JUNE 12, 2018
LARB presents Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “In the Beginning,” translated from the Yiddish by David Stromberg. This is the story’s first appearance in English. It is featured in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18, Genius
For an essay by the translator on Singer’s first trip to Israel, click here.
A heat wave spread across Tel Aviv. The “veterans” — the ones who’d lived there for a while — called it a hamsin. But for the newcomers it was hard to tell the difference between a hamsin and just plain heat. A hot, dry wind blew in from somewhere, reminding Liza Fuchs of flames from a furnace. At night, while she slept, her mouth and throat became dry, and her nostrils filled with sandy dust. The sun went down as flaming red as coal, and for a long time after sunset blazing tongues continued to rise as from a heavenly abyss on fire. The moon was unusually large, blood red, a burning globe mapping otherworldly lands. The nights were not still. Voices could be heard in the middle of the night — just like in Warsaw. Young men cried out in Hebrew. Young women laughed. Cars and trucks passed in the streets. There was no war in the country, but neither was there peace. The Polish-language newspaper that Liza bought each morning reported tension on the border. There were skirmishes in the Negev, near Gaza, or whatever those places were called. Against the shine of the moon you could see military trucks and motorcycles driven by soldiers in helmets. A silent mobilization had begun.
At dawn, Liza stood at the window, stark naked. A light wind, smelling of dead fish and sewage, blew in periodically from the sea. Liza’s body was both shivering and sweating. Over the flat roofs of Tel Aviv hung little bundles of stars, like fiery bunches of grapes. Cats meowed. A few light poles shone with a yellow light reminding Liza of the lanterns that were carried behind coffins in Warsaw. It was strange to think that she had found herself in the Jewish state, Palestine, Israel. But what good was all this Jewishness to her? She would never learn their Hebrew. She’d tried taking Hebrew classes at an ulpan. But right in the beginning, the grammar made her head spin. The Hebrew words, with their khets and their khafs, got stuck in her throat. Perhaps, if she’d come when she was younger, she might have managed to learn a little. But she was over 40. She could just as well forget about understanding anything.
Yes, she might as well say goodbye to everything. She’s left without a job, without a husband. She no longer goes to the cafe where the Polish-speaking Jews gather — the Warsaw Manjeks and Salczes who greet each other with servus and kiss the women’s hands. They leave her sitting alone at her table. The men don’t even look at her. The women throw sharp glances at her. The waiters are impolite. They scoop up the few coins she leaves for a tip and don’t even say toda — thank you. Liza had even tried going to a kibbutz. But she didn’t last there more than a week. The sun left a rash on her face. In the dining hall she was eaten by flies. She couldn’t stand anything there: the aluminum spoons, the bare tables, the half-naked servers who slammed the plates and bowls, the scent of disinfectant, used to wash down the tile floors. A thick darkness reigned at night, a tropical blackness which no lampposts could illuminate. Snakes slithered in the grass. Bats flew overhead. The frogs quacked with human voices. The crickets didn’t chirp — they sawed invisible trees. The jackals howled as in childbirth. Arabs lurked on the other side of the mountain. At the cultural center, the beit tarbut, the newspapers and magazines were all in Hebrew. The men at the kibbutz were either too young for her — sabras who knew no language other than Hebrew — or old men who smelled of garlic and groaned when they spoke Yiddish. Here in Tel Aviv, Liza at least had her own apartment, though it didn’t have a bathtub or a shower, just a toilet on the roof. She could wash herself at the sink. And even for this rooftop apartment she had to pay 800 lira in key money.
Liza had already done all kinds of work here: cut women’s hair, ironed shirts at a cleaner’s, even cleaned the rooms of a two-star hotel. But she was now, again, without a job. Her entire fortune consisted of 12 lira and a few coins. She had already stopped making lunch, satisfying herself with bread and lebenya, a kind of sour milk that had an aftertaste to which Liza could never quite get accustomed.
Now, after a couple of hours of sleep, Liza stands and looks off into the distance, with her face to the sea, toward Italy, toward Europe. It could have been different. She could have easily gotten a visa to America. She could have now been looking out onto the Broadway lights, which never went out, or at the Hollywood studios. She could have acted in English and been a star. But her bitter luck had carried her here, to the Jewish state, where everything was small, poor, and where you always needed protektsia — to know the right people. The civil servants to whom Liza came with all kinds of questions and requests would make her wait, scribble something with their pens, and pretend they couldn’t hear her.
What did she actually have in common with these people? It was true, she was Jewish, but she’d never liked Jews. She’d always, since childhood, had an aversion to their black eyes, crooked noses, beards, kaftans, sidelocks. Even worse than the Jews of olden days were the modern Jews — short, fat, with poorly shaven faces, thick fore- locks, quick eyes, sly smiles. Their jokes always made her sick. She especially hated the Jewish ladies in their fur coats, who screeched when they spoke Polish, filled all the Polish cafes, pushed themselves into all the Polish pension houses, read the newest Polish books. Almost all of Liza’s lovers had been Christian. She’d been ready to con- vert as soon as her mother shut her eyes for good. But the Germans burned her mother in Auschwitz or Treblinka. Liza had been through every kind of hell and had ended up in Israel. The years passed like a bad dream. Nothing was left of them but a broken career, a confused mind, a pained heart, and a void that nothing could fill.
Every morning Liza asked herself the same thing: Why bother getting up? What can this day give me? But she lacked the courage to commit suicide. The bitter truth was that she lived on daydreams, sexual fantasies. Since leaving her Jewish lover, Edek Grizhendler, the almost-doctor who worked here as an electrician, her only satisfaction has been imagining trips abroad, love affairs, treasures, chance acquaintances. Millionaires fall in love with her and build her theaters. Hollywood magnates see her playing somewhere in a coffeehouse and write up years-long contracts for her. She travels the world in a yacht and everyone loves her to death — from the captain to the last deck-hand. She has a kind of a potion or pill that inflames desires, makes men crazy. A genius playwright shows up, a second Bernard Shaw, who writes plays just for her, Liza Fuchs, and when she acts, the public is constantly amazed. When she sings a song, the audience falls weak. She’s crowned Miss Universe, and in every single country a handsome gentleman is chosen to serve her, like a court page.
Liza feels a little cold and goes back to bed. She covers herself with a blanket and lies in silence. Her body is both hot and damp from sweat. The dye that she uses on her hair, which went gray early on, pricks her scalp, and the roots sting. Her whole body feels pinched, stung, and bitten. No, she won’t sleep tonight either.
Liza closes the shutters and turns on the light. Her eyelids flicker in the blinding light and she starts looking for something on the shelf. Strange, but despite running away from country after country, and wandering through all kinds of camps, she had nonetheless managed to save an album with photos, flyers, and reviews. She had al- ready decided many times not to go near these yellowing leftovers, but she can’t stand the temptation. This is the only proof she has that she once played on the Polish stage, in a small theater, and received some recognition. Her photograph was printed in the Polish press, even in the anti-Semitic newspapers. Liza sits down and again reads what they wrote about her: a promising talent, a rising star, an actress with character, chic, charm. God in heaven! Poland is ruined, the theaters destroyed, the reviewers dead. Nothing was left of the old days except these little scraps of paper, crumbling at the edges. But she can still read the words, look at the pictures and illustrations. Why should the past be any less important than the present? Won’t the present pass too? What’s left of Mademoiselle Rachel, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse? Dust — and binders full of memoirs.
Liza reads and reads. Here and there a critic sticks in a nasty word, and it still stings her breast today, just like that first morning, on the week of the premiere. After a while, Liza puts the album back on the shelf and walks over to the hanging mirror, which has a crack running down the middle. She looks at herself, from all sides like an expert. Her body is still youthful, her bust small, her waist thin, but her hairdo has several shades: blond, brown, yellowish. Her neck has a middle-aged fold, a network of wrinkles. Under her gray eyes hang bluish bags. The only perfect thing is her nose, totally Arian, and the thin lips. Is it possible that I’m 43 already? Am I the same Liza Fuchs? Can it be that I’m stuck somewhere in Palestine, in Asia, surrounded by wild Arabs, without any hope of ever acting in the theater, or even getting a visa to civilized country?
It’s bad, very bad. Liza turns off the light and goes back to bed. The sheet is damp and full of sand. The pillow too hard. God in heaven! First Hitler tried to make soap out of her, and now she’s fallen into a Jewish trap. She’ll grow old here, ugly and broken. She’ll have nothing left to do but sit on the sidewalk on Ben Yehuda or Allenby Street and beg.
Liza shuts her eyelids and when she opens them again it’s daytime. She puts on her robe, lifts the shutters. The sun shines in the pale blue sky, ready to burn for another long day. On the left they’re putting up a building. The construction workers are already at work. Down below there are sacks of cement. From the open window frame you can hear the sounds of banging, pounding, cursing. It seems she’s gotten up late because the shops are open: the makolet or corner store, the maspera or hair salon, the makhleva or milk shop — even the shop where in the window they have menorahs, candlesticks, spice-holders, and water basins. A tall military man in khakis, with dangling epaulettes on his wrinkled shirt, walks next to a short woman, a soldier with messy hair and sandals on her feet. A man pulls an oil barrel on rubber wheels tied to a little horse. A Yemenite dealer of used clothes calls out with a Yiddish singsong — alte-zakhen, alte-zakhen — “old stuff ”. A blind beggar in a turban, a kaftan that looks like a nightshirt, and two sidelocks as thin as rope, holds out his hand for charity. Liza is astonished anew every single day. Is this really a Jewish state? How did they do it? Who? When? How long can this last?
A child appears calling out the morning news. Liza listens to his voice. Is it war again? No, at least not for now. But the sun is already beating down on this morning. Her forehead’s already completely wet.
The old lady that lived in the apartment across from Liza has suddenly moved away. The doors had always been closed and locked. Now they were spread open, and out of them came a broken piano, chairs, tables, dishes, an icebox. Then painters painted the rooms. When the paint dried, a new neighbor moved in: a little man with a dark face, shiny black eyes, and a white little beard. He yelled at the wagon-carriers in Hebrew and carried his belongings in himself. He had little furniture, but many books. The walls were covered with shelves. The new tenant was dressed in a pair of khaki pants and a blue shirt from which gray chest-hair stuck out. For his age, he was quick and flexible. Dirty, like all Jews, thought Liza, but why does he need such a big library? Liza kept the door open on account of the heat. He soon stood at the threshold speaking Hebrew to her in a grating voice. She answered him in Polish and he switched to a broken Polish with a Yiddish accent. He threw in Russian words. He told her that he was from somewhere in Lithuania, but that 30 years ago he had spent some time in Warsaw, where he’d been a Hebrew teacher. He asked for a drink of water, and Liza poured him a glass from a bottle that she kept in the icebox. He drank thirstily, like a young man, and drizzled on his little beard.A Litvak pig, Liza said to herself, all the troubles start with them.
He thanked her, put the glass at the edge of the door, and called out, “Has thepani lived here long?” “Too long.”
“What’s wrong with this place? When I first came, I lived in a tsrif, a shed, worse than today’s transit camps. The jackals howled all night. I even had malaria. I caught a fever that I still have today.”
“So you’ve become a Zionist?”
“I myself don’t know what I’ve become. Since the gentiles didn’t want us, we had to build something of our own.”
“The Arabs don’t want us either.”
“No one asked them!”
He’s old, but he talks like a young man, Liza thought. It seems he has no family. She watched the man run up and down the stairs, carrying stacks of books, sweating, and wiping his sweat with a dirty handkerchief. His little beard was white, but his eyebrows were black. His pupils looked mean, sharp, full of the kind of ridicule, Liza thought, that only Jews have. She kept looking him over, again and again. He had a kind of Middle Eastern darkness, not unlike the Jews who came from Tunisia, Morocco, or Yemen. It was as if his skin had taken in endless amounts of sun. It seemed to her that a person like him could glow in the dark, like the phosphorescent face of a wristwatch. Well, what’s there to see here? Liza cut him down in her mind. A Jew like all the others. A hedgehog on two feet. She dressed and went out to put an announcement in a German newspaper, where many short-term announcements were made.
God in heaven! She hated everything about this city: the names of the streets, the Hebrew signs, the dark Jews who looked nearly black, the beggars with the wild sidelocks, all the commotion of Tel Aviv. On the bus people pushed and cursed. The conductor was angry. The banknotes with the Hebrew letters were soft and damp like wet rags. At the offices of the German newspaper no one understood her Polish and Liza had to speak Yiddish, a language that disgusted her even more than Hebrew.
She went back home on foot. The heat was beating down on her head, so she sat down next to a table at a sidewalk cafe. A waiter brought her coffee in a metal cup. She took a sip and winced. They call this coffee, these Jews. It tastes like burnt marsh. I don’t have enough strength for this! decided Liza at once. It’s time to end it. The thought of suicide always calmed her a little. You could bring the whole thing to an end with some rope or a little bit of poison. If there’d been a gas stove in the apartment, it might have been even easier, but all she had was an oil burner. She paid and continued back home. Just don’t let that Litvak’s door be open! she begged the higher powers. She wanted to lock herself in, be alone. Thank God, the door across from hers was closed. Liza went inside and locked her door. Her clothes were wet and she took them off. She sprawled across the bed and fell asleep — the weary sleep of despair, and of heat that doesn’t let up for days, weeks, months …
Liza woke up, drank some water, and was again overtaken by fatigue. Am I sick or something? she wondered. She could barely stay on her two feet. What day is this? she asked herself. Since coming to Palestine, she’d lost track of the months, days, weeks. Sunday seemed like Monday to her. Winter got mixed up with spring, fall with summer. This place had no seasons. Time stretched into one long heat wave, punctuated only by sudden rains and lazy cold air.
Liza continued to drowse and by the time she woke up it was already evening. Tel Aviv cried out with a summer cry. The air in the room was as warm as a Turkish bath. Though the shutter was closed, large insects had somehow crept in, grasshoppers and moths that flew, buzzed, and bumped into the walls with tropical strength. The boy who brought ice hadn’t come today. Just in the worst of heat, they were on strike. The last piece of ice in the icebox melted and everything inside went lukewarm, rotten. In the half-darkness, Liza set down a bowl for the water to drip into. She sat down on a stool, wiped her sweat with a handkerchief, and was suddenly reminded of snow. Had there ever really been such things as snowstorms, frosts, and ice flowers on window panes? Had she really ridden a sled from Zakopane to Morskie Oko, and had her shirt collar really filled up with snowflakes? Had she really spent the night in that cabin at the top of that mountain, and made the acquaintance of Stefan Kruszynski? It all seemed so far away to her, perhaps a hundred years ago. She herself would have considered it all a fantasy were it not for a photograph of her standing on skis, in boots, with thick wool socks and ski poles in her gloved hands. She’d nearly broken her foot then, sliding down the mountain. Stefan Kruszynski caught her in his strong arms and carried her like a special delivery parcel. “Oh, these memories! They’ll break what’s left of me,” said Liza out loud. “Where in the world is Stefan Kruszynski now? He probably fell in the Warsaw Uprising…” Someone knocked at the door.
“Who’s there? One second!”
Liza quickly put on a kimono. She put on her slippers. Perhaps it was an express letter? Perhaps a telegram? But from whom? She opened and saw the neighbor, the Litvak. His little beard had whitened in the evening darkness, lit up by light beams passing through the slats of the shutters. “What do you want?”
“I hope I haven’t disturbed the pani. Do you, by any chance, have a little salt?” An old trick! Liza nearly said. She went looking for the salt shaker on the shelf. “Here’s some salt.”
“Thank you very much.”
For a moment they stood in the half-darkness, silent and uneasy. Then Liza said, “Have you maybe heard anything about a job?”
“What kind of job?”
“Whatever. I’m ready to do anything.”
“What’s the pani’s profession?”
“Acting. A Polish actress.”
“I see. I don’t, unfortunately, know of any jobs, but one can always ask. Why doesn’t the pani play in any theater?”
“How? I don’t know Hebrew.”
“All you have to do is to learn the part.”
“I can’t even read the Hebrew letters.”
“That’s easy to learn.”
“I’ve tried. I even went to a — what’s it called — an ulpan.”
“You can, you can. I’m already 63 years old, but if I had to, I’d learn Chinese. Before I came to this country, I was a law student, but I’ve had 30 jobs here, if not more.”
“What do you do now?”
“Well, it’s a long story. I’ve argued with all the political parties, and here, without a political party, you’re half dead. But I get a pension. A very, very small pension.”
“If the pani would like, I could teach her Hebrew.”
“No, I’ve given up on that. Why would you do that?”
“Oh, just for the sake of it. Because it’s sad.”
“Well, thank you.”
“It’s never too late to start over.”
“That’s what they say in books.”
“It’s the truth. Look at the Jewish people. After two thousand years they’ve started up with the same story.”
“I’m no Zionist.”
“Well, you don’t have to be a Zionist. History brought us here by force. Or call it God. If we haven’t died, it means we have to live.”
The neighbor left. Liza closed the door after him. For a while it was quiet, as if he’d stayed in the hallway to eavesdrop. Then Liza heard him go back into his apart- ment. She lay down on the bed again. Argued with the political parties, she mumbled. Obviously also argued with his wife. Those who argue, argue with everyone. Otherwise he wouldn’t have that white little beard! Liza suddenly felt like laughing, crying, yawning, sneezing — all at once. She lay there and listened to her own depths. She’d heard plen- ty of Zionist propaganda, and it always had the opposite effect on her. But the simple things this Litvak had said returned to her mind again and again: History had brought us here by force. If we haven’t died, it means we have to live. Yes, the Jews just won’t die. How many times had Liza decided to kill herself — and been unable! In this sense, she was a Jew. She couldn’t die either. Not by any means.
She got up and washed herself at the sink. I have to go out into the street! I have to eat something! The water was cool. Every now and then a grasshopper bumped into her shoulder, neck, stomach, and she peeled it off, flicked it away. They won’t die either, those worms. Liza washed and soaped herself. Then, in the dark, she put on a dress and a pair of shoes onto her bare feet. She didn’t powder her face or put on lipstick. Yes, I have to eat. Maybe I can still find something … She opened the door slowly. It seemed the Litvak, too, hadn’t completely closed his door, and a line of light shone through. She stretched out her hand and knocked. Footsteps could be heard, as if the neighbor had read her thoughts, and had the whole time listened and waited. He now stood before her and all she could see was that little white beard and two shadowy snares from which his eyes sparkled.
“It’s your neighbor,” she said. “Do you really want to teach me?”
“I meant what I said.”
“When can we start?”
“What about now?”
“Isn’t it late?”
“It’s not late.”
They stood on either side of the threshold, silent, poised, very close, without any apprehension, like people who’ve wasted many years and have lost all hope. It seemed to Liza that this had already happened. In a dream? On the stage? She thought of her father. She wanted to cry.
“Do you have a workbook?” she asked.
“Yes, I have a workbook.”
“I’ve forgotten it all. Everything that has to do with Jewishness. We have to start in the beginning.”
And the neighbor repeated, “Yes, in the beginning…”
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a prominent figure in the Yiddish literary movement. He won two U.S. National Book Awards, one for his collection A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories and one for his memoir A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
Translation by David Stromberg.