“Wex is as irreverent and humorous, [and] he has his own style. . . . Breathtaking. It’s so subtle you don't see what’s coming until . . . all of a sudden something beautiful appears.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“[Wex has] certainly nailed the Borscht Belt humour. . . . A lively and entertaining fictional debut.”
— Edmonton Journal
“A hilarious portrait of Jewish life in Toronto . . . and a new hero for Yiddish literature, one who, even while portraying that most tragic of birds, the dodo, represents not the extinction of Yiddish culture, but its tenacity.”
— The Globe and Mail
“[Wex] sets out to do for Toronto’s Jews what Mordecai Richler’s fictions did for Montreal’s and Philip Roth’s for Newark’s: paint their portraits so acutely, so knowingly, so as to inspire their apoplectic rage.”
“A good portion of the reading world, including the 2010 Booker Prize jury, finds Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question . . . hilarious — I found it tedious. . . . However funny or unfunny Jacobson’s book may be (maybe it just didn’t hit my funny bone), this Canadian-authored entry into the world of Yiddish humour had me chuckling, laughing and sometimes roaring from start to finish. . . . If you are looking for some escapist reading that is totally irreverant and very, very funny, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Wex’s book.”
The Frumkiss Family Businessby Michael Wex
Thomas Mann meets Mordecai Richler in this outstanding novel of great intellect and humour that already reads like a classic.
The Frumkiss family doesn't look much different from any of the others in Toronto's Bathurst Manor. Grandpa survived the Holocaust; Grandma the Second came from Poland at the age of five. Dad's a foot doctor; Mom is dead, and her mother
Thomas Mann meets Mordecai Richler in this outstanding novel of great intellect and humour that already reads like a classic.
The Frumkiss family doesn't look much different from any of the others in Toronto's Bathurst Manor. Grandpa survived the Holocaust; Grandma the Second came from Poland at the age of five. Dad's a foot doctor; Mom is dead, and her mother — Grandma Number One —died while giving birth to her in Kazakhstan. Her three kids — the oldest is forty-two — are as frustrated and directionless as most baby boomers with no real financial worries. One's in Toronto, there's one in the suburbs and the third lives in Israel. As far as the Frumkisses know, all that distinguishes them from anybody else is that Grandpa is a famous Yiddish writer who ended up working for the CBC. But Grandpa's death sets off a chain of events that force the Frumkisses to see how different their family is from all the others.
The Frumkiss Family Business, Michael Wex's brilliant and hilarious new novel, is a family saga for the twenty-first century, a lovingly accurate portrait of middle-class Canadian life at the turn of the century and of the Toronto neighbourhood that has produced such famous Canadians as Howie Mandel and Wex himself. Imagine Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks without the stodgy Germans or The Brothers Karamazov with only one brother. Finally, a novel that does for Toronto what Mordecai Richler's books did for Montreal.
“Wex is as irreverent and humorous, [and] he has his own style. . . . Breathtaking. It’s so subtle you don't see what’s coming until . . . all of a sudden something beautiful appears.”
- Knopf Canada
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- 5.15(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.95(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE FINAL DAY
It was probably the all-kugel diet that killed him.Probably. It’s hard to be sure with a man of 103: hecould trip down the stairs, get hit by a car, succumb to the kind of illness that young people don’t get any more—phthisis, diphtheria, the neurosyph—but Faktor was never accident-prone, and not even his bitterest enemies—a good three or four of whom lived long enough to see him die—could recall him ever having so much as a toothache or runny nose. A touch of scurvy during the War, when it was almost compulsory—unless he induced it to keep out of the army—but Faktor? Sick?
When the Yiddish paper of record called for details of his death, his wife repeated the question as if she didn’t quite understand. “Sick? I don’t know about sick.” It was like they’d asked if he had two foreskins. “Faktor was never sick.” Mrs. Aubrey, the professional name she insisted the paper use, had been in Toronto since 1927, but she never entertained any idea of calling her husband by his given name, not even when they were alone. He was Faktor when they met and Faktor is who he stayed. It was a sign of affection and respect, and was what everyone else called him, too. “He was too busy getting under people’s skin to spend time getting sick. We were married for sixty years, I know what I’m saying.”
She didn’t know the half of it. Faktor’s whole life was about getting under skins, driving others up a wall. “I want to be a yatesh,” he wrote, the gnat that burrowed into Titus’s head to punish him for his mockery of God. It banged against his brain and didn’t give him a moment’s peace: its claws were made of iron, its beak of brass. “That’s me all over,” he said. “A yatesh, but without the God. Every time a Jew is born, the rest of the world gets a headache. Most of us do it inadvertently; the difference between me and the rest of the Jews is that I want to cause headaches on purpose. We have to work on the world like the yatesh worked on Titus after he burned down the Temple and ruined our lives. Heinrich Heine had the same idea. And now—there’s me.”
He started in 1926, when he was living in Paris and frequenting brothels that specialized in religious themes. He was young, naive enough to fall in love with a whore who appeared everywhere, in private and in public, in the brothel or in church, in full Carmelite habit. She told Faktor that she was in the middle of her temporary vows when she lost her vocation, as well as her faith. She didn’t say why, and he wasn’t naive enough to ask how or why she became a whore. He just knew that he felt a real bond with her. “We had a great deal in common, having both been religious once.” When Faktor realized that it was strictly business on her end, he published a book of French sonnets called Ma Soeur, Ma Fiancée: Chants d’amour pour une Religieuse. He used the pseudonym André Zhid.
Mrs. Aubrey, his second and most long-lasting wife, knew nothing about this. She didn’t know that back in Poland two years later, he published his first novel, anonymously and at his own expense. A contemporary critic described Memoirs of Jesus’ Moyel, the man who circumcised Christ, as “the first plea for a pogrom ever to have been issued in Yiddish.” It was condemned by the government, forget about the Church, and not a single copy is known to have survived. Those who saw it—and there were plenty—said that it was a virtual encyclopedia of foreskin jokes and anti-Christian slurs, including a number invented by Faktor himself, all of it presented as the after-dinner speeches from the banquet portion of Jesus’ circumcision. The Nazarene’s foreskin was described as broad, leathery and marked with the sign of the cross; no matter how often the narrator sliced it off, it grew back again in a very few minutes, which is why he was able to make so many speeches.
Faktor had the book printed by ostjüdische anarchists living in Berlin. They had it smuggled into Poland, where copies were handed out on street corners, in front of popular theatres and restaurants, and beside newspaper kiosks all over Jewish Warsaw by boys yelling, “Extra! Extra! The truth about Yoyzl’s bris!” It was distributed for free, and they gave away five thousand copies in a single day. Faktor also sent one to every bishop in the country. Insiders, including Yiddish-speakers in the pay of the police, were pretty sure that they recognized the anonymous author’s style. Faktor was a well-known journalist by then, and his weekly columns in the Warsaw Haynt were stuffed with slightly milder near-blasphemies. Faktor threw his hands into the air and denied everything. There was nothing to connect him to this regrettable perturbation: at the Tachkemoni seminary where he had studied, Jesus, with a foreskin or without, had no place in the curriculum.
He never admitted responsibility for the Memoirs. Neither of his wives knew anything about it, and the secret of its authorship would have died with Faktor, had he not explained the whole affair to his biographer only a few weeks before he died. Loud as Faktor could sometimes be, self-restraint for the sake of a punch line or prank was one of the guiding principles of his life, perhaps the only guiding principle of his life. He was a tzaddik of shtik, a saint of shenanigans. He had a talent for strategic self-effacement and was willing to sacrifice anything, possibly even his life, to safeguard the purity of his japes. In the real world, Faktor craved all the attention he could get; when it came to hoaxes and provocations, though, he could conceal his name and forgo any credit, while patting himself on the back for his near superhuman self-abnegation: he craved efficacy, not renown—he got enough of that in literature and the theatre. He didn’t want a vulgar craving for reputation to come between the work and its victims: “Crazy ol’ Faktor, up to his crazy ol’ tricks again,” could dampen the most incendiary prank.
And Faktor could afford to play pranks. His father was one of the wealthiest textile manufacturers in Lodz, and Faktor grew up in the very bosom of early-twentieth-century Polish-Jewish luxury, all velvets and tutors, music lessons and Hebrew grammar. His father saw him as heir to an empire, a new, better educated sort of businessman who was just a bit of a rabbi on the side. Along with the usual religious education, Faktor received extensive instruction in French, German, Russian and English—the language of any country where he might have to do business with people who didn’t know Yiddish or Hebrew. His father was an old-fashioned Orthodox intellectual who believed in the kind of education that he himself could never have obtained. In 1923 he sent Faktor abroad to learn the international end of the business. Though the boy was only eighteen, he was bright and eager and, as even his father realized, temperamentally unsuited to the rabbinate. He had finished at the top of his class at the recently established Tachkemoni school in Warsaw, but showed no evidence of any feelings of piety. He was as ambivalent about God as he was about work: he knew that they existed, but could see no reason to bother with either.
He lived in Manchester for a year, a stay that marked his English forever after, giving it more in common with Coronation Street than with Isaac Bashevis Singer, his classmate at the Tachkemoni. He spent another year boarding with his father’s French agent, a religious Jew from Poland who kept a kosher home, but finally got up the nerve to take digs on the Left Bank and throw himself wholeheartedly into student life and la vie parisienne. He was beholden to no one, not even his father; his maternal grandfather, who had taken his father into the business, passed away not long before Faktor went to Paris and left him a monthly stipend: Faktor was an Old-World trust fund child who could do whatever he wanted and buy his way out of any trouble that he’d either caused or gotten into. He quit the job at his father’s firm and spent the next two years writing poetry and mailing the results to French, Polish and Yiddish journals, where he started to gain a reputation as a talented youngster who didn’t take himself or anything else too seriously.
He chased girls but didn’t get very far. Faktor was heavy and pale, with a spare tire that seemed to sag from his navel to his knees and that no amount of vigorous walking ever changed. Floppy, with folds of hidden skin almost everywhere, he had the curly red hair and pasty, freckle-splotched skin of a Japanese demon. He was known variously as di miyeskayt—the ugliness—le rideau à chair and le cochon cacher. His granddaughter Rachel described a photo of Faktor taken around that time as, “Bozo goes Poland. With schmaltz on every side.” For all his wealth and all his wit, Faktor spent three or four years in Hemingway’s Paris and never had sex with anyone but prostitutes; some of his cheaper conquests actually winced on going off with him, but Faktor pretended not to see.
He went back to Poland for his mother’s funeral and found himself with enough of a reputation to be invited by one of the editors of Haynt, the Warsaw-based Yiddish daily, to contribute a weekly column of humorous verse on issues of the day. He called it Der Mazik— the li’l devil, the troublemaker, Lucifer Junior or Satan in shorts—and the name soon stuck to him: in Yiddish circles he was known as Der Mazik for the rest of his life. The column ran until September 1939, and was picked up after the War by a succession of failing Yiddish papers in the States, finally ending up in the Forward once there was nowhere else for it to go. Faktor faxed the last one to New York on his final Monday; it came out the day that he died.
His mother died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one, and all of her doctors said that it was because of her weight. She was five feet tall and weighed 255 pounds. Her death affected Faktor in ways that a whore’s sneer could never have done; as soon as he established himself in Warsaw after his mother’s shloyshim, the thirty days after her death, he joined one of the Jewish gymnastic associations and began to swim—once he’d been taught how—and work out with bowling pins and medicine balls, kettle bells and pommel horses for an hour every day. He went on a strict vegetarian diet, eating meat only once a week, for a full twelve months, until he looked like Douglas Fairbanks from his neck to his knees. He kept exercising until he was close to ninety, doing push-ups, sit-ups and other exercises that needed no equipment even while f leeing the Nazis and starving in Soviet Asia.
Faktor had an iron will and a rare sense of discipline; he could go days without sleep in order to meet a deadline or follow an unusually hot inspiration. Whatever he wanted to do, he did; and for reasons that not even he could explain, Faktor wanted to piss people off. The older he got, the more adept he became. Eight years after the Jesus memoir, he published an art book, a collection of nude photos of a model who looked so much like Magda Goebbels that he had no trouble calling the book Die erblühende Magda, “Magda in Bloom,” or describing the pictures as “figure studies” of “a now famous lady” made just before her first marriage in 1920. The girl was a domestic who’d once worked for Faktor’s parents in Lodz, but the pictures were taken in Warsaw. The book was printed in Buenos Aires at a press owned by former members of Zvi Migdal, the Jewish pimps’ association, and was bound by a left-leaning volksdeutsch pornographer in Teplitz, who smuggled all 250 copies into the Reich. Faktor himself took over from there, driving all over Germany in a Hispano-Suiza and mailing the books from eighty-odd post offices, whence they were delivered to prominent journalists, political figures, foreign diplomats and government officials, including Himmler, Goering and the Führer himself. He sent two to Dr. Goebbels.
No one knows how many arrests were made or the number of executions that might have followed. Word of the book leaked out through discreet reports in Le Monde, the London Times, the Neue Freie Presse, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung concerning the mysterious appearance of a volume of highly artistic photos of a certain matron, “now well placed in the New Germany,” in her somewhat more free-spirited youth. All four papers found the pictures “excellent propaganda, as it were, for the German mastery of streamlined form.”
The book quickly acquired legendary status among the Nazi-obsessed, probably because so few of them ever saw it; a copy from Berchtesgaden with Hitler’s personal bookplate sold for $100,000. There were abundant theories as to its origin—including one that held the photos to be authentic and attributed their publication to the family of Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the Bavarian Staatskomissar who helped quash the Beer Hall Putsch and was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives—but its true origin remained unknown until Faktor, once again, spilled the beans to his biographer.
Faktor, of course, earned nothing from such a book, just as he never asked to be paid for his column after the War. Between what he had from his family and what he earned from Yiddish plays and performances—even then, poetry didn’t make anyone a living—money was the one thing that he didn’t have to think about. In 1935, a year before the beginning of the economic boycott of the Jews in Poland, he and his father, with whom he remained very close, despite his defection from the shmatte trade, began to shift most of their own money, as well as anything that the business didn’t immediately need, to Switzerland. They took good care to convert it all to sterling before socking it away. Faktor’s father was run over and killed by a delivery truck owned by a prominent Endek, a member of the fascist National Democrats, in 1938, after which Faktor sold the business for a fraction of its real value, went to Switzerland and consolidated all the accounts into one vast holding of his own.
So why didn’t he get out of Europe? He didn’t have a clue, except that he was a celebrity in Poland and nothing but a foreigner in America. A year or so after his return from France, Faktor had been approached by Zaynvl Nurgitz, a writer of popular dramatic shlock who made the leap to impresario and become the manager of a number of popular Yiddish theatre stars, including Shula Kutscher.
A good ten years older than Faktor and with a century’s more knowledge of the world, Shula Kutscher, “the Hebrew Duse,” was also the Lillie Langtry of Yiddish theatre. Mistress to the wealthy and powerful, tall and majestic looking, with bright red hair, a gentile nose and a bosom that made grown men long for infancy, she was remarkably reticent about her origins and early life. “I was born,” she used to declare, rolling her shoulders back and lifting her nose into the air, “the day I stepped onto a stage.” No one knew her real name or where she was from; her off-stage Yiddish came straight from the Warsaw fish market, and her inability to suppress that accent in anything but Yiddish kept her from performing in any other language. She was incomprehensible in German, and her Polish, though f luent, sounded like something that a Hebe comic might use in a not-so-subtly anti-Semitic cabaret sketch, a fact that the reviews of her performance in Nurgitz’s Polish-language production of Camille hadn’t been slow to point out.
Madame Kutscher was stuck with Yiddish, but there had never been a better time to be stuck. Yiddish culture between the two world wars extended all over the Western world and was able to keep its stars in Hollywood style. Sholem Asch had a villa outside of Nice, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Stefan Zweig and Gerhardt Hauptmann. Anna Held crossed out of Yiddish and became one of Ziegfeld’s biggest stars, while actors like Boris Thomashefsky and Jacob Adler were stars and Ziegfelds, actors and producers, all at once. Yossele Rosenblatt, the megastar cantor, turned down an offer to appear in The Jazz Singer. Though Madame Kutscher’s wealth had more to do with gifts from well-heeled admirers, especially the two plutocrats whom she allowed to keep her at once—she owned two apartment blocks in upper-class, goyishe Warsaw—the theatre was what really mattered to her. She still had her looks, was only a couple of years past thirty, and had a face that adorned cigarette and candy packages, coasters and postcards and magazine covers all over Yiddish-speaking Europe.
After the Camille debacle, she decided to forgo her tragedienne’s dignity. It would be too easy for them—critics, audiences, Jews and Poles—to see any serious performance in the light of Camille and begin to pick holes in her style and interpretation. “I have to do something new,” she told Nurgitz. “Give them what they don’t expect from me. Comedy, satire. The real thing. Sharp and mean.”
Since when,” he asked, “were you so worried about changing society?”
“Since I realized that I can’t throw that son-of-a-bitch critic for the Kurier out of his apartment just because he wrote that all that separates me from the real Camille is illness and inspiration. I don’t think that asshole knows that I’m his landlord.”
“So, nu,” Nurgitz was rubbing his pince-nez against the summit of the mountain formed by his vest and paunch. “What are you going to do? Move to Russia?” He started to laugh. “Play Hedda Gabler, the frustrated housewife? With your reputation?”
“Was she funny, Hedda Gabler? I want to do satire. Funny stuff that makes fun of the way things are.”
“So what have you got in mind?” Nurgitz asked. “What repertoire, I mean.”
“My repertoire,” she said. “Find me someone to write it.”
Nurgitz had been with her long enough to know that “someone,” rather than a name, meant someone she’d never either worked with or slept with. This let out most of the better young writers, and the ones she didn’t know tended not to be funny. He went through his files, asked his friends, went for long walks on which he deliberately thought about other matters, but still couldn’t come up with a name. La Kutscher had to do something quickly to make up for her Polish f lop, but Nurgitz couldn’t come up with anyone who could give her what to do. Hungry and desperate after walking half the length of Warsaw one rainy morning, he decided to have lunch in the Literary Union restaurant on Tlomackie Street. He found Faktor before he’d even found a seat. Faktor’s physical fitness program was still too new to be showing, and he was far too ugly for someone like Madame Kutscher to consider even in a moment of weakness. He wrote that funny column in Haynt—which meant that his name could help sell a show—and he seemed to love making fun of everything.
“Excuse me, Pan Mazik.” Nurgitz used the Polish for Mr. as a sign that there was business afoot. He called Faktor by his pseudonym to give him some idea of the nature of that business. “I am Zaynvl Nurgitz.” He reached into his vest pocket and found a card. “The impresario.” He handed it to Faktor.
“Yes, I recognized you. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Pan Nurgitz.” They shook. Faktor gestured for Nurgitz to sit down. “What can I do for you?”
Nurgitz decided to get straight to the point. “Do you think you could write me a play?” Nurgitz lit a cigar while Faktor picked at a doleful bowl of kasha and cabbage. The impresario explained what he needed for Madame Kutscher, why he needed it, and how soon he’d have to have it.
“I’ve never written any plays, but why not?” said Faktor. “A month is plenty of time.” Faktor told him how much he wanted for the script itself and how much for each performance.
“But what if it’s no good?” Nurgitz was relieved to get back to real business. “It’s not like you have any track record in this area.”
“You don’t have to pay me unless you accept it.” Nurgitz was so taken aback that he forgot to keep haggling about the price. They shook hands once more. By the time they met the next morning, Faktor had roughed out the first act and already completed two scenes.
Madame La Malkeh, “Madame Queen,” was about some one just like Madame Kutscher who attains international stardom but is treated like an idiot by everyone around her. One of Madame Kutscher’s lovers, the financier who had given her the larger of her apartment buildings, had once said that “She’s between her legs what I am between my ears,” and her off-stage accent and diction kept her from living down this reputation for stupidity. In the play, she outsmarts both her lover—the German-Jewish head of a fictitious Zionist organization—and the British government, winning independence for a Jewish Palestine and installing herself, as her character described it, as “queen for life.”
The show was Madame Kutscher’s greatest hit; in its nearly four hours, it managed to make fun of Jews, Poles, Arabs and Englishmen, along with Zionism, orthodoxy and assimilationism. Faktor even wrote a scene in Polish in which Madame Kutscher’s character is supposed to be pretending to be a simple girl straight from the shtetl who is forced to speak Polish in order to get something or other out of a horny Polish deputy during a performance of Traviata. Everybody got the joke, and laughed so hard that Madame Kutscher wound up recording a couple of comedy 78s in Polish.
With the shame of Camille finally out of her system, she and Faktor became a team. All of Jewish Poland assumed that they were also a couple, but she never gave Faktor a tumble, not even out of pity or for the sake of form, not even after Faktor lost all that weight and started to perform in their shows himself, delivering comic monologues and patter songs. And Faktor, to be quite honest, had never even tried to give her a shot. Hot as he admitted Madame Kutscher to be, she wasn’t his type. Too large, too pale; he didn’t like the freckles that started on her shoulders and trailed all the way onto the tops of her chests. “Too much like what I’ve got already,” he said. He wanted someone who looked the way he felt, and he didn’t get serious with anybody until years later, when Madame Kutscher hired Tamara Szulc as her wardrobe girl. Tamara—Temme or Temke, in Yiddish—soon moved up to playing maids, monosyllabic younger sisters, and yea-saying friends of the female lead. She had the legs for the maid’s little dresses, anyone could see that, but Faktor liked her slight, somewhat pensive overbite and lightly slanted black eyes, not to mention the bust that others might have thought too big for her hundred-pound frame. Madame Kutscher once described her as looking like “coconuts on a fishing rod,” and ventke, “the fishing rod,” became the second part of her name.
Temme Ventke, Tammy the Fishing Rod, was dark, with mahogany-hued skin and an encyclopedic knowledge of day-to-day religious practice. Her private life was austere: no men, no women, no pictures in her trunk. The company assumed that she must have been carrying a torch for someone who had seduced and abandoned her. When she wasn’t with Madame Kutscher, to whom she was clearly devoted, she was by herself.
Faktor was drawn to her loneliness. Relentlessly social himself, she stirred feelings of Weltschmerz in him, feelings that seemed to deepen his poetry—the stuff that wasn’t written for the newspaper. He always said that if it weren’t for her, he would never have written his first and greatest hit, “Dem Pogromtshiks Viglid,” The Pogromist’s Lullaby, which was set to music by his friend Chaim Lehmann and took on the status of beloved folk song within weeks of its publication. No matter what the show, Faktor would have to take a curtain call at the end just to sing it; it received more and more encores as the War drew closer. The audience joined in at its close:
Almekhtiker got hot indz kristn Almighty God made us Christians
Bashafn tsi hershn di velt To rule his world, yes, indeed
In yidn bashtimt indz far kistn And gave us Jews as storage bins
Fin alts voos di shparberlekh felt. For anything vultures might need.
Faktor didn’t approach Temke immediately, and when he finally did, the courtship lasted only a couple of hours. They celebrated their wedding with the members of the theatre. Temke was astounded to discover how much money Faktor had; he asked her never to breathe a word of his fortune to anyone, not even Madame Kutscher.
Mrs. Aubrey, the second Mrs. Faktor, knew only slightly more about Faktor’s first marriage than she did about his anonymous European publications, but that still doesn’t mean that she knew nothing about him. After sixty years of marriage, she knew plenty.
She knew, for instance, that Faktor was a hero to millions of Canadians born from the forties to the seventies, and she knew that there was no truth to the one rumour that had dogged Faktor for decades: Isaac Bashevis Singer did not call him “the Soupy Sales of Yiddish literature.” It wasn’t Singer at all; it was Yankef Glatshteyn—Jacob in English—the Yiddish poet, critic, novelist, and longtime Singer antagonist, and he wasn’t really talking about literature. Mrs. Aubrey knew all about it, because Mrs. Aubrey helped to bring it about, six years after their marriage.
Between the Swiss bank account that Faktor could get to again after the War and what his wife, whose real name was Chana, brought in as Mrs. Aubrey, they were well enough fixed not to have to worry about money. But Faktor was bored. He was publishing nothing but the Mazik column. He was writing real stuff, too—poetry and prose, everything except plays—but with diminishing enthusiasm. “Why bother?” he used to ask. “Thirty years from now, Yiddish will be nothing but hieroglyphics.”
He was so frustrated that he started to work on a book in English, a memoir of life in Soviet Asia during World War II, a book that he never finished. Mrs. Aubrey read the first fifty pages one day when Faktor was out, mostly to see if he confessed to any affairs. Most of it was about his love for the first Mrs. Faktor, which didn’t really thrill Mrs. Aubrey, but she could see that his English was now good enough for him to write in. She had a cousin who was a producer at the CBC; she phoned him up and called in a couple of favours. “Believe me, Morty, he doesn’t write with an accent. He sounds like he comes from England. I want you to look at what he’s written. . . . Experience? Please, Morty, you’re twenty-six years old, don’t start with the experience. Faktor’s plays were being produced all over Europe when you were still in diapers and I can tell you that every one of them made money. He could always write, and now he’s writing in English. Tell your bosses over there the kind of bargain they’re getting—it isn’t as if he doesn’t have a worldwide reputation.”
She took a drag from her cigarette, looked at the lipstick on the cork tip and silently counted two beats. “And Morty, don’t forget. You were no quiz kid; the scholarships all passed you by. You would never have gone to university if it wasn’t for the money that I gave your mother.” The last thing Morty needed three days before his scheduled elopement with a French-Canadian continuity shiksa was an angry phone call from his mother. He told Chana that he’d do what he could, but she shouldn’t forget that he worked in the children’s department.
“If he has to write for children, he’ll write for children. Don’t you worry about Faktor.”
There was at least a bridge game’s worth of CBC board members or their wives among the clientele of Chana’s china store, and Mrs. Aubrey didn’t hesitate to contact them all, apologizing for her temerity but asking for their intercession on behalf of a fascinating man whom she’d recently met, a writer who had been famous in Europe before the War but was having trouble establishing himself over here. “Apparently, he used to write in Yiddish. ‘Can one write in Yiddish?’ I asked him. ‘I thought it was only a spoken language, a sort of bastard German.’ At any rate, he mentioned that he had an interview coming up with Children’s Programming and was hoping that he’d be given a chance to write scripts or teleplays or whatever they’re called—I swear, his English is more up-to-date than mine”—and, due to his current involvement with one of Mrs. Aubrey’s oldest and dearest friends, she’d take it as a great personal favour if he could be given a chance. “I’m not saying you have to keep him, darling. If he’s no good, chuck him out. But give him a chance to prove himself.”
After a quick apprenticeship on the Canadian version of Howdy Doody, where he became friendly with James Doohan, who played the Canadian counterpart of Buffalo Bob, Faktor was assigned to a new fifteen-minute, five-day-a-week series that was about to go into production, The New Curiosity Shop. It ran for the next twenty-five years. Faktor became a member of the cast when it expanded from fifteen to thirty minutes, and by the end of the third season he had joined Willan and Healey as an executive producer. By the mid-sixties they were turning out kids’ shows that sold all over the world.
His television job was driving his friends in the Yiddish literary world out of their minds. They didn’t mind him working; some of the greatest Yiddish poets of the twentieth century had been housepainters, shoemakers, paperhangers. None of them had had Swiss bank accounts, but if Faktor wanted to work, so what? No one had anything against honest labour, and if Faktor had stuck to writing scripts, no one would have held it against him. It was what he did on the show, in front of gentile eyes a mari usque ad mare, that caused veins to throb so threateningly in so many literary Yiddish foreheads. It was undignified, it debased an entire culture. Faktor talked like a Limey in real life; his shitty English wasn’t even real. It eventually got Glatshteyn mad enough to compare Faktor with Soupy Sales. Faktor pretended not to understand, just as he had pretended not to know who wrote the memoirs of Jesus’ moyel. Only this time, no one believed him. The character that Faktor played on The New Curiosity Shop, an ill-tempered, verse-spouting puppet called Yankee Gallstone, was a dodo bird whose white hair and horn-rimmed glasses had both been modelled on Glatshteyn’s.
Glatshteyn hadn’t done anything to upset Faktor; acerbic as he could be, he always spoke highly of Faktor and reviewed his work positively and perceptively. Faktor picked on Glatsheyn only because the idea that there was a puppet based on him on Canadian television—which no one in New York City was able to see—would be sure to drive someone as high-strung as Glatshteyn straight up the wall. There was no malice; it was a question of opportunity. Faktor voiced the bird, and so many Canadian children learned to dismiss so much of life with Gallstone’s ironic, Yiddish-accented catchphrase, “So it’s good for the birds?” that a countrywide chain of chicken restaurants hired Faktor to repeat it on their TV commercials.
Faktor’s wife knew that he was perfectly capable of enraging a friend and ally solely for the sake of seeing him get mad, but even she had to wonder if the stunt he pulled at his hundredth-birthday party was anything more than one last, desperate attempt to piss anybody off. Faktor’s keynote speech was supposed to have something to do with his life and career: anecdotes about the famous people he had known, his experiences in the Yiddish theatre, or in the Soviet Union during the War. Instead, he strode to the lectern, lit one of the unfiltered cigarettes that he’d been smoking for more than eighty years—“No plant is going to do to me what even Hitler couldn’t”—and exhaled like a man who’s just heard that his son was caught cheating on an exam. “Friends,” he said, “I want to thank you all for joining me to welcome the dawn of a new era in my life. I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve been noticing an increase in anti-Semitic sentiment that’s starting to remind me of Poland when I was young. In order to take a stand against it, I pledge here, with all of you as my witnesses, that from today forward, June 7, 2005, I will eat nothing but kugel, the most Jewish of all the world’s foods, for all the years that I have left, except on Friday nights and Yom Kippur, when I will continue to have my supper delivered by Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Food on Bathurst Street. I also promise to drink a glass of orange juice every morning to forestall any recurrence of scurvy.” He spat three times after mentioning the disease. “I’ll be chronicling the effects on my mind and body on my new website, www.noodlepudding.ca. And remember, please, if I can eat kugel, the anti-Semites can eat cake.”
It was not the speech that anyone expected. As Mrs. Aubrey told the Yiddish paper, “I had a freezer full of meat at the time.”
Faktor wasn’t kidding about the website. The video clips in which he describes his bowel movements appeared in YouTube’s Featured Videos window more than once and were pulling hits in the Elvis or Michael Jackson range. “Check it out,” viewers messaged one another. “It’s Yankee Gallstone from The New Curiosity Shop and he’s really an old Jew.” Faktor’s adventures in indigestion sent thousands of young people and older non-Canadians, people who had never seen or heard of Yankee Gallstone before, to the Curiosity Shop clips that were available on line; from there they went back to Faktor’s website for gastrointestinal status updates.
Willan and Healey had both died around 1980, but Faktor was being invited to fan-meets and nerdfests where people dressed as characters from old TV shows had a chance to meet the people who played those characters, many of whom showed up in character: kind of like Larry Parks as Larry Parks meeting Larry Parks as Al Jolson in Jolson Sings Again, which starred Larry Parks as Jolson, except that Parks and Jolson are both supposed to be real. The number of Gallstones at such events was growing all the time. Someone came out with a book of Gallstonisms, effectively if somewhat predictably titled, So It’s Good for the Birds. Faktor received a respectable licensing fee and royalty, as well as an author’s discount so that he could buy copies to flog at the fan conventions.
Whatever was left of the Yiddish literary world from which he’d come now hated him almost as much as they hated his old classmate, I.B. Singer; he had got too much attention, too, and they still hated him for it. It didn’t matter, not to Faktor, not to his Yiddishist foes and certainly not to the legions of salvia-smoking latter-day hasidim of Yankee Gallstone, that Singer had been dead since 1991. What mattered was that he got too much attention and how much they hated him for it.
The delegation that f lew in for Faktor’s funeral was more interested in proof that Faktor was dead. As far as they were concerned, he had been a nudnik for a lot longer than he’d been a provocateur, and this so-called death might be just another trick to get people to look in his direction. Faktor was like a tree standing by the water or ten last pounds of diet-proof fat on the cusp of swimsuit season: they really believed that he’d always be here. All they could do now was complain that there was no one left for them to hate.
His end came at 11:30 on a Friday morning, while he was eating lunch—a noodle kugel with cheese, two shots of Crown Royal (one neat, the second with soda) and a glass of tea—and trying not to choke over his self-appointed biographer’s asshole questions.
“Zug mir, tell me, Getsl.” Getsl, yet—the Yiddish version of Elyokim that Faktor never used and no one ever called him. Mrs. Aubrey would have liked to give the shmuck a Getsl, but Faktor was determined to get a biography out of him. “How good could it possibly be,” she once asked, “given that he’s such a shmuck?”
“Good enough,” Faktor told her, “to make somebody better want to do a decent one.”
So he put up with Milner’s narishkayt, his foolishness, leaving Chana no choice but to go along. “Tell me, Getsl, did you, uh, did you have many . . . love affairs when you were living in Paris?” As if it were his business. And as if he needed to ask in front of his victim’s wife. But Chana knew that Milner didn’t like her any more than she liked him.
Faktor was about to launch a f lotilla of prurient whoppers when he grabbed his chest and stared hard into a void that no one else could see. “Faktor, are you all right?” Chana asked.
“All right?” he gasped, before falling face first into his kugel. “Of course I’m all right. I’m a blogosphere celebrity.”
And then he was dead.
“Faktor!” Chana tried to shake him. “Faktor. Oy vey.”
“Move.” Milner barked an order and pushed her outof the way. Luz, their housekeeper, was out doing the grocery shopping and someone had to take charge. “Call 911.” He lifted Faktor’s head from the kugel and tilted it back, ignoring the noodles and cheese plastered across his nose and dangling off his cheekbones. He opened Faktor’s mouth and tried to perform CPR. Milner had been watching hospital shows since Medic debuted in 1954, the same year as Yankee Gallstone, and he knew that he knew what it looked like. Chana was on the phone shouting out her address, while Milner wiped away some noodles and decided to try the artificial respiration that he learned in a pre-teen swimming class.
“Idiot, hit him in the chest!” Chana urged him on in Yiddish. “Don’t you ever watch TV? You need to hit him in the chest.”
Little as she knew about CPR, she knew all about Milner and was pretty sure that he didn’t know what he was doing. Milner, for his part, was just as sure that Faktor was way past help already.
They were both right. Nothing short of the general resurrection could have done Faktor any good. Chana, in a Dior suit, got the paramedics to lift her into the back of the ambulance. “I’m ninety-five years old, I can wear what I want. If you’re lucky, I won’t need a ride back home.” She watched plenty of television herself and kept repeating “Flatlined” all the way to the emergency room, as if she were calling on the god that she worshipped.
Meet the Author
MICHAEL WEX was born in Lethbridge, Alberta. The family moved first to Calgary, and then to Toronto, where they lived in Toronto's Bathurst Manor before migrating a few blocks north to Bathurst Village. Wex is the author of two works of fiction, Shlepping the Exile and The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist, and three works of non-fiction: Born to Kvetch; Just Say Nu; and How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck). He is also well known as a speaker on matters relating to Yiddish language and culture and more general aspects of Judaism. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter.
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