Thursday, August 28, 2014

John Adams in Vivid Colors

Quite possibly one of the most imaginative and fully realized pieces of biography that I have ever read, John Adams present the portrait of a man in all his shades and colors, with his triumphs and his disappointments.

David McCullough is an excellent writer, but he never allows his brilliant prose to do the hard work of historical research.  He lets the facts speak for themselves, creating both a well-written and largely accurate book about the role John and Abagail Adams played during the American Revolution.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 49 Gates of Defilement, the END


             In the kitchenette the espresso pot hissed like a geyser.  Sharon wore her terry cloth robe, a garment reserved for when she was indisposed. 
            “He’s a mess,” she said, sighing.  “All night long, English and Yiddish.  It was a strain.  And then the crying.  I couldn’t just cast him out into the night… into that snow.”
            “Of course not.”
            “And he kept asking me if I was a Jewish daughter, again and again.  He can’t believe it.  He thought I must be a convert.”
            “What did you tell him?”
            “I told him my genealogy.  He was impressed.  But he said with my blond hair and green eyes my great-grandmothers must have been raped by Cossacks.  Can you believe he said such a thing?”
            “Yes,” I answered.  “You should read his fiction.”
            “No thanks,” Sharon answered, lapping the cup of espresso, cringing at its bitterness. “His truth is queerer than his fiction, I’m sure.”
            “Don’t be so certain,” I answered.  We sat in silence for a while, and I took her hand.  She was tired but striking, emanating a soft glow from unfathomable regions within her.  Sun slanted through the small kitchen window.  New York City was ablaze with the white, diffused light of freshly fallen snow. 
            A soft moan wafted in from the bedroom.  We stood up, on cue, and gazed down at the figure in our bed.  Mendele Goldfarb’s face was the very likeness of death.  Somewhere in this long, interminable winter night, he had become gravely ill.  Without a word, Sharon called an ambulance.  But by the time she returned, it was already too late.
            Goldfarb was now sleeping with our fathers of blessed memory.  When Sharon returned, I softly said the words.  She sat on a chair and began to noiselessly cry the caustic tears of generic grief.  After all, a Jew died, and a Yiddish speaking one at that.  She was married to a Yiddish writer, of sorts, and knew full well the implications of this death.  One less reader. One less writer.  One more world expunged.
            I had met Mendele Goldfarb and thought him already dead and then in some feat of imaginative alchemy, he had died in my marital bed, a place where Sharon and I had been trying to conceive a child.   
            Despite being a kohen, a priest, and hence technically forbidden to touch the dead, I closed his open eyelids.  I kissed his cold forehead.  I pulled the sheet over his face.  I lit some candles by his head and taking a book of psalms, began to sway and recite, waiting for the ambulance to come and take him away.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The 49 Gates of Defilement, X


             Marriage is, of course, an edifice composed of grand gestures, a monumental architecture.  It is not a shanty or hovel, but the pyramids at Giza, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Yet its mortar is a multitude of minute gestures.  A thousand quotidian thrusts and parries on a minor scale, like the background music in some public space:  the pulse beat of bursting, teeming life. When a wife brushes her teeth and where she places her toothbrush.  Where the husband discards his shoes when he tramps in from the rain.  The scattered detritus of domestic life, embodied in hundreds of sundry articles.  To invite another into the closed circle is to not only to misshapen the form of the circle, but run the risk of breaking its uninterrupted radius.
            Our apartment does not have an elevator, so I tramped up the stairs, shoes drowning in melted snow, with the dry cotton of sleep still in my eyes and the vicious dreams of the previous night still looped in my mind, a projector with stripped sprockets.  My mouth was as dry as the sand in an hourglass, sluicing down the narrow channel of connecting glass between the twin bulbs.
            In front of the door, I searched for my keys in every pocket.  Had I lost them?  It was as if some evil spirit was toying with me, preventing me from reclaiming my matrimonial space.  I found the key, inexplicably, in my breast pocket, among a midden of lint
            When I entered, all was quiet.  Our small living room was in more than its accustomed disarray.  Two empty bottles of schnapps listed on the table, leaning together, auspiciously preventing each other from falling.  One shot glass was full, and the other half-empty, or for those on the other side of the ontological divide, half-full.   
             There was a trail of clothes on the floor leading to the bedroom, the cast off shmatta of an old man’s wardrobe.  The bedroom door was ajar.  Goldfarb and Sharon were in bed, the covers up to their respective noses.  Goldfarb snored at half-strength, somewhere between a wheeze and a whistle.  I gently pulled back the covers.  Sharon was fully clothed in yesterday’s work gear.  Goldfarb sported a thin sleeveless tee shirt and boxer shorts which skimmed the top of his bony knees.  Sharon’s eyes opened.  I gazed down at a pool of undiluted green.
            “Nate,” she said softly.  “What a night I had.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 49 Gates of Defilement, IX


             The city was still pressed in the vice of muted snow.  But it had stopped falling from the gray sky.   A few flecks fell from the low cloud cover, only to disappear somewhere above the mounds of snow.  But still I couldn’t find a taxi, at least this far in the north of Manhattan.   
             So I began the shlep south to locate some mode of transport to take me to that illusory physicality, home.  There was a snow emergency in effect in all five boroughs.  No unnecessary traffic was permitted on the street.  It was only when I reached Fifth Avenue that some semblance of road was visible beneath my feet and I found a cab with a cabbie within, an old man sitting in the car, idling with the heater on full blast.  He ignored my tapping until it was apparent I would not go away.
            “Vat?” he asked, a level tone of disgust implying it was nothing personal.
            “I need a lift,” I answered in Yiddish, following a certain linguistic instinct honed by one-thousand years of European exile.  The man’s dull eyes lit:  a person under fifty speaking the Mother Tongue. 
            “A landsman?” he said, finally, uncoiling his looping Ukrainian accent around his diphthongs and vowels.   “What’s a Jew doing out in this?  The mayor, may his name be blotted out, has closed down the roads.  If I should get caught, a fine I could get.”
            “I’ll give you $50.”  The man gazed at me quizzically.  What was my angle?  Than all doubt evaporated as President Grant was pressed into his hand, magically outstretched. 
            Vos mer yidn, als mer ganovim,” he said as I planted my fanny in the back seat.  A venerable Jewish proverb of self-mockery:  the more Jews, the more thieves.
            As we drove downtown, the man would not stop talking.  Now that he had found a fellow Jew, a real Yid, the words flowed like a tap which had been turned on and broken.   
             His was a familiar tale of destruction and dislocation.  Similar in broad outlines to versions I had heard told by members of his generation, differing in minor details, mainly the boldness of the horror or deprivation suffered at the hands of goyisher scoundrels.  This man was indeed a lucky Jew.  As a teenager during the war a buxom Ukrainian peasant woman without a husband had taken him in as a farm hand.  He shaved his beard and side locks and pretended to be her mute, pork eating son.  The woman was “vild” the cabbie explained, implying more with his tone than with his words, but he was alive thanks to her.
            “She von’t be among the Chassidey umot ha Olam, the righteous among the nations, in the Garden of the Righteous in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but the shikska saved my hide, I’ll give her that.”
            When the cabbie found out he was carrying Nathan Zimmerman, who wrote in Forvarts, he grew visibly excited.  His tale was designed for installments in that venerable Yiddish daily, he panted, and  he scratched his name and number on the back of a blank cab duty roster: Samkele Gabinizer.  I looked twice at the last name.  Gabiniz was the muddy shetl of my grandmother of blessed memory, my poor loopy Bubbe, who mind was stuck in the mire of history.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The 49 Gates of Defilement, VIII

Goldfarb coaxes Sharon to bring out the bottle of schnapps from the under the kitchen sink.  He says teasingly, in mincing words that he then translated into his Galician Yiddish, and then back into English.  Sharon is not without her internal void,  the cornices and niches in her psyche untouched by the love of another, even of a husband.  Goldfarb, despite his literary dry spell, is a masterful storyteller.  He sits and spins a tale as if he was unspooling a great ball of yarn, so she can almost smell the flax of the field in the wool.  His stories are not of the Jews at the Wailing Wall or in a scorched kibbutz in the Negev, but of snow covered timber huts and swaying birch trees dappled by the weak Polish sun.  This is a world that is lost, but which Goldfarb can conjure with his words.  In a thousand Polish towns, the worn out stencil of a Yiddish sign is sometimes visible on the lintel of a door, or the remains of a synagogue or a mikveh can be located on the outskirts of the gentile village, among the broken glass and weeds.  This world has a pull for Sharon, and as Goldfarb retells tales of Chasdic dynasties at war with rivals, excommunicating each other’s members and taking each other’s wives in vengeful adultery, her defenses are razed.

When the schnapps is nearly consumed Sharon realizes that Goldfarb is on the couch next to her.  On the small balcony outside the window the snow has piled into muffling columns, snuffing the sounds of the city.  It is a poylish nakht, a polish night, and Sharon bends forward as Goldfarb takes her blond head in her hands and whispers tokhes, daughter, in her ear, and they kiss.  He places a hand over her breast, and Sharon, in deference to the sacrifice of his age, strips to her bare skin.  He climbs on her and she whispers foter, foter, foter, father, the only Yiddish word she knows.