Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

In the days of the famine, no one lived better in all Odessa than the almsfolk of the Second Jewish Cemetery. Kofman the cloth merchant, had built an almshouse for old people by the wall of the cemetery in memory of his wife Isabella, a fact that became the butt of many a joke at Café Fankoni. But Kofman turned out to be right in the end. After the Revolution, the old men and women who found refuge by the cemetery immediately grabbed positions as gravediggers, cantors, and body washers. They got their hands on an oak coffin with a silver-tasseled pall, and rented it out to the poor.

There were no planks to be found anywhere in Odessa in those days. The rental coffin did not stand idle. The dead would lie in the oak coffin at home and at the funeral service--but then they were pitched into their graves wrapped in shroud. This was a forgotten Jewish custom.

Wise men had taught that one is not to hinder the union of worm and carrion--carrion is unclean. "For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return."

Because of the revival of the forgotten custom, the rations of the old folk grew in ways which in those das no one could even dream of. In the evenings they got drunk in Zalan Krivoruchka's cellar, and threw their leftover scraps to poorer companions.

Their prosperity remained undisturbed until the rebellion in the German settlements. The Germans killed Garrison Commander Gersh Lugovoy.

He was buried with honors. The troops marched to the cemetery with bands, field kitchens, and machine guns on tachankas. Speeches were given and vows made over his open grave.

"Comrade Gersh joined the Revolutionary Social Democratic Workers Party of the Bolsheviks in 1911, where he held the position of propagandist and liason agent!" Lenka Broytman, the division commander, yelled at the top of his lungs. "Comrade Gersh was arrested along with Sonya Yanovskaya, Ivan Sokolov, and Monozon in the town of Nikolayev in 1913. . . ."

Arye-Leib, the elder of the almshouse, lay in waiting with his comrade. Lenka hadn't yet finished his farewell speech over the grave when the old men heaved up the coffin in order to tip it onto its side so that the deceased, covered with a flag, would come tumbling out. Lenka discreetly jabbed Arye-Leib with his boot spur.

"Beat it!" he hissed. "Go on, beat it!" . . . Gersh served the Republic . . ."

Before the eyes of the horrified old folk, Lugovoy was buried along with the oak coffin, the tassels, and the black pall onto which the Star of David and verses from an ancient Hebrew prayer for the dead had been woven in silver.

"We've all just attended our own funeral!" Arye-Leib told his comrades after the burial. "We have fallen into Pharaoh's hands!" And he rushed off to see Broydin, the overseer of the cemetery, with a request that planks for a new coffin and cloth for a pall be issued immediately. Broydin made promises, but did nothing. His plans did not include the enrichment of the old folk.

"My heart aches more for the unemployed municipal employees than for these entrepreneurs," he told the others at the office.

Broydin made promises, but did nothing. In Zalman Krivoruchka's wine cellar, Talmudic curses rained down on his head and the heads of the Union of Municipal Workers. The old folk cursed Broydin's bone marrow and that of the members of the union, along with the fresh seed in the wombs of their wives. They called down every kind of paralysis and boil upon each and every one of them.

The old folk's income shrank. Their rations now consisted of bluish soup with boiled fish bones, with a second course of barley kasha without a single dab of butter in it.

An aged Odessan is ready enough to eat any kind of soup, regardless of what it's made of, as long as there's garlic, pepper, and a bay leaf in it. There were none of these in the old folk's soup.

The Isabella Kofman Almshouse shared in the common lot. The rage of its famished inmates grew. Their rage rained down upon the head of the person who least expected it. This person was Dr. Judith Shmayser, who had come to the almshouse to administer smallpox vaccinations.

The Provincial Executive Committee had issued an order for mandatory vaccination. Judith Shmayser laid out her instruments on the table and lit a little alcohol burner. Outside the windows stood the emerald walls of the cemetery hedges. The blue tongue of the flame mingled with the June lightning.

Meyer Beskonechny, a haggard old man, stood closest to Judith. He watched her preparations sullenly.

"I'll give you a jab now," Judith said to him, beckoning him over with her tweezers. She pulled his thin, bluish strap of an arm out of his rags.

"There's nowhere for you to jab me," the old man said, jerking back his arm.

"It's not going to hurt," Judith exclaimed. "It doesn't hurt when you're given a jab in the flesh."

"I don't have no flesh!" Meyer Beskonechny said. "There's nowhere for you to jab."

Muffled sobs came from one of the corners. Doba-Leya, a former cook at circumcision feasts, was sobbing. Meyer twisted his decayed cheeks.

"Life is shit," he muttered. "The world's a brothel, everyone's a swindler!"

The pince-nez on Judith's nose bounced, her breasts swelled out of her starched coat. She opened her mouth to explain the benefits of vaccination, but Arye-Leib, the elder of the almshouse, stopped her.

"Young lady," he said. "Our mamas gave birth to us just like your mama gave birth to you! And this woman, our mama, gave birth to us so we would live, not so we would suffer! She wanted for us to live well, and she was as right as a mother can be. A person who is pleased with what Broydin provides him, that person is not worth the material that went into him. our aim, young lady, is to inoculate smallpox, and with God's help, you are inoculating it. Our aim is to live out our life, not torture it! But we are not achieving our aim!"

Doba-Leya, a whiskered old woman with a leonine face, started sobbing even louder on hearing these words. She sobbed in a deep bass.

"Life is shit," Meyer Beskonechny repeated. "Everyone's a swindler!"

Paralyzed Simon-Volf, screeching and twisting his hands, clutched at the steering wheel of his invalid cart and went rolling toward the door. His yarmulke slid over his swollen, crimson head. Thirty growling and grimacing old men and women tumbled out onto the cemetery walk behind Simon-Volf. They shook their crutches and brayed like starving donkeys.

When he saw them, the watchman slammed the cemetery gates shut. The amazed gravediggers stopped digging and raised their shovels, clumps of earth and grass roots still clinging to them.

The noise brought out bearded Broydin in his tight little jacket, leggings, and cycling cap.

"You swindler!" Simon-Volf shouted. "There's nowhere for us to be jabbed! We've got no meat on our arms!"

Doba-Leya began snarling and growling. She grabbed Simon-Volf's invalid cart and tried to ram Broydin with it. Arye-Leib, as always, began spouting allegories and parables that crept up on byways toward an end that was not always clearly apparent.

He began with the parable about Rabbi Osiya, who had given his property to his children, his heart to his wife, his fear to God, and his levy to Caesar, keeping for himself only a place beneath an olive tree where the setting sun shone the longest. From Rabbi Osiya, Are-Leib moved on to planks for a new coffin, and to rations.

Broydin spread his long-legginged legs, and listened without raising his eyes. The brown fringe of his beard lay motionless on his new jacket. He seemed immersed in sad, tranquil thought.

"Forgive me, Arye-Leib," Broydin sighed, turing to the cemetary sage. "Forgive me, but I must say that I cannot but see ulterior motives and political goals here. Standing behind you, I cannot but see people who know exactly what they are doing, just as you know exactly what you are doing."

Broydin raised his eyes. In a flash they filled with the white water of fury. He trained the trembling hills of his pupils on the old folk.

"Arye-Leib!" Broydin said in his powerful voice. "I want you to read this telegram from the Tatar Republic, where an immense number of Tatars are starving like madmen! Read the petition of the Petersburg proletariat who are working and wiating, hungering by their benches!"

"I don't have time to wait!" Arye-Leib interrupted Broydin. "I have no time."

"There are people," Broydin continued without listening, "who have it worse than you do, and there are thousands of people who have it worse than the people who have it worse than you do! You are sowing trouble, Arye-Leib, and a whirlwind is what you shall reap. You are as good as dead if I turn my back on you. You will die if I go my way and you go yours. You will die, Arye-Leib. You will die, Simon-Volf. You will die, Meyer Beskonechny. But tell me one thing, just one thing, before you die---do we not have a Soviet government, or could it be that we do not? If we do not have a Soviet government, if it's all in my imagination, the I would be grateful if you would be so kind as to take me back to Mr. Berzon's on the corner of Deribasovskaya and Ekaterininskaya Streets, where I worked as a tailor sewing vests all my life! Tell me, Arye-Leib, is the Soviet government all in my imagination?"

And Broydin came right up to the old cripples. His quivering pupils broke loose and ewnt hurtling over the groaning, petrified herd like searchlights, like tongues of flame. Broydin's leggings crackled, and sweat stewed on his frrowed face. He came closer and closer to Arye-Leib, demanding an answer to whether it was all in his imagination that the Soviet government was now in power.

Arye-Leib remained silent. This silence might have been the end of him, had not Fedka Stepun appeared at the end of the walk, barefoot and in a sailor's shirt.

Fedka had been shell-shocked near Rostov and lived in a hut next to the cemetery, recovering. He wore a whistle on an orange police cord and carried a revolver without a holster.

Fedka was drunk. The locks of his rock-hard curls rested on his forehead. Beneath his locks his face, with its high cheekbones, was twisted by convulsions. He walked up to Lugovoy's grave, which was surrounded by wilted wreaths.

"Where were you, Lugovoy, when I took Rostov?" Fedka asked the dead man.

Fedka gnashed his teeth, blew his police whistle, and pulled the revolver from his belt. The revolver's burnished muzzle glittered.

"They've trampled on the czars," Fedka shouted. "There are no czars! Let them all lie without coffins!"

Fedka as clutching his revolver. His chest was bare. On it were tattooed the name "Riva" and a dragon, its head inclined toward a nipple.

The gravediggers crowded around Fedka with their raised shovels. The women who were washing corpses came out of their sheds ready to join Doba Leya in her howling. Roaring waves beat against the locked cemetery gates.

People with dead relatives on wheelbarrows demanded to be let in. Beggards banged their crutches against the fence.

"They've trampled on the czars!" Fedka shouted, firing into the sky.

The people came hopping and umping up the cemetery walk. Broydin's face slowly turned white. He raised his hand, agreed to all the demands of the almsfolk, and, with a soldierly about-turn, went back to his office. At that very instant the gates burst open. Pushing their wheelbarrows in front of them, the relatives of the dead briskly hurried down the paths. Self-proclaimed cantors sang "El moley rakhim" in piercing falsettos over open graves. In the evening the old folk celebrated their victory at Krivoruchka's. They gave Fedka three quarts of Bessarabian wine.

"Hevel havolim," Arye-Leib said, clinking glasses with Fedka. "You're one of us, one of us! Kuloy hevel."

The mistress of the wine cellar, Krivoruchka's wife, was washing glasses behind the partition.

"When a Russian man is blessed with a good character," Madame Krivoruchka commented, "it's a rare luxury!"

Fedka was led out of the wine cellar after one in the morning.

"Hevel havolim." He muttered the dire, incomprehensible words as he tottered along Stepovaya Street. "Kuloy hevel."

On the folowing day the old folk of the almshouse were each given four sugar cubes, and there was meat in their borscht. In the evening they were taken to the Odessa City Theater to a performance organized by the Department of Social Assistance. A performance of Carmen. It was the first time in their lives that these invalids and cripples saw an Odessa theater's gilt tiers, the velvet of its loges, and the oily sparkle of its chandeliers. During intermission they were given liver-sausage sandwiches.

An army truck took them back to the cemetery. It roleld through the deserted streets, banging and sputtering. The old folk slept with full stomachs. They belched in their sleep and shuddered with satiation, like dogs who have run so much they can run no more.

The next morning, Arye-Leib got up earlier than the rest. He faced east to say his prayers and saw a notice pinned to the door, in which Broydin annoucned that the almshouse was going to be closed for renovations and that all its wards were to report immediately to the local Department of Social Assistance for their employability to be reassessed.

The sun emerged over the green treetops of the cemetery grove. Arye-Leib raised his hand to his eyes. A tear dropped from the spent hollows.

The shining chestnut walk stretched toward the mortuary. The chestnuts were in bloom, the trees bore tall white blossoms on their spreading boughs. An unknown woman with a shawl tied tautly under her breasts was working in the mortuary. Everything had been redone--the walls decorated with fir branches, the tables scraped clean. The woman was washing an infant. She nimbly turned it from side to side, the water pouring in a diamond stream over its crushed, blotchy little back.

Broydin was sitting on the mortuary steps in his leggings. He sat there like a man of leisure. He took off his cap and wiped his forehead with a yellow handkerchief.

"That's exactly what I said to Comrade Andreychik at the union," said the melodious voice of the unknown woman. "We're not afraid of work! Let them go ask about us in Ekaterinoslav--Ekaterinoslav knows how we work.

"Make yourself at home, Comrade Blyuma, make yourself at home," Broydin said placidly, sticking his yellow handkerchief into his pocket. "I'm easy enough to get along with, yes, I'm easy enough to get along with!" he repeated, and turned his sparkling eyes to Arye-Leib, who had dragged himself all the way up to the stoop. "As long as you don't spit in my kasha."

Broydin did not finish what he was saying. A buggy harnessed to a large black horse pulled up at the gate. Out of the buggy stepped the director of the Communal Economics Department, wearing a fine shirt. Broydin rushed over to help him out of the buggy and, bowing and scraping, took him to the cemetery.

The former tailor's apprentice showed his director a century of Odessan history resting beneath the granite tombstones. He showed him the vaults and memorials of the wheat exporters, shipping brokers, and merchants who had built Russia's Marseille on the site of Khadzhibei. They all lay here, their faces toward the gate, the Ashkenazis, Gessens, and Efrussis---the lustrous misers and philosophical bon vivants, the creators of wealth and Odessa anecdotes. They lay beneath their labradorite and rose-marble memorials, shielded by chains of acacias and chestnut trees from the plebes clumped against the wall.

"They wouldn't let us live while theyw ere alive," Broydin said, kicking a memorial with his boot. "And after their death they wouldn't let us die."

Inspired, he told the director of the Communal Economics Department about his reorganization program for the cemetery and his campaign plan against the Jewish Burial Brotherhood.

"And get rid of them over their too," the director said, pointing to the beggars who had gathered by the gate.

"I am already seeing to that," Broydin answered. "Step b step, everything's being taken care of."

"Well, keep up the good work," Mayorov, the director said. "i see you have things under control here. Keep up the good work!"

He placed his boot on the buggy's footboard, but suddenly remembered Fedka.

"Just some shell-shocked fellow," Broydin said, lowering his eyes. "Tehre are times when he loses control of himself--but he's been straightened out, and he apologizes.

"That Broydin knows his onions," Mayorov told his companion, as they drove off. "He's handling things well."

The large horse took Mayorov and the director of the Department of Public Services into town. On the way, they passed the old men and women who had been thrown out of the almshouse. They were hobbling along the road in silence, bent under their bundles. Spirited Red Army fighters were herding them into lines. The invalid carts of the paralyzed were screeching. Asthmatic whistling and humble wheezing tore from the chests of the retired cantors, wedding jesters, circumcision-feast cooks, and washed up sales clerks.

The sun stood high in the sky. The ehat tore into the hearts of the heaps of rags dragging themselves along the earth. Their journey lay along a joyless, scorched, stony high road, past shacks of straw and clay, fields smothered by rocks, gutted houses mangled by shells, and past the plague mound. This inexpressibly sad Odessan high road led from the town to the cemetery.

Isaac Babel - Odessa Stories

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