by Aharon Megged

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Despite efforts to revive its use, Yiddish remains a dying language. Most of its speakers have died, and few living know more than a handful of words and phrases. The loss of the spirit and culture reflected in the Yiddish language, and the price of such progress and change, is the subject of Foiglman.

Zvi Arbel, an Israeli professor and historian, receives a letter from Schmuel Foiglman, a Yiddish-speaking poet and Holocaust survivor living in France. Foiglman effusively praises Arbel's history of the 17th-century massacre of the Polish Jews, sends Arbel a volume of his poetry, and arrives in Israel to meet him.

Arbel and his wife are put off by Foiglman's "old world" ways. He acts like a peasant, talks too much, gestures too grandly, and behaves too casually among virtual strangers. In time, though, Arbel is strangely drawn to the man and the culture his language calls to mind. Against the wishes of his wife, Arbel begins to explore the small world of Yiddish speakers living in Israel; but his interest leads to tragedy.

A successful writer in Israel for over 50 years, Megged is well known there. But Foiglman is a novel worthy of wider recognition -- a true masterpiece, revealing the complexity of modern Israeli life and describing the last breaths of a language and culture that had much to offer. (Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)

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Toby Press LLC, The
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5.82(w) x 8.84(h) x 1.07(d)

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Chapter Twenty-six

Since Nora's confession, a worm had lodged itself inside my body -- jealousy. Creeping inwardly, gnawing, burrowing, incessantly consuming. There was no way to eliminate it. The green-eyed monster and her evil, conniving offspring that trails her everywhere -- suspicion. We never mentioned the affair again. Not a word. It was a forbidden subject between us. But the air was charged with it.

And the stranger was present at home, day and night, witness to the silences and the exchanges between us. He followed me in my comings and goings, assuming all manner of guises. Sometimes, despite the fact that Nora had told me he was around forty, twenty years younger than herself, I would picture him as a slender, tall youth, keen-eyed and sun tanned, with auburn curls falling on his brow, like a biblical shepherd boy; at other times, I imagined him as a robust man, broad shouldered and thick voiced, a member of the legendary military reconnaissance units; at times, a mischievous wag, a charlatan, who by regaling women with tall tales and pleasantries lures them to his den. Somehow, he was always dressed in shorts, exposing hairy thighs.

From time to time, Nora would come home late from work. At six or seven, sometimes later. I resolved not to ask any questions. But my imagination, rankling with leprous jealousy and suspicion, would roam the alleys of Jaffa, along the beach, in the thickets of woods, creep into hotel rooms like a thief through the windows.

We kept up the pretense. We continued to be a couple of respectable intellectuals. Jealousy is a despicable, shameful vice that one conceals or never admits to. We were careful to continue our routines. As usual, I would go to work at the university and come home -- as late as possible, so as not to precede her, not to have to face an absence that would unleash the Dogs of Suspicion. In the evenings I would lock myself in my study and pore over papers and books; the testimonies of the Petliura's massacres waging hopeless battle against the phantom of the stranger, that "nature man" who rose before my eyes. As usual, Nora would do her household chores, with even greater application. She walked about the rooms quietly, gingerly, as if careful to let sleeping dogs lie. She served dinner quietly, soundlessly. "Do you want your coffee now?"

When I raised my eyes to her, I would see her high, handsome forehead under the straight line of her hair -- the blond hair tinged with gray -- imbued with gloomy, other-worldly pallor, as if touched by Cupid's hand. Sometimes, in the evenings, when I stole out of my room and glanced in the living room, I would see her seated in an armchair, an open book on her lap, a hand stopping her mouth and her eyes staring ahead, as if totally absorbed in some inner trouble, and the sight lacerated my heart. It's him she's seeing in front of her. She's tormented, like Tantalus whose mouth could not reach the forbidden fruit.

I could hear her, beyond the wall, turning on the television for some British program like Armchair Theater, and then a few moments later, getting up, turning it off, and with slow, despondent steps, going to the bedroom.

Every sentence we uttered was like a stone dropped into a pond. One night, when we were at a Philharmonic concert (they were playing Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique), I noticed from the corner of my eye how, during the adagio -- when the flutes' serene strains evoked scenes of pastoral tranquility, rustling of leaves in the wind, amorous musings -- her eyes filled with translucent tears and her throat tightened in an attempt to swallow them.

I still drove her to the Institute in the morning, or else she drove me to the university. Only the light farewell kisses stopped. However, when Yoav, Shula and Sarit came for a visit, the dammed up spring of familial warmth would well up in her, and she was once again lively and laughing, engaging in pleasant conversation, hugging the child, kissing her, chatting with her, singing to her.

In the nights -- we did not withdraw from each other. With a lust we had not experienced for many years we now clasped each other's arms. But it was mere lasciviousness, not an act of love but of fury: we would pour into each other's body the fury we harbored in our bones all day, the silences, the resentment of each other and of ourselves. Two accomplices, partners in debauchery.

And after release would come the long wakeful hours, she on her side, I on mine, without exchanging a word.

The stranger between us, the invisible man, snickered behind the lattice -- The Unicorn.

The air was charged; it seemed that all that was needed was a spark, and it would burst into flame. And burst it did. And as often happens in families, the fight was over money matters.

One evening, Nora stormed into the house, pale, agitated, her eyes open wide, said she had gone to the bank to withdraw some money, and the teller informed her that we were a huge amount in the red. She was stunned, then claimed there must be an error. But he produced a statement showing black on white the withdrawal of the sum that I had paid to Zelniker on April 13. "What happened?" she asked flabbergasted, "did you buy something behind my back?"

I asked her to sit down. I sat facing her and said quietly, "I lent this sum to Foiglman. To have his book published."

She let out a shriek. "What?!" Her flaming eyes bore into me. "You took out that much money from our joint account without even asking me?"

I replied -- containing within me another, bitter, rage that had been seething for weeks -- that Foiglman was a trusted friend, and that I had a right to do as I pleased with my money. This only incensed her more, and she lashed at me -- anger choking her throat, almost exploding -- that it was not my money alone, both of our salaries went into it; I had deceived her, I had tricked her, I had acted in an underhanded, cowardly way. From that moment on, our house shook with quarrels, like a raging heat wave that withers all spots of greenery in its wake.

We abandoned all the outward trappings of good manners and civility, the attributes that lend respectability to a professional couple that is concerned with culture and science. In rude, vulgar language, we would provoke each other.

The following day, returning from work, she entered my room, disdainfully slapped a sheaf of bank statements in front of me and, with a finger, pointed to three large sums, circled in red, that I had withdrawn from the account -- the sums paid out to the translator and the publisher. Her eyes flashing, she turned on me, "So that wasn't the first time you cheated me! It's been going on for months! And all to ingratiate yourself with your beloved Yiddish poet; you surrendered yourself to him, body and soul; you even dipped into our savings! At a great loss, too! You were so confident I wouldn't find out!"

I retorted that if I had really intended to keep it a secret from her, I would have found another way to lend my friend the money -- and I here emphasized the word "my friend" -- not through a regular checking account where every transaction is registered.

The mounting resentment, the contentiousness, the consuming urge to win the verbal swordplay, drove us both mad. Our tongues became sharp, dripping venom, at times as crass as fishmongers, at others as acrimonious as contending attorneys; we became completely irrational. Nora declared she would press charges against me for embezzlement; I laughed and said that the law was on my side, since each party to a joint account is entitled to unilaterally withdraw, deposit, transact, sign and cancel. She immediately demanded that we separate the accounts and that I reimburse her. I told her if that were indeed her wish, we would have to divide the property, too. I closed the windows so that our shouting would not be heard.

When I think back on how low we sank in our exchanges -- arguing about our share in the joint property, our salaries, our parents' inheritance, monies we had each used for personal expenses -- she on dresses and jewelry, I on books, travels etc. -- I feel so utterly ashamed. I remember that even then, in the midst of our fights, I would tell myself: These must be our doubles, not us, squabbling like this. This isn't my voice emerging from me, and it isn't her voice. We are a couple of impostors, putting on an act not of our choosing. After all, Nora had never been interested in money matters, never checked the accounts. Nothing could be further from her heart. Sometimes, in the middle of a fight, I felt like stopping short, as if a verse from an ancient prayer was echoing inside of me. "Remember the covenant, contain your evil inclination," and saying softly, "Nora, why are we making such fools of ourselves? We both know that you're not yourself and I'm not myself now," then take her in my arms, cry on each other's shoulders.

But the stranger always loomed before me, standing like Satan between us, rekindling my bitter resentment, preventing me from forgiving. During one of these fights, when our voices rose in the evening, I took my bedding from our conjugal bed and moved them to the couch in my study.

For a few days, silence reigned in the house, a hostile, tight-lipped silence. I, ensconced in my corner, she in hers. In the morning she went into the kitchen, deliberately avoiding me, drank her coffee hurriedly, then left for work. In the evening she came back -- where had she been all these hours? -- and when I locked myself in my study, she locked herself in the bedroom, or shut the living room door behind her. She left me hastily written notes on the kitchen table or on my desk or by the phone, "I'm taking the car, you'll have to do without;" "the insurance agent called, call him back;" "the plumber's coming at three, make sure someone's home;" "the Brombergs have invited us for Saturday; you can go by yourself;" "order gas;" "some student called; I didn't get her name;" "please do not involve Yoav and Shula in this disgraceful business!!!"

I would stare at those words, scan them for a sign of reconciliation, searching in the familiar handwriting for the tenderness and gentleness that were now no more. But it was like a forest fire, which burns unextinguished for days on end, the fire on occasion abates, subsides, smolders, but then, suddenly, the wind blows and fans the fire, the flames rise, crackle, and pounce on the boughs and consume everything in sight.

Then, suddenly, with no warning at all, after two or three days of silence between us, at ten or eleven at night, when I was sitting and grading papers in my study, Nora opened the door. From the threshold, she hurled at me, like a judge pronouncing a verdict, "You were ready to destroy our lives for the sake of that Yid!" She slammed the door without waiting for a reply. Another time, before leaving for work, she stopped at the door and declared, "You are a selfish man, completely impervious to other people's feelings. You're capable of watching someone writhe at your feet, howling in agony, and you won't even offer him a glass of water!" and stormed out. On another occasion, when I was standing on a ladder, looking for a book on the top shelf, she said, her voice choking with restrained emotion, "You've been living with me for more than thirty years. Have you ever, even once, asked yourself who I am? What's going on inside of me? What's eating me up? You can see things that happened two hundred years ago, thousands of miles away, but what happens under your own roof here, next to you -- "

I hardened my heart and did not reply. And one night when I was sitting in the living room watching the news, she walked in vigorously and turned off the television. She demanded to know what was going to happen with the money I had given to that miserable poet, and when was he going to return it.

Taken by surprise by this sudden attack, it was only after a moment that I was able to reply calmly, "He'll return it when he comes to Israel."

"When is he coming?"

"When the book is published. Soon."

"Why can't he send it from there now?"

"He doesn't have it now."

"How do you know he'll have it then?" Her voice contained suppressed rage about to erupt.

"He gave me his word. I believe him."

"With no guarantees? For such an amount?"

I was silent for a moment, then replied that a man like him, who had shown such generosity to me, to her, deserved a little kindness on my part.

"What generosity has he shown me?" Her face was livid with rage; the taut skin made it look like a death mask.

I said the string of pearls he had given her was worth more than the loan I advanced him.

She threw me a sharp look and walked out. A moment later she reappeared, holding the string of pearls, shouting, "Give it back to him!" She hurled it at my feet and left. The string broke and the pearls scattered and rolled on the floor. I knelt and started gathering them, one by one. After that, like a lull after a tempest, there was silence in the house for many days.

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