It is now January of 1894. I’m reading lots of Polski and rendering word-for-word plagarisms for our broadsheet, Der Trakhtner. At home, Shaya and I speak nothing but Russian, which is ok because Shaya is as often as not coming home with a Russian girl who loses her temper every time Shaya has to run out for an errand orwork on the proofs for his novel. I invariably have to calm her down, and since she knows only a little Polish, it’s good practice.
Her name is Galina. She’s from a small town that sounds not unlike ours, only hers is a fishing village 50 kilometers east of Petersburg. She is blonde, with a ruddy complexion, terrible teeth and pleasantly pneumatic features. She is Christian, but assures us she never goes to church. She does, however, wear a series of byzantine ikons for each day of the week and seems particularly sensitive about any statement that sounds like a curse.
On our meager salaries, we save up and manage to move into a tenement on Market Street. I soon afterward meet a non-religious Jewish girl from across the street named Rivke. Rivke is a maid by profession, she is tall and slender, not unattractive, but has a beak of a hooked nose. She’s an excellent cook, quite funny and very licentious. Without her we would be lost in our effort to keep an orderly apartment. Galina is insanely jealous of Rivke’s abilities and pours an entire salt-shaker into Rivke’s soup a day after Shaya complemented her cooking too effusively. Later that night, Shaya orders her out in a door-slamming end to their affair.
It was just as well, since Shaya’s book was being published. As it happens, Shalom is back in town on another reading tour and one night comes calling on us with a friend who has thick black hair and an even bushier mustache. Rivke and I were just sitting down to dinner when they come into our kitchen.
‘Yitzhok, you know Shaya of course. But this here is the illui I was telling about.’
‘Ah yes. Avram the khokhom. All Warsaw knows of your great feats of Torah.’
‘But all I did was ans...’
(Rivka kicks me from under our dining room table while Shalom interjects)
‘A true melamed this one. He will make Yiddish a light unto languages.’
‘Until that day, we have Shaya.’ Yitzhok answers and immediately afterward puts Shaya into a headlock. While unsuccessfully escaping from the headlock, Shaya manages to say...
‘Avram, allow me to present Yitzhok Loyb Peretz. The Yiddish Dostoevsky.’
‘Indeed. Zol gotter pitten we don’t want you not to realize when you’re in the presence of greatness again.’ Shalom quickly intejects.
‘Oh no. I read the complete works of you both last month.’
‘Clearly you’re not being worked hard enough’ says Peretz.
‘Reading your books is work enough.’ Rivke interjects to Peretz.
‘Ah. So we have a ballebooster here.’ Shalom says.
‘I’ve known Rivke since she came up to my knee and brought us cigars while we played cards at her father’s house. But yes, she’s a complete balleboos. Just like her mother. How is that meshugoyim heuse of theirs?’
‘Tate’s doing well enough. My brother Elazar is getting married next week.’
‘Ah. Mazel tov. He’s not a chassid I hope.’ says Shalom.
‘Yes. He’s gone back.’
‘Such is the life of the wise.’ observes Peretz. ‘The Jewish world stands on three things: Torah, docility and the acts of morons.’
‘Sha!’ Rivke grows agitated. ‘You’ll tempt the ayin horah.’
‘So Shaya. You know why we’re here.’
Shalom and Shaya go back into Shaya’s room, followed by Yitzhok. They emerge with an enormous manuscript and a bottle of champagne which seems to have materialized from nowhere.
‘Rivke!’ Shalom barks. ‘Their five best glasses please!’
‘“Tatiana” will be the book to announce Yiddish to the world!’ Shalom announces as he pops open the bottle and pours the champagne. ‘Your brother is the greatest talent the Yiddish language has ever seen Avram. Rabelais, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Charlap!’
‘L’Chaim’ We all say and clink our glasses then down our champagne. Shalom and Yitzhok leave quickly thereafter with the manuscript.
We see neither Shalom nor Yitzhok for an entire year. Shaya despairs that his manuscript is completely lost. By Pesach he stops going out to see friends. By Tisha b’Av he has quit his job at Der Takhtner. Half our nights he never leaves his room. Half our nights he stays out late, yet no one we know knows where he goes. I begin to worry for his health and safety. He is no longer my impetuous, happily confrontational older brother who teaches me everything I ever knew about the world. He is a sullen, withdrawn and despairing person who has lost his exuberance for life.
It is the eve of Holy Sylvester 1895 and the sixth night of Hannukah. We are staying in to keep Shaya company, as we’ve come to do nearly every night since the High Holidays. Rivke and I are, per usual, trying to keep Shaya from thinking about the manuscript. We’ve long since stopped taking his violent moodswings personally, particularly since any shouting is inevitably followed by a tearful apology. We’re worried that Shaya will be in a particularly low state tonight. He comes into the common room, and per usual he’s complaining. But this time he seems a bit more accepting of things. He says that 1894 was the year he realized he was nothing more than a toy to those more privileged than he. Shalom and Yitzhok simply lost interest. He almost seems accepting of the fact that he was not meant for great things.
Rivke is cooking dinner while I’m setting the table. We suddenly hear a gaggle of voices coming closer to our door and then, a very insistent knock. The stove is closer to the door than the table, so Rivke answers. She opens it to a huge wave of shouts.
‘Grupe fun Schmucks! That’s not Shaya. Where is the writer of Tatiana? We demand the presence of the Yiddish Shakespeare!’
Shaya has come to the door. The moment they see Shaya, an even bigger wall of cheers erupts. I look out and see the entire staff of Der Takhtner whom Shaya curses nightly as hacks. Half the men are holding bottles of vodka in their hands. With their free hands, the men hoist Shaya onto their shoulders, walk down our tenements three flights of stairs where Shalom and Yitzhok are waiting for them.
They’ve broken out into song long before the bottom flight, but Shalom immediately asks for silence. For two minutes, the staff of Der Trakhtner shush’s each other without actually stopping the song.
‘Gentlemen. I’ve asked you to come before us today to witness the birth of a great Yiddish writer (applause and cheers). Perhaps he is the greatest of us all. In these last weeks of 1894, we have seen the dark forces of Europe gather before us. In France, a man named Dreyfus is tried for the treason of being a Jewish army officer. The world does not merely chant ‘Down with Dreyfus.’ The world chants, ‘Down with the Jews!’ We are thought of through the world as vermin who attach ourselves to other cultures and produce nothing of our own. But here is one of our own, Shaya Charlap (big cheer), who has produced one of the great works of our time! Here is a man who has nothing to fear in comparison with Tolstoy and Hamsun. Never in the history of our people has our plight been stated with such eloquence (cheer)! Such divine inspiration (cheer)! Such utter passion (big cheer). The world will read Tatiana and finally understand the senseless cruelty which Jews have endured for so many thousands of years. This is the book that shall banish anti-semitism from our world! It is in a book like Tatiana that we shall announce to the world that we are our own culture (cheer)! Our own people (cheer)! A light unto nations (big cheer)! Let us parade through Warsaw and announce the birth of a new Yiddish writer!’
And with that, Shaya is hoisted onto a chair and paraded around Warsaw’s Jewish quarter. They begin to sing nigunim. Whenever someone opens a window to ask what’s going on, someone from Der Trakhtner’s staff announces: ‘Behold, the great new Jewish writer! Behold, our Shakespeare, Shaya Charlap!’
At one point during the parade, I beckon Rivke aside and say quietly into her ear:
‘Rivke. I’m pretty sure Tatiana’s not about Jews or anti-semitism at all. It’s about a goyish fishing village in Russia.’
In Who Is America?, Shamelessness Is Routine
36 minutes ago