: why did he throw her to the ground? Oh, does he really want to choke her, to kill her? Dvorah’le does not want to scream, and cannot. She wants to come out from her hiding place and die together with her mother, but she is powerless and unable to make a move. Now Mother’s body is shaking, thrashing, quivering. How loathsome and ugly were those thrashings! Do all who are about to die throb so?...Oh, what’s this?...asks the amazed and terror-struck girl out of the depths of her small and young heart. After ten minutes there was a heavy distress-filled silence in the house. None of them remained here. Mother sat on the floor that was covered by chips and thin boards, disheveled, her dress ripped and her eyes gazing about. On the girl’s lips hung the words: What did he do to you, Mother? — But the mother’s and daughter’s eyes met and all words suddenly vanished. Dimly, the girl sensed that something filthy, something that she did not understand, was cast at her mother, who was now a stranger to her, distant from her. She no longer was her mother…
All the following day the girl walked about as a gloomy shadow. In a hallucination of despair that overcame her, she spoke to herself: Father… Borukh’l… Where are they? We, too, could have fled with them...Why did she send them?...And who asked her to protect me?...And then to…to…Who asked for her pity and love?...I don’t need her pity, I loathe her love…
Meanwhile, desperate ear-splitting screams resounded from near and far all day long, sounds that caused one’s hair to stand on end. Then, toward nightfall — father’s and Borukh’l’s heads, separated from their bodies, in a long, long line of young and old men and tender Jewish children…Oh, how could such a small heart contain such a great and despairing, deep and bitter, sorrow?
As the night before, the morning over the ocean was clear and calm and the ship’s passengers would have gladly stretched out their morning sleep, so sweet in the pure and chilly air, were they not awakened by the sound of water running through the rubber hoses used by the sailors to sweep the ship’s deck, its passages and corridors. A young sailor, in a jocular mood, sent a powerful stream of water into Hayim Fahrwachter’s cabin, he whom the passengers call Hayim “Forvayter” — meaning “Go on.” Hayim, his wife, and all their progeny jumped out of their bunks — the children in a surprised and curious chirping and the adults with an acerbic grumble of curses — while heavy droplets hung on their faces and hair as they stood in the sun’s rays. At first Hayim thought that it was his duty as husband and father to go and complain to the captain about the sailor’s mischief — for he also understands German — but when he left his cabin and saw that all the passengers, great and small, were already on their feet, he abandoned the idea. In a hurry, he put on his phylacteries and covered himself with his prayer shawl — for some reason here aboard ship he abbreviated the preliminary psalms and also the prayers that follow the standing-up Amida service, even though he had much more time on his hands than on land back in his hometown. Then he took Yitzhak Dovid’l in one hand and Sarah’le, his first-born, in the other and followed his wife, who was occupied with the nursing baby, downstairs to the dining hall.
Here, before the “kosher table,” the crowd was at its deepest. It seems that the good and pleasant air inspired a good mood and complacency among the gathered multitude, for the table thundered with loud laughter and Jewish jokes so much so that it made those sitting at the adjoining tables envious, drawing venomous disfavor in the corners of their mouths. The subject of the conversation was, as always, the “quota”; although now they spoke of it without a touch of concern or grief, but frivolously, and with the dismissal of a jester who knows that it is his sole weapon against tomorrow’s bitter failures. The one who directed the conversation was the young man Pimsenholtz, a traveler from Bessarabia who was already in America at one time and for that reason aroused great envy among all the passengers, as if that matter qualified him to ascend to the throne of President of the United States immediately upon landing. From time to time he winked affably at the two Greek young women who sat at one of the unkosher, “treif” tables and spoke while spreading apricot jam with a knife on his bread:
America…I was there already once and all her ways are clear to me like…like the paths of the Talmudic city of Nehardea…I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, America is truly a “a golden gubernia, a golden territory.” How do people say it? — The Land of the Free and Endless Opportunity. How much, for example, did people strive to establish something that would be good and lasting for the betterment of a long-suffering and eroding humanity, but failed? Our sages of blessed memory established the matter of the Sabbath boundaries, but it is in effect for only one day a week. The piggish Russians, not to mention in the same breath, established the Pale of Settlement, but it was in effect only for as long as you had no bribe to offer the uryadnik, the head of the local municipal council. But America, the Land of the Free and Endless Opportunity, established the “quota,” ladies and gentlemen. The quota is in effect day and night, summer and winter, during solar and lunar eclipses and even on days when one does not recite the tahanun prayer.
Therefore — observed the handsome young man from Zhitomir — it is called the Land of Opportunity. It is possible that they will let us in and it is possible that they will say to us: go back by reason of your shame.
Shaking a sweet sticky crumb from his small baker’s beard, Faiv’l Dortheim the Galician said: I s it for the benefit of suffering humanity? The common denominator in all of them is that they all, the pales and the quotas, too, were intended only for the Jews. They all perform Pharaoh’s deeds, as it is said, “And ye shall deliver the valuation of bricks,” and as we know, “valuation” in plain language is a quota.
Not just for Jewish men — blurted out the noble and somewhat shy Hayim “Forvayter” — it is also directed at Jewish women. And I am especially indebted to them, to the Americans, for this. Had they tried to separate me from my Batya, I would have, it seems to me, turned all occupants of their “White House” to a pile of bones.
The joke also harbored a sober consideration: Batya was Polish-born while Hayim was a native of the Ukraine, and they heard that the Polish quota was stronger these days.
And the “White House” — Pimsenholtz began again — would have turned as black as a kettle from shame, mercy shield us…It seems to me, yes, it seems to me…But more likely it is that the “White House” would add in its last will, or it may truly say: “Reb Hayim! Forvayter!” and to you, Dortheim it would add, or will truly say: “Dort iz dayn heym!” — there is where your home is.
As if by the wave of a magic wand, all those gathered began at once to clap and sing out loud while Pimsenholtz pointed at the direction from which the ship came:
Dort, dort, dortn iz dayn heym, dayn heym,
Dort, dort, dortn iz dayn heym!
Tra-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la, la-la-la,
Dortn, dortn, dortn iz dayn heym!
The three pioneers from the Land of Israel lowered their eyes in shame, as people whose transgression has been revealed. The Hungarian Jewish woman, traveling with her two young daughters to find her Christian husband who abandoned her, sat at the “treif” table and stared mockingly and derisively at the noisy unmannered Jews who displayed their Jewishness in public. And Genia, the young pince-nez wearing woman who composes Hebrew poems, wiped her pure and attractive forehead with her hand and said sadly and bitterly:
Indeed, there is no hiding the truth anymore; we are not a people seeking redemption. Everything is a hoax and emptiness. We always speak about the Land of Israel and of a renaissance and the striking of roots in the soil, but we are about to give the best of our years and strength to America, the young ones…the nation’s hope, as it were… see, I too…
The individual — said one of the pioneers as if in doubt and apologetically — is powerless…What powers does the individual have?...But the nation…Where is the nation?\
The nation?...The nation?... — said the young man Narishkin from Kremenchug — the nation is a sack full of chaff! A sack of rotten apples! Then he added in an angry dismissive tone: — The Nation!
All laughed, not so much at hearing what was being said as at who was saying it: no one expected to hear these words uttered in such a decisive tone from this shy and taciturn young man who, when laughing, would close his left eye whose lid always trembled pitifully and pathetically. The conversation, which for a moment was about to turn serious, returned to its previous track. In a tone of a literature teacher, Pimsenholtz began explaining that each era begets its own style. Thus, for example, in the past they used to say “indeed the people are as straw,” which in our days seems too pastoral, so in its stead you will hear “indeed the people is a sack of chaff.” But what is the difference between straw and chaff? — Straw is to be found in a garden while the chaff is in a hayloft. Neither of them is too distant from us, so, I swear, ladies and gentlemen, that we all would not have to wander too far in order to search for this straw or chaff across the seas. For they are here…here…so close…among us…within us…
The Czernigovian Jew, who was also a passenger from the Land of Israel, sat all the while silent and severe as if someone did him an injustice, yet as one powerless to respond. Finally, in a plaintive and reprimanding voice he added: — You say dismissively…you accuse us, those leaving the Land. Remember the words of our ages: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his position.” Have you been tested by our travails? And have…Take me, for example…How much I suffered, how much I tilled the soil with my nose in order to settle there. Really, who is the Jew who would not wish to remain there? There is nowhere where a Jew can enjoy a festival or season like in that land!...For…For…Nu. Anyhow…I dealt in adhesive paper there, a fly trap. When I went there I thought: there, in the hot orient, it stands to reason that there are certainly many flies. Woe…when there is no luck…I lost all my fortune in this business and fled by the skin of my teeth…
The sticky paper for eradicating flies seemed amusing to everyone, but nobody laughed; the Czernigovian Jew sounded so gloomy, so wretched and grumbling. Everyone beheld him with sorrow and pity and could not find a word to comfort him. Finally, Hayim “Forvayter” said sighing as he placed his hand on the Jew’s shoulder:
There is, my friend, a proven method of multiplying the flies in the orient, but, it seems, neither you nor I know it. The method is to plant numerous orchards and vineyards, and the sweetness of their fruit will grant your most fervent wish, namely a profusion of flies. And the soil, my brother, should not be plowed with a nose but with a plow.
Narishkin had something important to add, but suddenly something happened that immediately put an end to all discussions and in another half hour would change the flavor and appearance of life aboard ship from stem to stern. It began with a trifle: the sign “Gambling Forbidden,” that hung as a decorative illustration in a frame on a wall, slipped off its nail and fell to the ground. Then Batya, Hayim’s wife, sensed a nauseating wave that appeared to rise stealthily in her throat only to return whence it came. Dortheim had an unsavory hiccough, as a reminder of something not so nice. Finally, it was Pimsenholtz who spoke for all when he said, with lips that turned pale and without laughter that all feared to pass from mouth to mouth:
Too bad, such a good breakfast and we will have to return it to Davy Jones’s locker...
He immediately began to climb the stairs in staggering and stumbling steps. Everyone else followed him, each crawling and dragging themselves, one to his cabin and the other to the ship’s deck, to the fresh air. Not long after, not a sound was heard in the dinning hall but that of a breaking plate or a glass falling from the table as the ship heaved ever more from moment to moment. The storm was upon them.
A soft and delicate white hand as a Sabbath chalah rested on Narishkin’s temple and gently caressed his neck. It was the hand of a young woman of about twenty-three, yellow haired and plump, of whose past no one here knew a thing, nor of her future aspirations except that her name was Tzinah, that she was from Lublin and that she hoped to marry, to marry at any cost — because unlike the greater majority of young women of every nation, she was unable to conceal this aspiration. Here, aboard ship, she failed to find her way to the hearts of the young men, although her looks drew attention. All the young men would mock her in a very cruel way. The pioneers among them sang to her the Land of Israel song: “Sunrise, sunrise, boys for a high price,” and others would attempt to make a match between her and the broom or rubber hose in the sailors’ hands. The only one who did not mock her was Narishkin. Now he bent his shoulder submissively beneath her ample body that leaned on him. And since he did not suffer much from sea-sickness, he practically carried her up the steps. Her cabin was far, at the ship’s other end, and she whispered to him asking to allow her to rest in his nearby cabin. He did as she asked.
Pimsenholtz, too, found the strength to assist the two young Greek women until they reached their cabin. A pallor spread over the heavy layer of red rouge on their cheeks, but they both held him close as women familiar with being at the shoulders of men and their half-shut eyes looked on as if promising…
Genia, despite her dizziness and nausea, pulled herself together and climbed up to the deck so as to look at the sea and its tumultuous breakers. At the time she was composing a cycle of “oceanic sonnets,” so the waves had to favor her now with material for the sixth sonnet. The number of people here, at the ship’s extremity, was small: only a few Russian immigrants and Dvorah’le and her mother. The girl sat bent on a bench throwing up, and the mother, pale and emaciated, supported her daughter’s forehead with her hand, but the girl muttered and begged her mother:
Go…Go…Don’t worry about me…Go away…I am throwing up…Just…because you are here…
The mother looked about with her soft blue eyes as an emblem of sorrow and humiliation and then began to complain before Genia:
An odd girl…stubborn…God wanted to punish me. She did not approach the table just because I reminded her to go eat. Now she has nothing to throw up. She is only vomiting bile.
Go! Go from here! — said the girl shrieking hysterically.
Sensing indistinctly, Genia felt the abysmal sorrow abiding between these two tormented souls. She approached and persuaded the woman to leave the girl and promised to watch over her.
Nothing but a vague memory remained of the morning’s radiance and the tranquility of its light. The skies darkened with layers of gray clouds. The wind blew furiously from the port side, brining-in the ocean’s desert-wilderness as a huge heard of wild horses, only to retreat with a protesting and threatening whistle through the narrow corridors and lofts of the captain and his mate on the ship’s upper decks. The raging breakers stormed the ship’s hull furiously. As their ire reached a destructive crescendo, they erupted and leaped as hungry white-backed tigers higher and higher, only to break with a frightful roar on the upper deck’s railing in a torrent of streams and a spray of splinters and a tiff of temper tantrums. Staring at the ocean with weary eyes, Genia listened resentfully to the wailing of its breakers and began to think that the ocean’s display presents her with material not for a sonnet, but for an elegy suffused with lamentation and eternal grief. She has as yet to decide on a name for the elegy, but it is clear to her that in it she will write of the night, a stormy night upon the seas. In the wailing of the waves the poetess heard the moaning sound of her brethren led to the slaughter and violated sisters, the bellow of villainous men and monstrous mob whose object was bloodshed and murder; an eruption of a powerless tantrum of a mighty and magnificent people that is wasting in famine and fear of what the future will bring, the cry of ravens calling over the corpses of brethren who were not brought to the grave, and the sound of night owls hooting in the crags of demolished tombstones of ancestral graves abandoned by sons who wandered lost, each on his own course through the wide expanses of the world’s byways… For, indeed, great and full of bitterness was the hurt of the daughter of my people!...“My God, God of Israel! — prayed the young woman with every fiber of her being as her eyes clouded over with a haze of tears — give me strength and courage this time to write this elegy as I feel it, at this very moment…and then…afterward…whatever happens, happens.”
By three o’clock in the afternoon the ship resembled a heaving hospital crammed from stem to stern to end with sick and distressed people who were cast away from shore because of some contagious plague that contaminated them. Who knows how much longer will they need to wander aimlessly over the barren wilderness of waves!...Faiv’l Dortheim threw up a yellowish-green vomit three times already, and was now preparing, with great torment, to do it for a fourth time. As he began to throw up he felt his heart becoming weak and thought that he was about to die. His cloudy and hurt mind kept returning to the same question, one that was like a fixed nail: granted, one does not question death; a Jew does not even question death that comes through suffering. But the question remains: why is it necessary to wander across the seas to attain this when it would have been simpler and quicker to find death in your own village under your Gentile neighbor’s axe or — if the Holy One should be more merciful — in your bed? A wisecracking young sailor impersonated, to the resounding laughter of his mates, Dortheim’s contorted face and sad stare while vomiting and asked him whether he would like to take over just for a short while the management of the ship in place of the captain until the latter wakes up from his noontime nap.
The Czernigovian Jew approached Dortheim and reprimanded him to his face: “Ah, Reb Faivish! What’s this! This is not nice at all!” — but only a short while later a vomiting spasm that utterly turns one’s innards overtook him as well as his entire body writhed as a feather consumed by fire. Never, for as long as he sailed over the seas, and even then during the storm on the Sea of Azov, when he sailed to Gnichesk to witness the “conditions” added to his marriage agreement, had he suffered such hellish torments. “From heaven…” the Jew muttered through his blue lips. He, who seemed to have explained to his audience the matter of emigration from the Land, believed now through the depths of his being that this is punishment from heaven for leaving the Land of Israel and for again choosing a life of wandering in exile.
And Zeldin the pioneering chalutz, who lay supine on a heavy bundle of ropes in one of the ship’s corners he, too, inadvertently compared this voyage to his journey from Odessa to the Land of Israel several years ago. Oh, everything, everything was differed from this! — he pondered with a pain-filled heart. Then the days were so bright and moon-lit nights enchanting as a melody, the Izmir figs were so sweet and the girl’s eyes in Alexandretta radiated a warm and wondrous joy in one’s heart. And the sort of dreams about sovereignty that he dreamed then aboard ship! Once he spoke, face to face, with Hezekiah, king of Judea; another time he saw the Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria of blessed memory, coming out of a cave in which he resurrected his grandfather, his mother’s father…Oh, did all that light and splendor indeed fade with the last of his youth to never return for all eternity? Is it true that from now on only the darkness of secularism, the cold and storms of the foreign land await his heart?
Hayim “Forvayter” tended to his children, tucked in bed and resembling lambs in the meadow on an intensely hot day, and changed the compresses on his wife Batya’s forehead. He stared at the image of her pale and weary form and a strong sense of tenderness stirred within him, flowing through all his tired and bruised limbs. Oh, how precious this woman was for his soul! In his eyes she was the symbol of Jewish grace and Israelite modesty. To him she was the sublimity of feminine enchantment, the first and last woman in the world. How pathetic, what a broken shard of a man he saw himself without Batya, without his love for her and the children. He was seated, his merciful stare passing from her closed eyes to her black curls.
Fixed before his mind’s eye stood a picture of a horrifying memory of the recent past. On a dark night several Jewish families prepared to “steal the Polish border”; he and his family were among them. Hayim made a curious bundle of his three children and took them all in his arms so as to ease Batya’s passage. But she, who had not gone more than five weeks since giving birth, lagged behind the others. The group passed through the dangerous spot but she still remained across the border. Filled with terror, Hayim left his children with the others and returned to fetch her. But at that very moment as he lifted her up, stumbling and powerless on his shoulders, they heard a shot. Then the shots multiplied, the bullets flew with an evil scream above his head and several times nearly brushed his ears. While running, he moved Batya from his shoulders to his arms, believing that this way she will be more protected. Oh, what pen can describe all that went through him at the time?! — the fear and the storm made the hair on his head stand on end and his heart a hell; yet all his limbs and thoughts declared that there would be no greater joy than to fall dead for Batya whom he was now embracing to his chest with such affection and fervent compassion.
Nighttime was worse and full of dread. A powerful storm struck in the darkness, tossing the huge ship like a fishing trawler. The waves exploded against the ship’s hull with a stunning, deafening roar. It filled the heart with horror. So when the ship dropped from the crest of a wave higher than a tower it seemed to all that she was about to sink into the abyss, never again to see the light of day. The sister of the handsome young man from Zhitomir was thrown from her bed and one the violin of one of the pioneers cracked in a few places after falling off the shelf together with his valise on the Czernigovian Jew’s head. Some of the female passengers stared in fear, some whispered prayers and others cried out in broken hysterical screams. There was no more stirring a scene than this ship, tossing and turning in mid-ocean at the arbitrary will of the raging breakers while carrying within her thousands of quivering and tormented hearts imploring: “Our Father in heaven! Have pity on us! We are so miserable, so weak and cannot give up the light of life, and You, Master of the seas and full of mercy…” One of these quivering hearts was within the chest of the Russian passenger, a woman of about forty who stood in one of the second level hallways peering through the porthole and crossing herself frequently while her lips whispered: “Jesus my Lord! Saints above! What a ‘night of sparrows,’ such an awful stormy night!”
“You, Russians — thought the pioneer Notkin, who stood by her and heard her whispers — cannot easily forget the sparrows even here, over the ocean, where no sparrows exist; no doubt you will also have difficulty forgetting and abandoning the pogrom business in America, where pogroms are not practiced.”
A huge rogue wave that the god of the seas kept back in his storeroom for a more glorious future time suddenly struck the ship’s hull with such a terrible blow that for a short while she sailed listing on one side as if ready to stumble and flip at any moment. All four decks were fully awash in waves, and a groan of despair and terror passed through all the cabins. Dortheim again raised his somber query: is it not possible to obtain this matter itself, namely death, at home in a simpler and easier and most important, quieter way?... Hayim “Forvayter” felt in his heart the same horrible feeling that he had when carrying Batya in his arms under a hail of bullets across the Polish border. And Dvorah’le, lying rolled up as a bundle in bed, squeezed against Genia and thought: “Now the ship will break… now all will drown. Terrible, how terrible it is to drown on a dark night in these black waters, like over there…like over there…like a sword cutting off a head…Yet it is better for me to drown and be in that other world with Father and Borukh’l than to be here with her…” But then she thought that her mother, too, will drown and also be with them over there — so her heart overflowed with pain and bitterness.
The sailors, dressed in shiny black rubber raincoats were running to and fro as angels of destruction, scampering like monkeys on the masts and tar-coated rope ladders. Yet there was something encouraging and life-affirming in their dexterity, in their flushed faces on which drops of perspiration mixed with sea spray, in their animated and jolly talk and their free laughter that, as it were, mocked death and the storm. At three in morning, when the storm was still at its height, the voice of a tall and old sailor was heard calling to his mates on the upper deck:
— “Have no worry, mates! Today we’ll taste a drop of drink. Everything in due course. If we drown — we’ll have some warm provisions for the road.
Several rubbed their hands in pleasure and asked him for the meaning of his words, but he did not stop to explain as he went up to the captain’s deck and knocked on the door:
— Captain, sir, the Jewess gave birth to a male child.
— Alright! — replied the captain — tell the doctor that soon I will come down to have a look at the newborn.
A quaint custom prevails among seafarers: a baby born aboard ship is considered its child and citizen. If it is a Christian child, then the captain is its baptizing godfather. On that day, the ship would allocate a gift from its funds for the newborn and the birthmother and also treat the sailors to a drink. At times the ship would exchange correspondence with these children throughout their lives, and there are among them some who hold a position aboard ship.
The captain, a straight-backed vigorous Englishman of about sixty, went down together with the doctor to the birthmother’s cabin. She was a young Jewess of about twenty who was on her way to meet her husband in Boston. The latter escaped several months ago from the Russian sword that turns in every way and endeavored to bring her across to him before the quota was up and before she had to give birth. But alas! Because of an host of formalities concerning the visa and the quota she had to remain two additional months in Southampton. Now she lay in her berth. From her wide-open and sorrow-filled eyes one could tell that the giving of birth on that dark and dismal night between the waves of a raging sea was a most frightful experience.
— The first? — asked the captain merrily.
— Yes, sir, replied the doctor — a normal birth…almost…several days into the ninth. The newborn is a handsome fellow.
The captain bent down to have a look at the tiny red body that lay wrapped in a white sheet at his mother’s feet. He tickled it a little on its chin, smiling affectionately and in good humor. Then he turned to the mother and noticed the tears that filled her eyes. Through the ministering nurse, a young Jewish woman from London, he inquired about her welfare.
— Oh, muttered the mother in a weak voice — who could have seen…that they would hold me back on the way. And now, in the heart of the seas…at night…in the storm…oh, you child of my affliction…
— Do not cry, woman — the captain consoled her — your son is a child of the sea…he is our son. Now you can be certain that you will enter the United States.
— But, she sighed, the quota…
— Whatever your quota, you will enter. Your son has an excellent quota. He is a citizen of the sea. He was born under the flag of England. Because of him you, too, will enter.
— Oh, would that it be so… — the mother wanted to smile but instead her face became contorted even more into one of tears and grief.
The storm died down completely only after eleven in the morning. Soon enough, all mortals assumed a new look. From child to adult, the community of passengers did not hesitate about gathering in the dinning room in order to make up in food and convivial talk what they missed out on during a full twenty-four hours. The men still bore blurred and gray expressions like those on the concluding prayer of a rainy Yom Kippur day, and the faces of the girls and young women reflected a pallor and tenderness, as if they, too, have just given birth. Nonetheless, all recovered rapidly. One began to examine carefully and intently her reflection in a round little mirror, painting a little here and tinting a bit there. Another, in a shower of laughter and a blinding glimmer of teeth entered into conversation with the young men. The Jew from Czernigov was not cross with any of them as much as he was at the sister of the handsome young man from Zhitomir because of the way she moved her splendid, shapely hips. “She does this only to be provocative” — he muttered reproachfully and in a tone of venomous rage. The most unforgivable thing about it was that she was doing this to irritate. He was prepared, he was sure, to throw his daughter into the sea had she done so. Then he glanced over at his daughter, a pale creature, silent and vague, with bony elbows and flaxen hair, and his rage increased: she — may it be on all who hate Zion — has no hips at all.
On the other hand, Pimsenholtz was completely forgiving as regarding the two Greek girls, with whom he became intimately acquainted during the rocking. He pointed to them with his eyes, winked at them with the affection of a friend and a house-guest and then said to those gathered:
— Now, do you see the two of them, as different from one another as East from West? This one, the short one, is warm as a baker’s oven on the equator and the other is as cold as the oven of a striking laborer in Petrograd. The first is a “Hot Specialty” and the other a “Frozen Delight,” as it is written on restaurant windows in America. But as regarding me, they are both loyal and devoted as two faithful and loving women. And I wonder, ladies and gentlemen, how could it have been otherwise? I, you understand, am the son of a people who discovered Justice and they — daughters of a people that discovered Beauty. I hereby declare that there is no greater injustice that cries to the heavens than the neglect of such two beauties, daughters of a people that discovered Beauty, as if nothing…as if I am not somehow related to them…
— And me they have neglected — the sister of the handsome young man from Zhitomir tried her hand in joking, though it was not difficult to discern a tone of resentment in her words — no one took care of me. I was thrown like a ball from my bed and there was no one around to help me up. It seems that I lack all the splendid qualities that Mr. Pimsenholtz enumerated in his two lady friends.
— Oh, calm down my lady — said Pimsenholtz — and do not be sorry about this sin that we, the rude young men have committed before you inadvertently. I have a great consolation for you. Over there in America, you will take revenge against us men. There you will make us into dust to tread over and vent anger on us. You must know that in America woman rules over everything. She is the mortar and she is the pestle, she is the leaven and she is the dough. And the men there are merely a shadow, without substance. They are like the skin on garlic.
— Really? — inquired several curious young women at the table.
Pimsenholtz attempted to appear serious as he began by saying that the rule in all aspects of life in America is “Ladies first.” That is an irrevocable rule. Though there is no dowry in America, there is a custom of gift giving that the groom presents to his bride. Also, a young woman who is seen twice in the street in the company of a young man and then he does not wish to marry her, may sue him before the courts and accuse him of “breaking her heart,” that he made her “Broken-Hearted.” And how is a crushed heart to be healed? — with money, with lots of money. The amount depends on how much the young woman values her heart. Many women become rich because of such matters-of-the-heart. Moreover, the woman is in no need of witnesses; everything goes by what she says. These, my lady, are the affairs of the weaker sex in America.
And when he noticed that the women and young ladies were thirstily swallowing his words, he added:
— Take for example that we are about to enter Ellis Island. It is enough for one of you to accuse me of being her runaway husband, or her fiancé who “broke her heart,” and without any ifs or buts they send me back home if I am unwilling ”to tie the knot” right away with that beauty before she sets foot on shore.
While the eyes of the young women beamed and sparkled in a mood of cheerful and amused expectations, no one noticed what was taking place in Tzinah’s heart, the young woman from Lublin who wanted to get married at any cost. A kind of whitish fog that refracted all colors of the rainbow spread over her half-closed eyes. Her heart beat in sweet anxiety, and while squeezing hard under the table the hand of Narishkin her neighbor, she sighed longingly in yearning. Her spiritual tumult did not permit her to take part in Pimsenholtz’s conversation. “Over there…over there” her thoughts, intoxicated with joy, repeated — and she could not complete the sentence.
A wave of commotion spread across the table and all eyes turned to the entrance: Genia came down the stairs carrying the new passenger who joined the ship last night. The doctor ordered that the birthmother was to be moved to a special cabin, one larger and warmer, and until then Genia took the newborn to show him to the community of passengers. In so doing, she intended to spur people to donate some undergarments for the nearly naked infant and his mother. At the sight of the tiny ruddy body, wrapped and swaddled like a bound lamb with a grimace of sour protest that would cross its face every so often, everyone’s sense of pity and tenderness was aroused.
— Ah, greetings to you, steerage passenger, my friend and acquaintance of long ago — greeted him Hayim “Forvayter” — does his honor also find America desirable? It seems that even in the upper heavens things are not as they should be: no income, no valuta — no hard cash — the yevparkom, Jewish Party Committee, is nothing but chaos…
— Perhaps — added Notkin the pioneer without humor and even with some resentment — perhaps the Holy One, Blessed Be He is begrudging us that we are a nation of gypsies; that we are always on the move; that all of our discussions are built upon “and they journeyed and they encamped.” The little one resolved to belittle the Seat of the Almighty even more: he even got born on the way…
Dortheim’s tear-soaked groans were heard from across the table: Oh, I just left a cherub like that, a chick like that in my wife’s hands…a year after our wedding…on whom did I leave them?...She is alone, isolated in the Polish village among villains and evildoers, among wolves in search of prey…Oh, what will be their end?
And his greenish, tormented face again took on the appearance of a question: Why? For what? Everything, everything could have been otherwise, better and simpler.
But all were already listening to Genia, who stood and spoke while gently rocking and comforting the child in her arms:
— Somebody here said it right: “he was born on the way”…Indeed, this child, who was born on a dark night in the heart of the raging sea is a symbol of our fate. We are wanderers, and therefore we are severely persecuted…and because of that we cry...and scream, of course…but beside the few undergarments I ask for the child and several gowns for his mother, things that they really need at this moment, I have not come at all to raise your compassion for us, for ourselves, the wandering nation…we — she expressed every word from the depths of her heart emphatically and out loud — we wander, because we want to wander!...Sustenance from others’ table, scorn, spitting and blows, and then cries in the name of justice that is trampled and humanity that is offended — we got so used to this lifecycle that we no longer have the strength or desire to alter or abandon it. And there are among us some aesthetes who believe these practices are a mark of a higher, moral lifestyle — the old ditty about the sheep among seventy wolves. No, ladies and gentlemen! Times have changed. We are no longer a sheep, and the nations of the world are no longer wolves. There’s nothing in the world that a nation cannot do. And if it does not do it, take it as a sign that it does not want to do so, and it bears the responsibility. But — she concluded by an energetic pronunciation with her eyebrows and nostrils — enough! Enough in blaming others for our calamity, and let’s not even mention arguments in the name of fairness and justice!
And without awaiting the impact of her words, she hurried to leave the hall and climbed the steps to return the child to his mother. Batya, Hayim’s wife and several other women rose and followed her to arrange the matter of the undergarments.
Genia’s words aroused an argument among those present, some pro and others con. One argued that there are more claims to make in the name of justice, for it is not only we who are in need of it and find it of use. And the proof is the world war… The other asserted that if the Socialist Revolution demands that we be wanderers among the nations for another ten thousand years, as the Russian intelligentsia earlier went “wandering among the folk,” so be it. We shall go on and wander…I fail to understand how these are regressive and obscure ideas.
Several young people echoed these utterances. They tired of ministering to the Socialist Revolution in Russia and fled through Rumania to make their way to places where such service is not as dangerous.
Yet the passengers were still beaten and feeble from the storm, and the cumbersome debate ended completely when Pimsenholtz said:
— The new passenger’s intent at birth — he offered — was completely different. He simply came to remind us that only four more days remain for us to enjoy a drink, so we should grab and drink freely before it’s too late. For over there, in America, even if one gives away all his wealth for a drink, which is not to be seen nor found, people will mock and shame him. So then l’chaim, Jews! Let’s drink to the life of the little Jew, my wretched brother!
— L’chaim! L’chaim! — responded a few and tasted reluctantly of the simple French wine that was served generously to the ship’s passengers.
— How so? — asked the Czernigovian Jew, struck by surprise and anger — what does that mean? No brandy?
— Plain and simple — replied Pimsenholtz — there is none, just as there are no prayer shawls and phylacteries in the house of a goy; just as there is no milk from a billy goat or side-curls on the rebbetzin. They forbid its production and importation. So go yell “yes, it is so indeed!”
And when the remaining diners joined to corroborate Pimsenholtz’s words, the Jew’s distrust began to fade reluctantly and his despondency grew from moment to moment as he imagined the kind of strange land to which he is bound. He was no drinker by any measure; nonetheless, drawing up his shoulders, he said to himself with some regret and amazement: “There you are! Take that!” — He took the lack of brandy in America as a punishment from heaven for abandoning the land of his ancestors. The thought that this trip of his is a bad idea began to gnaw in his mind more and more.
Once again, the day was bright and clear, the ship and all on aboard proceeded accordingly. Young and old, the sailors were in a cheerful mood thanks to the whisky served in celebration of the newborn citizen; the young men did not leave the women alone; the sea laughed its caressing and sleep-inducing laughter, singing its ceaseless song. Things went so well that a wish arose in the hearts of some that the journey should never end: its conclusion concealed too many fears and anxieties. Things were so good that they began to be weary. The only one not bored was Dvorah’le, because sorrow and boredom do not coexist. Forlorn, dejected and silent, the girl wandered from deck to deck and for long hours did not take her eyes off the sea. Its waves reminded her of the curly shavings under which she hid at one time; all the terrors of that day returned to torment her soul more intensely. She hated all the cheerful and laughing people about her almost as much as her mother. “Yesterday — the simple girl thought innocently — yesterday they moaned and vomited and were all good. Today they are all evil and repulsive.”
But toward evening something happened that dissipated the boredom of all passengers. Pimsenholtz’s words about the reign of women in America rang ceaselessly all day long in Tzinah’s ears arousing within her a great ferment that finally erupted at eventide in the form of a final, marvelous decision.
Stealthily, she climbed to the fourth deck. There, she knocked on the captain’s door. After a short conversation with her, he sent for Narishkin. Tzinah stood with eyes downcast and a pale face that evidenced a mighty emotional turmoil. There was no end to the amazement of the young man from Kremenchug.
— Now — said the captain, turning to him with an affected anger of his eyebrows in German that he learned during the war years — this girl complains that you insulted her.
— What? Ho-How? — Narishkin began stammering without being able to overcome his soft and innocent smile that would always spread over his face when hearing of some interesting news.
— Do not be coy with me! — the captain raised his voice — you insulted her so that, as a proper young woman, she cannot marry another man.
It was as if a wave of hard liquor struck at Narishkin’s brain; his left eye closed and its upper lid began to quiver and trembled pathetically and pitifully. Miserable as one whose lie is in jeopardy, he muttered:
— I?...I?...I?...When?... Tzinah, tell him, by all means, in my presence…
— Yes… — Tzinah said as if making an effort and without raising her glance: — when I asked you to allow me to rest in your cabin…
— Woe, Woe, Woe, — Narishkin was about to jump out of skin: — how can one lie so?...that you, Tzinah…Nu, nu, nu, what did I do to you except for…except for a kiss?...Gevalt!, for crying out loud, where’s your honesty, where’s your humanity?
— It was more than a kiss, — added Tzinah in a mute voice and without taking her eyes off the gold medallion on her chest.
— Nu, nu, a hu-hug…you would not dare say that…
— More… — Tzinah dared to say.
— Go on, — said the captain: — I have no time to deal with you. There is someone on Ellis Island who will interrogate you. I only have this to say to you, young man: it is most likely that you need to give up all hope of ever setting foot on shore if you do not marry her legally. In such matters the claims of the woman take precedence in the United States.
Narishkin dragged his feet to the door. Tzinah took her time so as not to leave with him, as the captain’s last words pursued him forcefully:
— I also ask you to remember this: my ship is not a hotel with furnished rooms, so think about having your romantic rendezvous in other places.
At the speed of light, the rumor spread through all upper and lower cabins; the boat was in turmoil. A large crowd gathered on the upper deck waiting for news from the captain’s loft. Narishkin appeared before the gathering gloomy and miserable; his eyelid quivered and trembled uncontrollably. His hat, set askew on his forehead signaled despair and misfortune — the marks of a victim.
— Nu, what would you say to this? — he protested in a mournful voice: — I thought she was a decent girl and now she is accusing me of…of…Can one even utter that which she accuses me of? — I only helped her when things got stormy and did nothing to her, honest, nothing…
— Really? — Pimsenholtz asked humorously: — you honestly did nothing? Oh, Narishkin, oh you narishkind, you foolish lad…Nu, in short, it’s nothing, my poor kid!...And he patted Narishkin reassuringly on his shoulder — do not be frightened nor dismayed, as it says in Joshua 1:9, for I am with you, Menashe ben Zanvil Pimsenholtz, to save and rescue you from misfortune.
As he spoke he gestured to two of the pioneers and the handsome youth from Zhitomir, and the four of them went up and into the captain’s loft.
— I wonder captain, sir — began Pimsenholtz: — what did this lady see in grabbing Narishkin specifically? For that matter she could have demanded the same from the four of us…that we should marry her. She was a close friend of all of us, is that not so, guys?
— Yes, of course, — replied the three with one voice.
— Lies! — Tzinah burst out as she blushed scarlet: — when?
— When? — Pimsenholtz repeated coldly — of course, even before you met Narishkin. In Southampton, in the immigrants’ hotel, that’s when!
Now Tzinah found herself in the same quandary as did Narishkin. Her heart was aflame with anger: how could people accuse her of things that never happened even in a dream?
— Captain, sir! — she cried out: — I swear by God that this is a lie! I first saw and got to know them only here, on board ship, and this is a complete lie, I swear by God…
— Why trouble God with such holy words? — asked the lad from Zhitomir in his captivating laughter: — Among us we know the truth. Have you indeed forgotten the night on the square by the shore?
— Scoundrels! — Good-for-nothings! — Tzinah exploded in a tearful voice: — What do you want of me?
From the sustained stare that the captain directed at the attractive face of the young man from Zhitomir she understood that he believed them and that hers is a voice in the wilderness as was Narishkin’s before. She burst out crying and hurried to leave the loft shamefully while asking her injured self despairingly: “I fabricated everything out of love for him but they…they…why do they disgrace my name?”
The young men marched out in procession after her, winking and laughing at each other and whispering: “now it’s your turn to be upset!”
It was a pleasant and quiet night. The moon was out until eleven and the community, young and old, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, who left their cabins and spread throughout the decks and game halls, had no other topic on their lips than the events that unfolded in the captain’s loft. Most of the throng discussed the event not from the hero’s or heroine’s public or emotional aspects but out of consideration for the difficulties and hurdles of entering America. Yet new and somewhat unexpected relationships were suddenly established between the two genders among the young: the young men began to fear the company of the young women, lest they, too, be entrapped, and the young women, who recalled the young men’s harsh revenge of Tzinah, began to fear as well, as if only now they realized how cruel men can become. Either way, the event was understood by all as a war of the sexes, and the two sides began to distance themselves from one another out of suspicion and hate. Even the relations between the young man from Zhitomir and his sister were seriously affected. She now sat with Genia, Tzinah and the daughter of the Czernigovian Jew, and along with them five or six Jewish girls at the far end of the third deck near the ship’s stern, and they glanced from time to time stealthily with a cold, suppressed anger at the other end, where the young men congregated around the two Greek girls joking with and amusing them. And while the laughter was still reverberating among them, the young men, too, stared in the direction of the young women and what they felt, which may be phrased as “Oh, you young women, you women who are called honest and proper, you who aspire to marry at all cost, who cannot think about or portray love except in the form of marriage; your love costs us too dearly, so our group cannot accede to your severe demands. We can find easier love under more convenient conditions, so we shall not return to you. However, you just stay alone, forlorn until you grow old and gray as best as your good modesty allow. Establish, if you wish, a kingdom of Amazons beyond the mountains of darkness and cursed be the man who violates our vow to make his way to you on a dark night to cross the boundaries of your domain.”
And Genia, who sat next to Tzinah, reproved and consoled her and stared at her innocent face enshrouded in a mantle of sadness, thought about opening her sixth sonnet with the words:
Gloomy, betrayed, with scorched wings
You have returned from your journey…etc., etc., etc.
The closer the boat neared to the shores of America, the more that fear and worry weighed on everyone’s heart. On the day before the last, when a fishing trawler, heralding their approach to shore, was seen before sunset over the sea, all hearts went weak and stopped for an instant. There was “the end,” the terrible “finale,” that was approaching — but after several hours when news came over the radio that the Russian quota was about to close, and that the Polish quota will continue to hold for a day or two and that Ellis Island was full of immigrants to overflowing — so that the new ships will be unable to disgorge their passengers for a full week — a desperate anxiety overwhelmed and seized all hearts. Hayim “Forvayter” stared about him as one condemned to hanging. Where will he go back to? How will he return? And when he returns...? After all, he emptied his money bag for the agents at the border, and now he hasn’t enough in his pockets to support his family for a week. Dortheim, too, was confused and pathetic. He still did not know whether he would be considered under the Austrian or Polish quota, since his birthplace was now governed by new authorities. “And even if they allow me to enter, — his spirit became gloomy with overwhelming sorrow — how many more long months will pass before I can free her with the child out of the jaws of those hungry wolves who seek their prey? And for now who knows what will befall them, who knows what befell them already?”
Even among the young ones, all merriment ceased. Silent and depressed they wandered from circle to circle and from band to band, listening attentively with a smile betraying doubt and disbelief at the discussions among those gathered examining and probing the level of each one’s advantage to enter the “Promised Land.” In one of these circles stood a small Jew with shaven cheeks and a sparse black little beard that danced on his chin whenever he spoke, as if it were an artificial beard — who stood and declared:
— What do they want of me? Have I ever seen Russia? I was only born there, and when I was eight months old my parents migrated to Poland, so what do I have to do with it, with that swinish land, and what have I done that they attributed this fault to me?
Another, whose intonation reminded one of the stealth and tempting voice of a middleman, replied also plaintively:
— So if I was born and raised in Russia, so what of it? — formerly my town was Russian, but now it is Polish. In truth, half the town that is across the river is still in Bolshevik hands, but that half in which I was born is clearly in the hands of the Polish.
At the same time a young man whispered into his friend’s ear:
— And I was not born in Russia at all, nor have I ever inhaled its smell. I was born in eastern Galicia, but because, for some reason, I considered the Russian quota to be as firm as a rock, I was tempted by some Satan to document with some difficulty, that also cost me a pretty penny, the claim that I was born in Russia, and now here it is for you…with a healthy mind into a sick bed.
Those assembled were so occupied and immersed in their worries that no one thought of the new mother, to help her tend her son who fell ill and has been refusing to nurse for the second day in a row. Genia was the only one running alternately from Dvorah’le’s mother, who since the storm was as yellow as wax and whose forehead remained bandaged, to the sickly nursing baby and his mother. Only this good young maiden, perhaps the only one aboard ship, was concerned not about herself but about others. Dvorah’le distanced herself completely from her mother. She wandered aimlessly outside her cabin all day long only to return at night to lie in her bed without uttering a word and endeavored not to look her mother in the eyes. Genia’s aid to the two small families was incomparably valuable.
Moreover, the assembly in its grief and anxiety did not heed the important event that took place on this day, namely Tzinah and Narishkin’s marriage. The innocent and good natured young man could not bear the young woman’s grief caused by his friends wishing to protect him. He thought himself guilty of her shame and sorrow. So, approaching her with a heavy and racing heart as she stood alone on the third deck in the evening, he burst out crying. Then she, too, began to cry out loud and admitted to being foolish, though she did all this only out of her love for him. Rejuvenated and happy, they fell into each other’s arms and their pure souls cleaved to each other in a single long kiss out of pure love. On the very same evening, the Czernigovian Jew arranged their marriage out of anger and resentment at the whole world and America in particular; that all sorts of strange adventures await on one’s way to it, as this match for example. The witnesses were the four young men who slandered Tzinah before the captain. When Pimsenholtz’s mood became merry by the turnout of this affair he addressed the bride and groom:
— As you can see, my friends, we are all Jewish robbers. But now if they turn us back home, the two of you will be the only ones of our camp who will return all the wiser. You have gone, you have found and you have returned.
Happily, Narishkin embraced all the young men and said:
— America — what does it have to do with this? Who is thinking of America? Spit in the face of anyone who tells you that I did this in order to enter America!
He kept repeating these words, seemingly trying to remove from everyone’s suspicion the embarrassing assumption that he would marry Tzinah out of such practical and mundane considerations…
One could also discern clearly in the bride’s expression that all of America, with its “White House,” its Statue of Liberty and forty-eight states was as meaningless to her as a feather or dust against her great happiness.
The ship reached its destination on a cold morning that presaged a day of white dry clouds. The sole emotion that overwhelmed all hearts before the immense port city now enshrouded in a veil of smoke was of trepidation: a fear of things to come, a fear of the city’s lofty towers and haughty buildings that announced: Woe to you, lowly immigrant! How dare you, with your small and insolent heart to come to us? Oh, how weak and pathetic you are! How ridiculous are your boots and hat! Better that you should return to your little village, even if they did allow you to come this far. — Their heart, also fearful and despairing, inquired of itself: Why am I here? Why do I knock? If there is no place for me in the whole world, better that I should find shelter and refuge within the bosom of the generous earth.
Deep sorrow tends to be silent; but not among the Jews. The immigrants spoke profusely, spoke in complete faith about the possibility of a miracle that will tear the evil decree asunder: everything is possible in America; and besides, didn’t a delegation of businessmen go to appeal before the president; and incidentally, all the rumor about the Russian quota is based on a lie; and besides, they say that those who have been turned back twice before and are now arriving for the third time will nevertheless be allowed entrance. Notkin the pioneer, who stood within one group spoke bitterly and with a choking voice:
— Oh, Jews! Oh, the clever and perceptive people! Had you willingly given one percent, or one part of a thousand of what was taken from you forcefully by Petliura, Denikin, Machno, Kovakov, etc., etc., etc., then the Land of Israel would have been our country long ago. The times when lands were taken by the sword are over, never to return. Now all wars and conquests are made through the power of money; and this weapon, of course, you Jews possess! For how long will you stand from afar, you clever people? For how long will your excessive cleverness stand in your way? For how long? — he added gnashing his teeth — will…will you be a sc-sc-scoundrel nation?...One sold to the devil?
A muffled cry, heard from the nearby cabin, interrupted Notkin’s words: the new mother was crying over her child who refused to nurse for the fourth day now and, it seemed, was dying. The whole group, as one, excused itself politely and properly and moved to the far end of the second deck there to renew the argument. Zeldin the pioneer also added, as if angry:
— I do not understand; why do you get so excited? And what is it that you want? You are asking a nation of peddlers to defend the destiny of Judaism, no more and no less than that, destinies and ideals as lofty and shining as the stars!
— Don’t get so excited yourself — the Czernigovian Jew responded resentfully as always, and as if deeply insulted — you still are not aware of what destiny has in store for you over there, in the Land of Columbus. Maybe you, too, will be a peddler.
— Nu, so what? — answered Zeldin bitterly and with dismissive laughter — just because the Gentile is a thief, does it mean that the herring is salty?...
— Dear God! — an old Jew intruded into the discussion, one who had a melon patch back in Podolia: — they give. Don’t they give? They give, it seems to me, millions…
All of a sudden the whole ship turned chaotic: an armada of boats bearing the immigrants’ relatives neared, surrounding the ship from every side as a mass of travelers burst as a torrent upon the railings. The noise of acquaintances, the crisscrossing verbal exchanges, the joyous laughter intertwined with cries and wailing that intermingled in an indescribable, earsplitting cacophony. Several women fainted; others strove to jump down into the boats but were stopped by the crowd. All were agitated and greatly excited: one saw his mother with his own eyes thirty years after parting from her; another was just informed that his brother died a strange death during a pogrom; and yet another — that his letters never reached their destination because their village was no longer in existence… And what did they talk about and of what not? — about monuments, about kidney disease, about the Latvian valuta, of Palestine, of match-making…Among the relatives was the husband of the woman who gave birth aboard ship, and also Dvorah’le’s mother’s brother from Chicago. But the two ill women did not manage to cut a path for themselves through the wall formed by the throng of people who were busily raging and groaning, each about his own affairs, so they wandered about confused and miserable with their appeal hanging mutely on their lips.
Then as if a freezing wintry wind blew over all: a steamboat bearing the American flag on its aft side approached, making its way among the host of other boats that respectfully made way for it. A governmental committee arrived to rule on the immigrants’ fate.
It was a cloudy day, overcast with white gloomy clouds. Nonetheless, the first acts of the committee, comprised only of blue-eyed, tall and smiling members, were good. Dortheim was permitted entry, yet all were amazed that he took his bundles and left the boat without any expression of joy or satisfaction. Then Pimsenholtz was permitted to disembark, since his prior permission to reside in America remained in force. After that, however, things turned bad for the immigrants. The Jew with the tempting and stealthy voice as of a middleman succeeded, indeed, in proving to the officials that half the town in which he was born is clearly in the hands of the Poles; yet he was forbidden entry because during his medical examination a large flea jumped off his shirt and began to skip and jump from officer to officer, raising a great hubbub in the office. Notkin the pioneer, though benefitting from the Polish quota, was disqualified because when asked “what is your nationality” repeatedly and stubbornly responded “Jewish.”
— For such a nationality we have no quota whatsoever, — replied the officers with the smiles of a proper gentlemen. All of a sudden, and much to everybody’s surprise, the Czernigovian Jew appeared, dressed in a velvet kapote, or overcoat, with a broad sash and wearing a shteimel, or fur hat, replete with tails and demanded his right of entry as a rabbi. The crowd smiled and only regretted that Pimsenholtz was not present to make some tasty tidbits of his rabbinate. But the Reform “rabbi,” a member of the committee, disqualified him. He asked him what chapter of Psalms a congregation recites following prayers on the Sabbath of Hanukkah when someone in the congregation recites the thanksgiving blessing for surviving a dangerous situation — and he did not know. Amused, the crowd joked: a rabbi, and he forgot the words of our sages, “and you shall despise the rabbinate.” After that a general decree was issued for the return or continued wandering, as each immigrant may decide, upon all those who came from Russia, Italy and the Balkans. Tzinah, born in Lublin, and with a smile on her lips yielded her right to enter the United States and chose instead a life of exile and wanderings at Narishkin’s side, her champion husband.
A cry of mourning arose aboard ship, especially among the female Jewish immigrants. “Where, where to go? Back again to the land of bloodshed, to the cities of slaughter? Have they not butchered and killed enough of us?” — asked their choking voices and tearful eyes. But no one cried as bitterly as Hayim “Forvayter”: His wife and children, who were born in Poland, were permitted to disembark, but not Hayim. When he recalled his empty pockets he was compelled to surrender to the decree — to leave Batya and the children here under the good graces of his relatives and himself “to go back” for the time being. Crying and sobbing like a baby, he embraced his loved ones while mumbling and protesting: “How could I live without you? I won’t be able to live for even one day, without you I will wither away! And when will we see each other again? Who knows if we get to see each other again?!” — and, indeed, he cried bitterly and disconsolately as if his current farewell meant never to meet his family again. His crying amazed all the travelers. An old Italian woman asked:
— What are these miserable Jews crying and mourning about? We, too, have been affected by this decree…but anyway…
Meanwhile the committee continued its task in the orderliness and rule that are American. The woman who gave birth aboard ship with her sick child in her arms handed one of the officers a letter of recommendation from the captain. The officer handed it over to the chairman who examined it carefully and said to the translator:
— Good, the woman will be permitted to disembark with her child, but first she must be examined by the doctor.
The woman entered a room at which the translator pointed and approached the examination table. The doctor, a short elderly man with a round and fat shaven face began urging the woman to strip the child of his swaddling clothes. But no sooner had she lifted the veil from her son’s face than he thundered angrily:
— What is this corpse that you carry? Has it been long that you have been holding onto him for safekeeping? Do you wish that I quarantine the whole ship because of this corpse?
— “Corpse?!” — the mother’s heart stopped beating and shriveled in horror. She looked at the child’s face. Indeed, he was dead. It was just now that he died in her arms.
Incensed, the doctor ordered the police to cast the body into the sea and completely disinfect the mother’s room.
It was as if an arrow was shot into the poor woman’s heart: Into the sea! To cast her poor little son into the sea, food for the fish and all manner of disgusting creatures! His burial place will never be known!... — For a moment she rose as a tigress but at the next she pleaded in a low voice of a miserable woman, in a weak plaintive voice of a despised and outcast immigrant:
— Mister!...Please do not, do not…my husband is here, in a boat below, please allow to lower the body to him so he can bring it to a Jewish grave.
Her pleading touched the doctor’s heart and he agreed immediately:
— Good, but right away…right away… — his voice thundered impatiently.
Using the rope to which only recently relatives tied cakes and cigarette boxes and sweets and sent up from their boats below, the police officers hurried and tied the dead body that resembled a long and thin loaf of bread and lowered it to the father’s boat. He had not yet understood the meaning of the thing and stared, bewildered and horrified, at the bundle sent to him and at his wife who was still standing by the ship’s railing, her hands outstretched and sobbing mournfully:
— Here is our son sent to you, Mendl. Our first born. Our one and only son is lowered to you…he has an entry permit... I must return, but he has an entry permit… yes, yes, he is entering. He is entering a world that is all good!
A broken and powerless cry choked at her throat and shook her shoulders.
The police officers urged the father to leave the ship immediately; the man looked about him with delirious and uncomprehending eyes. On his face a smile, like that on the faces of madmen, dissolved and spread. The situation indeed was laughable to death: a woman crossing sea lanes only to hand her dead son over to her husband; and the father, once he received the precious gift, is not allowed to exchange two words with his wife.
Genia was shaken severely by the scene. When the assistants at the Hebrew newspaper approached her with the good news that thanks to their endeavor she was permitted entry as a Hebrew writer, she said bitterly:
What permission do I have to abandon these unfortunates? And what of my advantage and connections? Are those indeed only the few score pathetic poems? Is it worthwhile to speak of them at all? Did these poems warm at least one melancholy heart among these hearts? I am ashamed, clearly ashamed before all my brothers and sisters to benefit from this bogus privilege, a privilege that is not mine. I shall return with them! Wherever they wander, there shall I wander also!
— Ah, enough talking like a “greenhorn”! — said the assistants, laughing, and went to find her coat. They bundled up her belongings and led her almost by force.
Solitary, mute and mournful, as always, little Dvorah’le stood in a corner of the third deck and did not reply to Genia’s farewell wishes. It was as if she did not feel her kiss. For two hours she stood there, and her eyes that stared motionlessly reflected despair. To go back! — she thought, and a powerful distress pressed with an iron fist at her soft and innocent heart: to return again to that same picket fence along which stood the long line of bearded Jews and their children, whose heads have been severed! To return again to the same bench beneath which she hid! To return and see again that place on the floor where her mother lay and her thrashing was so ugly! To return and live for many, many years with her mother, the despised one, in whose eyes she cannot bear look!...Oh, no, no! No!
And all of a sudden — a terrible decision lit up her eyes and enfolded her whole being: To father! To Borukh’l!
Suddenly, the spot where the girl stood remained empty. The sea below emitted a kind of a splashing-whipping sound of a hard object that fell into its bosom, and many fresh circles spread and scattered over its silent and smooth surface.
With an amused calm the giant metropolis stared impassively and all went on as usual…
Copyright © Levi Aryeh Arieli 2013. Translation copyright © Stephen Katz 2013.
Born Levi Aryeh Orloff (1886-1943), Arieli immigrated from the Ukraine to Eretz Israel in 1909. Though a member of the circle of writers of the second aliyah, he worked as watchman in Zionist settlements and then as teacher. In 1923 he left for the United States, taught in St. Louis and other locales, and ended in New York. Arieli’s fiction has been favorably compared to Brenner’s, covering experiences in the Ukraine, Eretz-Israel and America. He published in numerous periodicals in Eretz Israel and America. “Emigrants” (1926) documents his wry observation on Jewish rootlessness and tragic history in place of making Eretz Israel their abode.
Stephen Katz (the translator) teaches Hebrew Literature at Indiana University. His interest is the fiction of S.Y. Agnon and American Hebrew literature, the subject of his last book, Red, Black, and Jew (2009). He translated Avshalom Kaveh’s “Quince” and Yona Bachur’s “The Doll,” in Zeek (spring 2010 and February 2008); “So Miriam Spoke of Moses,” by E. E. Lisitzky, in CCAR Journal (fall 2008); and Hillel Barzel’s study, “The Concealed Meaning of H.N. Bialik's ‘He Glimpsed and Died,’” Modern Language Studies, XIX:3 (Summer, 1989). His translation of Avshalom Kaveh’s story “Haunted by God” appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Jewish Fiction.net.