Yossel Birstein was what you would call a writer’s writer—he was always there, but slightly offstage; he chose to write in Yiddish (and only in the last part of his literary career began writing in Hebrew); he touched on burning issues but not only on these issues, and what’s more, he applied elaborate literary techniques, which also demand reading skills in order to detect—and at the same time do not burden or hinder the joy of reading. Birstein is seemingly a natural storyteller. The story as if pours out of him, flows. And you need to go back and read the story again to understand what exactly he did there. After all, a story doesn’t emanate from itself; someone tells it, and someone writes it.
“The Letter” is one of Birstein’s earlier stories; it was published in 1959 in the Yiddish literary quarterly “Di Goldene Keyt”, edited by the acclaimed poet Abraham Sutzkever. Until then Birstein was a shepherd at Kibbutz Gvat, and moved to the city after publishing a novel in Yiddish about life in the kibbutz (“Narrow Paths”, 1958).
From a reality well-known to the Israeli reader—urban Israel in the fifties—emerges a world that is dark and menacing, and at the same time grotesque and funny. Reading the story evokes Israeli literary works that are perhaps more widely known, such as Appelfeld’s first stories from the sixties, and certainly Yaakov Shabtai’s stories from the early seventies. Both read Yiddish and were familiar with Birstein’s work. But Birstein was there first.
Translated by: Alexandra Hoffman
The letter that was sent to my uncle came back unopened and someone added a word in blue ink on the envelope: “deceased.”
My uncle was an old man. He lived with my aunt in the very back of the little grocery store which they owned, in a small, sandy alley in a poor neighborhood. They didn’t have any children, lived frugally and just barely had enough to eat. When I came to this country, they set aside a little room for me to live in. The other relatives didn’t like that I was living with the old folks and they suspected that I came here to wait for an inheritance. From these relatives, I found out that my uncle built a large building in the center of town, with many apartments, and left one of them empty.
“He will never move in there,” one of the relatives told me, “because he thinks that he will die if he moves, and he wants the apartment to wait for his death, just as we all are.”
His name was Mikhl and he was a relative from my aunt’s side. They were all my aunt’s relatives, and I was the only one of my uncle’s family who was still alive after the war.
In the evenings, the relatives often gathered at the uncle’s house, talked about politics, money and appraised the value of the building which they will inherit. My uncle, tall, corpulent, with a large head, rarely joined in their conversations, and when he did, he would lean his large head towards his left shoulder, as a sign of condescension. When my uncle didn’t respect someone, he would lean his head towards his left shoulder while speaking.
My uncle didn’t care that they were talking openly about the inheritance. “That’s what he wants, actually,” Mikhl told me, “He is sure that the more passionately we wait, the longer he will live.”
Mikhl was an anxious man, always picking his ear with a finger or plucking a stiff hair from his nose.
I lived in a dark little room and listened to my uncle and aunt fussing about. My thin, shriveled aunt, when there was no one in the store, sat on a low chair and chanted, prayer-like, all the debts of her customers.
One time I took the trouble of cleaning up the small courtyard of the boxes, tin cans and other old things, so as to be able to use the back entrance. My uncle saw what I was doing without saying a word, but in the evening, when I came back in, the courtyard was again full with junk and the entrance was blocked. My uncle didn’t like change. The next morning I met one of the relatives on the street and he took me to see the building. His name was Nokhum. He was a bachelor and had a blue mark on his face which took up half his cheek. He blew his nose often, immersing his entire face in a large, colorful handkerchief.
“Do you think he really needs to blow his nose?” My uncle said about him once. “He does it just to hide his mark for a brief moment.”
My uncle never laughed, nor smiled.
On our way to the house, Nokhum insinuated that the relatives are certain that I am waiting for the inheritance and that my uncle has plans for me already.
“And why, do you think, does he let you live in the back of the store and feeds you, as stingy as he is? It’s not enough for him that we are waiting; he has to have someone next to him at all times, to ensure that he lives long. You will never be able to leave him.”
Nokhum spoke with a thick, somewhat wet voice, reminiscent of damp walls. He suffered from a chronic cold and it wasn’t true what my uncle said, that he didn’t need to blow his nose.
I began to distance myself from the relatives, stopped joining them in the evenings, but I would hear them talking through the thin wall. They liked to argue and make bets. I once counted fifteen bets in one evening: a bet whether snakes prefer humidity or dryness; whether the main gate of the city park is on the west or the south side; a bet about some kind of candy that is packed in cans – whether the cans are new and the candy old, or the other way around. Their words penetrated my brain, I dreamed about them at night and at dawn, broken bits of conversation still littered my soul like leftovers from yesterday’s party.
My uncle noticed that I am isolating myself and he didn’t like it. One time, when I brought a girl with me, my aunt followed us to the doorstep and stood there. “Her name is Mira,” I repeated, but my aunt didn’t budge and kept looking on with wonder and curiosity. Then, my uncle brought some stale Challah that he wasn’t able to sell and a bottle of soda water, so that I would have something to treat my guest with.
In those days I decided to leave my uncle’s place. When the relatives found out that I am going to a kibbutz, they made fun of me, and my uncle didn’t believe that there was such a thing altogether. He had been living in Israel for many years, and he knew that a kibbutz is a fabrication. But while I was packing my things, he came into my little room and wanted to know where I am going.
“To a kibbutz.”
“But there is no kibbutz.”
“I was there and I saw it.”
”That makes no sense.”
My uncle insisted that there was no kibbutz. He didn’t have a beard, and the skin on his face was sallow and rough like a brick. His lower lip was jutting out, as if he had no upper teeth, and he was swallowing his words as he spoke. One had to make an effort to catch what he meant.
“You are my brother’s son and you are going to live with strangers?”
Slowly, like a ship changing direction at sea, he turned his big head towards me and said:
“Listen, you brought a girl here once, didn’t you? Take her and move into the empty apartment, I will give it to you forever.” And as slowly as before, he turned his head back.
His large red ear, covered in grey, entangled hairs, was reminiscent of an entrance to an old cave.
With the returned letter, I went to the city to find out what happened.
Approaching the sandy alley, which was called “South Street,” I saw that the doors of the store were open and on the wall above them, a sign was hanging as always, with black letters: “Groceries,” and under that, my uncle’s name: “Mendl Kuper,” and after that, the number 7.
There was no one in the store, and entering into the dark little room where they lived, I saw my uncle standing, holding a pot over a metal bowl, getting ready to pour the soup which he apparently cooked for my aunt, who was lying in bed sick. He was holding the pot by the handle, somewhat diagonally, and misery, mundane dejection emanated from the dishes, from the poor soup and from my uncle. He and my aunt rarely spoke to each other and he often looked at her as one would look at an old shoe.
“It’s me,” I mumbled. It took some time until he recognized me and put two loose fingers in my hand.
“How are you?” he asked, and then wanted to know whether I came alone and where my things were.
Standing in the little room I understood that my uncle was waiting for me to return all this time and he probably added the writing on the envelope himself. It was definitely he who did that. I felt fooled and offended. I will hand him back the letter and the envelope, I thought.
Actually, I was already accustomed to the idea that he was dead, and saw him in my mind lying on the bed facing up and in death his body was even more massive than in life. The mouth somewhat open and the eyes also open, though no longer blue, but glazed and vacant. His face overgrown with post-mortal hairs. He is lying with folded arms and his heavy stomach is no longer moving, and my aunt is sitting next to him on the low stool, buried within herself, and weeping. But just as in life, so also in death, he does not hear her crying.
And now, I had to become accustomed to his living face.
“You are a kibbutznik?” he asked, leaning his head towards his left shoulder.
I took out the letter and gave it to him. I had to repeat myself twice until he caught on to what I was saying, and even after that he didn’t understand what I wanted. He read impatiently, put the letter back into the envelope and his hands trembled.
“What, what is this?” he asked again. I slowly repeated everything.
“Who wrote this word?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t know. Perhaps in the post office,” I pretended to guess.
“You sent this letter?”
“Why did you write a letter?”
I realized from his questioning that he doesn’t believe me and suspects that I was the one who played a trick and added the word myself. It didn’t occur to me earlier that he will suspect me of all people.
My sick aunt suddenly jumped out of bed, agile like a kitten, grabbed the envelope and started reading. Then she raised her face towards both of us, gestured with her arms, as if she was entrusting a big secret to us, and said:
“Shhh, don’t tell anyone. No one should know.”
My aunt didn’t go back to bed. She got dressed and got busy in the store. My uncle sat down on a chair and didn’t move. Then he placed the letter and the envelope in his pocket, put on a cleaner robe and went outside. I went into the dark little room where I used to live. Nothing changed there: on the bed: the bare straw mattress, the table covered with a green oilcloth and the empty shelves, nailed to the wall. Outside the window, the courtyard was full with boxes. I was tired and lay down to sleep.
It was already dark when my aunt woke me up and called me in to eat. My uncle was back from the street, sat at the table in a white shirt, his face shaven and the tips of his big ears ruddy under the light. The room was brighter than usual. The table was covered with food. My aunt served hot soup and my uncle poured glasses of wine, so that one could first of all make a toast. My aunt didn’t let me wonder about the festive meal on a week-day. She pushed me to eat, saying that this is not all there is: there is also meat and compote and cake. My uncle was in a good mood, talkative and wanted to know what I am doing. I told him that I work with cattle.
“You milk them?” he asked.
“A woman’s job. Why don’t you do manly work?”
They didn’t mention the letter again and they were good to me, as if they needed me as a witness on their side.
The store’s doors were shut. We ate slowly and when Mikhl and his wife entered, they were embarrassed and a bit disconcerted, but my aunt calmed them down: “It’s nothing. He came starving, the poor thing, from the kibbutz, and by chance I had a few bones to cook.”
My uncle pretended not to notice, and didn’t even answer their greeting. As is customary for old people, he chewed the meat with his lips and poured himself another glass of wine.
They didn’t ask me to stay the next day, when I left in the morning, and I didn’t hear anything from them for a long time. Until one time, on an afternoon, Nokhum, the one with the mark, came to visit me. I saw him coming on the wide road which leads to the cow-stalls where I worked, and even here, where one could see open fields and faraway mountains, Nokhum walked in a forlorn manner, like a man in a dark alley, along an invisible wall.
He didn’t want me to be surprised at his coming to see me in the kibbutz. Times have changed and he decided to see how I live. For him times didn’t change, he was still a bachelor and waited for the inheritance, but times changed for my uncle. He told me that the old couple no longer live in the dark little rooms in the back of the store, but moved into the new apartment in the big house and put a man in the store to work for them. They walked to the seashore every day, they went to the movies in the evenings and my uncle bought himself a bookshelf with books. When the relatives visit, he treats them with fresh challah and sweet cocoa. They don’t know what happened to the old couple so suddenly. They heard something about a letter, which the uncle received, and about him going to the post office all the time. And Nokhum wanted to know whether I know anything about this. That’s why he came, actually. Now too, Nokhum blew his nose into the colorful handkerchief, immersing his whole face in it. I realized that my uncle was right; Nokhum didn’t have to blow his nose.
Beyond this, no relatives came to visit me. But I went to the city to visit my uncle. I went up to the first floor and knocked on the door, but no one answered. I found out from a neighbor that the old couple moved out a week or two ago, and the apartment was empty again. I went to the sandy street where the store was. My uncle stood bent over a pile of bread loaves on the floor. He wanted to take a few at a time, but the coattails of his grey robe opened and a few loaves were rubbing against his sweaty body. He let them go, closed the coattails, and while he bent over again, he held the lapels with his chin so that the robe doesn’t open again. But he wasn’t successful. There were no buttons on the robe, and he was pressing the loaves to his naked breast as he carried them.
He recognized me and after putting away the bread, stuck two loose fingers in greeting.
“Been waiting for you,” he said.
I was thirsty and wanted a drink of water, so he screamed into the dark little room and called my aunt to bring in a glass. No one answered and so he went in himself.
The little store didn’t change either. Shelves with food, a barrel of herring, beans, potatoes, flour, and over an open box of candy, green, happy flies appeared.
My uncle came out having changed into a cleaner robe and also wore a shirt. He waited until I drank my fill of water and then wanted me to go with him.
“A little ways,” he answered.
As we went out of the store, my aunt emerged from the room and followed us with her scared eyes.
On the bus, my uncle paid for my ticket. We went downtown and then took another bus to a remote neighborhood. Then he led me through alleys. He knew the way and didn’t need to ask anyone. He stopped by a sandy street and wanted me to read the name on the sign.
“South Street,” I read.
“And now come,” he said.
So there is another street with the same name, I thought, and let myself be lead.
My uncle led me to house number seven. Over the doors of a store was painted the name “M. Kuper.”
My uncle took out a letter from his pocket and handed it to me. I recognized the envelope.
“Read it over,” he winked at me.
“Deceased,” I read the added woes.
“I found everything out,” my uncle said, “I checked at the post office and found everything out. It wasn’t me – he’s the one that died.”
Suddenly he laughed. It was the first time that I saw my uncle laugh. A short little laugh, in the way of old folks, accompanied by a raspy voice.
“A mistake, they made a mistake,” he repeated and his big head leaned to one side, like a sinking ship.
Image: Assi Chaim
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