I  learned my Yiddish from my grandfather, who came from Montreal to live with us in Chicago for the last four years of his life, after his health failed and he could no longer stay alone. These were the years, just after World War II, when I was between fourteen and eighteen—not at all a bad age, really, for absorbing a new language. A small and somewhat foppish man, my grandfather began each day by wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and tefillin for his morning devotions. After bathing, he would dress in one of his five suits, tailor-made and very well-cut, which he maintained with great care and wore in rotation. His shirts were white and starched, his neckties dark. A thick gold watch chain depended from his vest. When he died he left the watch to me, and also, I would later come to realize, a certain standard of seriousness.

In Montreal, where he had spent much of his adult life, my grandfather had been a leading figure in Hebrew education. Old-timers in that city still remember Raphael Berman as a man of deep learning and wide culture. Living with us in Chicago must have marked a sad coming-down for him. “Immaculate” was the word my mother always used to describe her father-in-law; he, for his part, worried about her following the laws of kashrut, previously foreign to her. After more than 80 years keeping kosher, he feared falling off the wagon at this late stage of his life.

My grandfather still had strong memories of pogroms in his childhood shtetl a few miles outside Berdichev in the eastern Ukraine. He told me how his parents had managed to smuggle him out of Russia to avoid conscription into the czar’s army. Although he never said so aloud, he must have been disappointed that none of his four sons—of whom my father, a successful retail furrier, was the youngest—had turned out to be in the least scholarly or even mildly bookish. There was only me, his grandson: a last chance to impart to another generation his love for Hebrew and above all for Yiddish, his sweet, endlessly subtle mamaloshn.

Patiently he taught me Yiddish grammar, syntax, vocabulary, the semantic intricacies of a language whose every word—even, my grandfather joked, the prepositions—seemed at least a triple-entendre. Once we had run through the few available lesson books, he led me gently into the great storytellers, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Mendele. Together we also read David Pinski and Chaim Grade and Abraham Reisen, even the problematic Sholem Asch.

At sixteen, I may have been the world’s youngest reader of the Jewish Daily Forward, still sold in those days at the newsstand at Devon and California, four blocks from our apartment. It was in the pages of the Forward that I first came across the stories and serialized novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, published, in their Yiddish version, under the name Bashevis. And it was there, too, that I first came across Zalman Belzner, a writer who interested me more than Singer.

Belzner wrote of the struggles of the young Jewish Communists in the early days of the Russian Revolution, and of the plight of young men caught between the traditional Judaism in which they had been raised and the lure of Haskalah, or Jewish “enlightenment” and secularization, in its various early-20th-century permutations. Belzner wrote about these things in the most vivid detail. He achieved realism, I remember my grandfather saying, rather cryptically, with none of its accompanying vulgarity.

I was still a kid, had not yet been exposed to Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Proust or Thomas Mann, but in Zalman Belzner I already sensed that I was encountering literary writing built to last a very long time. Such writing, it seemed to me then, was the exclusive province of the dead, of whom I assumed Belzner was one. “Oh, he’s very much alive and kicking,” my grandfather informed me when I inquired. “I believe he lives in New York, with his second wife, a story in herself, if you’ll pardon the expression.” My grandfather chose not to tell that story, at least not to an adolescent boy, but I could read a fair amount in his raised right eyebrow.

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My grandfather died the year I went off to college. There were not all that many Jewish students at Yale in the early 1950’s, when strict quotas were still in effect, and those few among us did not exactly advertise our Jewishness. I studied English; after my grandfather’s influence, I wasn’t really good for anything but literature. In the fashion of the day, I was taught to unpack the meanings, often Christological, hidden in English lyric poems, and to comb and curry the symbols from the brooding works of American fiction, an exercise for which, after extended exposure to the power and charm of the great Yiddish writers, I hadn’t much taste.

The study of English at Yale convinced me that I did not want to teach, and so, upon leaving New Haven, I took a job at Time magazine, where Yalies in those days, even Jewish ones, had an inside track. The work paid well, and many interesting characters were still on the premises, drawing large checks and full of contempt for their jobs, their boss, and the society that forced men of their talent to slave at infusing the trivia of the news with interest and dash. I myself felt lucky to have the job. And then, too, I met Naomi, my wife, at Time, where, after graduating from Radcliffe, she had been hired as a researcher.

Living in New York I began to read the Forward again, every so often buying a copy from the newsstand at 79th and Broadway not far from our apartment. In the Forward I came upon a notice of a reading by none other than Zalman Belzner at the Rand School, downtown near Union Square. Since Belzner was now in his early eighties, and would live who knew how much longer, I felt I couldn’t miss it.

Including the rickety woman on two canes who introduced the guest of honor, there were seventeen of us in the audience that Thursday night, twelve women and five men. I must have been the youngest person in the room by fifty years. The crowd reminded me a little of the one that had gathered on a cold February evening in Chicago to mark the death of William Z. Foster, who in 1932 had been the Communist candidate for President of the United States. I no longer remember why I attended that event, but, like the American Communist party, Yiddish literature in the 1950’s seemed to me another, if much more gallant, lost cause.

Zalman Belzner was given an introduction in which he was at one point called the Homer, and at another the Shakespeare, of 20th-century Yiddish literature. As he slowly approached the lectern, one could see that he was near the end of his trail. He was a large man, and must once have been very handsome. His skin was wrinkled but pinkish, his hair white and still plentiful; in fact, he was in need of a haircut. He had big, fleshy ears, which stuck out. His features, as sometimes happens with people in old age, had become a bit blurry, as if someone had fooled with the contrast button. His hands were large; lifting them seemed to require an effort. His breathing carried a low rasping sound.

Yet as soon as he began reading, passion kicked in and Belzner’s age dropped away. He began, in Yiddish, with a series of five poems, recounting the cycle of Jewish hope and disaster that was the great revolution in Russia. He next read, also in Yiddish, from two welcoming letters sent to him by Sholem Aleichem upon his first publications. Next, in somewhat stilted English, he read from what he called “a work in progress,” a section from a new novel about a young yeshiva student in Vilna whose passion for a beautiful young leftist catches him up in the intricacies of revolutionary politics. Belzner’s strong greenhorn accent made what he read seem all the more powerful. At the end of this excerpt he thanked his wife, Gerda, for her work on the translation.

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Applauding, everyone turned to look at a woman sitting in the row in front of mine and a bit to my left. Gerda Belzner looked to be in her late fifties, at least two decades younger than her husband, small and very thin, with fine bones and emphatic features and hair dyed henna-red. She sat with an impressive uprightness; deep pride showed in her bearing. She took the applause, I felt, rather as if she were not the translator but herself the author.

A reception had been set up that reminded me of the small spread after shabbes services at Ner Tamid Synagogue where I used to accompany my grandfather. Slices of sponge cake and small glasses of Mogen David wine plus, in this case, a samovar with glasses for tea. Belzner was standing; supported by a cane that he hadn’t used at the lectern, his wife holding his other arm, he was talking to three admiring elderly women. After they wandered off, I went up to him.

“Mr. Belzner,” I said, “my name is Arnold Berman, and I work for Time magazine, and I just wanted to tell you that your writing has meant a great deal to me, and I want to thank you for it.”

“No, no,” Belzner said, extending his hand, “it is I who must thank you. All that a writer can ask for is intelligent and generous-hearted readers. And in you, young man, I seem to have found such a reader. I am most grateful to you.” I felt my hand disappear in his large padded paw.

“If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Berman,” said Mrs. Belzner, “how did you come to learn about my husband’s writing, a man so young as you?” She was less than five feet tall and her eyes, more black than brown, shone fiercely. Her accent was as strong as her husband’s but metallic and harsh where his was warm and caressing.

“Through my grandfather, who taught me Yiddish.”

“And for Time magazine,” she said, “what exactly, if I may ask, it is that you do?”

Don’t ask me why, but I lied, or at any rate exaggerated. “I write about culture,” I said, “mostly things in what we call ‘the back of the book.’” In fact, in those days I chiefly wrote the squibs, in the section of the magazine called Milestones, about recent births and deaths and divorces among the celebrated.

Two other women had captured Belzner’s attention, and he was expending his charm on them, but Mrs. Belzner stayed with me. “You would like a piece of sponge cake or a glass tea?” she asked.

“Thank you, no,” I said. “I really must be going, but I didn’t want to leave without telling your husband how much I admired his work.”

“He is a great writer, Zalman Belzner,” she said, fire in her eye, “and if he wrote in any other language but Yiddish, the world would long ago have known it.”

I told her I thought she was absolutely right about this, and excused myself.

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The next afternoon at the office, just after I returned from lunch, the receptionist called to say that a large package had been left for me. When I picked it up, I discovered that it contained three of Zalman Belzner’s books in Yiddish, all inscribed to me, and a copy, in manuscript, of his wife’s translation of Beyond the Pale, the book from which he had read the night before. It also contained no fewer than 30 reviews of Belzner’s work, almost all of them from the Yiddish press, and, in an emphatic hand, a four-page letter from Mrs. Gerda Belzner.

I’ll spare you the florid politesse of her opening and closing paragraphs, which could only have been written by someone whose first or second or even third language was not English and were in a style more appropriate to the 18th century than to our own. The main point of her letter was, as she put it, “a simple but felicitous idea”—namely, that Time put Zalman Belzner on its cover, with a story, to be written by me, about his travails as a great Yiddish author. She, who knew Zalman Belzner’s life better than anyone in the world, would be pleased to fill me in on the facts, perhaps over lunch at the Belzners’ apartment on West End Avenue at, she wrote, underlining, “your earliest permissible convenience,” adding: “maybe next Tuesday.” She also noted that she would appreciate my comments on her translation of Beyond the Pale.

I waited until the next day to call.

“Mrs. Belzner,” I said, lying again, “I talked over the idea of a cover story about your husband with Mr. Luce, our editor-in-chief, and he said that while he thought the notion had much merit, perhaps the timing was wrong. In any case, we’ve already run three covers on writers within the last fourteen months. He asked me to thank you for your interest and to congratulate you on the translation of Beyond the Pale.”

The truth was that I had never met Henry Luce, having been in the same room with him only once and then was too nervous to introduce myself. Except as the wildest comedy, I certainly could not imagine discussing with him, or with any of the senior editors, a Time cover on Zalman Belzner.

“You’ll maybe forgive my saying so, Mr. Berman,” she said, “but this man Mr. Luce must be an idiot. Zalman Belzner is probably the greatest writer in the 20th century, and hardly anyone knows about it. Time is a news magazine, no? If this isn’t news, what, if I may ask, is?”

“You’re probably right, Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “but it’s Mr. Luce’s magazine, and what he says goes.”

“Like I say, an idiot,” she said. “But you’ll come to lunch anyhow?”

“I’ll be happy to,” I said.

“Next Tuesday, at 1:30 is good. Zalman Belzner writes from ten till one. You have the address?”

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The Belzners’ building at 420 West End Avenue was not all that far geographically from where Naomi and I lived, but in certain respects it seemed a different world. Although the west side was entering a decline that would only get messier and more dangerous as the 60’s wore on, most of the large buildings on West End retained their air of solid if shopworn gentility. The side streets were another matter; the thought of the shaky Zalman Belzner on his cane walking those streets was not pleasant to contemplate.

An elderly doorman in a shabby maroon coat, hat slightly askew, informed me that the Belzners lived on the sixth floor. Someone had scratched Up Yours on the inside of the elevator door. The interior halls were gloomy and gave off a cabbagey smell. When I knocked, Gerda Belzner came to the door.

“Mr. Berman,” she said, “I’m sorry to have to inform you that Zalman Belzner, because of poor health, will not be able to join us for lunch today.”

“Nothing serious, I hope,” I said.

“With Zalman Belzner, everything is serious,” she replied. “He is a sick man.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The after-effects of tuberculosis, which, not helped by his having smoked for so long, have turned into emphysema,” she said. “Another gift from mother Russia, the tuberculosis. Zalman Belzner, you should know, is a writer who has been a guest at the Lubyanka prison under two regimes, the Czar’s and the Communists’.”

I hadn’t known. Nor did I know, as I would soon discover, that Belzner was acquainted with Babel, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and the Mandelstams. His second wife filled me in on these and other matters. Belzner’s first wife, according to Gerda Belzner, was a maniacal Communist. She had tried to convince him to write in the style of socialist realism, to desert Yiddish for Russian, and, later, to take up the editorship of the Yiddish magazine Soviet Homeland, which was devoted to the lie that Jewish culture in the Soviet Union was thriving. When Zalman Belzner was able to flee the Soviet Union, she chose not to go with him. She was said to have died in the Gulag in 1950, three years before the death of Stalin.

While telling me these stories, Gerda Belzner would frequently interrupt to go to the back of the apartment—to minister to her husband, I assumed. At each return she took up the conversation without missing a beat. She told me that she had met Zalman Belzner after he had defected; he lived briefly in Paris before moving to New York. She was herself originally from Warsaw, a refugee from Hitler. As a young girl, a member of various Jewish literary societies in Warsaw, she had of course read Belzner and admired him greatly. When she met him in New York she was immediately swept away. “He was,” she said, “an even more handsome man than he is today.”

“You understand, Mr. Berman,” she said, “my life is devoted entirely to the work of Zalman Belzner. It has no other meaning.”

She didn’t really have to say it. Everything about her underscored the point, not least her inability to refer to her husband except by his full name, as if she were reading it off a title page.

Gerda Belzner served me a bowl of cold and not very good borscht, a platter of cold tongue and hard salami, rye bread, a sliced onion, a tomato, some too strong coffee, with grapes and an over-ripe banana for dessert. None of the food seemed quite fresh. But, then, neither did anything about the dark and dusty apartment, whose every available flat surface was covered by Yiddish books and newspapers. The windows had not been cleaned for a long time, and the light coming in felt crepuscular, even though it was mid-day. Every so often I would hear a weak but wracking cough from the back. I imagined poor Belzner, sequestered in his room in an old woolen bathrobe in a bed with less than clean sheets. A homemaker Gerda Belzner clearly was not.

_____________

 

“And so, Mr. Berman,” she asked, “have you had a chance to read my translation of Beyond the Pale? And if you have, what, if I may ask, do you think?”

“It’s a wonderful story,” I said, “and the translation is excellent, fluent, only a few rough spots.”

I was truthful about the story but not about the translation, which was stiff, overly ornate, studded with odd bits of immigrant English, its syntax hopeless, sometimes bordering on the comic. The Yiddish of the Zalman Belzner I remembered from my grandfather’s Forward was straight, delivered with power and unshowy verbal agility, in staccato, machinegun-like sentences. Only well after you read a passage did it occur to you to wonder how, in so few strokes, he had managed to bring off the astonishing effects he did. His skill as a pure storyteller deflected your attention from the style that gave his tales their magic.

“I have now sent this translation to nine American publishers, none of whom has expressed any interest whatsoever,” she said. “What do you make of this, Mr. Berman?”

“I’m not quite certain what to make of it,” I said, “except perhaps that there may be limited interest in your husband’s subject matter. We live in sensationalist times. Everything is geared to the contemporary.”

“Then how do you account for the success of that pig Singer?” She did not so much pronounce as spit his name.

I.B. Singer was just then beginning to catch on with a large American audience. “Even for Singer I’m told it hasn’t been so easy,” I answered. “I’ve heard that when Knopf brought out The Family Moskat, they cut the manuscript substantially. It’s a hard world, the world of American publishing, with very little sentimentality.”

“May I ask you a very great favor, Mr. Berman? May I ask you to go over my translation once more, with an eye to eliminating the rough spots you mention, and then maybe to think about where next to send the book? More than anything in this life, I want Beyond the Pale published while Zalman Belzner is yet alive.”

Careful, Arnie, I said to myself. This woman can only be trouble. Besides, I had quite enough going on in my life. There was my job at Time, up whose masthead I had only begun to climb—I was now an associate editor, and had become the magazine’s third movie reviewer. My wife was pregnant with our first child. I had writing ambitions of my own; I was on the lookout for a good subject about whom to write a biography. To take on the polishing of this wretched translation—polishing, hell, a full re-translation was required—was not exactly a good career move.

Of course, there was Belzner himself to consider. However reduced his circumstances, he was a great writer; of that there couldn’t be any doubt. And my grandfather, I thought, would have been pleased that his grandson was putting his training to such high purposes. The manuscript of Beyond the Pale, in Yiddish, ran to 460-odd pages. A fair portion of it was in dialogue. If I could do two pages a night, with perhaps a little more on weekends, I might have the whole thing done in fewer than six months. Gerda Belzner set off all my warning signals—dangerous, nutty woman, beware—but her husband’s situation was serious and sad. Never suffocate a generous impulse, my grandfather used to say.

“Let me give it a try,” I said. “Working at a full-time job, I can’t promise to have it done too quickly, Mrs. Belzner. But maybe, just maybe, I can smooth out the rough spots and make the novel a bit more attractive to an American publisher.”

“Tank you, Mr. Berman,” she said, failing to pronounce the h, “and I know that Zalman Belzner will want to tank you, too, and will do so in person once he is again up and around. We are both most grateful to you, please never to forget that.”

Leaving the Belzners’ apartment, the Yiddish manuscript and Gerda Belzner’s translation in a Klein’s shopping bag, I thought, well, kid, you’re in the soup now, up to your lower lip. Out on West End Avenue it had begun to rain. On the side street to Broadway a young guy in a tweed jacket three sizes too big for him, a crazed look in his eyes, approached.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, “can I have all your change?”

Caught off guard, I reached into my pocket and gave him what must have been nearly two bucks in silver.

“Thanks, pal,” he said. As he walked away I noted a large tear in the seat of his pants.

This was, apparently, my big day for charity.

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After my second session with Beyond the Pale, I dispensed altogether with Gerda Belzner’s translation, which was, as I discovered on closer scrutiny, crude beyond retrieving. The novel, however, was Zalman Belzner’s masterpiece. It recounted the life of a boy, Eliezer Berliner, brought up in strict religious observance, a star pupil at one of the great yeshivas in Vilna, with all the potential to be a great scholar and rabbi, who runs off to Russia, lives among revolutionaries in Moscow where Jews were not allowed, is captured and imprisoned in the Lubyanka, rejoins his comrades on the eve of the Russian Revolution, only to be jailed again two years later by the Soviet secret police, and finally flees to Paris, where he hopes to devote his life to poetry. Belzner had supplied brilliant cameo roles for Lenin and Trotsky, Bukharin and the young Stalin. In his taut narrative, Belzner took on the emptiness of formal religion, the hopelessness of radical politics, the vanity of all art that does not ultimately turn one back to religious contemplation, if of a vastly different kind from that ever dreamed of by the Vilna rabbis who trained his protagonist.

Belzner’s method in telling Eliezer Berliner’s story was pointillism of a sort, a careful setting down of dots, one after another, of precise and synecdochical detail. So perfectly had he linked these dots that one read with the intensity of a dying man racing through a book prescribing hitherto unknown cures for his disease. As a boy, I had done translation exercises of a page or two for my grandfather, but nothing so extended as this. I found myself working four hours a day on Beyond the Pale—two hours in the early morning before going off to Time, another two after Naomi, tired from her pregnancy, had gone to bed. I thought about it at work, in my mind revising English phrasings that weren’t quite adequate to Belzner’s powerful text. I lingered over it before I fell off to sleep, reformulating sentences, my arm around my wife and my mind in Moscow with the young Eliezer Berliner.

It was only a translation, but I found an immense excitement in the task. By now I knew that in my own life I would never attain to truly creative work; toiling on Zalman Belzner’s manuscript was as close as I was ever likely to come to the thing called literature. In getting things right, a great deal—everything, really—was at stake.

I finished two months earlier than I planned and sent the work, along with Gerda Belzner’s version, to the apartment on West End Avenue. Four days later she called.

“Mr. Berman,” she said, “Zalman Belzner has read your translation of his novel, Beyond the Pale, and would like to meet to talk with you about it. When, if I may ask, are you available?”

We settled on Thursday. She suggested lunch at their apartment, once again at 1:30.

This time Belzner himself answered the door. His largeness filled the doorway. He was wearing unpressed gray trousers, a rumpled white shirt with an ink stain near the pocket, and at his neck a skimpy paisley ascot with a maroon background. His eyes looked more tired than I remembered from our previous meeting at the Rand School.

“Ah, Mr. Berman,” he said, full of bonhomie, “is good to see you once more. Do come in. Do come in.”

The same table was set—once again for two—in the small living room.

“My wife will not be joining us today,” he said, “which is perhaps just as well, since it is about her that we must talk, at least in part.”

The meal, already on the table, turned out to be exactly the same as the one Gerda Belzner had served me roughly four months earlier, from borscht to the tired fruit compote. Belzner questioned me a bit about my grandfather and his origins. When I said he came from Odessa, Belzner smiled and said, “Ah, the city of Jewish violinists and Benya Krik, the great Jewish gangster.” He told me about his meeting with Krik’s creator Isaac Babel, also of Odessa, and about Babel’s craze for literary revision: 40 and 50 times he would rework a simple three-page story.

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Over the fruit compote our conversation began in earnest. “I wish to speak to you, of course, about your translation of my book. My English is less than perfect, as you can hear even now as I talk to you, but your translation seems to me excellent, highly excellent really, and

I am most grateful to you for the care you must have put into it. For a writer in Yiddish, as you must know, a good translator into English is not important merely—it is everything.”

“I’m pleased you think well of it,” I said, genuinely delighted.

“I think very well of it, but I couldn’t help noticing you seem not to have made much use of my wife’s work as first translator of the book. Is this not correct?”

“Correct,” I said. “I felt it was better to begin from scratch.”

“Yes,” he said, “from scratch.” He stopped to think about an American idiom that was evidently new to him. “From scratch. I see what you mean. What I wonder now is whether I can convince you to share the credit with Mrs. Belzner as co-translator of the book. It would mean a great deal to her if you were to do so. Meanwhile, in recompense, I am sure some royalty arrangement on the translation could be worked out in your favor.”

“It’s a little irregular,” I said.

“I’m sure it is,” Belzner said, “but then, as you may have noticed, so is life and so especially is Mrs. Belzner a little irregular. She is not an ordinary woman, my Gerda, as you will have noted.”

“It would be difficult not to note it,” I said, trying to sound neutral.

“She, I fear, has maybe a greater investment in her husband than is perhaps normal. But then I owe her everything. More even than I am able to explain to you. She has saved my life, and continues to save it every day that remains to me. Without her, please believe me, I would long ago have been dead.” Belzner took a soiled handkerchief out of his back pocket, and dabbed at his flushed face.

“I told Gerda,” he continued, “that your translation was built on hers, that it was, in the highest sense, a collaboration between two good minds. To do otherwise, you understand, would have been very cruel. And you don’t seem to me a cruel man, Mr. Berman.”

“I hope not,” I replied.

“Excellent,” Belzner said. “When my wife returns I shall tell her that, if we are able to get an American publisher, the title page will read,

‘Translation by Gerda Belzner and Allan Berman.’ She will be pleased.”

“Arnold,” I said.

“I’m sorry?” he said, cupping his right ear.

“My name is Arnold, not Allan.”

“A thousand apologies,” he said. “Please to forgive.”

Zalman Belzner walked me to the door. He moved as if in slow motion; his footfall was heavy; I could hear his every breath. As we parted, he grasped my hand in both of his and said, “I am more in your debt than you can ever know. I thank you, Mr. Bergman.”

Through a connection at Time, I was able to get my translation into the hands of Ben Rayburn, a small publisher interested in things Jewish, who quietly brought it out eight months later under his Horizon imprint. I was unable to attend the small publication party for the book. A page-three, highly laudatory review by Irving Howe appeared in the New York Times Book Review, with a brief paragraph toward the end commending the “stately translation” of Gerda Belzner and Arnold Berman. Beyond the Pale had a modest sale of some 2,700 copies.

I never saw a penny in royalties, which was all right with me. I hadn’t done it for money. I did it for Zalman Belzner; I did it for my grandfather; who knows, maybe I did it for myself. In any case it was over, and I went back to my regular family life and to my job at Time.

_____________

 

Roughly eighteen months after the publication of Beyond the Pale, around eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night, I stumbled out of bed to answer the telephone.

“Mr. Berman,” said Gerda Belzner, in her unmistakable accent, “my husband Zalman Belzner is terribly ill and needs to be driven to Florida—tonight. Can I count on you to help me drive Zalman Belzner to Miami? We need to leave immediately, within the hour.”

“Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “can’t this wait till the morning?”

“No,” she said, “Zalman Belzner must leave for Florida now. There is no time to lose. Can you help me drive him to Florida or not?”

“Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “I have a pregnant wife and a young child to worry about. I have a job. I can’t take off for Florida at midnight on such short notice.”

“Very well,” she said. “Thank you anyhow.”

“Mrs. Belzner . . . .” But she had hung up.

Two days later I read the six-inch obituary of Zalman Belzner that ran in the New York Times. It announced that he had died, of congestive heart failure, on Monday, the day before Gerda Belzner’s call, and that he was being buried that day in a private ceremony.

From my office at Time, I called Gerda Belzner.

“Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “I see in the Times that your husband’s funeral is today, though no address for a funeral chapel is given. Where is it to take place?” “I am sorry, Mr. Berman,” she said, “but you are not invited. No one is invited who refused to drive Zalman Belzner to Florida with me.”

“But Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “unless I’m mistaken, when you asked me to drive your husband to Florida, he was, according to the New York Times obituary, already dead.”

“That,” she said, in a cold voice, “is none of your business. You were unavailable when needed. I am inviting to the funeral only those friends of Zalman Belzner who were willing to drive him with me to Florida. Thank you anyhow for asking.” She hung up.

I stared into the phone. What was going on here? Another Jewish test? Our religion, after all, almost begins with a test, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. But this test of Gerda Belzner’s, driving a man already dead to Florida, at midnight and on a moment’s notice, provided a new twist—this was nuts. In any case, I had failed the test.

But my Belzner connection was not permanently broken. A few months later, Gerda Belzner called again. She wanted another meeting. She suggested a dairy restaurant on Broadway near 86th Street. I wanted to say no, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to be cold to this woman, who was now, for all I knew, absolutely alone in the world.

I arrived fifteen minutes early. The crowd in the restaurant was made up chiefly of elderly Jews, most of them immigrants to judge by their speech and dress. The majority must have escaped Hitler or Stalin; some may have had to escape both. They had seen the devil up close. I felt callow in their presence.

When Gerda Belzner walked in, she was wearing a black cloth coat with a black dress underneath, boots with high heels, her henna-colored hair swept up in a bouffant, her makeup at maximum strength, leaving her sharp features in something approaching boldface. She seemed a small, possibly predatory bird. Yet there was also a touch of the regal in her appearance. She was, after all, now the widow of Zalman Belzner.

Along with her purse, she was carrying another of her shopping bags from Klein’s. I rose and waved from my table. She saw me and walked over.

“Well, Mr. Berman,” she said, “we meet again.”

“I thought perhaps we had seen the last of each other.”

“Why would you think that?”

“It’s been a while,” I said, choosing not to mention the funeral from which I had been excluded.

We ordered vegetarian cutlets, small salads, tea. The waiter, an older man, flat-footed, a slightly dirty towel over his forearm, looked and sounded like something straight out of a classic Jewish vaudeville routine. (“Vich of you gentlemen vanted the clean glass?”)

“Mr. Berman,” she said, getting right down to business, “I have today a proposition to make to you.”

“What might it be, Mrs. Belzner?”

_____________

 

I want you should translate with me six of my husband’s as yet untranslated novels. My plan is for us to do them together, as we did with Beyond the Pale. I would give you a third of the royalties on each of the books.” She passed her shopping bag over to me; it contained copies, in Yiddish, of the books.

“Forgive me for saying so, Mrs. Belzner, but that doesn’t finally come to a lot of money. I have a wife and child to support, and another on the way. You realize you’re asking for a commitment here of several years on my part.”

“Which reminds me,” she said, “please give my very best wishes to your Mr. Luce. All right, then, how about half the royalties?”

“That’s very generous of you. But the objection remains the same. The truth is I couldn’t afford to do it for all the royalties. Money isn’t really the main point here, Mrs. Belzner.”

“Then what is?” she asked.

“The main point is that I have to get on with my life. There are literary projects of my own that I would like to work on.”

“I don’t know what these things might be,” she said, “but how can they be more important than seeing that the books of Zalman Belzner, a man who belongs to world literature, find their rightful readers? Let’s not kid ourselves, Mr. Berman. What you are going to write for yourself cannot compare with the writing of Zalman Belzner.”

This was an argument I had no way of winning—at least not with this intense little woman sitting across the table from me. I told her I would have to think it over. We had rice pudding and coffee. Mrs. Belzner was without small talk, or at least any that she wished to expend on me. She repeated the urgency of getting all of Zalman Belzner’s works into good English-language editions as soon as possible. She went into a little tirade against Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had been so fortunate in his translators, but whose filthy writings could not compare with those of her husband.

“Zalman Belzner is a very great writer, as you know maybe as well as anyone in this country, present company excepted,” she said. “Someday, with God’s help and yours and mine, Mr. Berman, he will have the readership he deserves.” She touched my hand as she said this. I looked into her eyes, and saw, for the first and only time in all my days, what it meant to have a true mission in life.

When we parted outside the restaurant, I told her I would call her within the next few weeks. I had agreed to take one of her husband’s novels home to read, and I now shifted it to my left hand in order to shake her own small, boney, and dry hand. I watched her walk off down Broadway, her thin legs in high-heeled boots, swinging her Klein’s bag before disappearing amid a wild assortment of scruffy kids, elderly Jewish couples, failed hustlers, and who knew how many others with spoiled ambitions and busted dreams, none of whom had ever heard or could possibly ever hear of Zalman Belzner.

I had already made up my mind at the restaurant not to take on the translation of any of these novels. The whole thing was hopeless. At Time I had been made a general editor. I was doing the occasional book review, and was called in to help edit the magazine’s larger culture stories. One of the senior editors let me know that the magazine was soon going to need a new theater critic and asked if I had any interest in the job. In short, it was no time for me to be spending all my free hours sweating over books about old Jews cavorting around Eastern Europe in a culture that had long since been wiped out.

In the cab on the way back to the Time-Life building, I thought I would write Gerda Belzner a letter in which I would set out my responsibilities to my career, to my family, and to myself, and how I must give these priority. Even she could see that first things came first—that the living have a greater claim on us than the dead. And if she couldn’t see it, well too damn bad.

I didn’t have much luck with the letter. I intended it to be less than a page, but it kept running on, in one version to five full pages before I even got to my wife and family. I attempted a second draft and then a third, both unsatisfactory.

_____________

 

A  couple of weeks after our lunch, Gerda Belzner phoned.

“Mr. Berman,” she began, “I have called to report to you that Zalman Belzner’s reputation is in peril.”

“In peril?” I asked. “How in peril, Mrs. Belzner?”

“An essay on Yiddish writers appears in a Philadelphia Jewish paper, The Investigator—maybe you know it? It pretends to discuss Yiddish literature and yet it makes no mention, none whatsoever, of Zalman Belzner. Mr. Berman, it is incumbent on you to write a strong letter of complaint to the editor. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to do it on your company stationery. In this letter you might say that the failure to mention Zalman Belzner in such an article is not an oversight but an outrage, which no serious student of Yiddish literature can be expected to tolerate.”

“Mrs. Belzner,” I said, “the absence of mention of your husband is a serious mistake, I agree, but it is not slanderous. I think we’d do best to let it pass.”

I scarcely noticed the “we” crossing my lips. “In any case, Mrs. Belzner,” I continued, “I don’t think a letter of protest would be quite in order. I’m not sure what would be, but let me think further about it.”

“You’ll call me back?” she said.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

Before the week was out, my wife’s water broke, at two in the morning. In good sit-com fashion, I woke our daughter and brought her over to our neighbors, the Hoffmans, with whom we had become good friends. And then, forgetting my wife’s already packed small suitcase, I called a cab. We were waiting downstairs when I realized my error. Back in the apartment, I remembered that I might be spending hours in the maternity waiting-room and scuttled about for something to read. I came up with Yeshiva Bokher, the novel in Yiddish that I had taken from Gerda Belzner on the day of our lunch.

Naomi was twenty hours in labor, during which time I finished more than 400 pages of Zalman Belzner’s 626-page novel about life at one of the great rabbinical schools in Lithuania in the late 19th century. It was brilliant stuff, entrancing, absolutely dazzling. As I read its confidently cadenced Yiddish, all I could think about was proper English equivalents. A fair amount of the material in the novel had to do with complex Jewish texts, mostly legal, about which I knew next to nothing. Any translator would have to be versed in them and in the historical life of the time. Nearly twice the length of Beyond the Pale, Yeshiva Bokher was in every way a much denser and more difficult work, requiring at least two years, maybe more, to render into English. A job not likely to be done again soon, if ever, it had to be done supremely well.

To be a translator was to be at best a secondary figure. To be a translator from Yiddish, a language now plundered for its idioms mainly by comedians and spoken by nobody under fifty not wearing a black hat—this was hopeless, to condemn oneself to the periphery of a periphery. Why was I so drawn to it? Even now I can’t say. All I can provide by way of explanation, to myself if to no one else, is a line from Keats that I must have picked up at Yale, probably in Cleanth Brooks’s class on the Romantics: “so I may do the deed/That my own soul has to itself decreed.”

My newborn son weighed seven pounds six ounces. Two days before the bris in our apartment, my wife yielded to my wish to name him Zachariah. Since neither of our families had any relatives with names beginning with the letter Z, it was a mystery to everyone in attendance. To everyone, that is, but a small woman with dyed red hair and too much makeup who, with the look of a fanatic in her eye, stood off in the corner, spoke to no one, and never smiled. She had arrived at the bris without a gift for our new baby but with a heavily-laden bag from Klein’s, and she departed empty-handed before the food was served.

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