Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

Back in Odessa, as a mustachioed seventeen-year-old, Grandpa had fallen in love with a well-respected young woman by the name of Shlomit Levin, who loved nice things and was drawn to high society. She longed to entertain famous people, to be friendly with artists and "live a cultured life."

It was a terrible love: she was eight or nine ears older than her pocket Casanova, and moreover she also happened to be his first cousin.

At first the startled family did not want to hear about a marriage between the maiden and the boy. As if the difference in their ages and their blood were not enough, the young man had no education worthy of the name, no fixed employment, and no regular income beyond what he could earn from buying and selling here and there. Over and above all these catastrophes, Tsarist Russian law forbade the marriage of first cousins.

According to the photos, Shlomit Levin--the daughter of a sister of Rasha-Keila Klausner, née Braz--was a solidly built, broad shouldered young woman, not particularly good-looking but elegant, haughty, tailored with severity and restraint. She wears a felt trilby, wihc cuts a fine slanting line cross her brow, its brim coming down on the right over her neat hair and her let ear and sweeping upward on the left like a stern of a boat, while in front of a bunch of fruit is held in place by a sharp hat pin, and to the left a feather waves proudly over the fruit, the hat, everything, like an arrogant peacock's tail. Th lady's left arm, clad in everything, like an arrogant peacock's tail. The lady's left arm, clad in a stylish kid glove, holds an oblong leather handbag, the other arm being firmly crossed with that of the young Grandpa Alexander, while her fingers, also gloved, hover lightly above the sleeve of his black overcoat, barely touching him.

He is standing to her right, nattily dressed, stiff, well turned out, his height enhanced by thick soles, yet he looks slighter and shorter than she is, despite the tall black homburg on his head. His young face is serious, resolute, almost lugubrious. His lovingly tended mustache tries in vain to dispel the boyish freshness that still marks his face. His eyes are elongated and dreamy. He is wearing an elegant, wide-lapeled overcoat with padded shoulders, a starched white shirt, and a narrow silk tie, and on his right arm hangs or perhaps even swings a stylish cane with a carved handle and shiny ferrule. In the old photograph it glints like the blade of a sword.

A shocked Odessa turned its back on this Romeo and Juliet. Their mothers, who were sisters, engaged in a war of the wolrd that began with mutual accusations of culpability and ended in everlasting silence. So Grandpa withdrew his meager savings, sold something here and something there, added one ruble to another, both families may have contributed something, if only to drive the scandal out of sight and out of mind, and my grandparents, the love-struck cousins, set sail for New York, as hundreds of thousands of other Jews from russia and other Eastern European countries were doing at that time. Their intention was to marry in New York and take American citizenship, in which case I might have been born in Brooklyn or in Newark, New Jersey, and written clever novels in English about the passions and inhibitions of top-hatted immigrants and the neurotic ordeals of their agonized progeny.

But on board the ship, somewhere between Odessa and NewYork, on the Black Sea or off the coast in Sicily, or as they glided through the night toward the twinkling lights of the Straits of Gibraltar, or maybe their love boat was passing over the lost continent of Atlantis, there was a further drama, a sudden twist to the plot: love raised its awesome dragon's head once more.

To cut a long story short, m grandfather, the bridegroom-to-be who had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday, fell in love again, passionately, heart-breakingly, desperately, up on deck or somewhere in the bowels of the ship, with another woman, a fellow passenger, who was also, as far as we know, a full decade older than he, give or take a year.

But Grandma Shlomit, so the family tradition has it, never entertained for a moment the thought of giving him up. She immediately took hold of him by the earlobe and held fast, she did not relax her grip day or night until they emerged from the premises of the New York rabbi who had married them to each other according to the laws of Moses and of Israel. ("By the ear," my family would say in a hilarious whisper, "she pulled him b the ear all the way, and she didn't let go till they were well and truly hitched," And sometimes they said: "Till they were hitched? Naah. She never let go of him. Ever. Not till her dying day, and maybe even a little bit longer than that, she held fast to his ear, and sometimes gave him a little tug.")

And then, a great puzzle followed. Within a year or two this odd couple had paid for another passage--or perhaps their parents helped them again--and embarked on another steamship, and without a backward glance they returned to Odessa.

It was utterly unheard of: some two million Jews migrated from east to west and settled in America in fewer than two score years between 1880 and 1917, and for all of them it was a one-way trip, except for my grandparents, who made the return journey. It must be supposed that they were the only passengers, so that there was no one for my passionate grandfather to fall in love with, and his ear was safe all the way back to Odessa.

Why did they return?

I was never able to extract a clear answer from them.

"Grandma, what was wrong with America?"

"There was nothing wrong. only it was so crowded."

"Crowded? In America?"

"Too many people in such a small country."

"Who decided to go back, Grandpa? You or Grandpa?"

"Nu, shto, what do you mean? What sort of a question is that?"

"And why did you decide to leave? What didn't you like about it?"

"What didn't we like? What didn't we like? We didn't like anything about it. Nu, well. It was full of horses and Red Indians."

"Red Indians?"

"Red Indians."

More than this I was never able to get out of him.

Here is a translation of a poem called "Winter" that Grandpa wrote in Russian, as usual:

Springtime has fled, now it's winter instead,
The storm winds do rage and the skies have turned black.
Joy and gladness depart from my gloom-laden heart,
I wanted to weep but my tears are held back.

My soul feels weak and my spirit is bleak, 
 My heart is dark as the heavens above. 
My days have grown old, I'll no longer behold
The joys of spring and the pleasures of love.

In 1972, when I first went to New York, I looked for and found a woman who looked like a Native American; she was standing, as I recall, on the corner of Lexington and Fifty-third Street handing out leaflets. She was neither young nor old, had wide cheekbones, and she wore an old man's overcoat, and a kind of shawl against the biting cold wind. She held out a leaflet and smiled; I took it and said thank you. "Love awaits you," it promised, under the address of a singles bar. "Don't waste another minute. Come now."

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness 

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