A Memoir from VESTED INTERESTS, Essays and Fantasies  (pp 84-91)

by Ralph A. Raimi

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Forty Years in the Desert

 

MY UNCLE Zalman died six years ago; I was not able to go to Detroit for the funeral. My father was there, the last of three brothers who had come to America from Nasielsk between 1913 and 1923. A sister and two other brothers stayed in Poland and did not survive 1944.

 

Sam, the adventurous one, was the first to leave home. He learned early to speak a fluent English of a sort, which never improved thereafter. Who needed better? He confidently rolled a toothpick around his square mouth, spoke easily of salesmen, washing machines, mortgages—and grew rich. It was Sam who brought his two brothers here—also innumerable nephews and cousins—set them up in business, and regarded himself as patriarch of the new family. He played that role fully, too, even beyond the time of its validity.

 

My father, for example, also did pretty well in business. When he grew sufficiently prosperous, he began occasionally to go counter to Sam's advice, and Sam felt injured. Sam preferred his protégés poor. From 1939 or so he and my father didn't get along at all well.

 

Zalman was the oldest. He was already forty when he reached Detroit, too old, I think, to begin again. Twenty years older, he had been almost a father to my own father's childhood, but in America his wisdom, his experience and his language were as old seeds in a stony soil.

 

Like his brothers, he opened a store on Chene Street, but it never developed. He spoke Polish to his customers, Yiddish to his family; English stayed forever foreign to him. From his fortieth to his eightieth year he was a lost soul in a strange land.

 

It was not that he lacked spirit and wit—not at all. One time—it must have been 1928 or so—he was persuaded to take out first citizenship papers. Five years later he found himself for a time studying the English language, and American History, for his citizenship examination. They would ask him about the U.S. Constitution, he was told, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a fairy-tale; he made no sense of it. Lincoln was more remote to him than Moses.

 

Yet, as he later told it, the examination went easily enough. Whatever the Judge asked him, he had one answer— Roosevelt. Who is the Father of Our Country? Roosevelt.  Who freed the slaves? Roosevelt.  Who is the Governor of Michigan? Roosevelt.

 

"O.K." said the Judge, "You'll do."

 

Maybe it didn't happen exactly that way, but Zalman was no fool, and could tell a good story. He did, in fact, vote for Roosevelt and no other, until he gave up voting.

 

So long, then, as he was a sort of tourist in America, poverty, inability to succeed in business, strangeness of surroundings—all affected him little. Nor did he ever become embittered, even at the end. But his soul stayed in Nasielsk.

 

Then Nasielsk was destroyed, his roots withered and he knew himself an exile. His wife died, his sons drifted away and his business folded up gently. Sam and my father, quarreling all the while, supplied him with remittances by a formula varying and uncertain. They sustained his business for a time, and ended by sustaining Zalman alone. 1 think Zalman's second wife also brought him a little money. At any rate, he lived somehow, with always a glass of sweet wine for me when 1 visited him.

 

In my childhood Zalman was strong of voice and body. His own man, he was not suffering under Sam's benevolent heel. On Sunday mornings he would come into our house like a whirlwind, scattering snow through the kitchen and shouting for us all to get up and meet the day. He carried a bag of rolls, still warm from Katzen's bakery on Westminster Street, for our breakfast; his own he left in his Model T outside. From his store he might have brought harmonicas for my brother and me, and for my parents he had the current issue of Der Tag, the Yiddish newspaper.

 

"Cold, cold—It's cold outside!" he would shout, and put his hands down my back to show me while I squealed and squirmed away. When things were quieter he would tell us of his lions.

 

He had two lions, he said, terrific beasts, which he kept tethered on Belle Isle in the Detroit River. Their roar – Zalman would himself roar in illustration – could frighten big boys and policemen, but he didn't often let them roar. He explained to us their size – they towered above the trees – and the great clanking chains by which he kept them in check. How awful it would be if one of the chains broke!

   

        That was 1928. Thirty years later Zalman roared no more. He lived on Calvert Street in a four-family house, brick, with four little stone porches facing the street, two upstairs and two down. Four rusty mailboxes flanked the dark entrance, whose door, varnished many times over, led to a stairway up the middle of the rigidly symmetrical building. Two apartments at the first landing, two at the top. Uncle Zalman, 79 years old, lived in the lower left.

 

My father visited him every week; Sam was dead. When I was in Detroit, visiting my parents, I would go along with my father. There was not much I could say in English which Zalman might understand; even my father, in Yiddish, had only platitudes left. How are you, how is your back, it's warm outside, it's cold outside. A duty to an older brother who used to pretend to let him drive the horses in Nasielsk, but who was a quiet old man now from another world.

 

Two or three times I brought him my own small children, awakening a spark of his former fantasy, but they didn't understand about the lions. They grew restless, Zalman grew tired. His wife gave us wine and cookies, the wine too sweet, the cookies too tough for my children's taste: they dragged me away.

 

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We all return in the end, I think, to our earliest values. As tourists in the middle of life we may love our hosts, where we sojourn, and take on, for a time, their manners; but finally, as exiles, we find no comfort there.

 

In his old age Zalman had become exceedingly religious, like his father before him. True, he had never stopped being observant, he had always kept a Kosher house (unlike my father), but in the last years he became meticulous and intolerant of the laxity of others. He would eat nothing outside his own house.  His wife baked his Sunday rolls.

 

A doctor once prescribed vitamins for him, but before he took any he enquired from Rabbis and Jewish pharmacists whether they were Kosher, and whether flesh and milk in origin. In fact, I do not know for certain that he ever found the answer, or if he took them.

 

What did he do with his days, Zalman? He said his prayers at sunrise and sunset, as the Law prescribed. He ate his meals, he napped, he read Der Tag. He followed avidly the controversies in the Letters column, and sometimes wrote a letter of his own.   Twice they were printed. On warm evenings he would sit outside with his neighbors, on folding chairs on the sidewalk, and talk. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings-the Sabbath-he walked to the synagogue, and sometimes on other days as well, as on the anniversaries of family deaths, when special prayers are required.

 

Two of the other tenants of his house were friends of a sort: Holtz and Berman, Jews, old-timers like himself, perhaps a few years younger. With them he could talk a little, across the porches or out on the sidewalk, of politics and prices. Whatever it was, Zalman could say what he thought, and they might say something different, but all would nod, if not exactly in agreement, at least in peace.

 

The fourth tenant, Finkel. was a man Zalman avoided completely, after his first contacts some years before, when Zalman had first moved in. Finkel was, or rather had been, a lawyer. He still had an office downtown in a crumbling office building surrounded by expressways, ramps and urban renewal, which had driven out most of its occupants and would soon overwhelm the building itself. No matter, he hardly had any clients, so irascible and unreliable had he become.

 

I don't know that Finkel could have been called senile, but he certainly was unreasonable. He held confused and contradictory opinions on every subject, and was firm and vociferous in every statement. He never heard an opinion he didn't consider ridiculous. It was impossible even to agree with him. If, for peace, you said, "Yes, yes; you're perfectly right," he would say, "Ha! And you—look who's talking!  You!  What do you know about it?"

 

Finkel had come to America a Communist, before even the Revolution. Through the fall of Trotzky and the great purges he remained true to the cause, but when Molotov and von Ribbentrop shook hands in 1939 he came to the end of all belief. From then Finkel shook no man's hand; he lived out the rest of his life by negatives, for there was nothing positive to propose.

 

Above all things, Finkel hated religion, the opium of the people, the impossible magical dream of permanence in a universe he knew to be vain. Since his own dream had failed him. could he allow any other? Still—he dreamed just the same. He sat at his dining-room table in the half-dark, and read Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, while Zalman, downstairs, spoke his evening prayers.

 

They knew each other well, these two old men, strangers though they were. No use  talking: each was the agent of the other's devil. For three years after their initial contact, until the incident of the mailbox, they addressed no word to each other.

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Every weekday but Saturday Zaman would watch anxiously for the mailman, who brought his copy of Der Tag, published in New York. The mail also came on Saturday, with Friday's issue, but an hour one way or the other could do him no good or harm because he could not read it until sundown anyway.

Not that reading is forbidden on the Sabbath—far from it, reading and prayer are almost the only things permitted. Exactly here was the difficulty: what Zalman was forbidden, by close interpretation of the medieval rabbinical code he lived by. was the trip to the mailbox to collect his paper and bring it to his apartment. Within his own home he could, of course, do what work was necessary and appropriate to daily life—eat. dress, fold a tablecloth, take down a book from a high shelf. Outside the house—no.

The details are too much for me, but 1 have it from my father that it was impossible for Zalman to walk down the central stairway on the Sabbath to get Der Tag from his mailbox, because the stairway and front door were not his own home, but were public to the degree they also belonged to the other tenants of his house. Had Zalman been richer, owning a home in the suburbs like my father, he would have had no such problem: as it was, he waited each Saturday for sundown and the evening prayer before he could read the paper.

Naturally the idea came to him that he might buy the hallway and stairs and front door. In strict capitalist terms, of course, this 'purchase' would be meaningless. Indeed, he didn't even own his own apartment; he paid rent to some distant landlord. But for purposes of the Law, the apartment was his own property. He had legal, paid-for, exclusive right to it. How could he enjoy a similar right to the common part of his building?

By symbolic purchase. No landlord's approval would really be necessary, he reasoned, no Registrar of Deeds in the County Building, only a formal agreement between him and his neighbors, a verbal contract with a nominal exchange of coin, and of course his word that he would permit them to use his hallway whenever they liked. The logic was simple: the four tenants in their ensemble owned the whole building; together they could assign the common part to Zalman. He checked this out with his Rabbi, and explained it to my father enough times to convince himself the plan had no flaw.

With my father as witness, then, he contracted easily enough with Berman and Holtz. But how was he to convince Finkel? The problem was grave. Berman had already reported that Finkel. on hearing what was afoot, swore (or affirmed) that he would take part in no such exercise in superstition.

Weeks went by; Zalman talked to my father, on each Sunday visit, of nothing else. He demonstrated a hundred times the justice of his request and the unimportance to Finkel of nominal control of the stairway; but when my father said 'Zalman, don't tell me, tell Finkel,' Zalman fell silent. He had no plan, and justice alone is not enough. So finally, my father went himself to Finkel.

Now my father Jacob had (I think) no peer as a negotiator. Through the whole Depression, in his dry goods store, his receipts never equaled his costs; wit made up the difference. 1 saw him once argue a renewal of lease with the landlord of his store building. Birnbaum. The problem—and he solved it—was to obtain a reduction in rent on the grounds that it was to Birnbaum's economic interest. An incredible performance, with pencilled calculations and hours' worth of irrelevancies. First he exchanged part of the flat rental against a certain percentage of gross sales. Then he exchanged part of this percentage for Birnbaum's share of the heating bill. Then he reversed the payment of utilities against a rise in flat rental. Then, glowing with the promise of good business, he traded flat rental for another part of the gross. So it went in an endless circle, the prognosis of business receipts and winter temperatures ever shifting. Each time a formula was reached, he had some new idea which could not but enrich poor old Birnbaum (who had a heart condition and a dozen properties). When all was ended and signed, Birnbaum needed a lawyer to explain what had happened to him, and his doctor forbade him ever to talk to my father again. It's a fact; only my brother could deal with Birnbaum after that terrible day.

Even so, Finkel was not easy. I wish I could have been there. I suppose my father alternated advantages, his usual style, but what advantages? Perhaps he pointed out that if God did not exist, Finkel's refusal to sell the hallway was an empty gesture—even maybe a religious gesture. Maybe he offered Finkel a cash bribe, who knows? He didn't say. At the end of an hour he came downstairs to Zalman and said it was all decided. Then the two brothers went upstairs to complete the contract.

Finkel was sitting at his round dining-room table, in the half-dark, where my father had left him.  Probably he was sorry already.

"O.K." he said impatiently, "So 1 sell you the hallway. Never mind the dime.  Take the hallway and leave me alone."

But Zalman, though mild and quiet, knew what had to be done to make the contract valid.  He spoke the words carefully.

"You agree to sell me, for one dime, your share in the hallway, stairs, and front door?"

"Yah."

"Yankele (this was my father)--you hear this?"

"Yes, he agrees."

"And, I agree to let you use the hallway, stairs and front door any time you like," said Zalman, "Yankele—you hear this?"

"Yes, I hear."

Then Zalman took out his handkerchief and laid it on the table. In Nasielsk, in the Rabbi's court (for Jews avoided the public courts), the grasping of the handkerchief had been the final seal of contract. It was the witness of God. Zalman waited quietly for Finkel to touch the handkerchief.

This Finkel had not seen for fifty years, since his own childhood in Mlawa. It must have called suddenly to his mind the world of that time: bearded Jews rocking in prayer, the hard wooden benches of his daylong schoolroom, where fidgeting was flogged, the hunger, the gloom, the superstition --- all that he had escaped by walking, at the age of 12, from Mlawa to Danzig. He stowed away on a ship to New York, he starved, he labored, he went to night school. A brave new world he didn't quite find, but was he to return to this?

He stood up in anger. "No!" he was purple. "No! Get out of here with your black magic!  Get out!"

There was nothing more to be done; some problems will never be resolved. My father's diplomacy might squeeze a dollar from even the most wary landlord, but what could it win from faith? Leibish Finkel and Zalman Reingewirtz, neighbors in their childhood and neighbors again in their old age, each had kept the faith to the last. It was not, after all, the hardest part of his fate that Zalman, for the two remaining years of his life, should have had to wait until sundown each Saturday to read Der Tag; nor was this the greatest injury visited upon the world by the idealism of the generations of Leibish Finkel.