Photo: Family Archive
What She Seeks
By Yente Serdatsky
Translated from Yiddish by Dalia Wolfson
She was an older girl and not very pretty, her body middle-aged, a little shapeless, with a squat, short nose that didn’t match her long face. She had black, sad eyes and wore her dark hair plainly, combed stiff and smooth. The cut of her clothes, all of them woven of cheap, cheerless fabric, had been out of fashion for several years now. The overall impression she made was somber: a look at her could deflate your mood, and you’d breathe more easily when she was finally out of the way.
Like many other girls, she fell into working in the shop from quite a young age. The machine stole her days, swallowing them whole one after another; her nights passed by in a dreary, silent room. She herself didn’t even notice that she’d grown older, and when she turned thirty she felt no fear; she was almost entirely estranged from her own life. Passion, turbulent desires, terror, anxiety—these were alien to her. The few streets between the shop and the house were her entire world, and she felt it was an empty and sad one—but she didn’t know how any of that could be changed. There were no relatives to care about her fate. She was all alone here. She might have wondered about a different life in her lonely hours, but she saw no way to take a step towards that path, and out of that room: any desire that appeared vanished quickly before it could move her.
She’d lived in a small Polish shtetl until the age of twenty. It was a miserable place: a few wooden houses on the verge of collapse—straw roofs, black clay floors, soot-blackened beams. Even the forest nearby was depressing. In summertime the grasses dried out and the pine needles were faded and yellow. In the winter new needles grew, but the result was uncanny: the green trees clashed unnaturally with the white, snow-covered earth. On a bright day the winter sun would cast a hard metallic sheen on the forest. But you couldn’t look at it much anyway: the window panes, thick with frost, let nothing in. Nor could you last outside, with the snow getting into your raggedy shoes and the cold creeping under your skin.
When she was young, her father was the breadwinner and her mother stayed home. She didn’t miss those days. Her mother was a tall, strong, unrefined countrywoman with a harsh voice and heavy hands that tried to teach her daughter housework. Her own hands, small and fragile, could neither wash nor wring the coarse linens properly. Her mother would grow impatient and let out a curse, or a slap.
When she grew older, her father became ill and began to cough. The doctors diagnosed him with tuberculosis and warned that he’d die without proper care. From then on her father stayed home, and her mother took on the family burden. She became a capable businesswoman, and soon earned more than her husband. She could have collected enough money for her daughter’s dowry and married the girl off; instead she neglected her motherly duties while paying off her sick husband’s expenses. Doctors, prescriptions, woolen clothes, milk, honey, eggs, expensive fruits—it was all for him. And it did make a difference: he grew stronger, gained weight, his face glowed with color, and those eyes—thirsty for life, terrified by death—were lively and charming.
The girl now spent all her days at her sick father’s side. It was a sad place to be—a hushed fear of death hovered over his body. She’d often find him lying there, deep in his own thoughts, depressed, and his melancholy would settle on her like a shadow on a wall. Some time passed, and they spent happier days together: her father began to teach her to read and write in Yiddish. A new territory—America—was added to the “map” of her future; an aunt would be sending a ship ticket. She would have to know how to daven, how to write a letter in Yiddish. Her father couldn’t offer her more than that—if he could, he probably would have taught her.
It was the last winter before her departure: the ticket lay ready in a drawer, they were just waiting for warmer weather so she wouldn’t freeze out at sea. Her father’s depression was now worse than ever. He wouldn’t let her out of his sight. He took all the holy books, the sforim, from the shelves, the majority in Yiddish translation; he didn’t know Hebrew. Now he reviewed everything with her: blessings, prayers, rituals, everything she’d need to know. He listened carefully to see if she’d mastered the khumesh translation, and then he brought out even more sforim from the back, ones full of legends, beautiful, lyrical and profound. The sick man’s gentle soul sensed that material matters would not suffice: the child would need to be spiritually equipped for her difficult path.
But here in America, any such effects seemed beside the point—it was as though she’d left them behind back at home, or thrown them into the sea on the trip over. Her days were filled with hard work, and in the evenings, too, there was much to do: a week’s worth of laundry to be washed, pressed, straightened; a dress to be sewn, a room to be dusted and cleaned, meals to be cooked. Her body was tired, and sleep overcame her early in the evening.
The only thing that stirred her spirit in those drab, gray days were letters from home. Several days before their expected arrival, she’d already be leaving the shop in a hurry, her heart pounding the whole way back to her room. She’d run breathlessly up the steep staircases, open the door, enter the room, eyes riveted to the little table where her landlord left the mail. “Nothing!” she’d cry out, her voice almost loud. Then she’d slump, staring hard at the table, waiting, as though an angel might drop the letters down through the ceiling. Then, calmer, she’d whisper: “Tomorrow…” And that word was enough, and it carried all her hope and consolation. She’d get up again and start cleaning the room as though a dear guest was coming tomorrow, spread a tablecloth over the little table where the letter would lie, and take a look in the drawers, to make sure that the paper and ink were in order.
And on evenings when the mail did arrive, she’d treat herself, going first to the “pictures.” On the way home, she’d buy fruit, as though a guest were waiting back in the room. She’d read the letter before, during, and after the meal, and later in bed she’d look at the words for a long time, until the very ink seemed to run once again, and sleep would take over.
In the morning she’d start composing her answer. Writing back took several evenings: thinking of the words, getting them on paper. But they didn’t come out right, not as she’d intended, nor did she know what she wanted to say: her lonely heart ached from so much longing. For her father? For the forest with its dried-out grasses in summer? For the green pines in that snowy landscape, under the blank, hard stare of the winter sun? She couldn’t name her feelings, and her heart felt leaden, and the pen in her hand wouldn’t budge.
And when the letter was sent, it would occupy her thoughts. She relived every word, every expression she’d written. The letter became as dear to her as a great work to its author when it’s sent off to print. Then she’d think of all the words and phrases she’d forgotten to include. She’d put them away for the next letter. She carried them close to her, carefully, and, lying in bed, she’d go over each one to make sure she hadn’t forgotten it, like a miser going through his count, checking that he hasn’t missed a single gold coin.
The war began. The routes were closed and the letters stopped coming. The girl became nervous. She felt now as though she were hanging in the air, suspended by terror and doubt. Or as though an iron hand had her clutched in its grip. What did her life matter? The ideas and idioms from the letter she was writing tumbled through her head—what use were they to her now? The room seemed empty: nothing to wait for, nothing to rush home for from the shop. A kind of indifferent emptiness filled her days, sleep coming even earlier than before. Her mind wandered, doleful and dull.
Some time passed. One rainy evening, as she was getting ready for sleep, a thought flashed in her weary head: her father had read sforim with her. She had so enjoyed it. Why not buy those books and read them, just as she had at home?
It was still early out. She snatched her hat and jacket, as though to ward off any second thoughts, and ran down the steps quietly, swiftly, as if her nerves might dissuade her. There was a sforim store a couple of blocks down, and the walk flew by. She entered the shop, her face flushed.
The shopkeeper, a bespectacled old Jewish man, didn’t even look up. Her voice was too soft, and she had to repeat her request over and over again. He moved around the shelves effortfully, dusting off the books with an idle hand, then put them in order, considered them for a moment, tied them into a bundle and handed them to her. Having paid, she grabbed the bundle immediately, as though in fear that the shopkeeper might regret it, and only breathed easy again when the books finally lay on the table, right where the letters from home used to lie.
Then she began to read. Night after night she’d rush home. She’d open a book, read intently for a while, and then, sighing, say: “That’s not it.” So it went, one book after the other, until she’d looked through them all. She didn’t know she was missing a reading companion; at home it had been her father, with his gentle, bright gaze, his quivering voice, his heartfelt melody. Without him, reading felt lifeless, lacking, uninteresting.
But her heart had to have something interesting! And one day that longing arose within her, insistent and vocal. She reflected for a while and came to a conclusion: She must have bought the wrong book…of course, how could she have forgotten that one special sefer, the one with the wonderful stories? She could still remember so many of them. Yes! In one of them, a rabbi had made an axe with a blade that reached the ocean floor, and a handle that reached the skies. Why would anyone need such an axe? So that the blade would chop up the dreadful, deep-sea ponderings, leaving things as clear, as pure as the blue, transparent sky.
It was a good thing she remembered the name of the book. Tomorrow she would bring it home—and happy days would come again.
The next day she returned to the store. This time the shopkeeper looked straight at her, then began searching the shelves. He spent a long time in thought, as though he were about to deliver a difficult verdict to the accused.
“No, we don’t have this book in Yiddish!” he said, his voice hoarse.
She grew very pale; it was as though her joys, her hopes and happiness, had been dismissed. The old shopkeeper sensed her sorrow and, his voice full of pity, suggested:
“We may not have the book, but maybe someone else does!” And he named one particular printer.
But there, too, the desired book could not be found. She grew even paler this time. This shopkeeper—younger, more perceptive—was a close reader of faces (those revealing of suffering and anguish more than anything else). Seeing her expression, he pitied her all the more, and sent her to another printer.
After that day, she found herself roaming from place to place. After work she’d get dinner at a restaurant; there was no time to cook. She’d return home only to change clothes: when you’re going out among people you can’t wear the same dress every day the way you do in the shop. Her “going out” clothes were prettier, more fashionable, light, and well-fitted. Her hat, too, was nicer, with a bright feathered or floral trim. When she was dressed, she’d spend a long while looking at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were transformed: large, restless, sparkling. And her cheeks had high color, as though tinted with blush, and her hair, dabbed intentionally with a sweet-smelling oil, glistened brightly.
Finally ready, she’d grab her new handbag, stitched with fine flowers and pearls. Fingers trembling slightly, her hand would reach for something in the bag’s silken jaws, lingering for a while, then pull out a scribbled-on slip of paper, or a simple white card. She’d bring it right up to her eyes, staring long and hard. Her heart would start beating loudly again, just as it once had when she’d held a letter from home in her hand.
But no—this slip of paper was a greater joy than those letters. It held an address and a short referral. The addresses directed her to a variety of people: printers, members of the press, reading room managers, and antique sellers and dealers of modern books and old sforim alike.
As for the bookshe desired—she had not found it anywhere. But she would find it. Everyone told her so, they had given her hope, and they had all been so kind! She’d never known people could be so friendly, so good. They’d look deep in her eyes and ask her so many things, interested in every small detail of her childhood, her old home, her father, her mother, her work and her life in this land. She’d answer freely and openly. In one evening, she’d talk more than she had in one year. How good, how easy things felt, when one spoke straight from the heart!
But lately she’d grown troubled again, just a little. One of the printers had let her know some wonderful news: he’d found out there was a Yiddish version of the sefer back in Russia. Just wait until the routes open up and commerce resumes!
She blanched at his words—from happiness, surely! But deep in her heart she murmured a prayer on free trade between America and Russia: Let it never come to pass…