A Wife Pawned and Sold
By Jacob Gordin
Translated from Yiddish by Ruth Murphy
Leyzer Khirik set off from the far side of Brisk, from the large city of Zamaline, and headed straight for New York. He’s a young man with two arms made of iron, two red cheeks, two ears which love to hear the clink of a coin, and two eyes that despise sleeping and looking on foolishness. In Zamaline, Leyzer was a tinsmith; in New York he is a solderer, sealing with lead. Back home he did not hesitate to work eighteen hours a day, and here he’s ready to rise an hour before dawn to toil and slave away. Back home, every day he would eat a warm barley soup and a cooked marrow-bone; in America he eats only pumpernickel bread with rolled herring. He winces with every penny, doesn’t eat meat even on Shabbes, sleeps on the ground in a narrow, dark room, buys himself only secondhand garments, and is not ashamed to go about in worn-out boots. You wonder how a person can lead such a life and still be healthy? First of all, Mister Khirik is a Jew, and secondly, in Zamaline they make these extraordinary Jews who have the strength to work like a locomotive train. As for needs and desires, they have as many as does a ladybug.
What do you think, then — that Mister Leyzer Khirik doesn’t earn much? No! He earns a guzme, a ton of money! Not less than eight dollars every week, which means sixteen rubles, or almost 107 gulden, that’s 3,200 groschen! You see, Mister Khirik left behind in Zamaline a young wife, one as delightful as a raspberry. She was known throughout the entire world, from Zamaline to Brisk and from Kotelne to Maltsh, by the name Sheyne Khane, “beautiful Hannah.” And indeed, she was as lovely as sometimes manages to happen with Jews: tall as the spruce trees from the hills of Lebanon; as fair as the dew that lies on Mount Hebron; two eyes like a pair of black burning coals — and she had gifted Reb Leyzer Khirik with two little girls who had young faces exactly like the two cherubim that hovered over the door of Paradise. Yes!
Sheyne Khane was a very kind person, and the children were dear, but still, Leyzer Khirik was in no hurry to send her the money for boat-tickets. How can you take that bundle of money out all at once, and make a hole in your pocket where the dollars lie that are so hard to come by and cost one so dearly to obtain? Perhaps God will help out somehow with a miracle? Ach! Well, no miracle occurred and a Jew cannot, and must not, be a recluse forever. Leyzer Khirik sent his Sheyne Khane fifty dollars, bade her sell the goat, the tall holiday candlesticks, and their reserved seat in the old prayer house, and come as quickly as possible to New York.
His consolation was that Khane would shine among Zion’s daughters, from Hester Street to Ludlow, like the bright moon among the stars.
Shall I tell you how Sheyne Khane departed from Zamaline, how all the women wept and the rabbi blessed her, how the gendarmes jostled her in the railroad cars? After all, you are also not from this land, and you know all this very well yourself. I’ll just tell you about what a terrible misfortune happened to our Sheyne Khane when she already arrived in Hamburg, heard the great ships whistling in the distance, and saw how her acquaintances were ready to leave for America. Khane was truly as beautiful as the shining sun; she was also, God forbid, not a fool. That being said, she was a simple Jewish woman and took things very seriously. Some respectable-looking German suggested to her that he would buy her a cheap ticket and that she would save some money and bring Khirik a few dollars. She understood that when one comes to her husband and brings yet a bit of money, it makes one a very welcome guest. Oh, but that was not to be. The boat ticket was a forgery and the German had disappeared along with her money, exactly as Korah and his treasures vanished into the ground. Over there! Over here! A clamor! An uproar! It was to no avail. Yet what do you think, that Sheyne Khane would stay in Hamburg? That she would go back on foot to Zamaline? That she would go begging to the Jewish committees? May they never live to see it!
Look here, says she, the goy has taken my money, would it kill you to take me to America? She takes her bedding, her two beautiful children, her half a jar of ginger preserves, her ancient trunks with old prayer books for the Jewish holidays, Lamentations for Tisha B’av, the prayer books for the entire year, Tkhines (the collection of women’s prayers), and the Tsenerene (the women’s Bible), and moves it all onto the ship together with the her companions.
I must tell you that among her new acquaintances there was also (to distinguish between them and us) a goy, a young rascal of around twenty-two, a handsome man, with pale skin and blue eyes. Khane could barely speak any Polish (the goy, to distinguish between them and us, was a Pole). However, she could say “"Dziękuję panie dobrodzieju! Bardzo dobrze" ("Thank you, Mister Benefactor! Very good") and “"Szklanka herbaty" ("A glass of tea"). And for him, this was enough; does a goy, may our sins be on his head instead of ours, need more? With one word, the goy dragged in all her bundles, brought water for tea, bought some herring — and indeed, why shouldn’t a goy wait on a Jew? Was he too sick to do it?
On the ocean liner there arose a hue and cry, such a din and an uproar, that the captain himself began to shout at Sheyne Khane, the sailors started flinging and tossing her things about (oh, may a fever toss them about, God Almighty), Khane started to cry, and the children were scared like frightened lambs. When all the Jews surrounded her and helped Sheyne Khane to wail and lament, at the same time up came the goy, who was not even worth a Jew’s little finger, and said: “Me, I don’t have a lot of money either, but I am prepared to pay for her — with the stipulation that she should not be let off the ship in New York until her husband pays me back the twenty-two dollars I’m providing. Khane will serve as a pledge for us.”
Slowly went the old ship across the boundless fields of the great ocean. Slowly stretched out the days and the nights. . . all the passengers became well acquainted with each other, and the pale goy with his pledge, Khane, became good friends. . . Don’t think, God forbid, that the goy allowed himself any sort of improper conversation, or to give an impudent glance: he was quiet as a dove and as shy as a young maiden. . . He protected his “pledge” as if she were his own, and was a faithful servant. He never stopped for a minute singing to those children of hers. He sang to them, played with them. Perhaps you suspect that our Khane fell in love with a goy, may his name be erased? You’ve made a big mistake. First of all, she didn’t know what love was and how one goes about it; she’d married because a Jewish daughter must marry, and because for Jewish old maids there are no convents as there are for the gentiles. Secondly, she was an honest, pure Jewish woman, and the goy was not only treyf because he wasn’t Jewish, but because he was, after all, a man.
The ship sails on, the days go by, and America nudges closer and closer. When people say to Khane that she’s like a family member with the goy, she turns red. When people tell the goy that soon Khane will be together with her husband, he turns pale. And the ship sails, the water splashes. In the distance appear several birds, which circle in the air currents and hop over the water — land! Land cannot be far off. Soon the long and difficult road will be over; soon there will be an end to her hardships and worries. The pale goy isn’t staying in New York. He will travel to Pennsylvania; his brother has a farm there and he too will be a farmer. He says that he will build a fine little house, and that not far away there’ll be a small grove, trees, and a river. Ach! What is this — that someone wants to live in the middle of nowhere?
Long has Mister Leyzer Khirik waited. Finally the day has come: he’s received a telegram that his wife and children are there in New York, at Castle Garden — Sheyne Khane is here! He runs! As he was at work, besmirched, blackened, filthy — this is how he runs off. Firstly, why does a body need to wash and get all dressed up? Secondly, Khane knows him already. Thirdly, there’s no time: he needs to get her from Castle Garden and go back to work. The day must not be lost.
Now he’s already at the door. He shows the telegram, they let him in. He enters — Aha! Khane, how are you? And these are our doves? Come, let’s go. Her heart begins to ache. What — this is her husband? And so coldly he’s greeted them? “Leyzer,” she says sadly, “I can’t go — I’ve been pledged. You must first pay the gentleman twenty-two dollars.” And the “gentleman” stands far off, his hands trembling, his eyes full of tears.
“What!” Khirik let out a shriek as if he’d been struck by lightning. “Another twenty-two dollars! Fifty wasn’t enough? It breaks my heart — another twenty-two dollars! You’ve lost your mind. Is this a joke?”
“Don’t shout! What can one do? It was bad luck — it happens — pay him! You yourself wrote to me that you have three hundred dollars in the bank.”
“Pay three hundred dollars! Is this the way you will enter this country? Never mind, I tell you! I’ll throw money in the mud!”
Furious, Khirik storms out of Castle Garden. Khane weeps; the pale goy doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile they are all led off to Ellis Island.
“Khane,” says the pale goy, and his voice trembles. “Khane, if you’re crying because he doesn’t want to come get you, go! I won’t keep you here! I’ll earn money here in New York and then buy a ticket to Philadelphia . . . and you’ll pay me later. . . whenever you can.”
“No! No!” answers Khane. “I’m crying, because this is hard for me.” And they both fall silent, looking into each other’s eyes. Their hearts are pounding, their eyes shining.
“My love,” whispers the goy with a trembling voice. “Come with me! You’ll be my queen, my sovereign! Your children will be our guardian angels!”
She feels like the whole world has gone topsy-turvy. It becomes dark before her eyes, her feet wobble and she falls; she falls into his arms and weeps, and caresses him, and tells him “I love you!”
Early the next morning, Mister Leyzer Khirik arrived with twenty-two dollars. He was angry, disgruntled, but it couldn’t be helped. Sheyne Khane must be redeemed from gentile hands.
But it was not destined for him to suffer the loss of that money. Sheyne Khane and her children were no longer there. They had left that morning for Pennsylvania.