Read an Excerpt
The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh
It's a long way from Kishinev to Baltimore. Separating the place of the beginning of my life from that of its likely end, the sea of history sent waves that threatened always to pull me down. How did I survive? I floated on a raft of words.
My first were those of the mamaloshn, the sweet kitchen Yiddish my mother used to soothe my cries. These were words like wooden spoons, feeding hot soup on the coldest days, cracking down on the pot when little hands reached to taste too soon. Before long, my earliest words were joined by the loshn kodesh, the holy tongue of Scripture. When, in my most distant memory, my father wrapped me in his prayer shawl and carried me to the synagogue to hear the language of prayer spoken, it was as though I was the holy scroll itself, carried in the arms of the righteous to lead the Simchat Torah parade. Father was not particularly pious and became less so through the years, but nonetheless he was a good Jew, said kaddish for his mother when she died, and was pleased to send his only son to the religious school where I learned to write my letters.
Such letters! The flexibility of the twenty-two letters of the alefbeys impresses me even now. With them I could write my name two ways, one as I heard it spoken each day in Yiddish yud tsadek yud kof and again as it was given in the Torah's Hebrew yud tsadek khet kof like the son of Abraham our patriarch. There is only a slight difference between Itsik and Isaac, but still it was a marvel to me to be one boy with two names one for the streets, one for the shul as if who I was depended always on the walls around me.
And that was only the beginning of what I would learn from the differences between my first two tongues. Look at the way the same four letters in the loshn kodesh find new life and meaning in the vernacular:
alef yud vav beys
In Hebrew, this spells Job, the name of the saintly, tortured, righteous man from the Teachings of the Prophets. In Yiddish, if we take this word and reverse the vav and the yud, it becomes simply oyb, "if."
You see how language itself explains the mysteries of man? Only in the relation of one tongue to another do we understand that God treats the life of each creature as a question; a walking, breathing "if." The rabbis would have us believe the Holy One sits in heaven with nothing to do but look down upon His world and wonder about this or that soul that happens to catch His eye. What questions He must ask Himself: If I slaughter this one's children, will he still pray? If I wreck this one's body with boils, will he still sing that I am just? What do we do if God puts such questions before us? To some, that is the true challenge of living: Who will we be if we become another Job? Will we bear our suffering as he did?
Ach, such thoughts are for the philosopher. The poet meanwhile is a heretic and a pragmatist by nature. Personally, if God in his mystery chooses to treat me as he treated poor Job, I'll tell him to stick a fig in his ass.
But I leap ahead of myself. Forgive me, my pen reaches always for the closing lines. It hates the start of things, the first marks on the virgin page. Yet before I explain what I have made of the world and what the world has made of me, I must tell you how I came to be.
If it is true what my mother told me, I was born in the scarred city of Kishinev on a Sunday in April, late one evening when white feathers filled the sky like a springtime snowfall. Kishinev was part of the Russian Empire then; before and since it has known nearly as many nationalities as have we poor Jews. Always another boot on its neck Ottoman, Russian, Romanian the city lay with its face in the gutter of the swampy river Bic, which never cared who among the goyim called himself czar.
According to my mother, my birth fell on the Russians' Easter of that year, 1903. (When in my boyhood I asked why my birthday was not Easter every year, she explained that the Christian holy day was a moveable feast, while the anniversary of my arrival was as fixed as a grave.) At the time, the family Malpesh my mother, my father, my sisters, and my grandmother was living in the center of Kishinev, near Chuflinskii Square, down the block from the market on Aleksandrov Street. My father was a cabinetmaker by trade, but before I was born he'd become manager of the city's goose down factory and now earned a comfortable living. My mother no longer needed to work but on a regular schedule gave assistance to the Christians next door. Her two daughters were old enough to look after themselves, and the mother in the neighbor's house was bedridden and had no girl children to care for her, so several times each week Mama went with baked goods to feed the invalid and her four sons. That is how it was in the community the family Malpesh lived in then: Jews living on the same street as Christians, with young ones of each running in and out of all the houses. Even in my boyhood, after the violence, the Christian children came to our door for pastries.
Kishinev was half Jewish, the other half made up equally of Russians and Moldovans. The Russians ran the local government, placed in power by the czar. They hoped to Russify the Moldovans, a rough people who were the natural inhabitants of the province of Bessarabia, of which our city was capital. Each of these groups believed they comprised a full half of the overall population, which accounted for what my father called the Christian mathematics of the Bessarabian census bureau: Fifty thousand Jews in a city of 100,000, and we were regarded as a troublesome minority.
Nevertheless, the family lived well. This perhaps bears explanation, as many Jews in Kishinev did not live at all well at the time. How could they? Endless regulations guarded against their prosperity. Jews were not permitted to live beyond the city's boundaries, and so most clustered together within a few squalid streets; they were not permitted to vote in the local elections that determined the governance of the city in which they were forced to live; their choice of employment was restricted by various ethnically affiliated trade guilds. Even those Jews who did find some success seemed to the rest to be interested only in currying favor with the authorities. Generally speaking, our lives were circumscribed by the ancient prejudices of the Christian population. That our numbers were on the rise while theirs were declining did not indicate to our neighbors that we were the future and hope of Kishinev, but rather that we were its threat and would soon be its doom.
How then did the family Malpesh rise above such conditions? As my mother told me, it happened like this: Five years previous, having just begun his employment at the local goose-down-gathering operation, Father awoke with a start one night, shaken by a terrible dream. In his sleep he had seen an entire flock of white birds with snapped necks, their blue tongues lolling out of beaks as black as ink, all impaled on giant spikes attached to mechanized wheels. The birds hung upside down, each with two webbed feet pointed to the sky like the hands of surrender. As the coal engine fire raged, a machine squealed to life and the carcasses inched forward toward a faceless man with blood in his beard.
My youngest sister, Freidl, later told me that Father said the shadowy figure in his dream looked "like hell's shoykhet," and she swore she would never forget the description. She was all of five years old but had once seen Moishe Bimko, one of Kishinev's kosher slaughterers, perform his work in the shed behind the synagogue. Six foot five and broad as a cow even for a butcher, Moishe was a fright to behold. The man who served his role in Gehenna was too awful to imagine.
Grandmother shrieked when she heard Father's dream, convinced it was the product of a hex. "Some old witch has caught you with her evil eye," she said. He was not a superstitious man, but hearing his mother's reaction, he admitted the nightmare had rattled him. For days Grandmother pestered her son. "You must go see the rabbi. He will tell you what the vision means."
Mama disagreed. "The rabbi is the mayor's lackey," she said. "He will tell you the birds' two feet mean you should pay your taxes twice."
She suggested that instead of running to the synagogue, he should describe the image of the moving birds to Mr. Bemkin, who was the owner of the goose down operation. Father was reluctant; he wasn't proud of his job and found all affiliation with Bemkin's down company distasteful. He'd sought employment there only because a new law forbade hiring cabinetmakers who were not members of the Bessarabian Carpenters' Guild, and membership was denied to Jews. At the down operation he worked not with his hammer and planes but with a shovel, cleaning up the mountains of shit that were the byproduct of large-scale slaughter.
Yet to pacify my mother, Father agreed. He first made drawings of all he could remember from his nightmare: the engine, the wheels, the conveyor belt, and the curved metal spikes that held the geese in place.
When Mr. Bemkin examined these sketches, he saw the potential immediately. He was a Christian but also a shrewd businessman who valued the possibility of increased revenue over the particulars of religious affiliation. Father's "goose machine," he said, was very much like innovations that had guaranteed the fortunes of the large down operations in Odessa. But who in Kishinev, he wondered, could build such a thing?
Father volunteered to try. Through considerable elaboration upon his initial sketches, he finally hit upon a great idea: the use of five iron spikes to affix each goose to the workings of the machine. Four of the five spikes merely pinched the fowl beneath the wings, two on each side, keeping them positioned on the conveyor belt more with the threat of being pierced than by actual penetration. An additional spike, lowered from above, was intended only to be used when a bird could be kept still no other way. The spike would stab through the goose's neck, pinning it to the belt and allowing its blood to drain into the gutter that ran the length of the machine. By this design, many of the geese would survive the process and so could continue to produce down for another plucking cycle; only those birds that slowed production would be killed.
The machine was an immediate success. Within six months Mama had packed the family's rented rooms in the Jewish quarter, and they had moved to a two-level home near Chuflinskii Square with a view of the famous merry-go-round from the second story window.
For Father, it would be impossible to exaggerate the change of status this afforded him. Teams of Russian and Moldovan laborers now worked for him at the factory, and he proudly told my mother how closely they listened to him. When he demanded they pick up the pace to meet a rush order "Pluck with pluck, my pluckers!" he'd cheer workers who had harassed him as a shit-shoveling Jew months before now sped up or slowed down upon his command. It was almost as if they weren't Russians or Moldovans but extensions of his will.
In truth, it was hard for Father to take note of them as anything but parts of the great machine, or perhaps of a hungry animal. Yes, that was it: like the organs of some goose-eating golem. How else to explain the common feeling among the workers that they toiled deep in the gullet of a beast? With so much blood draining, the air in the factory hung thick with a meaty haze, and the farting squawks made by the punctured geese sounded and stank like the digestion of rotted flesh.
When the occasional worker spoke up against these conditions or the obvious cruelty suffered by the birds, Father was quick to say that he had nothing against either his geese or his workers. It was simply a matter of supply and demand. The demand for bedding required an ever larger supply of feathers; the end justified the means.
"In fact," he proposed, "given that one-quarter of Kishinev sleeps on Bemkin down every night and only, say, one one-thousandth of one-quarter of the city works here on the factory floor, I would say that we come out rather ahead. It's simple mathematics: If you add the suffering of the workers to the suffering of the plucked geese and then divide this total suffering by the pleasure derived from sleeping on Bemkin down plus the pleasure of those unplucked geese who enjoy life all the more knowing the fate they have avoided, it seems clear that our work here is for the common good."
Once the workers learned they could not approach their manager without coming away fully perplexed, Father's control of the factory seemed complete. He loved to watch both men and machine hum with activity each morning, nearly oblivious to the loss of avian life that was lubricating the whole endeavor.
As the birds moved through the processing room, it was each man's job to deplume a single section left wing, right wing, upper breast, lower breast so that by the time a goose had passed through a gauntlet of eight pluckers it was picked to the skin. Formerly a single bird would have taken half an hour to clean; now it was five minutes. And because each worker no longer left his stool whenever he finished a bird a process that by tradition had involved the enjoyment of several cigarettes on the short walk to the fresh goose pile even more time was saved. This last was accomplished by the positioning of a single man at the start of the disassembly line. There he sat all day long, pinning goose after goose with the sharp iron spikes. Under the old system this spiker had been the slowest plucker of the bunch, a portly fellow who broke a sweat with the slightest exertion. Now the workers no longer paused to brag or argue over who had plucked best; they worked as a unit, toward a single goal.
As the only man who knew how all the parts fit together, Father walked among his workers and assessed their labor: "Left Wing, pick it up! Right Thigh, you're leaving too much on the skin! Neck-and-Head, do you need this job?"
Under his supervision the storehouse filled with feathers, and Mr. Bemkin paid Father well for his service. Of course, as Mama liked to point out, it was not just their own family who benefited. Father found a way to deliver geese with overly rigid down to Moishe Bimko for the feeding of the synagogue's indigent. And the price of bedding dropped so significantly as a result of his invention that Father made it possible for even the poorest of Jews to have a comfortable night's sleep. Years later I'd meet men all over my new country, from Baltimore to Brooklyn, who sang my father's praises for his pillows and featherbeds. For a few blissful years, all of Kishinev slept on his dreams.
So it was that I was conceived one warm shabbos night, the first bird of the Malpesh flock to begin life's endless migration from the comfort of a downy nest. From the factory Father brought Mama a mattress stuffed plump as a New Year's challah, and for his effort she let him share it from the feast of Shavuot through summer's end.
For me that was when the trouble started. The trouble for the rest of Kishinev came soon thereafter. I do not mean to suggest that it was the first sign of my impending arrival that started it, but who could argue that the months before a child is born is a time when anything seems possible?
What happened was this: A long day's journey north, in the little town of Dubossary, it was said that a body had been found. This was not unusual. Kishinev was a modern city, with sidewalks, streetcars, and factories such as the one my father managed. But Dubossary, though not very far away, remained rough country. The peasants there plowed rocky earth in the heat or the cold, as they had for centuries, and scarcely ate enough to stay alive. By local custom, the dead found in the fields were buried where they lay.
In Kishinev, when such sad findings were reported in the daily Bessarabets, they were read with the same interest as would have been given to accounts of the czar's bowel movements. Better in the Dubossary fields, the people of Kishinev liked to say, than on the merry-go-round in Chuflinskii Square.
This body, however, had caused some alarm. From the moment of its discovery by a vagrant great-grandson of serfs who'd stepped off the road to relieve himself, it was evident that this was a death for which someone would answer. First of all, it was only a boy, a youth of about fourteen, my eldest sister Beylah's age. He'd been stabbed several times and had bruises about his face and neck. Furthermore, the boy was a Christian. Word spread that he was last seen alive accompanying his grandparents to the Orthodox liturgy.
Who is to say where lies grow best? In the dark, like a mold? In the bright light, like a flower? In Dubossary they were growing everywhere. They took root in the marketplace, where they were tended by merchants. They were cultivated in the chapels, where they were harvested by priests. The boy had been killed, the rabble whispered, by Jews. The Jews needed his blood, the ancient tale went, to sweeten their matzo and thicken their wine; they needed his blood for their Passover feast.
Of course! Who else, O wise men of Dubossary? Who but the Jews would kill a boy and leave him on the roadside for a Christian peasant to piss on? Who but the Jews would be so stealthy in their motives yet so careless in their execution? Who but the Jews would build their own gallows, tie their own nooses, and hire the hangmen to stretch their necks? All these years later, it remains baffling to me that Jews know this same lie has been told for a thousand years, while Christians hear it each time as a revelation. That we should be judged and murdered by such imbeciles is sorely vexing. With a Cossack's boot on his neck, a Moldovan dirt farmer would strain himself to ask who was the Jew that knocked him down.
But such is the world. And such was our corner of it in those days that provisions traveled with difficulty over our rattling roads, but words moved like fire. Through the next three months, as I grew in my mother's womb, the lies of Dubossary impregnated our city and likewise grew, waiting for the day when they might burst forth with wailing and blood.
During the preparation time for Passover, Mama busied herself sweeping crumbs from the cupboards. She took all those foods the family could not eat during the days of unleavened bread and brought them to the Christian neighbors, who accepted her charity gratefully. Mama fed a flour-thickened soup to the invalid woman in her bed and inquired in a sideways fashion if she had heard any news lately, or if one of her sons had read to her from that day's Bessarabets.
"The newspaper says," Mama told her, "that a group of Jewish chemists have invented a new method of making wine without grapes." She studied the woman's face even as she put the spoon to her sickly lips, watching for a reaction that might betray hidden sympathies. Seeing none, she went further, as though exploring a wound. "The newspaper says this new wine is as red as blood," Mama continued, "but the Jews keep their recipe a secret. Have you ever heard such a thing?"
"All I have heard is nonsense," the Christian woman said. "There may be some unpleasantness in the countryside, but not here. Kishinev is a modern city." She strained to lift her hand and used it to pat my mother's cheek. "Look at us, two citizens talking over the news without fear of reprisal," she said in a calming tone. "For how many years have you been caring for us in this way? Four years? Five? As long as we have been neighbors. If this is so, then surely the world is not as wicked as you suppose."
Mama wanted to believe her, especially now that she was so close to the day of bringing an infant into the world. Her doctor had told her it might be early May, and she prayed for the tension in the city to pass before then. In the meantime, reading the mood of the goyim became a pastime as constant as divining the weather. When Father returned home from the factory each day, he'd catalog the peculiar looks he received as he made his way through town. He knew that every Christian who tipped his hat and bid him, "Good day, Mr. Manager," had some opinion about the boy whom the Jews had killed.
In such an atmosphere, it seemed as if Passover that year would be a somber affair, though it began without incident. Father's brother, his wife, and their son Zishe came from the Jewish Quarter to fill our large table, and together the family Malpesh sang the ancient songs of captivity and liberation.
I was by far the youngest at the table, but I was yet in my mother's womb, and so the four questions fell to my cousin, Zishe. Fate determined I would never meet this boy, yet I feel as though I can hear it now as if it were a memory: How is this night different from all the others? His words came haltingly, as he was too early in his studies to understand their meaning.
As the Seder progressed, Mama perceived the dark mood around the table. Her two girls, usually so attentive, sulked in their seats, not even smiling when they were called upon to drop spots of wine on their plates in commemoration of Egypt's plagues. In years past this had been a time of merriment among the children. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, they rarely had the opportunity to openly and righteously play with their food.
Yet this night was indeed different from all the others, for it was then, after placing the last drop, signifying the plague by which God had slain the firstborn sons of Egypt, that my oldest sister Beylah, fourteen and brazen, dared to mention the fear that stalked Kishinev's streets. Surely what she hoped to say was this: Father, I'm confused by what is happening. We have a lovely home and we're happy here. Mama cares for the Christians next door, and I believe one of the boys there thinks I'm pretty. And yet when I step outside I feel cold looks from every window on the street. Could you please explain this for me?
But this is not what she said. Perhaps poets and children know best how elusive our fine language can be. Like a poem that will not fall into form, a child's thoughts are often jumbled, stubborn, unappealing in expression despite their purest intent. How else can one explain why, sitting at the Seder table with her family in a time of great anxiety, my oldest sister Beylah would ask, "Is it true what the Russian girls are saying, that a boy in Dubossary was murdered by Jews? That Jews took his blood for their cooking?"
Father's face flashed red in his beard. He was not a man given to outbursts, but on this occasion he shouted. "How could you say such a thing! A disgrace!"
The other children erupted with related questions, finally giving voice to all they had endured at the hands of their Christian peers, hardships and slanders that, until then, they had hidden from their parents' notice. A full family brawl might have ensued had not Father's brother taken control. Uncle Leib was a quiet man with a gentle air and a perpetually earnest tone. The children often found him distant, but now he spoke directly to their concerns.
"Little Beylah, don't be ashamed for asking," he said. "What the Russian girls have told you they have heard from their parents, who heard it from their parents before them. It is a very old lie which some persist in telling about our people. An outrageous falsehood. Do you understand what I say?"
"Yes," Beylah said, "but "
"What 'but'? From babyhood you have helped your mama make the matzo, yes? Did you help her this year?"
"And did you add blood to the batter?"
Beylah looked away and said softly, "No."
"And have you ever seen anyone add blood to matzo batter?"
"No," Beylah said again. She studied her empty plate, not willing to meet her uncle's serious eyes. It was still early in the Seder, so by then her plate held only those watery symbols of the plague, the ten red wine drops she had placed there. She put a finger in the violet liquid and used it to paint the plate with spirals and flowers. Years later she would tell me that she felt as though she was being spoken to as if she were still a little girl, not a young woman of fourteen. She wanted to lash out in response to this indignity, so she gathered up all her courage and peevishness.
"But I've never seen anyone make our wine," she said, "and the Russian girls say things about that, too. Why shouldn't we believe them?"
Uncle Leib was about to continue, but Father held up his hand. The children braced for another showing of his temper, but he had regained his composure while his patient brother spoke. He now sensed that beneath her bluster his daughter wasn't searching for answers, only reassurance. What she wanted was some suggestion that, whatever her Russian playmates said, the family Malpesh could still control its destiny. That Jews could still live as they pleased.
With the whole family waiting to hear what wisdom he would convey, Father winked at Mama and asked in full voice, "Mama, would you please pass the Christian blood?"
Beylah looked up in shock. Uncle Leib's eyes narrowed to slits of confusion.
"Yes, of course, Father," Mama said and grinned. "A nice big glass of Christian blood. I've been reading in the Bessarabets that it is very nutritious!"
Her daughters could not believe their ears but giggled at the absurdity despite themselves. Across the table, Leib, too, got the joke. He laughed heartily "Yes, more Christian blood for me as well!" and at the sound of their earnest uncle joining the gag, the children felt free to burst.
"Some for me, Mama." Beylah laughed. "Pour some blood for me!"
Cousin Zishe reached for his father's glass and took a big gulp.
Freidl sang, "I want Christian blood! More Christian blood!"
At this Mama tsked-tsked, "No, no, baby. Maybe when you're older," and the family laughed together as it hadn't in months.
Not everyone was amused, however. Grandmother had remained silent through Beylah's troublemaking, but now slapped the table with such force that the candles shook until they flickered out. "Shah! Stop! Someone will hear you!"
"Who will hear us?" Father laughed.
"The Christians," Grandmother hissed. "They are always looking for an excuse! Better for us all if the murdered child had been Jewish!"
"Ach, Mother, please," Father said. "I am the manager of the largest goose down factory in the province. I am the inventor of the goosemoving machine that has put feathers in every bed in Kishinev! Am I not safe in my own house?"
"Is the Malpesh family not permitted "
" to have some holiday fun around its own table!"
"More Christian blood for everyone!" Father cheered.
Grandmother stood abruptly, knocking the table as she made for the stairs. Her plate crashed into her knife and her knife stabbed against her glass, and before anyone could reach it, the fine crystal goblet toppled forward and met the Seder plate with a smash. A red stain spread across the tablecloth like a rising tide.
Father tried for levity once more, forcing a final chuckle as he called after her, "Pity! All that blood will go to waste!"
But the horror on Grandmother's face coupled with the sight of the broken glass told the children that the joke wasn't funny anymore. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Manseau