By Diane Lederman
Shanna Spektor sighed with quiet joy when she spotted the Forverts hanging crisply as if ironed on a library rack. The Yiddish pages were as comforting as the smell of the challah her mother used to bake for Sabbath in their home in Kishinev. Reading the paper would take her back.
She was so thankful that Ori brought her to this library soon after she and Lev settled in New Bedford. “You will enjoy this paper very much, especially the letters. Very interesting stories,” her husband’s cousin told her. “It’s not easy being away from what we know. The paper is like having talks with a dear friend.”
Lev did not need such a friend. After just one night, he said New Bedford already felt like home. Shanna didn’t understand how it could become that more quickly than the time it took to make sauerkraut. She felt even lonelier after those words came from his mouth.
“Everything is so much better here,” he had scolded. “Yet you complain. If you can’t talk to people, study harder,” he said dismissively after she told him that few people she met spoke Yiddish. Yet he refused to share the dictionary that her brother had sent to them six months before they escaped Odessa.
She carried the rack with three issues to the table where she sat with Ori that first time. The wooden chair creaked as she settled in. Still cold from winter’s chill, she kept her coat on while scanning the front page. She blew on her hands to warm them. They were red and chapped from the wind. Her fingers were cut from the threads she tied every day at the cotton mill.
There were labor struggles at a place called the Triangle Factory where workers had to toil twelve hours every day for little pay. Their struggles reminded her of all they’d fought for in Odessa. She hoped her factory friends Olga and Sophia there were safe. But neither of them was Jewish, so maybe the Cossack’s did not beat them. She absently stroked a bruise on her cheek.
In the weeks here, she had seen little evidence of worker unity. Maybe such talk happened only in large cities. But that was wrong. Conditions here were not safe and the pay was meager, too. Lev said she was lucky to have a job.
Most of the letters were addressed to “Worthy Editor.” Who was this worthy man? She imagined he had a furrowed brow with dark hair and wore eyeglasses. He probably had a wide desk covered with hundreds of envelopes and a letter opener.
A thirteen-year old who was late to work lost two cents of her pay. A man she worked with was angry and wrote of the injustice on her behalf. Another letter was from a man who fled Bialystok, then learned of a pogrom there. He hadn’t heard from his family and asked the editor if he should go back or wait for word and bring his family here. Shanna thought of her friend Ina from the mill who was from that city. Shanna wondered if she knew about this, and if her family had written since it happened.
This Worthy Editor advised the man to stay here and bring his parents and sister over.
A woman wrote that she was returning to Russia with her children because her husband deserted her. She wanted him to know. She didn’t understand how he could leave them behind without a cent.
For six years I loved you faithfully, took care of you like a loyal servant, never had a happy day with you. Yet I forgive you for everything. Have you ever figured out why you left us? Max, where is your conscience? You used to have sympathy for fallen women and used to say their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need. And how did you act?
Shanna wanted to write to this Worthy Editor and ask what she should do about her husband who kept so many secrets and thoughts from her that at times he appeared to be two men. Would this Worthy Editor tell her to stay and to ask her husband again about his secrets, or tell her to go because how could she trust a man like this? Would the editor point out that Lev did not strike her or hurt her with his hands, and that she was married under God?
She thought about all her grievances. He lied to her about his nights away from home, telling her he was studying with the rabbi when the rabbi said he hadn’t seen him much at all. His moods were as mercurial as a cat’s.
“Where’s dinner?” he had scolded her last night. He said he would be late back to the factory if she did not feed him soon. The day before, he had told her he wouldn’t need an early meal because he didn’t have to work another late shift.
She felt a lump in her throat reading an account from another woman who said she was so hungry she was thinking of selling her children for bread. If she died of starvation, her children would be alone. “In a new home, they would at least have food.”
Then Shanna read a letter from a woman handed over to bandits and locked in a room and beaten. Shanna was nauseous feeling the strikes of feet against her back, the pummeling of fists, the words “stinking Jew.”
She was frightened that something like that could happen in this country. Ori had said people were kind here, but he must have been speaking of New Bedford. Maybe in the city of New York, people were shameful.
Perhaps Lev was right when he scolded her for complaining. She had a home, and food, and work. And she was safe from Russian devils and bandits who prayed on women who were alone and without means.
Yet she wanted more.
This was a world that rewarded wealth with more affluence, and kept workers like her and others from even the hope of success. And look at that boy Josef in the carding room. The machine that was supposed to give him a means to survive might have taken that away. She had heard the men who fixed machines say the word “malfunction,” and meant to ask Ina what it meant. As far as she knew, Josef was still in the hospital, but she had heard words that he was not doing well at all.
Her grandmother, who spoke for the poor, would scold her if she heard this despair. “There is no higher calling than bringing justice to those who have been denied it,” her bubbe told her. “Remember that if nothing else, my shefeleh. My lamb, never stop trying.” She had just returned from Vilna where she had traveled to organize a strike with women who made stockings. Shanna had never seen her so exhausted, but Shanna also saw how she had changed.
Her head still throbbed from the factory din, and Lev had been in such a foul way that morning that she was hesitant to go home. She sought refuge again in the great library. Ori, Ina, and the library were all she had to keep her tethered. She had not yet written to this editor, nervous that Lev would see it and punish her for telling their secrets. She didn’t think he ever read the paper, but still she had been reluctant.
Two nights ago, he had forced himself on her again. He didn’t know what the Cossacks had done, and she could never say the words. But his hands summoned memory from her body with his touch. She felt sick just thinking of it. She couldn’t think of it now.
At the newspaper rack, the Forverts were missing. Shanna felt disappointment like a punch to the stomach. She needed the voices of these people as much as she needed her laudanum. She paced for a moment, then wandered the tables to see if she spotted anyone reading the paper.
Dejected, she moved to the Yiddish book section and saw Anna Karenina. Only Levin and Kitty had a happy marriage. When she’d read it years before, she hadn’t considered the story’s larger context, nor understood how precarious marriage was. Maybe everyone pretended to be happy but secretly struggled, as she with Lev. She didn’t know if that was reassuring or discomforting. Maybe if her mother hadn’t died when she was eight, Shanna would have known more.
She finished scanning titles, then returned to the newspaper racks, hoping that whoever had been reading the Forverts had returned it.
A woman about her age, wearing a dingy-looking beige shawl as thin as Shanna’s old coat, was setting the Forverts back in the newspaper rack. Shanna nodded to her, but the woman looked away. Her eyes had dark circles beneath them and her hands were grimed with dirt. The woman turned before Shanna could ask if she was all right.
Watching as the slightly hunched woman scraped her feet on the floor and left, Shanna shivered. Maybe this was her future if she ever dared to leave Lev. Was it a foretelling as sure as Joseph’s divination of famine and plenty to the Pharaoh in the Bible? Maybe she needed to heed it, to rid herself of this fanciful notion that she could create a life away from Lev.
The woman — more apparition than body — had so unsettled Shanna that she was about to leave without reading the paper. But reading the letters might dispel this vision. The troubles described always were so much worse than her own.
She perused a letter about a young girl who’d lost her job because she resisted her boss’ vulgarity. She turned to another letter from a man who was earning so little he could not send money home, and wondered if he should give up and return a failure.
A mother whose husband had disappeared had left her and her children without a cent. She’d found work at a factory but her nine-year-old had to take care of her two-year-old, and when she came home on Sunday her children were outside in the cold without shoes or coats. The woman begged her husband to come home or send money so that she could be a respectable mother.
Another woman wrote about moving in with a man without marrying him, and soon regretted it. The man disgusted her and she could no longer bear to hear him speak. Shanna quickly refolded the paper as if she could erase what she had read. She didn’t want to think how that sentiment could soon be her feeling about Lev. She needed to keep that from happening. Maybe when he started his business, his moods would improve, and he’d be happier and kinder in his ways. But she had little faith he would be reformed. He was here in America, “the Great Medina” he had called it, and still was sour like a grapefruit.
She looked at the paper again and found the address where to send letters. Writing was all she could think to do. She went in search of Miss Bloom the librarian who had become a friend. Miss Bloom wasn’t at the desk and Shanna looked amongst the shelves, then asked the woman at the desk. “Miss Bloom? Is she here?”
“Gone for the day. Can I help?”
Shanna swallowed, unsure if she should ask this woman she didn’t know for paper. She didn’t want to bother her. Still, she couldn’t write this letter at home because Lev might come in and see her. He had ripped up the letter she had been writing to her father because he didn’t like what she was telling him.
“Excuse me but yes, I was… Do you… Might you have a piece of paper?”
The librarian looked at her for a moment. Shanna worried that her words in English were not correct.
“Yes, of course. I was just thinking where we keep it.” She raised a finger and then opened two drawers. “Silly me,” she said. She handed Shanna a handful of sheets and a pencil.
Holding the pencil, Shanna said she would return it when she was finished.
Dear Worthy Editor,
She felt proud seeing those words. She studied a few letters now to see how they were constructed, so hers would not be ridiculed.
I have not seen a letter like this in your pages. I need help with my husband. I have been married two years and it is not a happy marriage. My husband wanted to come to America, I did not. But we are here and I am trying to make do.
But he keeps secrets from me and has many moods. He does not hit me, yet his words are very hard sometimes. And two nights ago, he came to me and did things I did not want to do. I want to go home to Kishinev but don’t have money for a ticket. His cousin I think would give me the money, but my husband would be very angry if he knew. I don’t know how much longer it is possible for me continue in this way. What should I do? I cannot talk to him because he is not that way. Please help me in any way you can.
Your reader, S
Tomorrow she would take this to the post office, put it in the mail, and hope for a speedy reply.
Holding this in her hand made her feel like a bird who could fly off somewhere safe.