from See What Happens in America
by Paul Goldberg
Leaving Moysha behind
was the only thing I didn't like about going to America.
When I came to see him that morning, Moysha sat on his bed, looking like any other little man in baggy pants and suspenders.
"Good morning, Comrade General," I said.
"At ease." He had a deck of cards ready.
I demanded to break the deck, because if you didn't break the deck when playing with Moysha, you could be sure that he would deal himself nothing but trumps and aces.
"Should I let you win this time?" he asked.
"Just don't cheat this time."
On most days we played five or six games of durak, and when I was sick, we played twenty or more, cheating whenever we could, shouting and calling each other names. There were mornings when I feigned headache, gastric discomfort, or whatever illness I could claim and skipped school, so Moysha and I could play cards all day. Moysha was almost never sick, with the exception of one stroke, a mild one, which he had overcome. By the time we left for America, he had recovered enough to be able to limp over to the streetcar that took him to the Sokolniki park, one of his fishing holes.
As the card game began, my thoughts drifted to America. Did they play durak there? In English books I read about bridge and poker, but never durak. I decided that soon after our plane landed at the John F. Kennedy
International Airport, near New York, I would stop the first American I saw, and ask, "Sir, do you play fool?" because that's what durak means in English.
That morning, Moysha and I were playing durak the way it was meant to be played, in swift exchanges that leave no time for thought.
Five minutes after we started, Moysha accused me of cheating. I had stolen an ace from the deck, but lost anyway. I won the following game, which made Moysha nervous. In a state of agitation, Moysha's Yiddish accent grew stronger as his Russian grammar weakened. Yiddish is not really a language. It's a dialect. The best part of it came when, lost between the language and the dialect, Moysha said "u tebe" (rather than "u tebya") while attempting to say "you have."
At eleven in the morning, a taxi arrived to take us to the train station.
Moysha and I sat next to each other, saying nothing. He came to the station carrying a small briefcase packed with things he was afraid to leave at home; things like his Communist Party card. I could not imagine life without Moysha. Soon after I learned to walk, Moysha, my grandfather, made me the custodian of his sidearm holster, ammunition belt and war medals. Then he told me a story:
In July of 1941, days after the start of the fascist invasion, Moysha went into hiding in the forests of Belarus. He grew up in the shtetl of Drybin, deep in the woods, so he didn't need a map to get around. Living under a felled oak and eating nothing but berries, he established contact with fellow Communists who had taken refuge in the wilderness. At a meeting held in a meadow, he was appointed secretary of the Party organization and the partisan detachment commander.
From July to December, Moysha and his fighting men did nothing but training, which always began and ended with tests on topography. "If you don't know where to go, go peel potatoes," Moysha said to fighters who couldn't read maps.
The fascists didn't suspect that Moysha was in the forest until an ammunition depot blew up in the town of Mogilev. The fire quickly spread to the general staff building, destroying all Gestapo records. During the same night, a hundred fascists were slaughtered before they could get their pants on. Two fascist trains were derailed, too.
Moysha lost only one fighter during that night of terror! In secret, Moysha gave me the same instructions he gave his fighters. "Bravery! Courage! Life-for-the-Motherland! Narishkeit!" Moysha taught me. "Narishkeit" is the dialect word for foolishness.
"Brave soldiers die!" Moysha continued. "Smart ones avenge them!"
Living in dugouts, Moysha and his fighting men stayed behind the enemy lines for two years, maybe even three. Even with their training and Moysha's careful command, most of them got killed in fascist ambushes. Even Moysha was shell-shocked three times. In the end, after their forest was liberated, Moysha was elevated in rank, given a new uniform and a PPSh machine gun, an assault weapon that complemented his old Japanese sword and the 7.65 caliber Walther sidearm he took off an SS "tongue" he had captured in a deep intelligence mission.
Capturing a tongue is a multi-step process that requires bravery, luck and masterful soldiering: (1) You have to slip behind the enemy lines; (2) Capture an officer who knows the enemy plans and troop movements; (3) Tie and gag him; (4) Without killing him, take him back to your forest, where you torture him until his tongue begins to wag, and he tells you everything, which is why he is called a tongue, I think.
Moysha reached Berlin as the most decorated officer in the Red Army. On arrival, he was handed sealed orders in which Stalin told him to take a dozen men and crawl through the sewers in search of Hitler's bunker. After Moysha found the bunker and blasted through the wall, he discovered that Hitler and his wife had taken rat poison. Even Hitler's dog was dead. You'd think that Hitler would have known that Red Army commandos like Moysha wouldn't have harmed a dog.
Most of Moysha's stories involved military secrets and could not be repeated, even under torture, but some were widely known. In the book Jewish Folk Songs (Moscow: Der Emes, 1943), on page 189, you can find a poem called "Our Moysha," translated from the dialect by I.M. Dobrushin:
U samogo mestechka, gde on kogda-to ros,
Fashistov bronepoyezd pustil on pod otkos.
V yeshive on kogda-to propel Internatsional
I v raz v bor'bu poshel on, khot' byl togda i mal
Nash Moysha besposhchaden! Konchay svoy krieg i blitz!
Kogda eygo uvidish, lozhis' v mogilu, Fritz!
On Stalinu iz lesa prislal v Moskvu pis'mo,
Lozhatsya v ryad fashisty pod pulyami yego.
Outside his native shtetl, where woe falls like rain,
Our Moysha detonated a fascist armored train.
He sang the Internationale from the yeshiva bench,
And joined heroic struggle to cleanse oppression's stench!
Our Moysha has no mercy! Abandon krieg and blitz!
Should you encounter Moysha, you life is over, Fritz!
To Moscow, to Stalin he wrote from the woods,
And fascists are mowed down when our Moysha shoots.
I kept thinking of Moysha's age, 78. He could die any minute. Even right now. He could fall down and die, or die and fall down, or go to sleep and die, or get another stroke and die after lying in bed for three days. If Moysha and I were to see each other again, I had to hurry. In a year at the latest, I will send him a ticket. I will pay for it with the money I will earn frying cutlets in the summer. I will even wash dishes in a restaurant, if that's what it takes.
How much can a ticket cost? Maybe $1,000. It can't be more than that. If I find a job that pays $2 for every hour and work for 30 hours every week for 12 weeks, that will give me $720. And if I work for 60 hours every week for one summer, I will still have $400 left after buying Moysha's ticket. After coming to join us, Moysha will get a job mixing medicines for a few hours every week at a pharmacy, as he did all his civilian life in Russia. I will let him have my bed, and I will sleep on a cot or on a couch, so we will not need a bigger apartment.
My advice is that at hospitals, cemeteries and railroad stations, it is best to imagine that you are not there. That way you retain your dignity while watching everyone else lose theirs.
At the station, Aunt Ulyana was crying. Uncle Viktor was crying, too. My father was mumbling something to Uncle Viktor. I think crying is always better than mumbling. When you cry, you don't say things like "Next time we meet, it will be in Silver Spring, state of Maryland," because Uncle Viktor didn't want to go to Silver Spring, state of Maryland. He wanted to stay in Moscow, in his three-room apartment.
My mother was crying more than anyone else. She could have been crying for two reasons: (1) because she didn't want to leave until my father convinced her, and (2) because after he convinced her, she started to read Sholem-Aleikhem.
She thinks Sholem-Aleikhem wrote the best books about people going to America, and she should know, because for a whole year she read nothing but Sholem-Aleikhem. She read every word of every story Sholem-Aleikhem ever wrote, and she didn't just read to herself. She kept retelling us the plots, and the themes, and all sorts of other literary things. In case you don't know, Sholem-Aleikhem wrote six volumes, twice as many as Karl Marx, and every word he wrote was about the Jewish people.
After my mother started reading Sholem-Aleikhem and telling everyone about it, that made me wonder what makes that Sholem-Aleikhem of hers so great, so I started reading The Boy Motl, where he writes about people who leave a shtetl in Russia and go to New York. If you have read that book, it's too late for me to warn you, but if you haven't, don't.
To tell the story, Sholem-Aleikhem pretended to be a boy. I hope that you will not get irritated if I stop telling you about my mother's reading Sholem-Aleikhem for a minute, and tell you what I think about censorship. What I think is that there are times when censorship is not a bad thing. I wouldn't censor anyone for politics, but whenever a writer gets the idea that he wants to write a book pretending to be a child, I would have him fill out an application with the writer's picture glued on it, and an essay to explain why he wants to pretend to be a child.
What I would do next is tell the censorcist not to read the manuscript, or the application, or the essay. I would have him look at the picture, and if the writer has gray hair, a beard and a belly the size of a watermelon, the censorcist will stamp, "DENIED" across the picture, and that will be the end of it. This will be good for the writers, too, because most of them are so old that they can't remember when they were children, so they would be making more money writing books with people their own age falling in love on every page, and having an easier time of it.
I think Sholem-Aleikhem had a talent for making you feel like someone had urinated in your pants for you, which is how I felt after reading five pages of Motl. I read the first five pages without skipping, but after I turned to page 6and the book didn't get better, I skipped ten pages, but it kept getting worse.
The people Motl travels to America with are not like us at all. They can barely read in any language, and I can read in two: Russian and English. I can speak and understand English, too.
You have to remember that Motl was written before the Revolution. Now, things are different. I can say this because most of my friends, except my best friend Alyoshka Pervov, are Jewish, but none of them are anything like the people Sholem-Aleikhem wrote about. They have parents with the highest education, and many have advamced degrees.
I almost feel sorry for Sholem-Aleikhem. If you are a writer, and your characters are ignorant, anything that happens to them becomes a joke. They stumble around like clowns with blindfolds on, and the reader is
expected to think that it's funny.
I don't think so. America is not funny at all. It's a serious, technologically advanced, capitalist nation. I've read many books about it, so I know what to expect.
A photograph made for our relatives in Silver Spring shows us as we were:
My mother, with her plump face and shoulder-length black hair, wearing a cream-colored cardigan with a symmetrical floral pattern: a brown and tan flower to each side of the zipper.
I stand to her right. My hair is cropped short. I am in a gray Czechoslovakian suit with five buttons in the front, caftan-style. My father, in a dark-blue suit and a turtleneck, leans over us, with his arm over the back of our settee. He is smiling, like a boy full of dreams or a poet who has just paid the rent. There is a journey ahead.
Black-and-white portraits have the gift of insight, even prophecy. Look at my parents. My mother is squat, broad-shouldered, close to the ground. My father is tall, narrow, like a large, dark bird poised for flight. He is unaware of setbacks and incongruities in his life. (You would never guess that the handsome turtleneck he is wearing is actually my mother's blouse, and that it has no sleeves and zips in the back).
Please note the sideburns and the outline of a mustache on my father's face. This is new. As he stands on the threshold of this decisive chapter in his life, he wants to look different, to look fresh.
Now, look in my mother's eyes. Bewildered, like a child lost in GUM, she desperately wants to be found, yet she drinks in the attention to which a lost child is entitled. She revels in this attention. She wants it by the crate-full. Only a poet can feed such demand.
I look like both of them. Tall like my father, broad-shouldered like my mother, I am growing out of my clothes sooner than they can be found on the bare shelves of Moscow stores. You can see the caftan sleeves riding up on the shoulders, hanging three centimeters above the watch. My turtleneck is not exactly a turtleneck. It, too, is my mother's blouse. It doesn't slide over your head. It buttons on the back and has pleats for the breasts to slip into.
Above all, I look like a bird poised to fly, except I will be a bigger, darker bird than my father. Thanks to my parents, I am ready to make my Darwinian leap.
"Would you like to go inside?" I asked Moysha.
We walked into the railroad car. Moysha dragged his right foot and needed a push to get up the stairs, but it was worth it, getting away from the tears on the platform.
Moysha sat down by the window, trying not to look at me. Both of us were waiting for the silence to end, but couldn't think of a way to end it.
"Will you join us in Silver Spring?"
"Why, I was born here. I'll be buried here."
"You can come to visit then, and if you don't like it, you can come back and be buried."
"We'll see what happens," said Moysha.
"Comrade General, will you promise that you will live long enough for us to meet again?"
"I'll try, soldier, I'll try." He took off his glasses and covered his eyes momentarily with his hand. Then he added mysteriously:
"You may need me yet."
Moysha was looking away, at my parents, my aunt and my uncle on the other side of the train window. They were waving for him to come out.
We still had a few minutes, but we walked out anyway, Moysha dragging his foot, swaying a little.
Neither of us shed a tear. We had our dignity.
The train moved. You know how trains begin to move, with a tug, as though trying to convince themselves they can do it.
I was wiping my aunt's lipstick from my cheek and looking out. When the train moved, Moysha moved with it, dragging his right foot. Another pull of the train, another tug of the foot. They were marching West, Moysha and the train.
I looked out the window, watching the dachas take the place of the nine-story buildings, the fields take the place of the dachas, and the woods take the place of the fields.
Have you read any ÈmigrÈ writers, the old aristocrats who went to Paris, then returned, because they couldn't live away from the birch trees?
That had to be a pile of garbage, even if birch trees were so great. I would survive without them. I wouldn't give them another thought. Let them disappear behind the window, let them fall away. Let them be gone, replaced by America:
America. The Empire State Building was built in 1931 and stands 102 stories high; Americans drive cars that are bigger than a Mercedes-Benz. One American car, a Country Squire, can transport eight passengers at 180 kilometers per hour, which is fast enough to get from Washington to New York in one hour and from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two or three. The Country Squire's sides look like wood, but are actually painted metal.
Americans make sandwiches with thin slices of bread, a thick layer of butter (as thick as the bread), and more cheese and sausage than you put on ten sandwiches here. Sometimes, instead of sausage, they use roasted beef, which is meat that has been cooked half as long as it should have been, and still has blood in it.
Americans live outside big cities, in settlements of small cottages. Inside those cottages everything is simple, modern and tasteful. Some people even make their own furniture. All American couches fold out as beds. And there are shelves on all the walls, so space doesn't get wasted.
Outside those modest cottages, Americans keep their cars. It's easier for an American to buy a car than for us to buy a refrigerator.
In America, you can work washing dishes in a restaurant, and people still respect you as though you were a millionaire, because in America all work is honorable. All Americans are dressed the same, in normal American clothes: jeans. Americans wear jeans to the point of disintegration. Washing jeans is not customary. Both millionaires and people who wash dishes in the backs of restaurants can afford to buy jeans. That means that unless you look at a person's car, his house, his yacht, or his dacha, you can't tell whether he is rich or poor. I am going to wear nothing but jeans, the older the better.
America is warm. With its farthest northern point as far south as Central Asia, Americans don't have to wear shirts most of the time.
There is still crime in America, but not as much as they tell you. Mostly, it's political assassinations and Negroes killing other Negroes, so unless you are the President of the United States or a Negro, you don't have to worry about it.
Americans don't care whether you speak English. That's because most of their parents, grandparents, and even they themselves started out not speaking English. Everyone is used to explaining things in sign language.
First, we are going to stop in Silver Spring, state of Maryland, near Washington, District of Columbia, spend some time with our relatives, so they wouldn't get offended, and then we will make our way to Hollywood, where my father will write films.
He wouldn't be able to write much of a film with the 500 English words he learned in Moscow, so for the first few months he would need a translator. Also, if he wants to write films, he would need to be as good as the real Americans who do it, because some of them are really good.
I saw an American movie once, Bless the Beasts and the Children, where boys escaped from a summer camp, stole a car, and set out to save the buffalo that were about to get killed by hunters. I could get along with such boys. They weren't scared of anyone, and their hair was long, as long as the Beatles had it before they sold out and cut it. A couple of them even knew how to drive.
Americans like to accuse each other of being greedy. Like in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where people got into a car chase, because they wanted to be the first to dig up a buried treasure. The whole film is one big car chase. I liked it so much that I saw it four times. The first three times I looked at nothing but the cars, especially the one with a canvas roof that gets crashed in the desert. Also, I liked a little blue bus that flashed by for a second. It would be good to buy one of those, then buy some sleeping bags and drive around America.
On the fourth time I understood that the film was satire. It was saying that Americans want too much, so they are never happy. Only an American film producer could get away with saying that. Of course, he could have been saying this because he was a Communist or a liberal, but in any case, even if Americans are indeed greedy, they can keep being greedy, and I will not let it worry me.
My parents and I will be different. We will be comparing what we will have there with what we had in Moscow. We will buy a small house. It will be far from the city, by a dusty road, but since we will have a car, we will have no problem getting to the city.
Real Americans will be driving for an hour; we will be driving for an hour and 15 minutes. We will grow vegetables and save money on food. At first, the Jewish center will give us a subsidy, which we will use to buy an old car, maybe even an old Country Squire. My parents will sit in the front, and I will fold all the seats and crawl around in the back.
Imagine this: on a warm summer evening, we are driving 70 kilometers per hour in a Country Squire with all five windows open, even the one in the back, and all the other cars are passing us on the left side.
Then we switch lanes and go 100 kilometers per hour, but some of the cars are still passing us on the left. So we switch again, to the third lane, and now we are going as fast as the Country Squire possibly can, almost as fast as a Ford Mustang. When I get older, I will buy one of those, a red one.
Then I will go to college and become an astronomer or a lawyer. If I become an astronomer, I will write articles about stars. If I become a lawyer, I will write articles about the legal cases I will be taking to courts.
I will write nothing but articles and short stories, because it doesn't take too much time to write them, especially if you consider how fast I can write.
One thing I will never do is write books, because to do that you have to become a professional writer. It's not just that professional writers don't get paid enough money, but they are angry a lot, so they hum strange songs and mumble the things they are going to write. Many of them are so preoccupied by what they are going to write next, that they don't talk to their children, even if their children want to become writers, too. And that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is that there are times when other people tell them what to write. I could never put up with that.
I'd sooner go to prison.
As soon as we cross the border, I will change my first name to something Americans can pronounce. I could make it Elijah, because that's what my name, Ilya, means in English. Better yet, I could make it William, because it has my name in it, for the most part. All you have to do is add a "W" in front, and an "M" in the end.
That night, as our train passed through Belarus and I fell asleep, in a dream, I saw a gigantic figure move through the forest alongside the train.
Inside the steam engine, the stokers were heaping coal into the furnace, but the giant kept up, dragging his right foot. If it were necessary, he would move faster than the train, faster than the airplane, faster than anything I could get on. He could even move through death, for all I knew. But he would move no faster than necessary. He would not let me out of his sight, not for an instant.
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