Wednesday, January 31, 2018

And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass

Originally published, in an altered form, in Our Stories, Volume 2. Issue 3, Spring 2008

When Yasha Schulevitz’s poem, “And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass,” was printed in Warsaw’s largest Yiddish daily newspaper, everyone suddenly hated him.  It should have been his moment of supreme triumph.  The newspaper had a massive distribution.  It was in the hands of every Jew in every café along the fashionable streets that lined the Saxony Gardens; it was perused by every Jewish clerk and secretary on the trolleys waffling down Krochmalka Street; it was folded into the lunch pail of every Jewish proletariat in every factory that lined the Vistula, and of course it was spread out on every chipped mahogany table in the reading room of the Yiddish Writers’ Club.  But the day after its publication, when everyone in Warsaw who could read a Yiddish word had slept on the poem and upon waking had formed their idiosyncratic exegeses of it, he found himself utterly despised.Strangers accosted him on the street and berated him for all shades of sins and crimes.  All but his most steadfast of friends turned their backs to him, and even his family returned his letters unopened.  The only mail he did receive was hate mail -- mountains of hate mail -- he was accused of being a capitalist, a communist, a self-hating Jew, a servile Yiddishist, a fascistic Zionist, an anarchist, a nihilist, and sometimes these often mutually contradictory charges were crowded like bickering relations, two or even three at a time, into one missive.   Atheists accused him of rank religiosity; religious Jews accused him of godlessness.  One rabbi in a small town not far from where he grew up wrote a long letter full of learned quotations and pious denunciations about the accumulated perils of Yasha’s soul.  The rabbi’s arguments wandered around, then he ended oddly: He told Yasha that when Abraham was in Egypt, he gave his wife Sarah to Pharaoh as his concubine, in order to save his life.  To prevent a terrible sin, God struck Pharaoh with a plague, and that plague was impotence.  The rabbi reminded Yasha that God controls all things, even the intimate functions of a man.
Even the members of the Yiddish Writers’ Club, no strangers to scandal and controversy, were aghast at the poem.  But some were merely jealous.  Who is that pup, they asked, who garners such attention?  He is in Warsaw from the provinces for less than a year and already his name is on everyone’s lips!  Besides jealousy, the writers also found other faults with the poem, each according to his natural predilection.  The Litvak writers found his Yiddish too Galician, and thereby vulgar.  The writers who Germanized their Yiddish so it aligned more with Central Europe found his propensity to use Yiddish words of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic provenance preposterous, insulting and backward.  And of course the Hebraists were up in arms.  Just four months ago Yasha had published a Hebrew poem in a Hebrew annual (circulation: one-hundred fifty) and received warm letters of praise for his dexterous use of the Holy Tongue.  But as word of his Yiddish poem spread, it seemed to Yasha that all one-hundred fifty readers of the Hebrew annual now hated him and wrote letters, seeking to use every pejorative word and expression they could find in their thin Hebrew lexicons.  He had stabbed the Hebraists in the back by using Yiddish, that mongrel jargon, for “poetry.”  There was no room for his like in the tents of Jacob, one huffy Hebraist wrote, while not realizing, Yasha noted with disgust, that his own Hebrew diction was simply translated Yiddish.

Things went on like this for Yasha Shulevitz for some time.  His second-hand desk was crammed with poems and essays, both in Hebrew and Yiddish, but no newspaper, magazine or journal would touch them.  Yasha thought he would be forgotten, but the river of mail continued to pour through his door.  He daily carried it to the Writers’ Club and read every word mailed to him, no matter how harsh.  His face must have reflected the words in his hands, for an older writer, Zaide Mendelbaum, originally from Lublin, who had written a novel over forty years ago that had made quite a splash (and now was all but forgotten) was suddenly sitting across from him.
“Why do you read those?  Are you a masochist?” Zaide Mendelbaum spoke with a slight lisp, and when he breathed, he wheezed, a habit exacerbated by continually sucking on a cigar.
“What else is there to do, Herr Mendelbaum?” Yasha answered with a shrug of his shoulders.  “Even if I wrote down the alef-bet, no one would print it!”
“The best part about literary attention is the women,” Zaide Mendelbaum said, as if to himself, raising his bushy eyebrow in silent revelry.
“Pardon?” Yasha asked, and Zaide Mendelbaum shuddered, as if an act of mental coitus had been consummated and completed.
“Women.  The ladies.  When my book was wagging everyone’s tongues, nearly every girl or woman I met hitched up her skirt for me.  Virgins, matrons, newlyweds – it hardly mattered.  Even some religious types – Chasdic matrons with wigs!” Zaide Mendelbaum stopped talking, as if he expected Yasha to say something elegiac about his past amorous adventures. But the young man just looked at him, a letter drooping in his hand like a banner of defeat.
“Anyway,” Zaide Mendelbaum continued, puffing on his cigar, “I suppose your kind of fame won’t lift any skirts.”
“No one will talk to me, Herr Mendelbaum, let alone take me to bed,” Yasha managed to say at last.  Zaide Mendelbaum shook his head mournfully, like a man paying respects to a sick man who is sure to die, and retired to his chair with a newspaper.  So Yasha picked up yet another envelope.  The handwriting was female.  This was odd.  Most of his correspondents were men.  He slit the envelope and opened the letter.  The script was precise, neat, and intriguingly feminine.  The paper was mauve and bore the unmistakable scent of Eau de Cologne.  The smell filled Yasha’s nostrils.  He imagined a boudoir filled with erotically suggestive bric-a-brac, a chemise folded over a plush velour chair, garters and stockings and negligees, odiferous with the promising stench of recently vacated female pulchritude, strewn everywhere.  Images of the chaos of Eros cluttered his overheated mind.  The tone of the letter, therefore, surprised him.  It was a line by line interpretation of his poem, complete with citations and even references.  This woman, this Fruma Frumkin, had read “And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass,” from a decidedly Freudian angle.  “Your image of the Nehustan,” she wrote in her summarizing penultimate paragraph, “or the bronze snake or serpent which Moses fashioned, is, of course, overtly phallic.  But your words ‘The people worship the snake like a mother / As a thing dripping with milk,’ show a decided mother fixation, and an unresolved Oedipal Complex.  No doubt you seek your mother image in older women, but here you sublimated that drive masterfully, in poetic images.  Moses constructed the brazen serpent, the Nehustan, to cure the Israelites of deadly snake bites.  Here you display your fear and fixation on the maternal vagina, a place of great erotic attraction and physical repulsion.  Furthermore, the act of apostasy in your poem, as the people of Israel burn incense to the idol -- and King Hezekiah’s destruction of the Nehustan in an iconoclastic rage -- illustrates the tension inherent in the poem (and perhaps in you?): you wish to possess the mother, and also destroy her.”
Yasha continued to read the letter.  When he finished, he read it again.  This Fruma Frumkin got the poem all wrong, of course, but unlike the other letters, her analysis was bereft of mockery and rage.  It was more clinical: it was as though Yasha was lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch listening in rapt attention as his most erotically perverse dreams were dissected in precise Viennese German.   And of course, there was this: “I would very much like to meet the young man who wrote such a masterful poem.  My husband is out most afternoons after three.  We can talk then without interruption.  Sincerely, Fruma Frumkin,” and her address card was attached to the letter.  The Frumkins’ house was in one of the more fashionable quarters of Warsaw.

Yasha sent a short note to Fruma Frumkin saying he would be pleased to meet her.  The next day a private courier arrived at Yasha’s apartment.  He tipped the man a groschen and opened the letter: Fruma Frumkin would be delighted to meet him at 4’o clock today for tea.
Yasha took his good suit out of a box beneath the bed and had it pressed.  He went down to the newsstand and had his shoes shined to a high buff.  When he alighted from the trolley, he found a florist around the corner from the Frumkin house and purchased a bouquet of multicolored carnations.  At 3:55 he stood on the top step of the well apportioned townhouse and rang the bell.  A butler led Yasha into a bright, warm sitting room and asked him to please take a chair.  But Yasha was only seated for a moment.  A woman quickly entered the room.  She was large but well proportioned, somewhere between forty-five and fifty (Yasha could not tell) with a significant but well-formed bosom, a tapered waist, and pleasingly wide, almost flared hips.  She wore a fashionable short skirt with black hose, and her legs were rather thick but firm, lengthy without being leggy.  Her face was round and white and studded with minute freckles.  Her red hair was piled high on her head, styled like a matron’s, with stray curls dangling down here and there like reddish wisps of a deflated crown.  She had a long nose, and wide-set brown eyes.  Yasha quickly sized her up as an Ashkenazi female type: the red-headed Jewess whose markers of Jewishness are spread about her carelessly, even randomly.   She took the flowers that Yasha offered her, and smiled, revealing a row of strong, white teeth.  She appeared to appreciate the flowers’ beauty, but she was really looking at Yasha.
“Why thank you, Herr Schulevitz,” she said in a mellifluous tone.  Her Yiddish had the strong, resonant ring of a Jew who had lived in urban Warsaw her whole life.  “This is so kind of you.  But not as kind as the poem that you have bequeathed to the world – to the Jews.  It is quite an innovation in Yiddish letters.”
“Why thank you, Frau Frumkin.  I do wish that others shared your opinion,” Yasha answered modestly, and Fruma Frumkin raised her hand, as if to object.
“Whenever a true cultural innovation is thrust upon the public, and especially on us Jews, people try to stone it and its creator.  No one wants to embrace an uncertain future.  It frightens people to believe that things must and will change.  So instead, we Jews retreat into a dead past.”
“I think ‘And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass’ is really about our past,” answered Yasha.
“Really?” Fruma Frumkin was shocked.  “How extraordinary!  I think of it as a prophecy of our future lives.  The life of the Jews and ultimately of the Gentiles.”  Yasha asked how that may be, and Fruma Frumkin gestured to the young man to sit.  She sat across from and surprising close to him, their knees nearly touching.  For the first time, Yasha noticed that the room was rather hot.
  “Why, here is your poem,” and Fruma Frumkin reached for the Yiddish daily that contained his poem, now two weeks old, from a Chippendale table.  Her pink arm brushed against Yasha’s on the return, and his body went from very hot to very cold.  “The Lord sent the fiery serpents to his people,” she read crisply.  “And the people died, and died/ And Moses fashioned the idol from brass, and screwed it onto a pole / And all Israel worshipped it.” She stopped and looked Yasha in the face for a long time.  “Why, it is not only a brilliant paraphrase of the Torah.  Of course, it is much more.  It says more about where we are going than where we have been.  This is a cleverly crafted allegory, Herr Shulevitz.  The fiery serpent is our sexual inhibitions; the bronze serpent, or Nehustan, is our desire to be free of them.  The destruction of the Nehustan by the father figure, King Hezekiah, represents the forces of repression.”
“I thought,” Yasha answered cautiously, “that my poem revealed Oedipal impulses,” and then, with great effort, “and the desire to sexually conquer my mother.”  On hearing this Fruma Frumkin smiled shyly, and her color rose.  Then she stood and went to the far corner of the room, retrieved something, and returned to her chair.  In her hand was the Hebrew language journal which had printed Yasha’s poem.  Evidently, Frau Frumkin was one among the one-hundred fifty.  She began to read the poem, which was not pointed, in excellent Hebrew.  Then, in Yiddish, she began to elucidate Yasha’s mother fixation, line by line, and at times, word by word, betraying an excellent knowledge of Hebrew grammar and etymology. 
“Do not get me wrong, Herr Schulevitz,” she said as she placed the Hebrew journal gently on a credenza.  “I do not mean that you literally wish to have intercourse with your mother…”
“I’m sure this will please her,” Yasha interrupted, and Frau Frumkin smiled indulgently.
“…but it manifests, in itself, a strong attraction for older women as sexual partners.  This powerful Hebrew poem illustrates this urge even more pointedly than your Yiddish poem.  Ahh, the tea…” and mercifully for Yasha, a maid entered with a tray of tea and cookies and for the remainder of the afternoon at the Frumkin residence, the conversation did not again veer toward matters sexual.  As Fruma Frumkin saw Yasha to the door, she demurely took his hand.  They said goodbye with great precision, and Yasha walked down the steps and out into the street.

Three days later he was at the Writers’ Club, nursing a cup of coffee and reading a stack of hate mail.  One man from Hungary accused him of being a Czarist spy.  A fellow in Belgrade illustrated, from the anagrams he found in his poem, that he was in the employ of Lenin.  He then picked up a letter with a Warsaw postmark.  The return address was familiar.  It was from Herr Frumkin, Herr Boaz Frumkin, as he introduced himself in the body of the letter.  He invited Yasha to his office at his earliest convenience to discuss a proposal of mutual advantage.

The next day, Yasha sat across from a portly, bald-headed man, with a sloping forehead and prominent nose.  Yasha thought Boaz Frumkin looked not unlike the caricatures of the “Capitalistic Jews” in the anti-Semitic broadsheets.  He wore a suit one or two sizes too small for his large frame.  His wedding ring cut tightly into his finger, forming twin halos of white around his pink, pudgy ring finger.  He carefully rolled and then cracked walnuts with a little brass mallet on his desk blotter, only to then carelessly wipe the shells onto his carpet.  The sign at the front of his factory said “Frumkin Fittings,” and Boaz Frumkin responded to Yasha’s polite question that he manufactured parts for all the new-fangled toilets being installed all over Warsaw. 
“But I did not bring you here to discuss ballcock fittings, Herr Schulevitz,” Boaz Frumkin explained, narrowing his eyes craftily. “I brought you here to discuss my wife.”
“Yes,” Yasha answered. “I had the pleasure of meeting Frau Frumkin the other day.  She was kind enough to enjoy a poem of mine that appeared in the Yiddish Sun.”
“Yes, my wife is devoted to the arts…” Boaz Frumkin answered, cracking a nut with his mallet, and then, upon seeing that the contents were black, he brushed the whole mess to the carpet.  “That is why I brought you here.  As a poet, I imagine you don’t make a great deal of money.  Well, I have a ton of it.  As an artist, you are no doubt progressive in your thinking.  And I am a progressive man myself.  I’ll prove it.  You see, last year I had an affair with a secretary here, a shiksa…”
“I don’t think that is any of my business,” Yasha interrupted primly.
“Please, hear me out.  You artists aren’t the only ones who take a bite out of life, you know.  This is a good story.  One day you can write a poem about it.  This affair with the shiksa didn’t turn out well.  But you should have seen her: a real Slavic beauty, with narrow Tartar eyes, high cheekbones, blond hair down to here, quite a tasty piece. And what a mouth on her in the sack!  She could have made a Russian sailor blush.  Well, my wife found out about it.  People wag their tongues.  Our Sages say gossip deprives a man of the World to Come.  Well the girl – the shiksa secretary, she committed suicide from the strain of it all, jumped into the Vistula and sank like a stone… and the whole affair, even after a year, has made me impotent…”
“Herr Frumkin!”
“…please, please, call me Boaz.  I can no longer perform the sexual act.  Not with any woman.  This is not fair to my wife.  She’s no maiden, but she’s not a babushka, either.  She needs what a man like you can do for her, satisfy her artistic and other needs, and of course, a stipend is in order…”
“Really, Herr Frumkin!” Yasha spat and stood up to leave.  “I don’t know how you can insult me with such an offer.  And insult your wife by treating her like nothing more than a whore!” and Yasha Schulevitz turned on his heel and fled.

The next day Yasha sat at a table at the Writers’ Club, smoking cigarette after cigarette, a stack of unopened mail before him, as accusatory as a silent but angry crowd.  He had no desire to give life to those voices by opening the letters.  It seemed that every Jew in Europe wished to project his or her delusions onto his defenseless poem, which he had written, more or less, for no other reason than to write it.  Suddenly, the doorman of the club was in front of him, and Yasha realized that he had escorted someone to his table.  When the man turned and left, Yasha saw Fruma Frumkin in front of him.  Most of the members of the club were men, and every head turned to study her every curve and bulge.  Yasha felt his face grow hot.  He feared a scene here, among the Yiddish writers, who were worse gossipers than old washer women.  Jewish Warsaw was like a small town, and he was afraid that a scandal with a married woman would, when joined with the printing of that blasted poem, further ruin his ‘career.’
“Herr Schulevitz, I beg your pardon.  I do not wish to disturb you while you work…”
“Frau Frumkin,” Yasha rose a little but found he had no strength in his legs.
“My husband called you to him, but I had no knowledge of this.  I did not give my consent, you must realize…”
“Please, please, Frau Frumkin,” Yasha whispered hoarsely, for he felt as if a tourniquet was being wound around his neck. “If we must speak of this, please come with me,” and he led her out to the balcony.  The winter air was crisp and the light was bright.  When Yasha looked at Frau Frumkin’s face in the unforgiving intensity of the winter sun he realized that she was old enough to be his mother.  The balcony had once held potted plants, but they were long gone.  Now the writers used the soil-filled pots to tamp out their cigars and cigarettes.
“Herr Schulevitz, my husband called you without my knowledge…”she continued, but Yasha cut her off.
“Frau Frumkin, we really don’t need to…”
“But you must understand, Herr Schulevitz.  You are a poet, an artist, a modern man.  We are no longer primitive shtetl Jews.  We live in the modern world.  Will a man die if he makes love to a woman who is menstruating, for instance?  Or will he suffer if he engages in any of the other forbidden sexual practices in Leviticus 20?  What kind of God cares if a man sleeps with a woman and her mother?”
“Madame, my grandfather was the Viznitzer Rebbe.  And his father before him.  It is true that I am no longer a practicing Jew, but I take seriously the moral strictures of the Torah, one of those being adultery, which is treated as a capital offense…”
“But my grandfather was a rabbi too,” Fruma Fromkin pleaded, and took a step toward Yasha, until all that separated them was a thin sliver of winter light.  “And I believe in my own way.  The Law is an illuminating light!  When Moses came down from Sinai, his face was so bright he had to place a veil over his head!  But Herr Schulevitz, I’ve suffered so.  My husband.  Our marriage.  That dead secretary seems to lie between us at night, preventing our intimacy.  When I read your poem, I fell in love with you.  Spiritually, of course.  The carnal aspect was absent when I read your poem.  And then, when I saw you in my sitting room, I was reminded of the body again…”
“Frau Frumkin,  I implore you…” but Yasha could not finish his sentence.  Fruma Frumkin was kissing him.  From some depth within him, he kissed her back.  He felt her enormous breasts pressing against his chest.  Then Frau Frumkin pulled away.  Her hair was disheveled from its bun.  Her face was wild with strange confusion.  She looked like an Chasdic matron disturbed by a great domestic disorder, such as finding an egg with a spot of blood in the yoke.
“Oh Yasha! Yasha!” she managed to wail before she ran out of the balcony, through the crowded room of writers, and out the door.
Yasha stepped off the balcony and every head turned toward him and then quickly away.  As he retrieved his coat from the hat boy, Zaide Mendelbaum approached him, his large, sad eyes wet with moisture, twirling a new cigar suggestively between two fat fingers.  He said: “I suppose that oyster produced a pearl after all, my boy,” and casually strolled away.

Yasha hoped that the incident with Boaz and Fruma Frumkin was the apogee of the dementia created by the printing of “And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass,” for a few days after he kissed Frau Frumkin on the balcony of the Writer’s Club, the letters nearly halted.  It appeared the readers of the Yiddish newspapers, ever-eager for something new to scandalize their sensibilities, had forgotten about Yasha Schulevitz and his poem.  Then, a popular Communist Yiddish language daily that had somehow missed the poem during the initial feeding frenzy reviewed it.  Yasha was skewered as a “bourgeois reactionary,” and reprimanded for “feudal obscurantism,” and “pedaling medieval superstition and fear.”  The letters began to pour in again, but this time Yasha did not open them.  The Jews are lost, he heard himself wail in his room.  He concluded that the Jews have been thrust into modernity without being ready; they adopted every political faction with the ferocity they once had for the Talmud and the Torah.  The same drive toward fractiousness that led rival Chasidic houses to excommunicate each other, or the Mitnagidim to excommunicate the Chassids, was played out in politics, or in the arts.  Yasha thought of himself, Boaz Frumkin, and  Fruma Frumkin; of Boaz Frumkin’s impotence and his pimping of his wife!  All the Jews are lost in this new world.  He thought of the rabbi who wrote to him about Abraham offering his wife to Pharaoh to save his life.  This was in the Torah!  Only God saved Abraham and Sarah from disgrace by rendering Pharaoh impotent.  Apparently, God meddled with men’s erections too, as well as moving the heavens around, and destroying and creating entire worlds!  It was madness! Yasha imagined the hapless Pharaoh, ignorant that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, climbing upon the recumbent Hebrew beauty, only to find he had no power to consummate the act.  He no doubt wondered: what kind of god is this Hebrew god who tampers with a man’s member?
So Yasha stayed in his apartment and did not venture out.  Some of his diehard friends banged on his door to coax him out, but he sent them on their way.  They yelled through the door, explaining that an avalanche of mail was in the hall, but that only made Yasha retreat deeper into the apartment.  He lied awake at night but sleep did not come.  He thought he may commit suicide.  The Vistula was frozen, but there were great cracks in the ice, like fissures into Gehenna.  All Yasha would need to do, he reasoned, was leap into one from a bridge.  But he only remained in bed, or stared out the window at the gray Warsaw day. 
One morning, there was a gentle rap at his door.  Yasha felt compelled by some hidden impulse to answer it, and saw, when he swung the door open, that Fruma Frumkin was in his threshold.
“Oh, my dear Yasha,” she said piteously, on seeing his disheveled clothes, his scraggly beard, and the deep rings below his eyes.  She wrung her hands, once more looking like the Chasidic matron confronted with some abomination. “Look at what they’ve done to you!  My poor boy,” and she reached out and stroked his face, as if comforting a young boy. Yasha pulled her into the room.  They were on each other quickly.  Yasha roughly removed Fruma Frumkin’s clothes, tearing some of her garments in his haste.  He pushed her onto his bed, which was tangled with brown sheets and yellow blankets.  Her body was nude and white, and she opened herself to him.  Yasha pulled down his pants and fell on her.  He thrashed about, ground his teeth, cursed Moses, the Torah, God, and the prophets, but nothing happened.  Nothing stirred. 
He stood up and began to laugh manically.  Frau Frumkin grew alarmed and pulled a blanket over herself defensively.  But Yasha no longer saw or heard her.  She said words to him, but all he heard was a laughter that was not his own, as if the cosmos found his puniness a great source of merriment, and was laughing, doubled over from its exertions.  He pulled up his pants and sprinted out the apartment, down the stairs, and into the street toward the frozen river, laughing along.

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