In the Beginning…

Millionaires fall in love with her and build her theaters. God in heaven! 18,  Genius
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member  or  donate here. A hedgehog on two feet. Yes, the Jews just won’t die. 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. Tel Aviv cried out with a summer cry. The jackals howled all night. But right in the beginning, the grammar made her head spin. Yes, she might as well say goodbye to everything. 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. 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. This place had no seasons. 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. Had there ever really been such things as snowstorms, frosts, and ice flowers on window panes? “Who’s there?  
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A heat wave spread across Tel Aviv. Everything that has to do with Jewishness. I don’t, unfortunately, know of any jobs, but one can always ask. ¤
Translation by David Stromberg. Against the shine of the moon you could see military trucks and motorcycles driven by soldiers in helmets. They call this coffee, these Jews. A hot, dry wind blew in from somewhere, reminding Liza Fuchs of flames from a furnace. It tastes like burnt marsh. 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. Cars and trucks passed in the streets. She has a kind of a potion or pill that inflames desires, makes men crazy. 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 could barely stay on her two feet. She could have now been looking out onto the Broadway lights, which never went out, or at the Hollywood studios. Dust — and binders full of memoirs. She paid and continued back home. “Where in the world is Stefan Kruszynski now? Why doesn’t the pani play in any theater?”
“How? 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. She’d been ready to con- vert as soon as her mother shut her eyes for good. Liza washed and soaped herself. Won’t the present pass too? It is featured in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. One second!”
Liza quickly put on a kimono. 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. Nothing was left of them but a broken career, a confused mind, a pained heart, and a void that nothing could fill. This is the only proof she has that she once played on the Polish stage, in a small theater, and received some recognition. He had a kind of Middle Eastern darkness, not unlike the Jews who came from Tunisia, Morocco, or Yemen. 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. A very, very small pension.”
“I see.”
“If the pani would like, I could teach her Hebrew.”
“No, I’ve given up on that. A light wind, smelling of dead fish and sewage, blew in periodically from the sea. They scoop up the few coins she leaves for a tip and don’t even say toda — thank you. Dirty, like all Jews, thought Liza, but why does he need such a big library? In the dining hall she was eaten by flies. Perhaps it was an express letter? What’s left of Mademoiselle Rachel, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse? Since coming to Palestine, she’d lost track of the months, days, weeks. They leave her sitting alone at her table. Liza’s body was both shivering and sweating. But I get a pension. At the cultural center, the beit tarbut, the newspapers and magazines were all in Hebrew. Liza reads and reads. No, at least not for now. 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. I’m already 63 years old, but if I had to, I’d learn Chinese. Is this really a Jewish state? Liza listens to his voice. Who? 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. But she didn’t last there more than a week. Argued with the political parties, she mumbled. He yelled at the wagon-carriers in Hebrew and carried his belongings in himself. She’s left without a job, without a husband. But what good was all this Jewishness to her? He probably fell in the Warsaw Uprising…” Someone knocked at the door. Obviously also argued with his wife. The frogs quacked with human voices. His little beard had whitened in the evening darkness, lit up by light beams passing through the slats of the shutters. The conductor was angry. This is the story’s first appearance in English. 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. Is it war again? Or call it God. Young men cried out in Hebrew. She’d nearly broken her foot then, sliding down the mountain. A child appears calling out the morning news. The “veterans” — the ones who’d live there for a while — called it a hamsin. The sheet is damp and full of sand. Then Liza said, “Have you maybe heard anything about a job?”
“What kind of job?”
“Whatever. When I first came, I lived in a tsrif, a shed, worse than today’s transit camps. When? Am I sick or something? A Polish actress.”
“I see. The construction workers are already at work. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. She covers herself with a blanket and lies in silence. The water was cool. They won’t die either, those worms. She could just as well forget about understanding anything. But the Germans burned her mother in Auschwitz or Treblinka. How did they do it? No, she won’t sleep tonight either. Poland is ruined, the theaters destroyed, the reviewers dead. Had she really ridden a sled from Zakopane to Morskie Oko, and had her shirt collar really filled up with snowflakes? He had little furniture, but many books. 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. Liza suddenly felt like laughing, crying, yawning, sneezing — all at once. Her neck has a middle-aged fold, a network of wrinkles. Then Liza heard him go back into his apart- ment. Cats meowed. The heat was beating down on her head, so she sat down next to a table at a sidewalk cafe. She put on her slippers. She stretched out her hand and knocked. 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 sun shines in the pale blue sky, ready to burn for another long day. They’ll break what’s left of me,” said Liza out loud. It seemed the Litvak, too, hadn’t completely closed his door, and a line of light shone through. Liza sits down and again reads what they wrote about her: a promising talent, a rising star, an actress with character, chic, charm. It could have been different. She had al- ready decided many times not to go near these yellowing leftovers, but she can’t stand the temptation. Liza went inside and locked her door. History brought us here by force. 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. She lay there and listened to her own depths. She sat down on a stool, wiped her sweat with a handkerchief, and was suddenly reminded of snow. But she was now, again, without a job. 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. For a while it was quiet, as if he’d stayed in the hallway to eavesdrop. Liza continued to drowse and by the time she woke up it was already evening. In the half-darkness, Liza set down a bowl for the water to drip into. If we haven’t died, it means we have to live.”
“Thanks anyway.”
The neighbor left. The doors had always been closed and locked. I have to go out into the street! The Hebrew words, with their khets and their khafs, got stuck in her throat. Liza is astonished anew every single day. She went looking for the salt shaker on the shelf. Well, what’s there to see here? Her eyelids flicker in the blinding light and she starts looking for something on the shelf. Almost all of Liza’s lovers had been Christian. Her whole body feels pinched, stung, and bitten. Liza cut him down in her mind. “It’s your neighbor,” she said. She took a sip and winced. 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. On the stage? It seemed to her that a person like him could glow in the dark, like the phosphorescent face of a wristwatch. Look at the Jewish people. I caught a fever that I still have today.”
“So you’ve become a Zionist?”
“I myself don’t know what I’ve become. What did she actually have in common with these people? The new tenant was dressed in a pair of khaki pants and a blue shirt from which gray chest-hair stuck out. The moon was unusually large, blood red, a burning globe mapping otherworldly lands. Why should the past be any less important than the present? It seems he has no family. 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. Young women laughed. 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. Just in the worst of heat, they were on strike. There were skirmishes in the Negev, near Gaza, or whatever those places were called. At dawn, Liza stood at the window, stark naked. If there’d been a gas stove in the apartment, it might have been even easier, but all she had was an oil burner. The women throw sharp glances at her. She’d always, since childhood, had an aversion to their black eyes, crooked noses, beards, kaftans, sidelocks. The dye that she uses on her hair, which went gray early on, pricks her scalp, and the roots sting. But she was over 40. A thick darkness reigned at night, a tropical blackness which no lampposts could illuminate.  

The old lady that lived in the apartment across from Liza has suddenly moved away. She could have easily gotten a visa to America. She couldn’t die either. Arabs lurked on the other side of the mountain. She opened and saw the neighbor, the Litvak. Just don’t let that Litvak’s door be open! Had she really spent the night in that cabin at the top of that mountain, and made the acquaintance of Stefan Kruszynski? 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. She’d heard plen- ty of Zionist propaganda, and it always had the opposite effect on her. Footsteps could be heard, as if the neighbor had read her thoughts, and had the whole time listened and waited. The boy who brought ice hadn’t come today. But she can still read the words, look at the pictures and illustrations. Down below there are sacks of cement. When she sings a song, the audience falls weak. It’s bad, very bad. “Here’s some salt.”
“Thank you very much.”
For a moment they stood in the half-darkness, silent and uneasy. God in heaven! She looks at herself, from all sides like an expert. 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. Over the flat roofs of Tel Aviv hung little bundles of stars, like fiery bunches of grapes. It seemed to Liza that this had already happened. The bitter truth was that she lived on daydreams, sexual fantasies. The sun left a rash on her face. But the sun is already beating down on this morning. The only perfect thing is her nose, totally Arian, and the thin lips. 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. At night, while she slept, her mouth and throat became dry, and her nostrils filled with sandy dust. She’d tried taking Hebrew classes at an ulpan. Maybe I can still find something … She opened the door slowly. Not by any means. A silent mobilization had begun. Perhaps a telegram? She could wash herself at the sink. Her photograph was printed in the Polish press, even in the anti-Semitic newspapers. She didn’t powder her face or put on lipstick. she begged the higher powers. From the open window frame you can hear the sounds of banging, pounding, cursing. She’ll have nothing left to do but sit on the sidewalk on Ben Yehuda or Allenby Street and beg. Liza kept the door open on account of the heat. 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. It was as if his skin had taken in endless amounts of sun. She dressed and went out to put an announcement in a German newspaper, where many short-term announcements were made. It’s time to end it. 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. Then painters painted the rooms. I have to eat something! But the simple things this Litvak had said returned to her mind again and again: History had brought us here by force. she wondered. A man pulls an oil barrel on rubber wheels tied to a little horse. In this sense, she was a Jew. “Oh, these memories! A few light poles shone with a yellow light reminding Liza of the lanterns that were carried behind coffins in Warsaw. He soon stood at the threshold speaking Hebrew to her in a grating voice. she asked herself. The last piece of ice in the icebox melted and everything inside went lukewarm, rotten. Her clothes were wet and she took them off. A Yemenite dealer of used clothes calls out with a Yiddish singsong — alte-zakhen, alte-zakhen — “old stuff ”. The crickets didn’t chirp — they sawed invisible trees. Voices could be heard in the middle of the night — just like in Warsaw. She wanted to lock herself in, be alone. God in heaven! 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. The walls were covered with shelves. I even went to a — what’s it called — an ulpan.”
“You can, you can. She kept looking him over, again and again. Snakes slithered in the grass. 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. Her body is both hot and damp from sweat. Stefan Kruszynski caught her in his strong arms and carried her like a special delivery parcel. Time stretched into one long heat wave, punctuated only by sudden rains and lazy cold air. Every morning Liza asked herself the same thing: Why bother getting up? 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. The men don’t even look at her. She went back home on foot. What can this day give me? The waiters are impolite. But she lacked the courage to commit suicide. She would never learn their Hebrew. He threw in Russian words. Liza shuts her eyelids and when she opens them again it’s daytime. She got up and washed herself at the sink. Sunday seemed like Monday to her. Their jokes always made her sick. It was true, she was Jewish, but she’d never liked Jews. 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. On the left they’re putting up a building. Nothing was left of the old days except these little scraps of paper, crumbling at the edges. For his age, he was quick and flexible. “What do you want?”
“I hope I haven’t disturbed the pani. He now stood before her and all she could see was that little white beard and two shadowy snares from which his eyes sparkled. She thought of her father. I’ve argued with all the political parties, and here, without a political party, you’re half dead. She lay down on the bed again. She’ll grow old here, ugly and broken. She answered him in Polish and he switched to a broken Polish with a Yiddish accent. Liza closes the shutters and turns on the light. Is it possible that I’m 43 already? But from whom? The Polish-language newspaper that Liza bought each morning reported tension on the border. 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 …
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Liza woke up, drank some water, and was again overtaken by fatigue. His pupils looked mean, sharp, full of the kind of ridicule, Liza thought, that only Jews have. The pillow too hard. She puts on her robe, lifts the shutters. Do you, by any chance, have a little salt?” An old trick! First Hitler tried to make soap out of her, and now she’s fallen into a Jewish trap. Her entire fortune consisted of 12 lira and a few coins. Her body is still youthful, her bust small, her waist thin, but her hairdo has several shades: blond, brown, yellowish. You could bring the whole thing to an end with some rope or a little bit of poison. She wanted to cry. Otherwise he wouldn’t have that white little beard! She could have acted in English and been a star. 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? She watched the man run up and down the stairs, carrying stacks of books, sweating, and wiping his sweat with a dirty handkerchief. A waiter brought her coffee in a metal cup. The air in the room was as warm as a Turkish bath. How many times had Liza decided to kill herself — and been unable! Then, in the dark, she put on a dress and a pair of shoes onto her bare feet. If we haven’t died, it means we have to live. Under her gray eyes hang bluish bags. Winter got mixed up with spring, fall with summer. Thank God, the door across from hers was closed. The banknotes with the Hebrew letters were soft and damp like wet rags. 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. She travels the world in a yacht and everyone loves her to death — from the captain to the last deck-hand. 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. A Jew like all the others. Those who argue, argue with everyone. He won two U.S. Liza had been through every kind of hell and had ended up in Israel. When the paint dried, a new neighbor moved in: a little man with a dark face, shiny black eyes, and a white little beard. “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. The thought of suicide always calmed her a little. JUNE 12, 2018

LARB presents Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “In the Beginning,” translated from the Yiddish by David Stromberg. The years passed like a bad dream. Her forehead’s already completely wet. I don’t have enough strength for this! Liza nearly said. On the bus people pushed and cursed. Now they were spread open, and out of them came a broken piano, chairs, tables, dishes, an icebox. I’m ready to do anything.”
“What’s the pani’s profession?”
“Acting. Perhaps, if she’d come when she was younger, she might have managed to learn a little. How long can this last? His little beard was white, but his eyebrows were black. It was strange to think that she had found herself in the Jewish state, Palestine, Israel. “Yes, I have a workbook.”
“I’ve forgotten it all. Why would you do that?”
“Oh, just for the sake of it. Liza had even tried going to a kibbutz. Every now and then a grasshopper bumped into her shoulder, neck, stomach, and she peeled it off, flicked it away. Bats flew overhead. What day is this? He asked for a drink of water, and Liza poured him a glass from a bottle that she kept in the icebox. 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. decided Liza at once. In a dream? Yes, I have to eat. “Do you have a workbook?” she asked. Am I the same Liza Fuchs? It all seemed so far away to her, perhaps a hundred years ago. Liza feels a little cold and goes back to bed. 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? I even had malaria. There was no war in the country, but neither was there peace. And even for this rooftop apartment she had to pay 800 lira in key money. She’s crowned Miss Universe, and in every single country a handsome gentleman is chosen to serve her, like a court page. Liza turns off the light and goes back to bed. Liza closed the door after him. The jackals howled as in childbirth. We have to start in the beginning.”
And the neighbor repeated, “Yes, in the beginning…”
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Isaac Bashevis Singer was a prominent figure in the Yiddish literary movement. 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. The nights were not still. Hollywood magnates see her playing somewhere in a coffeehouse and write up years-long contracts for her. But for the newcomers it was hard to tell the difference between a hamsin and just plain heat.