© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Here, then, is Nancy Isabelle.
After Passover, business in Reb Abraham Nissen Yaroslaver’s bookstore slowed to a crawl. Days went by without a single customer. Tamara was away again, working in New Jersey. Herman rummaged among the books, leafing through the Midrash Tanhuma or the Kedushat Levi, the Mishna Berurah or the Mesillat Yesharim. All the books had things to say, but their words only repeated the words of others.
A rabbi with a red beard and thick glasses came in to browse. Peering myopically—his beard resting on the yellow pages, which the lenses of his glasses were almost touching—he seemed to be inhaling the Hebrew letters. He sighed from time to time and told Herman his life story. The Nazis had murdered his wife and children. He himself had ended up in Shanghai, where he’d become the head of a yeshiva. He’d published commentaries by the medieval scholars Shlomo ben Aderet and Yom Tov of Seville. Then the Japanese liquidated the yeshiva. Now he had a little prayer house in Brooklyn, but the congregation came to pray only on Sabbath afternoons, and sometimes not even then. They learned no Torah, asked no questions about religion. What kind of rabbi was he? The leader of a Jewish community, he was forced to advertise in the newspapers. You need to be on good terms with reporters—even bribe them. Rabbis and their wives have to invite heretic Jewish scribblers into their homes just to get them to put a notice in the papers. If you didn’t, you never got anywhere. Well, praise be to the Lord above—America is a free country. That’s all it is, if you didn’t have a family, but we mustn’t complain to the Lord of the Universe.
The rabbi asked Herman, “You’re a Torah scholar, is that right?”
“So you know that everything God does is for the best.”
“What kind of good did Hitlerism bring us?”
“What do we know? When you give a child castor oil, he cries and doesn’t want to swallow it. But his father knows the child needs medicine to clear out his blocked digestive system. If he didn’t drink castor oil, heaven forbid, he could get seriously ill. All our sufferings are to test and purify us.”
“Little children don’t need purification.”
“We don’t know God’s ways. If we could know God, we’d be God.”
The rabbi found a book of biblical interpretations. He wanted to buy it, but the price Tamara had put on it was more than he could afford. Herman reduced the price and the rabbi was about to pay, but after looking in all his pockets, it turned out he’d left his wallet at home. Or perhaps he’d been robbed? New York was full of thieves. The rabbi scratched nervously under his shirt. He didn’t even have money for the subway. Herman gave him the book on credit and change for the subway. The rabbi said, “You have a Jewish heart.”
As soon as the rabbi left, in came a young woman with short, blonde hair that sprang up from her head like a brush. She had an enormous handbag hanging off one shoulder, tucked under her arm like a portfolio. The brows over her pale eyes joined in the middle. She had a short nose and full lips without lipstick. She was dressed like a man. The small bow around the small collar of her shirt looked like a necktie. Her shoes had low heels. She was surely a lesbian, Herman thought. The woman had a voice that sounded neither feminine nor masculine. She addressed Herman in English.
“What do you have on the Kabbalah?”
Herman consulted his catalogue.
“We have Rabbi Moses of Cordova’s Pardes Rimonim.”
“I’ve got that one.”
“Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Etz Chayim.”
“I’ve got that one, too.”
“Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Klale Pit’he Hokhma.”
“An introduction to the Kabbalah.”
“That’s one I need.”
“You’re studying the Kabbalah?”
“I’m writing a paper on it.”
“I have another introduction to the Kabbalah—Shefa Tal.”
“Give me everything you’ve got.”
Herman went looking for the books. The young woman lit a cigarette. She even smoked like a man: She held the cigarette aslant and exhaled smoke through her nostrils. A masculine energy blazed in her eyes, together with the stubborn determination of a woman who’d taken on a man’s responsibilities. Herman found the Shefa Tal—it was a large volume—but the Klale Pit’he Hokhma seemed to have been misplaced. He asked, “Do you know Hebrew?”
“I know a little, and I use dictionaries.”
“You’re writing a dissertation?”
“Yes—but I’d like it to be more than a dissertation. There are hardly any works on the Kabbalah in English. The ones that do exist are good for nothing but firewood.”
“Please sit down. I’ll try to find the book.”
There was a chair, and the new arrival perched on the edge of its seat. Although her shoes had low heels, Herman noticed her legs were slender, her ankles slim. Her knees weren’t rounded, but girlishly—or boyishly—knobbly.
Herman asked, “How on earth did you get interested in the Kabbalah?”
“Through William Blake.”
“Do your parents live in New York?”
“My mother is dead. My father’s a colonel in the American Army. Right now he’s in Korea.”
“Well, that’s America for you.”
Herman found the Klale Pit’he Hokhma. The young woman opened the volume and read the title page aloud. Herman was struck by the fact that she made not a single error. She asked the price and passed Herman a ten-dollar bill. Herman hesitated. “I need to go get change. You’re my first customer today.”
“What else do you have? I’m interested in Hasidism, too.”
Herman sold her a Mei Ha’Shiloach. The three books came to just over ten dollars, leaving her fifty cents short. He began to pack up the books anyway. The young woman said, “Excuse me—that’s not how it’s done.”
She took the sheets of wrapping paper from his hands and he noticed that her fingers were long, with pointed nails. She had ink stains on her fingers, like a high school student.
“Where did you learn Hebrew?”
“I had a teacher at university. My father’s Christian, but my mother was Jewish. Her father was president of the synagogue in Chattanooga. According to religious law, I’m Jewish too.”
“Yes, it comes down from the mother.”
“You’re from Eastern Europe?”
Herman explained where he came from. She asked how he’d survived, and he told her the truth.
“What time do you finish work?”
“Usually six, but right now, after Passover, there are hardly any customers.”
“Lock up the store, and let’s go for coffee. Maybe you can give me some pointers. These books are completely confusing. They call the same thing by different names, and each author has his own jargon. Is there somewhere nearby we can go?”
“There’s a dairy restaurant just down the street.”
“Come on, let’s go. Or do you have to go home?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Good Lord in heaven—I haven’t even told you my name. I’m Nancy Isabelle. And you are?”
“Do you have a family?”
“I married the woman who hid me.”
“She’s Jewish now.”
“So what’s the difference between Kabbalah and Hasidism?”
Herman explained while he locked up the store. Nancy asked, “Does anyone ever steal Jewish books?”
“My biggest fear is that someone will break in and give me more.”
Nancy smiled and her face turned young, girlish. They walked to the dairy restaurant. On the way, she told him her life story. Her parents didn’t get along and had separated. Nancy had grown up with her mother, who—maybe to spite her husband—had tried to teach her about Judaism. She’d gone to the Reform synagogue’s Sunday school. A Hebrew teacher came to her home to give lessons. Her mother had inherited money from her parents. Nancy had always wanted to be Jewish. When she was still in high school, she assembled a library on Jews and Judaism. She’d studied Martin Buber, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed in English translation, and the stories of the Talmud. In college she’d taken a Hebrew course. At Columbia University, where she’d gone after graduating from college, she’d completely immersed herself in Jewish philosophy. Her father? No, he never remarried. He was a professional military man. And herself? Oh, there’s a lot to tell. She’d gotten married and divorced. Someone Jewish? No, Christian—an astronomy professor. But it didn’t work out. How long has she been divorced? Three years now …
There had been a time when the life stories Herman heard in America amazed him, even bewildered him. But gradually he’d adapted to American ways. America was not a melting pot, but a laboratory of innumerable new combinations. History moved easily here. People in the Old World got what they wanted through wars and revolutions. Here they succeeded through business, love affairs, marriage, divorce, university, jobs, travel. In the Old World there were mass migrations, victories on the battlefield, oppression, and persecution. But here in America, nothing would happen if Nancy Isabelle took up the Kabbalah.
Herman ate his dairy soup while he talked. Hasidism was a continuation of the Kabbalah of the Holy Ari—Rabbi Isaac Luria—although it was also a popularization of it, adapted to the conditions of Polish Jewry. Nancy had heard of the Hasidim who’d settled in Williamsburg. She wanted to visit them, to speak with their rabbis. But would they let a woman inside? Would they understand English? Did Herman know where to find them? Herman replied, “Why do you need so much Judaism? You saw what happened to the Jews in Europe.”
“I don’t think that’s a good argument.”
As he sat there with Nancy, Herman temporarily forgot his longing for Masha. After a while, Nancy began to ask questions, and he told her that Tamara had come back years after he’d thought she’d died. Nancy looked at him in shock.
“But that means you have two wives.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“It’s so strange. I’d thought of going into another bookstore, but for some reason I’m drawn to risk-takers. I took one look at you and my feet led me inside. What are you going to do?”
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t do anything.”
“Because I’ve already tried, and nothing helps.”
“In relation to other people—is that what you mean?”
“Something like that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Hide if I can.”
“In a hayloft.”
“Whenever I smell hay, I get a sneezing attack. Is that your interpretation of the Kabbalah?”
“According to the Kabbalah, this present world is the worst of all worlds. Kabbalists call it the woman of the abyss.”
“Why specifically a woman?”
“Because women don’t see the abyss.”
“Oh, we do, all right. In Europe they killed just as many women as men.”
Nancy wanted to pay the check, but Herman wouldn’t let her. He snatched it out of her hand. They tugged it back and forth until she poked his forefinger with her nail. She flung down a fifty-cent tip.
Evening had fallen outside. Nancy took Herman’s arm. “You’re the first bigamist I’ve ever met.”
Unbelievable! Nancy had parked near the house where Abraham Nissen Yaroslaver lived—the house where Tamara was staying. Herman said, “I’ve never met a woman who drives a car.”
“I’ve been driving for 15 years. Not here in New York, of course.”
Nancy got behind the wheel and lit a cigarette. Herman sat next to her. She announced, “We’ll drive to Williamsburg—it’s right over the bridge. Maybe we’ll find something there.”
She drove quickly, easily and, it seemed, without any fear or sense of responsibility for the machine, which was capable of running over people and murdering its passengers. She whizzed past other cars, smoking and talking the whole time. “What does it mean to believe? I can’t comprehend it. How can people believe in something without a trace of evidence that it even exists? And how can they give up their lives for that kind of faith?”
“People sacrificed their lives for Hitler.”
“Not for Hitler. For Germany.”
“What’s the use of Germany when you’re dead?”
“Risking your life isn’t the same as believing in something.”
“Not just risking. People walked into certain death.”
“That’s just plain suicide. Where do you think we’ll find a rabbi? The human brain is a complete riddle. Take these kabbalists, for instance. They say thousands of things about God and about these worlds that no one’s ever seen. They go into every tiny detail, just as if they’d climbed up to the heavens and visited the spheres, while all along they were just sitting in a synagogue or a cave and imagining things.”
“If that’s true, why are you so interested?”
“From a purely psychological standpoint.” Nancy broke off. “Hey, you, son of a bitch!” she yelled. “Drivers like that should have their arms chopped off.” Then she turned back to Herman. “Somewhere deep inside, I hope one of those mystics will find the truth, just as the ancient Greeks reasoned their way to atoms.”
“Atoms are over and done with.”
“All right, but they’re still part of chemistry. Did you get married simply out of gratitude?”
“Because of the love that comes from gratitude.”
“And you’re happy? I married my husband because he taught me how to use a spectroscope. I was sure we’d sleep all day and be together all night, observing the star Sirius, or the moon. But then I stumbled across his enormous collection of pornography. And he drove me to have an affair with his best friend. On top of all that, he wrote bad poetry. Can you believe it?”
“But why should you? Hey, over there, that looks like a synagogue.”
The car stopped in front of a yeshiva. Nancy and Herman got out, and Herman opened the door to the building. In a dim room—half synagogue and half study hall—young men sat over their Talmuds, some wearing skullcaps, others in black, wide-brimmed hats. Some had beards and sidelocks, others had neither. Some swayed over their prayerbooks, singing the prayers softly to themselves. Others glanced up at the visitors in the doorway. Nancy said, “What are they studying?”
“Whether it’s permitted to eat an egg that was laid on a holiday.”
“I don’t see a rabbi.”
“This isn’t a study hall for Hasidim.”
“Come on, let’s go find a rabbi.”
Nancy drove the car up one street and down the next, but they couldn’t find a rabbi. Soon she’d driven through the entire Hasidic neighborhood. “I’ll drive you home if you like,” she offered.
“Why should you do that?”
“What do you want me to do—go to a gangster movie? Some days my telephone never stops ringing and sometimes it doesn’t ring at all. I pick up the receiver to make sure it’s still working. It’s the same way with letters and everything else. What made you become a bookseller?”
“The store belongs to my wife’s uncle.”
“The peasant wife?”
“No—the one who came back from Russia.”
“Everything’s so complicated for you immigrants. Was that your ambition—to run a bookstore?”
“What I really want is to hide somewhere.”
“Some farm, far away in Oregon or Wisconsin. To not have a telephone or neighbors. To not have a job—to eat potatoes with milk—that’s all I want.”
“How long could you stay there? For years I dreamed of an island. But there aren’t any more islands or farms like the one you’re imagining. Maybe they never existed. When I was married, my husband and I used to spout nonsense about having an observatory on top of a mountain, but it turned out to be a complete fantasy. My husband was always giving parties. The professors got drunk. And even if your farm does exist, how could you live there with no one but a wife who’s completely uneducated?”
“In my daydreams it’s different.”
“I see. Here I was looking for a kabbalist, and I find a modern man with all the neuroses and whims. Who are you trying to run away from?”
“Nazis, Bolsheviks, all sorts of murderers. Every time I walk down the street, I know SS men are on the sidewalk right next to me. Maybe one of them shot my children. Other people on the same street are looking forward to revolutions, wars, one pogrom or another. Everyone’s planning revenge against the reactionaries, the progressives, the Jews, the whites, the Blacks. And right in the middle of this frenzy of murder and criminality, people go on babbling about our bright and glorious future. As far as I’m concerned, the world today is one big slaughterhouse. Any minute now, there will be a new slaughter, and while people are killing each other in one neighborhood, people on the other side of town will sing hymns of praise to the murderers, the crown of creation.”
“Well, that’s human history, sadly.”
“I want to hide from human history.”
“You can’t hide from it, not in Oregon or Wisconsin or anywhere else. You know that. What does the Kabbalah have to say about the evil of the world?”
“God diminished his light so people can have the freedom to choose.”
“So they can become good of their own free will. Or, put another way, by using their own power.”
“Why does God need human beings?”
“God must have someone to care for. He is merciful, so obviously he needs someone to receive his mercy.”
“So he created poor people just so he can hand out a few cents?”
“So it seems.”
“You can’t hide from a God like that. Of course I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in the Kabbalah, either—I don’t believe in any kind of mystical teaching or philosophy. Once I toyed with Marxism, but that was a long time ago. The only driving force in my life is curiosity. I’ll wait and see what new things the human brain will come up with.”
Herman and Nancy fell into a long silence. Herman thought maybe they were lost. Nancy was driving down shadowy streets with stone paving or broken asphalt. There were low buildings that could have been factories or warehouses. This far from the city center, he could hear the silence. The air, already as warm as midsummer, stank of oil and smoke. Suddenly a bar came into sight. In its dim light, shadowy people slouched at the counter, drinking, talking drunkenly, swaying back and forth. Then all was silent and dark again.
A short while later, they were driving along the seashore, or maybe down the length of a canal. Lamps swayed over the cargo ships; searchlights beamed down from above. Dirty water trickled from holes in tarry bulkheads. Herman read names that sounded Portuguese, Persian, Turkish. Aboard the ships, half-naked sailors were moving around, some smearing colored paint on bulkheads, some scrubbing decks, others spitting into the ocean. The water below was yellow, slimy, polluted with ancient filth. A melancholy nighttime sky, glowing with tropical heat, hovered over the masts, the cranes, the chimneys. But taken altogether, the scene had no substance. To Herman, it all seemed like a dream or a stage set in a theater.
“What kind of craziness is it to bring a child into this world?” Herman thought.
As if Nancy had read his mind, she spoke up. “I forgot to ask—do you and your second wife have children?”
“She’s in her last few months of pregnancy.”
Herman looked around. They were driving down Neptune Avenue. Nancy drove him right to his door. A few neighbors were still sitting outdoors on their chairs. Herman said, “Thank you very much. I mean it.”
“I’ll come for a browse in your bookstore another time. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Yes, please do—you’d be very welcome. Thanks again.”
Herman got out of the car and Nancy drove off. His neighbors interrupted their conversations and glared at Herman, their eyes full of surprise, contempt, and malice. They considered Herman a man with a bad character, the type still portrayed now and then in the Yiddish theater.
Herman walked up the steps without a word. He unlocked the door to his dark apartment and went into the bedroom. Yadwiga was still awake. She said, “Marianna has flown away.”
Something gave way in Herman’s insides.
“I opened the window a little and she flew out.”
“I warned you …”
“It’s an omen—I’ll die in childbirth,” Yadwiga said.
“A peasant to the end.”
“Then you’ll be able to marry your mistress.”
Herman knew very well that a parakeet couldn’t live long in the wild. Marianna would be killed by the first cold night, or she’d die of hunger, or she’d be murdered by other birds. He went into the kitchen. A light from outside lit up the birdcage. Woytus was standing alone on the perch where he usually slept with Marianna. When he heard Herman’s footsteps, he let out a chirp. Maybe Woytus would die of loneliness, Herman thought. He’d heard of cases when one parakeet gets lost and its mate stops eating, as though it’s declared a hunger strike against the Creator. Such creatures also suffer from love.
Herman got undressed and got into bed. These days, sleeping with Yadwiga felt like a burden, as though he were a murderer sentenced to lie in the coffin along with his victim. He was afraid to touch her belly, which was swelling and ripening from day to day. In this world of chaos, some power had transformed a seed-thread into an embryo with who knows how many organs, a million nerves, countless inherited traits—all shaped by generations of abusers and generations of victims.
Herman lay on the edge of the bed. In his imagination, he saw Marianna sitting somewhere on a rooftop, without Woytus, without food, without water, sentenced to death, full of sorrow as old as life itself.
Translated from the Yiddish by Rachel Mines.
Printed with the permission of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust care of the Susan Schulman Literary Agency LLC, New York.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (circa 1903-1991) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.