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—The New York Times
"A matchless portrait of human frailty seen from the perspective of a vast compassionate understanding. A major work, from one of the great modern novelists."
"This major novel is a welcome addition to the Singer library."
Stanislaw Luria, Ann's husband, was trying to win over his host's nephew Herman. While Herman remained a staunch Communist, Luria was bitterly opposed. His only grievance against America was its failure to drop the atomic bomb on Moscow instead of Hiroshima. Luria and Herman had one thing in common, however: they both spoke eloquent Polish. Luria had trained as a lawyer in Warsaw, and Herman had studied in the jurisprudence faculty before going off to defend Madrid.
Now Luria reasoned: "Prosze pana, I know exactly what you think. I know more Marxism than all the Marxists put together. To my regret, I too made a fool of myself for a while. There was a time I even believed in Lenin. Ah, in one's youth one makes mistakes. When a young man doesn't make mistakes, there's something wrong with him. But one thing I hope you'll grant me: that without Uncle Sam's help, without lend-lease, your Comrade Stalin would never have marched into Berlin. This, I expect even the most ardent Stalinist will concede ..."
Luria spoke as if he was begging Herman to see reason. Luria, past fifty, was short and broad-shouldered, and had an enormous head, no neck to speak of, a disheveled shock of brown hair streaked with gray, and a face that was either bloated or swollen by self-importance. His thick eyebrows overhung yellow eyes set in blue pouches flaked with crud. His nose had unusually large nostrils. There was something brutish and wild about him, yet he seemed sluggish, half-asleep. His narrow forehead was deeply cloven--whether with a wrinkle or a scar it was difficult to say.
Herman was barely thirty three, but he looked older. He was short like his uncle but not so homely. He had a square head with hair cropped short in military fashion--in Spain he had been promoted to the rank of either captain or major--and cold, steel-gray eyes behind a pince nez. Herman spoke slowly and with the deliberation of a diplomat watching every word.
His voice beat woodenly. "No one can know what would have happened without lend-lease. That is an academic question. One thing is beyond doubt: America delayed opening a second front until the Soviet Union was on the verge of decisive victory."
"Are you suggesting that the invasion of France was superfluous?" Luria demanded.
"By that time the fascists had already been smashed."
"If we let Stalin write world history, he would more than likely record that the Allies fought on Hitler's side," Luria retorded acidly.
"Until Stalingrad, the Allies always hoped for a Soviet defeat."
Luria raised his eyebrows. His yellow eyes kindled with fury. His right hand--broad, heavy, with swollen veins and fingernails resembling claws twitched as though about to strike a blow. But it never left his knee. Instead, he countered ponderously: "Oh God, look at the might of falsehood! How incredibly vast and powerful it is! Like a bottomless pit."
Boris was not a scholar, not a learned man, but he loved both Torah and knowledge. Although he had been successful in business, he regretted more than once that he had not become a rabbi, a scholar, or simply a hack writer. Short, stocky, with hands and feet too big for his small frame, large black eyes, a crooked nose, and thick lips, he wore a goatee and spoke in a booming voice. He persisted in speaking Warsaw Yiddish, having never learned either German or English properly. While he could make out a page of the Gemara, when he had occasion to write in Hebrew, it was riddled with errors. Boris had one aptitude--for trade. He smelled out business. When he arrived in New York from Havana, he understood not a single word of English, but after only four weeks of wandering about the city, he knew exactly where to make money. Of course it was hardly a great feat to get rich in those years. Washington was spending billions. He had become a partner in a factory that manufactured leather goods. Here in America he knew businessmen with whom he had dealt while he was still in Berlin, so he easily obtained credit, established connections, made contacts. Boris used to observe that in business, as in all other matters, there were many crooked ways but only one straight road. One had simply to tread the path of pobity. But books, holy and secular, were something else. They comprised a sea in which one could swim one's whole life and never reach any island of understanding. Many times he had heard how rabbis, professors, and scholars abused each other is ignoramuses and blockheads. However deeply a man might have studied, there was always another to sneer at him.
Boris loved listening to the way these intellectuals talked, wrangled, mocked, and even slandered one another privately. Zadok Halperin, for example, was one of the people Boris had supported in Berlin. Halperin was something of a celebrity. He had obtained a degree in philosophy in Switzerland, and for a time had been a lecturer at the University of Bern. Halperin's German works on Kant, Solomon Maimon, and Hermann Cohen were cited in philosophy textbooks. His Hebrew monographs were studied at the University of Jerusalem. His proficiency in Talmud and other sacred studies knew no limits. When challenged, he could recite any passage by heart. But he had never succeeded in making a living from this enormous knowledge. Now he sat in an armchair in Boris's living room: short, stout, with a protruding belly, a head of white hair, and a pair of thick whiskers that made him look like Nietzsche. Half-laughing eyes full of boyish mischief pecked out from under his bushy eyebrows. The more generously Boris helped him, the more captiously Halperin behaved toward his benefactor. Having remained a Maskil, Halperin despised religion. Now, as always, the discussion revolved around Jewishness, and Halperin remarked, in his clumsy Germanized Yiddish, "What do you want, my dear Herr Makaver? One cannot turn back the clock of history. Just because Hitler was a maniac, a psychopath, must the world return to the Middle Ages? Foolishness! There is only one source of knowledge and that is experience--the good old sense experience of Locke and Hume. Everything else is useless. I go even further than Hume: for me the only valid determinant is empirical mathematics. If there were no straight line, if everything had humps, then we would need another geometry."
"Now we have another geometry," Margolin interrupted. "Have you never heard of Lobachevsky and Riemann?"
"I know, I know. But I maintain that Euclid's geometry will exist forever and the others' will remain nothing more than games. Call me a heretic, but I don't care for Einsteins' theory, either."
"One needs to understand before one can dislike," Margolin retorted.
"True indeed, and that's why I don't like it. Whatever one cannot understand is a priori rubbish. I knew Einstein, I knew him. I had many discussions with him in Berlin. He is, pardon me, an impractical man."
"An impractical man to whom we owe the atomic atomic bomb."
"Without Einstein there would still have been an atomic bomb."
"Well, well. They're starting already!" Boris intervened. "Always arguing about apples and oranges. Einstein is a genius, and you're both geniuses as well. Why lock horns? Because Rockefeller is a millionaire, there can't be another millionaire tomorrow? There's enough money here for both. And it's the same with knowledge ... Reytze, bring in the tea! Doctor, try this strudel. I'm not much of an expert on Einstein, but I can tell you without fear of contradiction that this strudel is delicious. Reytze baked it. You can't put in your mouth the strudel they bake here in America."
"Yes indeed, strudel is a weighty matter," said Halperin with a smile, revealing a mouthful of blackened teeth patched with bits of gold. He had been provided with a fork, but he preferred to eat with his hands. His fingers were short, covered with tufts of hair, and the nails had been bitten down. Beside eating a great deal, he could spend the whole day smoking cigars. Boris used to say that Halperin didn't smoke cigars, he swallowed them. He perpetually scattered heaps of ash around him from his tobacco stained fingertips. Reytze followed after him with an ashtray and an unblinking eye to prevent him from burning holes in the furniture. His black suit, which he wore in every season of the year and on all occasions, was irreparably stained. Clumps of hair bristled in his ears and nostrils. Even in America he insisted on wearing European-style stiff collars, broad ties, and detachable shirt cuffs. Since he refused even to try on any other kind of shoe, friends had to rummage through the whole of New York to find him rubber-soled ankle boots. A watch with three lids was stuck into his vest pocket. Margolin used to say that spiritually and physically Halperin was still living in the nineteenth century.
Of all the men present, Dr. Margolin was the tallest. Carrying himself erect, as he always did, he stood over six feet. He had a long, severe face and the cold gray eyes of a Prussian Junker, and he always dressed according to the latest fashion--his head shaved and his fingernails manicured. In Germany he even wore a monocle. Rumor had it that he had grown rich from performing illegal abortions. It was difficult to believe that forty years earlier Margolin had been a student at the yeshiva in Ger. He spoke Russian like a Muscovite, German like a Berliner, and English with an Oxford accent. All his life he had been a devotee of the athletic pastimes of the upper classes, so as a matter of course he had come to treat an aristocratic clientele in Berlin. In new York he belonged to all sorts of Gentile clubs. Despite this, however, both in Berlin and in New York he had remained on intimate terms with Boris Makaver. He came to all his dinner parties, he was his family physician, and on those rare occasions when Dr. Halperin's memory failed him when reciting passages from the Gemara, it was Solomon Margolin who prompted him and who caught his Latin errors.
Boris used to tease him: "That's not a head you've got--it's a musical instrument. Oh, Shloymele, if you hadn't surrendered to all this foolishness, you'd've surpassed our Sages in brilliance."
Now he said only, "Do as I say, Shloymele, take a piece of strudel. It can't possibly harm you. All this nonsense about calories isn't worth a kopeck."
Dr. Margolin stared at him coldly. "I don't want your paunch."
That evening the guests gathered in Boris Makaver's apartment on the Upper West Side. The apartment building into which Boris had just moved reminded him of Warsaw. Built around an enormous courtyard, it faced Broadway on one side and West End Avenue on the other. The cabinet de travail--or study, as his daughter Anna called it--had a window overlooking the courtyard, and whenever Boris glanced out he could almost imagine he was back in Warsaw. Always quiet at its center, the courtyard enclosed a small garden surrounded by a picket fence. During the day the sun crept slowly up the wall opposite. Children ran around on the asphalt in play, smoke rose from the chimney, sparrows fluttered and chirped. All that seemed to be missing was a huckster carrying a sack of secondhand goods or a fortune teller with a parrot and a barrel organ. Whenever Boris gazed into the courtyard and listened to its silence, the bustle of America evaporated and he thought European thoughts--leisurely, meandering, full of youthful longing. He had only to go into the salon--the living room--to hear the din of Broadway reverberating even here on the fourteenth floor. Standing there watching the noisy automobiles, buses, and trucks and catching the subway's roar from under the iron gratings, he was reminded of all his business affairs and thought of telephoning his broker and arranging to meet his accountant. The day had suddenly become too short and he felt the need to take out his fountain pen and scribble in his notebook. On such an occasion Boris thought of the biblical verse "The Lord was not in the earthquake." When it was snowing outside, however, Broadway became cozily familiar. Since it was winter, the windows were fastened tightly, protected with shutters and covered with drapes.
This was such a night. Boris had invited his daughter Anna and his son-in-law Stanislaw Luria to dinner, as well as his nephew Herman Makaver, who had been spared Hitler's Holocaust. Herman had left Poland to fight for the Loyalists in Spain, then made his way to Algiers and from there, with Boris's help, to America. The other guests were Professor Shrage, Hertz Dovid Grein, Dr. Solomon Margolin--a friend from Boris's student days at the yeshiva in Ger--and Dr. Zadok Halperin and his sister Frieda Tamar.
Before eating, Boris put on a yarmulke and, after inviting the others to do the same, washed his hands while reciting the prescribed blessing. This ritual was also scrupulously observed by Frieda Tamar, who was the widow of a German rabbi and a learned woman who had published a book in English about the role of women in Judaism. The remaining guests, however, behaved like unbelievers. Boris was a widower and the meal had been prepared by his female relative Reytze, who had kept house for him since his wife's death twenty-three years before. She had accompanied Boris on all his wanderings--from Warsaw to Berlin and, after Hitler took power, from Paris to casablanca, Havana, and finally New York.
After dinner they all went into the living room. Boris had furnished his new apartment like the old ones in Warsaw and Berlin--with heavy mahogany furniture, ornate chandeliers with dangling crystal prisms, and plush--and velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs draped with lace antimacassars and fringed covers. In America he had steadily acquired many volumes or rabbinical learning and all sorts of antique Hanukkah lamps, clocks with Hebrew dials, Passover seder platters, Sabbath candlesticks, and the breast-plates, crowns, and fescues that beautify Torah scrolls. He had even set up a little prayerhouse in one room: it contained two copper candelabra, a Holy Ark, a lectern, and a wall plaque with a verse from the Psalms to encourage reflection and meditation. Though as a young man he had changed his name from Borukh to Boris, out of business expediency, he had never abandoned his Jewishness. After the Hitler slaughter Boris resumed strict religious observance. Wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, he recited the morning service every weekday and no longer neglected the afternoon and evening prayers. In Williamsburg he had sought out a Hasidie rebbe to whose father Reb Menachem Makaver--his own father--had once traveled. And he still recalled a page or two of the Gemara.
Now in the living room Boris quoted another rebbe's rhyming aphorism: "`Since the Gentiles kill us all the same, / Let us keep our Jewish name.' Even though they murder us as individuals, why should we choose to die as a nation? Let us at least remain Jews and not assimilate."
Dr. Margolin grimaced. "The way you see things, Borukh, if one doesn't follow every petty decree by every two-bit rebbe, one is automatically an assimilationist. Believe me, if Moses were to rise from the dead and take a good look at those primitive Williamsburg Loudmouths in their black coats, always waving their arms about, he would curse them. Remember, Moses was a prince of Egypt, not a shmegege with sidelocks. According to Freud, he was as Egyptian as they come."
"Quiet, Shloymele, quiet! Freud was a filthy German. All we know about our Teacher Moses is what's written in the Torah."
"Moses had two wives--one was the daughter of a Midianite priest and the other was black. Here in New York he'd have to live with her in Harlem."
"Blasphemer! Keep your wit to yourself! What do we know of the past? Every generation has its own customs."
"They've talked you into believing that every Jew is a stoop-shouldered snuff taker, and the picture is stuck in your head. For you, the only Jews are Polish Hasidim in primitive Russian capotes snatching scraps of food from the tables of nitpicking rebbes. What about the Jews of Spain? Of Italy? Wasn't Manoello Giudeo a Jew? And Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto? And Joseph Solomon of Candia? And Rabbi Leone da Modena? If you'd learned a bit of history, you wouldn't be so close-minded."
"History, mystery, chicory! What does it prove? I know one thing, Shloymele: our fathers were Jews, we've become half-Jews, and our children are ... well, I'd better not say anything, If young Jewish men can join the GPU and shoot people on the other side of the world, then we ought to tear our garments in mourning and sit shivah--not for seven days but for a whole lifetime."
"So sit shivah. Your father's and your grandfather's Jewishness no longer exists and it'll never exist again. It was a brief episode in Jewish history."
"It still exists, and it'll continue to exist!" shouted Boris Makaver. "Only yesterday I bought a holy book printed by yeshiva students in Shanghai. We were starving, and we printed holy books. We fled from Hitler and Stalin, and we published the commentaries of Rashba. And where? In China! I swear to you, Shloymele, a thousand years after we've forgotten all you intellectuals, we'll still be studying the Gemara."
"Well, if you swear, there's nothing more to be said."
The same controversy, the same argument, was repeated with every conceivable variation each time they met, but neither Boris nor his guests tired of these debates. The winter evening had just begun. Of the seven men present, five were without women. Margolin had married a German girl in Berlin twenty years before. In 1938 she had left him to live with a Nazi, taking their small daughter, Mitzi, with her. Professor Shrage's wife had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. Herman had never married. Hertz Grein did have a family, but he was the type of man who never took his wife with him when he went visiting. He was sitting on a chaise longue chatting with Boris Makaver's daughter Anna, Stanislaw Luria's wife.
He murmured confidentially to her, "They're starting the Jewish Question again."
"I've heard the same talk since I was a girl this high," Anna answered, indicating with a gesture how little she had been then. On one of her fingers an enormous diamond ring flashed in the lamplight with all the colors of the rainbow.