Tryst Fiction by Elisha Porat
|My Three Dears|
translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
I can't remember exactly how or why, but while I was compiling the dates and events of Leopold Spitzer's short life, I scribbled myself an unrelated curriculum vitae. I'd happened to come across the American playwright Clifford Odets' years of birth and death. If not for my father's lost notepad, in which he'd hastily sketched a translation of "Waiting for Lefty" from an English language anthology, I'd never have heard of Odets. So why does he interest me? How does he enter my life? I imagine that dad translated the play just as he translated Alexander Solzhenitsyn's early novels from the "Novi Mir" pamphlets his friends sent him many years later. He would pace the room, always in the same circuit from his small desk heaped with volumes to the old, mounted wooden cabinet that was my mother's exclusive domain. It never ceased to amaze me how many bottles of hard liquor, packages of candy and tins of cookies could fit in the ever-open cupboard.
"Listen, listen to this," he'd ardently exclaim to the family as he read. In fluent Russian, he
would recite several lines, then immediately speak them in Hebrew with the same passion. He
seemed to me at such times an odd, anachronistic fusion of elderly translator and orator
who craved the attention of his audience. He would throw the open pamphlet on the couch, rush to his desk, write furiously in the open notebook, then return and pick up his cherished
"Novi Mir" booklet splattered with tea and cookie stains. His feverish pacing of the crowded
living room then would resume. "Are you listening? Do you understand how fine it is, how
daring? How much it's like Tolstoy?" This would go on with him muttering to himself, "Who says Russian literature is dead? What idiot wrote the obituary for the great Russian novels?" By then, however, no longer able to remain a captive of the literary world, I would quietly sneak out into the concrete world of our kibbutz beyond the narrow paved path to my parents' little garden.
My father was born in 1906 and died much too soon in 1966. Odets, the Jewish "golden boy," the wunderkind from Philadelphia and young hope of American drama, also was born in 1906. But he died even before my father. He was just 57 years old, by my count, when he passed away in 1963. I can't help imagining these two Jewish lads born early in our accursed century, each in his place and city. His parents' eldest and beloved son, dad was born into a rabbinic home in a small town in northeast Poland close by the Lithuanian border. Odets grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood of recent Jewish immigrants like his family of Jewish tailors. Here I must pause, so stirred that the pen slips from my hand as I write. What an astonishing congruence of dates. Each followed the course spun for him by his Jewish fate until they met, for the one and only time in their lives, in the blazing summer of 1951. In the sweat-drenched pages of my father's notebook, I am relieved of the nagging possibility that the spinner of Jewish fates easily could have exchanged one for the other, switching the prodigy, who nimbly read and wrote at age three before ever entering a classroom, with the talented boy whose tailor father devoted his entire life to him. I can envision my father flying from Europe to America in a zeppelin as people did then, and Odets aboard an eastern train crossing the border swamps of northeast Poland.
My cousin from New York brought us a bundle of papers last summer, letters, photos and newspaper clippings left by her late parents. Her mother, a rabbi's wife and dad's only sister, had lived in New York with her husband and three daughters. They'd never moved from their small apartment across from the yeshiva where thousands of young students had learned from the revered rabbi. It was their wish to be buried not in New York but in Jerusalem, and on Har HaMenuhot rather than on the Mount of Olives. My aunt wisely had announced years before her death that she'd quarreled enough with Jews while she lived and desired to rest in peace after she died. There, on Har HaMenuhot, no one would demonstrate, throw stones or burn tires every other day. My cousin spent more than a year clearing out and selling her parents' home. But she was in no hurry. It pained her to leave the little apartment. If it had been up to her and she hadn't needed the money, her husband needled her, she might have kept the place as it was.
My fastidious uncle had saved all his papers: every letter, every document, every receipt. He'd never even thrown away the water, electric or sewer repair bills. And that's how she innocently came upon the sheaf of papers and pictures that dad had sent his sister in New York from the late 1940s until shortly before his death. I have a reason for bringing up New York and the apartment at this point, not to digress but to convince myself that this was my father's sole American "connection." In other words, there existed no physical tie between the stellar theatrical genius from Philadelphia and the rabbi's son who left Poland's eastern marshes to live as a pioneer in the noxious swamps of Wadi Hawarit. Dad never visited New York and his sister's little Harlem apartment facing the yeshiva was the only place in all of vast America with which he had any association. In fact, I don't know whether he ever had any clear sense of New York. I sometimes think that the city for him was an extension of the world of Grodno, Bialistok and Warsaw, where he spent two years en route to the Holy Land. There was no other America in his life. By the same token, there was no Palestine or Land of Israel in Odets' life. This is astounding, I tell myself; yet he too easily could have been my father.
I never wonder why the three of them - Spitzer, Odets and my father - are linked in "Waiting for Lefty." I don't ask why this play lay on my father's desk with the cultural affairs director's request for a rush translation. For Spitzer, the famous Czech director, already had arrived at the kibbutz and needed a finished copy of the play ready for immediate use. What luck for us, he sought to convince my father, that so lofty a personage, a charismatic director from the "world of tomorrow," had chosen us. Our drama department evidently had an outstanding reputation among the kibbutz settlements. The play, drawn from the grim lives of America's poor workingmen, was realist, a word very dear to leftist artists of the day. Splendid, anti-capitalist as required. Requisitely anti-American, perfect for our "global outlook." And the play was militant. Oh, that precious word, which our cultural activists never ceased to hurl against the shameless exploitation of big city cab drivers and especially against traitors to the cause, the renegades who broke MAPAI party strikes, which were much in the news then. It's a caustic, biting play, the arts director went on, just what the audience for "progressive culture" wants. It concerns the poverty and impotence of the downtrodden bravely struggling against the capitalist regime. The picture lacked only blacks to be complete.
I don't wonder about Spitzer, who from his youth was drawn to anything that smacked of America. And when his opportunity arose, he didn't hesitate to grab it. Odets' plays and films were known the world over. Odets himself was then at the peak of his fame. The "Group Theater," the new and innovative American forum where he got his start, launched the golden boy from Philadelphia in his career. He wrote, produced and directed; he was seen and known on all the world's leading stages. He, too, dreamed of Hollywood and, like Spitzer, was an avid fan of the great cinema directors, bewitched by the major studios and riches awaiting him. "Awake and Sing," "Jacobowsky and the Colonel," "Joseph and his Brethren," "Night Music," "One Winter in Boston," "Till the Day I Die" and "Paradise Lost" took stages everywhere by storm. His gifted hand transformed the stage works into successful screen plays and later films back into acclaimed plays. The sorry end that befell him betrayed his unlimited potential. Although he floated in the magical realm of power and fame of which Spitzer dreamed, he remained a Jewish boy, the son of immigrants to Philadelphia. In all this glitter, he fell mortally wounded, his soul sold to the satan of Hollywood. Spitzer, I dare say, wouldn't have hesitated a moment if Jewish fate had put him in Odets' shoes.
For hours, I sat and read my father's letters from the trove brought by my cousin in New York. He'd written to them in his magnificent Hebrew idiom laced with common Yiddish expressions. I marveled at the manner in which he told them the great epic of kibbutz life, the golden days of collective living flowing with milk and oranges, a time when the first settlements set hearts throbbing and a terrible plague struck the young pioneers. I still read his short articles, a genre all its own in which he was a master. Like his distant counterpart Odets, dad was born to write. But his Jewish fate denied him that and he always had to restrict his writing, confining it to the dismal corner of "the short piece genre." I've gone over his letters again and again, dwelling especially on those from the early '50s, and have never seen a word about his translations or the lost plays. Perhaps he assumed that this form of art wasn't Jewish enough to interest his sister and brother-in-law. I don't know. It bothers me, but I just don't know. I was disappointed for some reason. I'd hoped to find in the letters and papers sent to America, and then returned so many years later to someone not their author, some small hint, a sign, anything to guide my search.
I learned not long ago from a friend, an immigrant from Slovakia, that Spitzer lost his father at a young age. Well, he wasn't really orphaned. His father abandoned the family and Spitzer never saw him again. This puzzled me at first. When I thought about it, however, it all became clear to me. I sat at my desk, spread out an old notebook like those in which dad drafted his translations, and set out to write a short play or film script. Or perhaps an imaginary three-way conversation. I wanted to make the pages of the notebook a meeting ground for the two fathers and the orphan: my late father; his contemporary Odets - the American "double," to exaggerate a bit; and Spitzer, the one who began to stage the play, raising hopes of a brilliant production for our arts director and the drama club before vanishing suddenly and mysteriously after four months of work. All kinds of titles popped into my head. Three Jews, Three Immigrants. Three Jews and One Drama. The Three Dimensions of the Modern Jew. No, it was all no good. That wasn't what I had in mind.
I couldn't write in the notebook anything of the ideas racing through my mind. I was hopelessly confused, unable to remember which of us was the son hoping to follow in his father's footsteps and which the father seeking his son in an inversion of time. And how the hell could three fates be squeezed into so confined a cell? The tired story formula of a son in quest of his father deterred me, as did the converse tale of the wayward boy. I have no business arbitrarily setting three such different biographies on a single page. How could these separate components be joined? I pushed aside the notebook and rejected the false ideas that had so earnestly seized me. No, it seems I won't succeed in writing this tense triangular talk. Much more is needed than an accidental convergence of dates or a fanciful, analogous recasting of personal fate. Each of the three suddenly became close to me. Very close, so close that I was too paralyzed to write. Maybe I'll return to them years from now, when they're no longer part of my life. Then, perhaps, I'll manage to finish the three-way conversation.
My father was 60 years old when he died. Indisputably, too soon. But he lived life to his final day. Odets actually died many years before his death. He dried up in Hollywood, drained of his coveted inspiration far too long. The price he paid for his startling wealth was inner aridity. He was just 57 when he died. He never recovered from his wretched appearance at the McCarthy hearings, which hastened his death. Once his name went on the "black list," no one recalled his youthful promise back in New York. The astonishing plays written during his few productive years proved no help when he was forced to face his conscience. He fell, hard and forever, never to write even a single line again. At times, I toy with this hypothetical thought: what would his writing have been like if he'd known that another frustrated author in a small room at a verdant kibbutz in the Hefer Valley was translating one of his plays morning to night? Would he have revived, encouraged to resume writing? And what would have become of my father had he known that during his years of enforced silence, when he would not permit himself to write what he was meant to write, another far off in America also had fallen mute? Not far from his sister's house lived a similar man, gifted like him, who yearned for the simple, founder's life of a Jewish kibbutz farmer. To my forefathers, I wish to say, suddenly across the span of years, "I think you and I all understand very well the meaning of a writer's enforced silence." What miraculous exchange were they able to perform? Their lives, their writing, the days of their deaths, whatever else a man must trade with his doppelganger?
Spitzer was 50 when a heart attack killed him as he was making his last film. He had to go through a full course of life, travel, flight and desertion before completing his brief stay on earth. Yes, he loved Slovakia, the land where he was born, raised and lost his mother and young brother. Yes, he loved Bratislava, the city he adopted as his hometown although he wasn't born there. But to die at 50 before conquering the cinema and breaking through Hollywood's closed doors to join Otto Preminger's staff? I think of him, too, while pondering a swap of fates. How much would he have given to write just one of Odets' successful plays? What would he have given to break the box office like a hero from his dreams? How many years would he have been willing to sacrifice for the privilege of directing America's biggest stars?
Spitzer's mandolin, a holdover
from his youth that he took to France and then on a tour of Algeria, and which
he had played for his fellow prisoners in a hut at the Novaki forced labor camp,
remains to this day in the kibbutz home of a poet near Afula. Its strings
contain the sum of his life. Do they still quiver? Beside the
mandolin hang a few charcoal sketches that he drew as a boy. He didn't
achieve the greatness he craved. My heart aches as I write these lines.
At once, I race to Odets' biography to find proof that their fates were similar.
Yes, I find there what I seek, the words leap to my eyes: "Odets was a
talented artist and a tormented soul." His boyhood friends were
surprised that he gave up a promising career in art. I think of one of his
friends, an old Jewish poet in whose home still hang pictures drawn by the young
Odets. Here, I think, is how I'll succeed in my plan to write an imaginary
three-way conversation among them. I can start with presenting Odets'
early paintings, then follow with the charcoal drawings that survived Spitzer's
tempestuous life. In front of their pictures, I'll set my father's pruning
shears, the ones he used to trim the kibbutz vines. And next to those,
I'll place the tattered notebook, reeking of the acrid sulphur dusted on the
grapefruit, in which he drafted his translation of "Waiting for
Lefty," the lost play that led me to connect my far-flung trio, whom I
otherwise could never bring together again.
Birds of Pain