Is It Good for the Jews?: More Stories from the Old Country and the Newby Adam Biro
“Jewish stories,” writes Adam Biro, “resemble every people’s stories.” Yet at the same time there is no better way to understand the soul, history, millennial suffering, or, crucially, the joys of the Jewish people than through such tales—“There’s nothing,” writes Biro, “more revelatory of the/i>… See more details below
“Jewish stories,” writes Adam Biro, “resemble every people’s stories.” Yet at the same time there is no better way to understand the soul, history, millennial suffering, or, crucially, the joys of the Jewish people than through such tales—“There’s nothing,” writes Biro, “more revelatory of the Jewish being.”
With Is It Good for the Jews? Biro offers a sequel to his acclaimed collection of stories Two Jews on a Train. Through twenty-nine tales—some new, some old, but all finely wrought and rich in humor—Biro spins stories of characters coping with the vicissitudes and reverses of daily life, while simultaneously painting a poignant portrait of a world of unassimilated Jewish life that has largely been lost to the years. From rabbis competing to see who is the most humble, to the father who uses suicide threats to pressure his children into visiting, to three men berated by the Almighty himself for playing poker, Biro populates his stories with memorable characters and absurd—yet familiar—situations, all related with a dry wit and spry prose style redolent of the long tradition of Jewish storytelling.
A collection simultaneously of foibles and fables, adversity and affection, Is It Good for the Jews? reminds us that if in the beginning was the word, then we can surely be forgiven for expecting a punch line to follow one of these days.
"Deftly translated by Catherine Tihanyi, this successor to Two Jews on a Train sparkles with the happy anguish of Jewish humor, with the wit of threateningly cultured protagonists, and with the 'special case' treatment that life's tangles invariably receive in this milieu between old and new worlds."
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Is It Good for the Jews?MORE STORIES FROM THE OLD COUNTRY AND THE NEW
By Adam Biro
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn Lieu of an Epigraph
A BRIEF STORY CONTAINING WITHIN ITSELF ALL THE FOLLOWING ONES
Two Jews meet in Budapest on Dob Street during bad times, during one of those very many bad times when you had to tremble, to fear for your family, your possessions, your work, your life (in this order). This might have been in 1899, or in 1920, or in 1944, or in 2007 ... or again during the Middle Ages when Jews were expelled from Hungary (and from France, and from Great Britain ...)—except that Dob Street didn't yet exist.
They were of course called Kohn and Grün.
Why "of course"? If you were a Hungarian Jew, if you were lucky enough to be Jewish and Hungarian—and these according to my father are the most precious jewels in the crown of Creation, an opinion that I am not far from sharing—you would not be asking this question. And if you are neither Jew nor Hungarian, is it really worth my while to give you an answer? In any case you wouldn't understand it. But I'll make an attempt anyway: Kohn and Grün, two Hungarian Jews, are Mutt and Jeff 's cousins, Laurel and Hardy's soul brothers.
Kohn whispers to Grün: "Did you hear that twin sea lions were born in the Oslo zoo?" (For a member of the People of the Book, and the reading and writing this entails, it would be more logical to ask "Have you read?" And yet, the exchange of words of mouth might be the last remaining bit of warmth, the last human link remaining in our troubled world. Since when? Always. The use of the conditional mood here, of "might," is only for the benefit of grammatical convention.)
Grün moves close to Kohn and, worried, whispers into his ear: "No, I didn't hear about it. Say, Kohn, is this good for us?"
Chapter TwoThe Officer's Ring
In contrast to many of the stories whose origin I am ignorant of, this one has a clear identity. It was told to me around 1910 by my friend Molnár Ferenc, the unforgettable author of the most beautiful novel in the world dealing with youth, The Guys of Paul Street, and who later was to make his living as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. (Scriptwriter in Hollywood! My dream and that of all Hungarians. ... It's a bit late, you might tell me. Hungarians are getting pretty scarce in Hollywood. But remember the sign posted on the door of one of MGM's studios: "It's not enough to be Hungarian to make movies; one also needs talent." Robert Capa came up with a variant: "It's not enough to have talent to make movies, one must also be Hungarian.")
This story happened in the "good ole ancient Hungary," that of "before Trianon," a topic apt to provide a subject for conversations lasting evening long to any Hungarian, discussions livened up by barackpálinka, that is apricot brandy, and by expreszó made with Hungarian-style burnt coffee.
Eh, I'm thinking as I'm talking to you that I will put this story at the very beginning of my book. It sets the decor: that of Central Europe for folks nostalgic for the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and, for politically conscious folks, that of Eastern Europe, that is, the countries occupied after World War II by the Soviet Union. These are geographical notions devoid of any relationship to geography, but having lots to do with politics, history, psychology, literature, writers, readers, émigrés, the indifferent, the elected, not to forget the nonelected and the self-elected, as well as diplomats of all stripes.... These are confused notions. Should some of my stories lean toward the West (oh, this troubled word, this two-faced carrier of dreams, this noble louse of a word!), toward for instance France or the USA, this would be a sign of a desperate attempt at assimilation. But this first story isn't running such a risk. The characters are clearly defined: the Jew will be very Jewish; the goy will be a devil of a goy.
So, let's get back on track, as I did get a bit lost here. I'm doing it on purpose. I find getting sidetracked delicious. "My style and my spirit are both wanderers," said my friend Montaigne, my best friend. My anecdotes are thus pretexts. Pretexts used to remember, to think, to speak aside, to wink—pretexts to wander.
This story thus happened in the "before Trianon" Hungary, the "good ole ancient Hungary." (No correction, please; "good old" is an idiomatic expression reserved for holders of senior cards on French trains, while "ancient" should be pronounced with a sigh and a slightly shaky voice. And always welcomed is a gaze slipping upward—to Upthere?). Thus I'm not the best one to speak of the "good ole ancient." While that Hungary was indeed old, it was not good; it was stupid, and criminal to minorities and Jews. I might be more inclined toward discussing the "before Trianon." Indeed, few countries can boast of losing two thirds of their territory in the span of a couple of days. The Trianon Treaty imposed on Hungarians by people whose hatred was equal to their ignorance was more than a folly; it was a mistake. The Hungarian right doesn't need any other food: it has eaten, burped, and farted Trianon for more than eighty years and is still unable to swallow and digest it.
So let's forget Trianon. It's all right for us Jews to forget it, because we have been "bad Hungarians" for the past thousand years. Yes, we did live there and still are, between the Danube and the Tisza; we've been there for a thousand years, even before the Khazars converted to Judaism. (Bad Hungarians? Bad whatever you wish: bad French, bad Germans ... bad Jews even.) They, the true bloods, the "seasoned vets," are good. The only good ones. They have come up with all sorts of good reasons to make a meal out of the Jew, the Tzigane, the Romanian, the Slovak, the Croat (am I forgetting someone?), since Trianon and before Trianon.
Oh well, let it be. After all, aren't we here for a bit of laughter?
Thus: on the right side of this greater Hungary, in Transylvania, which is today Romania, lived a pious Jewish usurer, pious and usurer, pious but usurer, usurer but pious. (It's me speaking here. It's me adding these scornful "buts." You might well tell me: we all have to make a living. I know Jews—rabbis' sons—who make a living, and a good one, from debt collecting, who own all sorts of agencies, who are financial brokers.... I despise them a little, the collection agents, the credit brokers. Whether or not they are Jewish, it's the same to me. This doesn't mean that they are despicable hic et nunc; it means that they are despicable in absolute terms, in relation to what I believe to be ethical, to rules of behavior that are not only Jewish but simply human. "The world has been abandoned to men's care." It's Graham Greene who wrote this, as the good Catholic he was. In the hands of those people, the debt collectors, the credit brokers, oi vei tsorres, the result is telling. At this stage of my life and my thoughts, with the encounters I have unfortunately experienced, I no longer need to be careful. I can say whatever comes to mind before it descends into the heart and then, even lower, into the iBook, so that my dislikes are always well grounded).
This usurer belonged to my family. In Transylvania, on my mother's side ... or my father's (who can tell? All of my folks came from Transylvania). I hesitated admitting this. After all I just said about debt collectors and credit brokers.... Eh, you have to make a living. This usurer has been an old story from the time, oh God, my family passed to the other side. Alas, the side of the plundered, the victims of recollectors and debrokers. So some ill-gotten gains would have come in handy. My father hated business, despised money, and reproached me for being a publisher. "You're selling books in Paris!" What an insult! And when he died at age ninety-six there wasn't a cent left in his apartment in Budapest, not one cent! I am italicizing it. Nada, zero. And it was the same at his bank, give or take a few bucks. Not even enough to pay for his funeral. And, truth be told, this pleased me. And I'll do likewise; I'm already doing it.
In another corner of Hungary, all the way in the upper-right corner that was called in Hungarian Felvidék, the Upper Region, and which is now called Slovakia, in a garrison, a well-born officer was officiating. Soldiers are often stupid; even though the empire had two heads, its officers remained microcephalic. Their stupidity outdid the average circulating in the northern hemisphere. Scornful, xenophobic, anti-Semitic (and also antiminority, all of them), nationalists (every man for himself, for his own nationality), arrogant, ignorant, lazy—and lousy soldiers to boot, losing all the good wars that came their way. Our officer was different from the rest. Oh, not by much. He wasn't a genius. And yet ... And since our story happens during the Belle Epoque, a forty-year span of peace, he didn't have anything to do. Thus he indulged in skirt chasing (more often skirts that didn't require much chasing, which could be lifted or taken off in a jiffy at the clinging sound of money) and he gambled. Let's call him Szentlajoskúty Bódorogi Arisztid. It's a name from the old country. His fellows in the regiment called him Ali. We'll follow their example, happy to not be forced to use this name that is a bit too goy, a bit too long. (I know French equivalents. And when I say equivalents ... what do you think of Marie-Anne de Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac or of Hugues-Aristophane Galissart de Marignac? And what about Joseph-Louis-Amour Mis de Bouillé de Chabrol, or again, Jean Cornand de la Crose? I'm not making them up, honest!)
Ali was a card player like all the other officers. We shouldn't confuse card games with chess. Cards require neither intelligence, nor abstract thinking, nor a sense of strategy. (Except bridge, so I'm told. But were they playing bridge at that time in the Upper Region?) Cards demand neither humor, nor culture, nor physical strength, nor character, nor beauty of body or soul—they demand almost nothing. It's enough to know the rules of the game and have a bit of memory. The rest is left to chance. This is the way they were killing time (oh God, our time has already such a short life ... how could one want to kill it?). I think that Ali, even though his intelligence was above that authorized by headquarters, didn't know how to do anything else, except also play the peacock in front of women.... I assume he knew how to court them as was the practice in those milieus. You had to be well spoken. Of course after this, if unfortunately the prize let herself be dragged to bed, you had to be up for it. Up what? Up the bed. It wasn't expected (not yet) for a man to pleasure women. The sexual pleasure (rapid, much too rapid) of his Highness the Officer was enough. An honest woman did not feel pleasure. After that you got married and went back to seek your pleasure in the cards.
I said that Szentlajoskúty Bódorogi Arisztid was well born. This means that his parents were nobles. Small nobles, members of the moneyless gentry. Nothing more. To be well born involved neither wealth, nor diploma, nor gumption, nor beauty, nor intelligence, nor any of the things I enumerated above. It was enough to make the effort to be born in the right place.
As for the Jew—we'll call him Salomon—we don't have much good to say about him either. What do you expect? He was a usurer. Did you really think that I would say good things about a pawnbroker, a collecting recreditor? Even if he was a Jew, even if he was a member of my family? (Yes, I know, I know, money was our profession because we were forbidden any other. Still he could have practiced another of the professions allowed Jews: victim, or musician, or rabbi, or philosopher, or writer or ... stop! What am I demanding here? It is easy to reproach others to not be geniuses. So I speak to myself, author-narrator bent on amusing his readers, what have you done with your youth? Remember Rimbaud, Mozart, Van Gogh? And Evariste Gallois, the greatest French mathematician of all time, dead at age twenty-one? So, how old are you, you sermonizer?)
And while Ali had a certain style, an allure provided, formed by the uniform, Salomon had none; he was nondescript. And he was not even wealthy. True, he was well-off. However, he had many children—how many? Who knows? Did he know himself, what with the stillborn, and the others dead in infancy, and those who went away to seek their fortune to Budapest, the capital, or in America? Thus with all those children, money kept on disappearing and disappearing.
Salomon had known Ali for a long time. He had often rescued him (we are speaking of money, of course) when his regiment was stationed in his town. They say they even succeeded in conversing with each other, I mean in a human manner, about people, the weather—perhaps even about politics? A certain feeling of friendship was born between them. You don't believe me, because you have read too much. Not only was Ali not stupid, but also he had heart and courage. Both of these were needed in those days and at that place to speak to a Jew as a human being.
At the time the famous exploits that I am about to tell you occurred, the Sire of Szentlajoskút's regiment was garrisoned, as I mentioned, quite far from the town where Salomon lived, he who never had moved in his life. One day, Salomon received by mail a small package to which was appended an urgent letter from the officer. There were no polite formulas, no convoluted introductory phrases, no complicated circumlocutions. No, the letter was brief and direct: "Dear Friend (note that he calls a Jew a friend!), I suffered gambling losses, it's a debt of honor, I don't have a pengö left. I'm enclosing my golden ring. I urgently need 200 pengös by return mail. However, this time not a fillér less; it has to be exactly 200. If you can't or don't want to, send me back the ring (which is worth much more)—but I absolutely refuse any negotiation. Yours, etc. P.S. This ring bearing our arms has been handed down in our family from father to eldest son for generations. So you can see the sacrifice I'm making by selling it."
Sacrifice—how dare you speak of sacrifice, you miscreant. Aren't you ashamed? You gamble your money away and you waste what is the most precious in your family.... Salomon was not in charge of the young Szentlajoskúty's ethics or of the salvation of his soul. So sensing a good deal, he didn't lose any time in replying to the officer. "Dear, etc., your ring is worthless. [Here the storyteller simplifies. Salomon's style was much more flowery. While he was in a hurry, the deal was not as urgent for him as it was for the officer. So he composed carefully, used all the proper formulas and as much space as he fancied.] It's not even 18 carat gold, and its form, its style are completely out of style, without it being old enough to be an antique. It is thus impossible to resell it. I am still your friend but not crazy. I have a wife and children dependent on me. I don't have the right, if only for their sake, to indulge in blunders. I should thus return your ring immediately with this letter. However, I sensed while reading your letter that you have a genuine problem and are in real trouble. In the light of our longstanding friendship and the quasi-fatherly feelings I have for you, I cannot bear to only listen to my head. At times we also need to listen to our heart. This is what I am doing by offering you 50 pengös. And not one cent more. This ring is worth zero pengö. Zero is what I would get from this deal, because I won't even try to resell it. Nevertheless ... etc. Send me your agreement, and I will immediately cable you the money. Your Devoted, etc ..."
The reply quickly arrived. "Salomon, send me back the ring immediately. I said 200. I need 200. Not 50, not 60, not 199 but 200. Will you stop, at least for this highly important deal, this insufferable haggling of which your people has made its profession and which is so hard on the Hungarian noble. [So! Anti-Semitism in the form of presumably harmless small everyday utterances was only awaiting the opportunity to show the tip of its disgusting ear!] I thus await 200 pengös or the ring. Yours, ..." No etc.
Excerpted from Is It Good for the Jews? by Adam Biro Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Adam Biro is the author of Two Jews on a Train and One Must Also Be Hungarian. Catherine Tihanyihas translated numerous books from the French.
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