Svelte and supple as unleavened bread, Shlepping the Exile rends the shmaltz from Jewish fiction and replaces it with a pound of real flesh.
It's the story of Yoine Levkes, a hassidic boy of the Canadian prairies, his refugee parents, and the Jewish community of Coalbanks, Alberta in the late 1950s. Confronted with dying people, an ailing culture, the perils of near-orphanhood and the allures of Sabina Mandelbroit, whose family doesn't keep the Sabbath, Yoine can no longer tell whether he's a human being or a loot-bag of conflicting traditions. He's too religious to be 'normal,' too 'normal' not to realize this, and too much of a kid to be able to make any sense of it.
Shlepping the Exile is Michael Wex's inside portrait of orthodox, post-Holocaust Judaism in a place that it never expected to be.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
MICHAEL WEX was born in Lethbridge, Alberta and later moved to Toronto. Wex is the author of two other works of fiction, The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist, and The Frumkiss Family Business and three works of non-fiction: Born to Kvetch; Just Say Nu; and How to Be a Mensch (and Not a Shmuck). He is also well known as a speaker on matters relating to Yiddish language and culture and more general aspects of Judaism. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter.
Michael Wex is a novelist, professor, translator (including the only Yiddish translation of The Threepenny Opera), lecturer, and performer. He's been hailed "a Yiddish national treasure" and is one of the leading lights in the current revival of Yiddish, lecturing widely on Yiddish and Jewish culture. He lives and shmoozes in Toronto.
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Shlepping the Exile
By Michael Wex
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Michael Wex
All rights reserved.
THE INFANCY NARRATIVE
Every candy store on earth smells of candy — it's self-evident. A fish store smells of fish, a fruit store of fruit, and a candy store smells dekh of candy.
Well, I got news for you, mister. My father, in addition to owning the only shoymer shabbes, the only Sabbath-observant candy store between Winnipeg and the Rockies, had the further distinction of owning the only candy store in the world to — What? To sell Yiddish newspapers? To kick out the kids who ate the candy before they had a chance to buy it? — What? You've never been in a candy store? — No! The only candy store in the world to smell of gallnuts, the stuff they use to make the ink for Torahs, tefillin, and mezuzas. A man with his education, after all, why shouldn't he round out his income a little, and be a bit of a big shot besides? So he became the town's scribe and cantor, and still had time to run his candy store ten hours a day.
The gallnuts were bad enough, but with his passion for righteousness it could go you dark in the eyes. I once tried to tell him that children recoil from being called the spawn of a hanged bastard, from being told that their parents are not their parents but only enterprising goyim who bought them for one bottle of whisky and would soon be trading them in for another. It was bad for business, I told him. "But I say it all in Jewish," he protested. It wasn't him, there was something wrong with the kids. "Everywhere in the world a child loves sweets, but in Canada they run from candy like from poison. Go know ... I should become a coffin-maker, and you'll pardon the expression, their Jesus would come and they'd all live forever, God protect us. Ach, I should have stayed in Shanghai."
I didn't have to tell him that Shanghai — which he'd somehow snuck into in 1941 and which has attained undying fame in Israel as my birthplace — his beloved Shanghai was now in the hands of the royteh gelleh, the red yellow men, and that his way of life was, to say the least, frowned upon by the authorities. Why bother? Even I knew that he wasn't talking about the present, but about the Shanghai where he waited for years to get out, and got screwed, like Jacob, in the end. Despite the Japanese, the war, and the renowned degeneracy of the place, Shanghai had had a small but very vital religious community, and when he spoke of Shanghai, my father did not mean the sin city of the east but the shtetl-within-a-ghetto in which he had lived. Economics aside, it was a Jewish paradise beside the shithole he was living in now.
"For you, my son," he'd say, patting me on my yarmulke, "for you I want something better than a candy store surrounded by cowboys. You, you've got an iron head on those skinny shoulders of yours, and after you're bar mitzvah we'll send you off to a great yeshiva in New York, and you'll grow up and become a great rabbi just like my father and my grandfather and his father before him. To think, Shaye Levkes, the ilu, the prodigy of the great yeshiva of Lomza, is owning a candy store at the end of the world. Master of the Universe, what is a man that you should pay him any attention? Don't bother to answer. ... A candy store, ekh mir a sustenance."
"But, Tatte, why didn't you take smikheh?" This had bothered me for years. He had all the knowledge of a rabbi and could have passed the standard examination while scooping gumballs out of a glass bowl. "You know enough, you could have been a rov anywhere. You can even speak English — real English, like a lawyer — when you want to."
He would tug at his beard, and a look would come into his eyes as if he had just been roused from the sweetest of slumbers. "You wouldn't understand." Then, breathlessly, as if he had spilled some great secret, he'd add, "It's forbidden to make money from Torah."
"And for me it's okay?"
"I'm still living in the old country; you're living here. In English there's a saying, 'You take the high road, I'll take the low road.' You know what it means?"
"Are you kidding?"
"You're a smart boy, but you're still a boy, after all. It means that if you're going to end up in the cemetery, you might as well get there first class. Just don't go against the Torah. You understand?"
Yes, no, it made no difference. One way it wasn't explained, the other I got a clap in the head. So I understood everything. I was a Jew with beard and sidelocks, after all. A Jew, anyway. With sidelocks. And hidden away in the midst of my father's cantorial records — Rosenblatt, Sirota, Leibele Waldman, he had 'em all — hidden away there, one, just one, unprepossessing little bombshell: Elvis Presley. And in my bedroom, between the mattress and the box spring where my mother wouldn't find it — go know she'd lift up the mattress when she went to make the bed — one copy, slick and nearly new, smelling of plastic and glossy paper; one copy — gotenyu, my hands still tremble just thinking about it — of Nudist Life. Shmiley Greenberg gave it to me after I found him abusing his tsitsis one day. Elvis, nudists — I may have had payes, but I was hip. Who the hell wanted to be a rabbi and spend the rest of his life deciding which chickens were kosher and which had to go to the goyim? I knew what I wanted. I was gonna be the nudist Elvis Presley, performing only in nudist camps, singing "Heartbreak Hotel" to audiences full of girls, women, female babies, who didn't care if I gazed upon their nakedness — Jesus Christ, they wanted me to look — and who I didn't care if they looked at what I had, no matter how hard it was, and who'd all want to touch it and want me to touch them and feel their dewy wetness (I got the phrase from a book of Shmiley's). And finally ... twelve times a day. A rabbi? Two weeks a month you can't even touch her, and even when you can she's always the same one. Unless ... unless I could start a new kind of hasidism — me, Yoine Levkes, the davening Jewish nudist with his ball-bearing hips, and daven and sing Yiddish folk songs to roomsful of girls, women ...
"I think they get injections or something." Shmiley was in one of his speculative moods. We were sitting in the shell of a dead Hudson in the field at the corner of his street.
"Those guys in the nudist pictures."
I hadn't noticed the guys, but I wanted to look sophisticated. "What kind of injections?"
"You know, to keep them from getting boners."
"You mean just for the pictures?"
"No, asshole, all the time. Or else how could they walk around? When you get to be my age, you'll find out how embarrassing it is."
Shmiley was fifteen, just over two years older than me, but between my having skipped a grade and his having flunked one, we were in the same class, and as the only Jews, were forced to stick together. We weren't really friends. Shmiley was always talking about his real friends, whom I never saw (they went to another school or something), but he was the only person who was still growing that I talked to with any regularity, except to tell them to fuck off. When you're the only kid with payes in a town where they don't like Jews much to begin with, and are a suck in school besides, life can be a little difficult. Like they used to come from miles in every direction to stare at me, throw things, and kick my ass. The guys I could handle all right. I couldn't really fight, but I was vicious, crazy enough that it wasn't worthwhile for them to do anything more than laugh and throw things. That I could take. It was the girls. To have some bright little blossom come up to me on Tenth Street, have her smile and bump gently into me — this was grade eight, remember — then look into my face, deep into my eyes and hiss, "I like your curls, Jewboy," that's what sent me home in tears. So when Shmiley had nothing better to do, he let me hang around with him, and I thanked God for the chance.
To kill the time when he wasn't around, I made friends with a mailbox. Down the street from the store, there was one of those old mailboxes, the kind they just hung up on a lamppost, and I used to stand there for hours at a time reading comics, waiting for people to come by and mail letters. When they did, as long as they were grown-ups, I'd put on my friendliest voice and wish them a good day. I enjoyed it. My friendliest voice consisted of a pleasant Irish lilt wrapped around a "Top o' the mornin'. And how are you today?" uttered with alacrity, no matter what the time. I'd heard it in some old movie with Pat O'Brien or Barry Fitzgerald and had been so struck by its irreproachable goyishness that I decided to use it in daily speech whenever I got the chance. You can imagine my delight on discovering that one of the old ladies who used the mailbox was named Mrs. Clancy. Three or four times a week I got to say "Top o' the mornin', Mrs. Clancy," and she'd answer me back and never ask about my beanie or those funny little curls.
Apart from the mailbox, there was no one but Shmiley. He was a bit of a dope, but you could talk to him, and I admired the way he'd overcome his immigrant background. Shmiley acted just like everybody else. His father was in charge of the Hebrew school: his English was lousy, he had no trade, so they put him to work teaching children. He was the only Jew in Coalbanks who was actually employed by the Jewish community, the only able-bodied Jewish man without a real job. The other kids told me I was lucky to study with my father; old man Greenberg was a sadist who used to knock them around just for the hell of it. Looking at Shmiley, I could believe it.
"Like just before school ended," he was saying, "I was sitting in Geography and turned around to have a look at the clock, and whaddya think I saw? Rosalie Tompkins, you know how she used to sit behind me except in the next row, she's sitting with her legs wide open, and guess what? She's wearing stockings. Real nylons. I could see the garters and her panties jammed right into her crack. Amazing. Anyway, I'm sitting there with this huge one on, and all of a sudden Kemp tells me to stand up and tell him about the fucking Canadian Shield. Jesus, I knew it, but I was afraid to stand up, so I had to sit there like a dummy. The one time all year I know something, and my dick's standing out a yard long. I'll tell ya, the minute I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom, and all I could see was those garters and panties. Whew."
Rosalie Tompkins weighed about a hundred and sixty pounds, was covered in pimples, and was rumored to do it with dogs for money, but I just sat and smiled and commiserated. If I didn't, he'd just say, "So how many hairs you got on your balls, eh, pisher?" and I didn't need to hear it again.
"How many broads you think I've felt up?" One of Shmiley's favorite questions.
"I don't know."
"More than you could count."
"Ah, come on. There aren't that many broads" — God, how I loved that word — "There aren't that many broads in the world."
"Well, more than you, anyway. And you know what I've discovered?" He sounded like Dr. Ehrlich announcing the magic bullet. "You know what I've discovered? Shiksas wear black bras."
Just like that, no trace of emotion in his voice. This was science.
"Black bras. Like in the dirty pictures."
"All of them?"
"As far as I can figure out." That meant all of them.
"So they all look like dirty pictures?"
"You got it."
"Even the ugly ones?"
"Even the ugly ones."
"Even Miss Featherstone?" She was our English teacher. She was about ninety years old and looked like a blue-haired ironing board.
"Even Miss Featherstone. ... Jesus, imagine that." For a second, he sounded almost wistful. "Miss Featherstone dressed up like Marilyn Monroe — and she wants you to do it to her! 'Stanley Greenberg,'" he said in a quavering falsetto, "'you'll stay after school tonight and lick out the inside of my black bra. And don't let me catch you misbehaving again.'" We laughed till we were almost sick, Shmiley, with his arms folded to hide Miss Featherstone's breasts, jumping up and down on the Hudson's sprung seat, gesturing to me with his head, screaming, "'Fuck me, you fine little rabbi, fuck me!'" until a real falsetto cut in. "Shmiley! Stenley! Kim shoyn before it's all cold." So Shmiley went home to his dinner and I went off for my evening Talmud lesson in the little apartment in back of the store.
When I got there, I could hardly squeeze through the door. The place was packed with just about every immigrant Jew in town, all of them clustered around a short, unshaven figure who looked like one of the fly-specked light bulbs in the window and who was holding forth in a mixture of Yiddish, Polish, English, and a little Japanese. Crowds weren't unusual in the store. Because of my father's position in the community, it served as a sort of clubhouse for the town's religious and immigrant Jews, who would often gather in the evening to pick up their copies of the Forverts and Tog and swap stories about each other. Sometimes they'd come later, alone, and my father would lock the door connecting to our apartment, imprisoning my mother and me in our three rooms and kitchen while he listened to the problem and offered his advice. I never managed to catch more than a few words, usually shiksa from the women and milkman, always the milkman, from the men. Whatever they wanted, they all came, and except for the ones who came alone — that went only to my mother, and in Polish — we heard all about it afterwards, so that even as a child I had an intimate knowledge of the intimate lives of various men and women, men and women who looked to the outside world like nothing at all, nobodies, pipsqueaks, funny-looking Jews in cheap suits with patterns like car seats, talking loudly and with their hands in some ridiculous foreign gibberish. "Talk white, Ikey," the cowboys used to yell, and the farmers, who must have followed some of them all the way from Kiev, would just smile in their drunkenness, or maybe greet them with bey zhidov, beat the Jews, just to remind them all of home. But I knew the privities of these shopkeepers and junkmen, and no greater company has ever faced the snares and temptations of a scurvy and murderous world. You can have your Achilles, your Horatius, your Alexander. Take them, and go in good health. Give me the beaten and bourgeois Jews, men who looked into the jaws of danger and turned the other cheek, they shouldn't have to see it. Their names alone tell their story; their names, solid as the ships of Homer, terrible as an army with banners:
Avrum Oyg, Abie Eye, for he had but one; Avrum Hoyker, Abie Hunchback — he had a bit of a stoop; Avrum Karlik, Abie Midget, stood five-foot-two; Avrum Vayb, Abie Wife, who started every sentence with "My wife says"; Avrum Doktor, Abie Doctor — he wore glasses; and Avrum Avrum, Just Plain Abe — they hadn't found anything wrong with him, yet.
They were first cousins, the sons of six brothers from one village, and had all been named for their grandfather. The words "Abe Goldstein" could no longer signify, so they were named for their afflictions, and, thank God, they were all afflicted. Even Avrum Avrum. He devoted his life to the acquisition of some sort of illness or disfigurement in order that he, too, might acquire a decent nickname.
And there were others on the roll of honor: Berl Kucker, Di Eyer Meydelekh, Khave Lip, Khaim Mes, and Mendel Efsher. Berl the Shit, who used to beat his wife; the Egg Girls — their mother, Shifra Dropdead, sold eggs from door to door; Khave Lip, whose mouth was crooked as the result of a stroke; Khaim Corpse — Khaim means life — the head of the burial society; and Mendel Maybe, after his way of answering any question: S'regnt, Mendel? Efsher. But you're soaking wet. Efsher it burst only one cloud.
There were others, but these were the regulars. My father was particularly friendly with the Corpse and Maybe, who were both religious, and had I not been too young for some, too old for the others, I would have been stuck with their kids. Their Marvins and Sheldons and Marcias and Carolyns were known to adepts as the little hunchbacks, the little wives, the little shits, and in the case of Mendel Efsher, Shmiley's father, di kleyne efsharusn, the small possibilities.
Excerpted from Shlepping the Exile by Michael Wex. Copyright © 2014 Michael Wex. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Infancy Narrative,
Part Two: The Good News,
Part Three: Today I Am a Man,
Also by Michael Wex,
About the Author,
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