After, I drank the bitter coffee and ate the over sweet kreplach. I knew I was on display, a type of curiosity not seen by these dear old ladies in more than forty years: a young, secular, Yiddish writer, a part of their fabled and dead past. I also told them, as I had been compelled to do on numerous occasions, the story of my mythical childhood.
I lived with my doddering Bubbe in a shoddily winterized Catskills cabin with little contact with the outside world until Social Services caught wind of my existence after a BMW from downstate had taken a wrong turn from the Nevele and wound up stuck in the mud in our cul de sac. I was not neglected as a child. I simply was not allowed to flourish.
I had been abandoned by my leftist parents with my aged and demented grandmother at the age of five. I can remember kissing my mother, perfumed with the aroma of lavender, and being patted on the head by my father, and that was the last trace of them on the tablet of my memory. Perhaps they had meant to come back but the act of delaying had become a kind of ontological illness amongst them. They may have died. I have heard fabulous tales of their adventures, many of them, if laid alongside each other, cancel each other out; and my Bubbe, in her brittle mind imagined that only a week had passed by since my appearance and not seven or eight years.
Perhaps she had forgotten who I was or what I was doing in her little bungalow. She often called my Moshele, little Moses, my father’s pet name. She may have been reliving the fantasy of her life before the D.P. camps and hiding in the forests of Poland. Her little rustic shack, without a radio,newspapers, neighbors, was a cenotaph to shetlt life, complete with the mud and Yiddish lullabies on nights of blaring white snow squalls.
So, I was raised within the dimensions of a fairy tale. A clearing in a pine forest among steeply wooded slopes punctuated by rocky crags and spires, all set to the cadences of Polish Yiddish, like a rhyme plucked out of thin air. At 14 I was plucked from this strange pastoral, the lone feral Yiddish child in existence.
When I began to write at eighteen the Forvarts would take nearly any story I wrote, mostly about my years with Bubbe. My renown grew. But in the ten years since my literary debut, the floor had been ripped from my Yiddish house. I wanted no more of the self-effacing idioms, charming wit and dodging, verbal ducks. I wanted good clean English declarative sentences, not the cadence of Talmudic sing-study, the endless circularity of argument turned against argument, of question answered with a question. I wanted every American’s literary birthright: Hamlet and Hemingway; the Gettysburg Address; Whitman and Kerouac.
Then I realized that Mendel Goldfarb was standing next to me, nearly leaning on my elbow, trying to sidle his way into an ongoing conversation. He was standing with a walking stick, leaning on it as if he would fall through a trap door in the floor if he let go.
“Mr. Nathan Zimmermann?” he asked, a useless question, since I was introduced but a half hour before, and I was the guest of honor. I told him that I was indeed the man and he held out his hand, dark and clammy, as if he had just emerged from a shvitz.
“I am Mendele Goldfarb,” he said in Yiddish, and then, for no apparent reason but to present himself as a greenhorn with a pronounced accent as advanced as a speech impediment, he continued in English. “I vus the man vho lost the Nobel Prize to Yitzhok Zinger.” And here, Goldfarb expressed what had become a truism in the world of Yiddish letters since last year. The Swedish Academy was going to award a Yiddish writer in 1979, and if it was not for Isaac Singer, it would have gone to Mendele Goldfarb. But Goldbarb’s treatment of women on the page did not endear him to the Academy, and although Singer was no Gloria Steinem, he certainly was not Mendele Goldbarb.
I had heard this couplet repeated before, and took it for what it was, the kind of sour grape poultice applied to the wounds of the loser while all the while stealing the laurels of the great. But to hear it from Goldfarb himself made it a kind of sad tautology.
“Excuse me?” I said in Yiddish.
“Vat?” Goldfarb answered, louder in English. “Vat are you hard of hearing? And in so young? I vould have had that prize in my pocket even vith its holes. If it vere not for that gonif Zinger…”
Then he somehow took me aside and began a lengthy diatribe, half in English, half in Yiddish, a genealogical of his grievances, who beget who from the Adam to Abraham of his Unfulfilled Dreams. I moved backward in an inverse ratio to Goldfarb’s insistence, and before I knew it I was in a back room whose bed was piled high with coats. We were like a couple at a party looking for a private place to quarrel. He had also, apparently, read my work.
“Vhen you vere hold up vith you Bubbe in the Katskills, I vas already in my decline,” as he said this, his breathing was as shallow as a puddle on Broadway. “Living the life of the shetl in a nutshell, you think this is Yiddishkeit, Jewishness? I vas already dead to the vorld vhen you vas in your Katskills, a vild kinder… I vas dead vith my shoes on…”
“But I don’t understand,” I finally said, able to squeeze a word between the edges of Goldfarb’s plates of tectonic disappointment.
“You don’t?” he said, appearing to be genuinely surprised at my evident obtuseness. “I saw your story in that magazine. You think vee vould ignore it? In English iz this. Vat do you think? You are our dahrling and now you do vat you do… our dahrling becomes a vhore.”
“But I don’t even know you, Mr. Goldfarb, and you're scolding me like a father,” I answered in formal Yiddish. The man was making me crouch against the wall of discomfort.
“Vat?” he screamed. “I have read your vorks! You have read everything I have vritten and many things I have not vritten, and stole much, a gonif like that Zinger madman… stolen the good things and discarded the bad…”
“Mr. Goldfarb I….”
“Do not interrupt!” he sputtered, taking a menacing step toward me. “The insolence of youth. Ven you vas a vild child, in the mountains, I vas a….”
We were back were we had started, but now Mendele Goldfarb had fallen backward, as if a great and silent wind had felled him amid the mound of coats. One minute he was standing, tangling with the ghosts of regret and rage, in the next he was down, smothered like a child’s doll in a disorderly toy chest.