Fiction: Sweet Revenge
It wouldn’t be unusual for a Yiddish cultural gathering to be filled with nostalgia, reminiscence and Old World rivalry. But must ego and feuding be served with every course?
Feuds are the stuff of literary politics. Even if one doesn’t exist, good friends will brew one up. Take the feud between the Yiddish artist, Ayzik Klass (please pronounce it Klaaahss, the British way) and the Yiddish poet, Gimpl Englander. Some say it began this way two decades, perhaps two centuries, ago: A pal told Klass that Englander considered Klass’s paintings tar, pitch, rubble. To which Klass responded: Englander can’t even write his own name. Since good friends are honest, they reported this to Englander, who then portrayed Klass in his epic poem as a third-rate drunken house painter with a penchant for overeating. Englander barely disguised Klass’s name, but called him Isaac Klopp. Klass’s next oil had a Simchas Torah street scene where a cretin with a hint of horns danced, waving a British flag.
Since as an artist Klass was a loner, one would have expected the paunchy, white-haired, Polish-born painter to at least have an affinity with Yiddish writers who, like him, survived the Holocaust and then made their name after the war in New York.
But not Klass. For Klass a delicious spat was the sweetest success. His feud with Englander fed on itself. Only rarely was there anything new to fuel it. Take, for example, the Commemoration Gathering, sponsored by the All-Yiddish World Culture Union, to which both Klass and Englander were invited.
That brainstorm was Bercovich’s doing. The old organizer thought he would have some fun. There was enough gloom in the world. Klass with his gloomy Holocaust paintings. Englander with his gloomy poems. The last humorist, Sholom Aleichem, died in 1916. Sixty years of gloom were enough. Bercovich swore to each of the feuders that the other would not come, then assigned both to the same table.
As it turned out, for once in his life Klass was early. The old hall smelled of must and sweat. He saw a dull red curtain on the stage, the long empty head table covered with a white paper tablecloth. A few people were scattered at some of the three dozen tables.
Klass sat at his table (No. 1), toying with a stale prune Danish. He had already eaten one; it tasted just like sweetened cardboard. He tried a second. Bercovich and his day-old bargains.
Klass sipped water from a paper cup, then crumpled it. He eyed the room from corner to corner. Then he rose to go to the bathroom.
As Bercovich watched gleefully from behind the curtain, Englander entered. By no means trusting the fickle Bercovich’s assurances, Englander also looked around. He found his table (No. 1), sat down, eyed suspiciously the crumpled paper cup in front of him, the two paper plates bereft of Danishes and, most of all, the slightly warmed plastic-covered chair. Then Englander spotted an old crony a few tables away and moved toward him.
Now Klass returned. He looked at his watch.
Uh-oh. Englander, too, was now returning.
Bercovich couldn’t resist watching this from close up. He stepped through the curtain and began puttering at the head table.
Instead of exchanging polite hellos or at least courteously ignoring each other, both Klass and Englander, like two magnetized iron cubes forced into an unwanted embrace, relished the spurt of righteous indignation that flowed like a pleasant pain through them. Angrier at Bercovich than at each other, both stormed to the stage where the chairman was now playing with the microphone. “Ff…ff…fff…testing, one two three.” They gestured to the chairman to come down. Sensing catastrophe, Bercovich, with desperate, flailing motion, grasped the curtain, found the opening and dashed backstage.
Both men followed.
“Eedyot! What kind of wild trick is this?” Klass demanded.
“Shameless liar! Sadist!” shouted Englander. Like Klass, he too was short. But where Klass had a broad face with a head of white wavy pampered hair and brisk black eyebrows, Englander had a long thin face. Wisps of gray hair were scattered on his balding head like patches on a blighted field. Even when he smiled, his droop-lidded eyes made his face look weepy.
“Intriguant! Hypocrite! You told me no,” said Klass.
“You also told me no,” said Englander.
With the two of them aligned berating Bercovich, Klass felt a melting of antagonism; a warmth was flowing through him. So this is what rapprochement feels like. He addressed the air some eighteen inches above Englander’s head.
“Go trust a hack. A do-gooder. A communal…”
“…busybody,” Englander finished for him. He spoke to an invisible point some two feet to the left of Klass’s waist. “Exactly. A meddling…”
“…fool,” Klass concluded. “People like him who lick boots, polish apples, kiss asses, have no sense of…”
“…shame!” Englander cried. “Didn’t I just say that?”
“Sha. Sha,” said Bercovich, backing away. He had expected trouble, not war.
“Were you supposed to speak?” asked Englander.
“Of course not.” Klass looked not at Englander’s face but his lapel. “He asked, but I refused. And you?”
“I too. Of course.” Englander eyed the ceiling.
“But you both agreed!” Bercovich screeched, stamping his foot. “Who is the liar and hypocrite now? And you, Klass, I told you on the phone I won’t ask you to speak, and the way you said, ‘So don’t ask me,’ I got the impression you would be willing to say a few words, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me not to ask you to speak.”
“I didn’t want to speak either,” said Englander.
“Big-shot poet. Hotshot painter,” said Bercovich. “Where would you be if you couldn’t have three-four hundred people, like we hope will come to today’s commemoration, staring at you and admiring you? Where would you be if our Union would not print your books [to Englander] and your lithographs [to Klass]? Thanks to God first and then to our All-Yiddish World Cultural Union, L. Bercovich, Executive Director, that we occasionally buy an oil of yours and subsidize your lithographs regularly. So don’t be an ingrate.”
“It’s the Union that does it, not you,” Klass grumbled.
“Don’t think my voice is so small.”
“You think you’re such a big shot, Bercovich.” Klass exploded. “Everyone knows you organized the Yiddish Literary Monthly to death.”
“It’s my fault that Yiddish readers get old and die?” said Bercovich. “You want to blame that on me too? Maybe also their cataracts? I suppose it’s also my fault that no one buys your paintings.”
Klass drew himself up to his full short. “My paintings live. Your magazines die. Because you printed my article ‘I Remember Chagall’ on page 27, even though I told you not to.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Bercovich. “The number 27 curse.”
Klass started back, as though slapped on the face.
“Don’t joke with that number.” Klass shook his finger. “You lived through it here. In peace. I was There. On the 27th of August the Germans murdered my father, my children, my wife. My sister was 27 when she was killed. That number is taboo. An evil number for me.”
“Tell me, Klass,” Bercovich shouted in response, “how come you only remember Chagall? Why don’t you remember”—here Bercovich scratched his face, then said quickly—“the KGB men you used to paint in Odessa?”
“That’s a lie.” Klass’s face was livid. One eyelid twitched. “Who told you that?”
“We have our own KGB. Recent immigrants.”
“A nasty lie. They forced me. When a Communist official says, ‘Paint,’ you paint even if you don’t have a brush. Either that or shovel the snow out of Siberia.”
Now Klass winked at Englander, who followed Klass to the far side of the stage.
“We’ll fix him,” said Klass.
“None of us will speak.”
“I heard that.” Bercovich ran toward them. “Who are you spiting? Me? Look at that tiny remnant who came to hear great Yiddish creative artists like, in alphabetical order, Gimpl Englander and Ayzik Klass. Jews loyal to the last drop of blood.”
“Very loyal! The ones that don’t buy my books,” said Englander.
“Or my lithographs.… What’s that there?” Klass pointed to some yellow envelopes peeping out of Bercovich’s sagging jacket pocket. A jacket, shiny in spots, that Bercovich had probably worn to his wedding.
“Those?” Patting his pockets, Bercovich pushed the envelopes out of sight. “Nothing.”
“Maybe telegrams?” Klass said in a sly singsong. “Read them. Before the speeches begin.”
“What? How dare you give orders to something in my personal pocket?”
“Yes. I’m telling you. Read all of them.”
“Aha. So it looks like you know what’s in them.”
“Western Union sent me carbon copies.”
Bercovich wrinkled his nose. “Western Union doesn’t send carbon copies.”
“When was the last time you sent a telegram?” Klass asked.
“A year ago,” said Bercovich. “And you?”
“Today!” Klass snapped back, then realized that he’d fallen into Bercovich’s neatly baited trap.
Bercovich laughed. “Very nice. Sending telegrams to me and signing someone else’s name.”
“That’s it! Go find yourself another speaker.”
“You think you’re revenging yourself on me?” countered Bercovich. “No. You’re spitting Yiddish culture in the face and ruining it.”
“Me? It’s not me who’s ruining Yiddish culture.”
Perked up now Englander. “I heard that, Klass. I know who that remark is directed at. Me!” Now Englander turned to Bercovich. “And you’re not such an innocent lambkin either, Bercovich. Don’t think I missed that alphabetical order dig, where you put me alphabetically in front of Klass. I know you. You really wanted to put Klass before me, but you hit upon the ruse of putting me first, butonly alphabetically, you gangster.” Englander now turned back to Ayzik Klass. “I was just about ready to forgive you for all the insults, for putting me, Gimpl Englander, into one of your lousy paintings, holding an English flag, with two horns sticking out of my head, whereas it’s you who wears the horns in real life, as everyone knows except you. Now you have to start insulting again, right? You’re sick, Klass. With your 27 phobia.”
“I may be sick, eedyot! But you’re a murderer!” Klass hissed in a throaty whisper, his face a map of twitches, tics and nictitations. “You killed Yiddish poetry with your banal June-moon rheumy rhymes.” Klass raised his hands majestically. “J’accuse, ruiner!”
Englander faced Bercovich with an expression that said: you be the judge. Bercovich was delighted that the smoldering enmity had flared again. He was off the hook now.
“Talk of ruination!” Englander crowed. “When that pseudo-literary Klass with his phony honorary doctorate from a discredited two-bit college writes an article, it is sure to have Chagall in it. ‘Me and Chagall.’ ‘Chagall and I.’ ‘I remember Chagall.’”
Klass laughed bitterly. “All my readers should remember my articles like you. And you, Englander? How many times have we heard the Sholom Aleichem connection? How your father took you in 1910 when you were only five to a Sholom Aleichem reading in Warsaw. How you took a poem of yours—opportunist!—and made him suffer through it. He was ill then but you had no pity. He heard your iddy-biddy shitty ditty, Simple Gimpl, and lived only six years more. You and your Sholom Aleichem connection.”
“And haven’t we heard enough of your Sholom Aleichem connection?” Englander said with choking hysteria.
“Right! And I’m proud of it. I was born on the day your poem killed Sholom Aleichem in 1916, May 13 to be precise. Souls of geniuses do not die. They get transferred from one artist to another. If at least one percent of Sholom Aleichem had rubbed off on you when you sat at the age of five rubbing your befouled diapers on Sholom Aleichem’s lap, you wouldn’t be ruining Yiddish literature.”
“And you? Egoist! Yiddish housepainter! You’ve become the world expert at ruining Jewish art. The only thing you paint well is your fake black eyebrows to scare everyone who looks at you.”
“Me? Me with dyed eyebrows?” Klass spat on his fingers and vigorously rubbed his eyebrows. “Look, fool! See? Clean fingers. It’s mine, you eedyot, emesse color black, a black year on you.”
Englander reeled back. “Black is the color of your twenty-seven pathetic paintings that no one has in his home. Shame on you. Foo. Feh. Ek!” Englander stood on his toes, bobbed up and down. Froth gathered at the edge of his lips. “And milking those twen-ty-se-ven minutes you spent with Chagall in Paris in 1946. And we also know how you survived in the Soviet Union. But none of your articles deal with that dirty part of your life. Communist! KGB bootlicker. Stalin ass-kisser. NKVD portraitist!”
Klass opened his mouth. What came out was noises like those made by a patient when a tongue depresser is deep in his mouth.
“Aach, aach, ah, ah, I… I… I, a Communist? I, you bastard, I, who hate their guts worse than I hate yours…” Klass’s face turned purple as an eggplant. “Swine, bastard. EEDYOT!” Klass stood on his tiptoes. If only he could have flown in the air and landed on Englander’s face. “To call me a Communist is like calling me a Nazi. The Communists were murderers, too. Still, like other Polish Jews who fled from the Germans, I saved my life in Russia. But calling me a Communist? I’ll forgive you for anything, you low-down dog, but not for that.”
“You’ll regret that name till you croak. If I’m a dog, then every dog will have his day.”
Klass flew through the curtain to the stage and grabbed the microphone.
Bercovich, seeing Klass’s mad dash, fathomed his intent. He ran to the control box and pushed up the volume just as Klass began to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Klass shouted, his eyebrows flitting like fierce black wings. “Gimpl Englander regrets he won’t be able to talk this afternoon. He has just had a nervous breakdown.”
While Klass spoke, an earsplitting, electric hum inundated the room. Englander, meanwhile, took a deep breath. He puffed himself up like a balloon about to take flight, parted the curtains and ran to the mike. He saw Klass’s mouth moving but heard no sounds.
“All right. You asked for it,” Englander said, standing next to the artist. “I held it back all these years. But now you asked for it.” He shouted into Klass’s ears: “Ladies and gentlemen, the so-called Yiddish artist, Ayzik Klass, married a shikse named Griselda.” But Klass had his hands on his ears.
“Shut the sound,” people shouted. “Fix it. Stop it.”
Now the two men were tugging at each other’s lapels. Klass had only heard the word “shikse.” For a moment a blanket of ultra-white light blocked his vision.
With the screech of the microphones still at pain level, Bercovich came between Klass and Englander. He seized their hands and forced them to shake. But once their hands touched, Klass snarled “eedyot” at Englander and the latter hissed “shmeerer” at Klass through clenched teeth. Fortunately, because of the electronic noise no one had witnessed the scandal.
Later, when the hall was full and Bercovich announced the beginning of the program, Klass reviewed his remarks. But what difference did it make what he planned to say? He vowed not to speak for that sonofabitch Bercovich.
Englander too wondered what he would say to the gathering, which under no circumstances, he promised himself, would he consent to address.
Now Bercovich went up to Klass and Englander. He told them curtly he would call on each of them, alphabetically by first name, and let them dare say no when he announced that Ayzik Klass and Gimpl Englander would speak. Klass pointed to Bercovich’s pocket. Bercovich nodded. The deal was made. “But for God’s sake don’t bring in Chagall!”
Bercovich went to the microphone.
“Before our beloved Ayzik Klass begins, I would like to read a telegram we just got. ‘Dear Mister Chairman. Many thanks for inviting me to your All-Yiddish Cultural Union memorial commemoration. I would have come just to hear your keynote speaker, the world-famous painter, Ayzik Klass. However, regrettably, I have a previous engagement. All good wishes. Nelson Rockefeller, Governor.’”
“There are also telegrams from Senator Javits and Mayor Lindsay. And now, dear friends, our own Ayzik Klass.”
“Double-crosser,” Klass hissed as he shook Bercovich’s hand.
Klass spoke about the war criminals still not arrested in Europe. He recalled several in Paris. Then he felt a pleasant tickle inside his chest, like a drunkard about to have a gin. Paris leads to Chagall. Chagall, Chagall, came the tempting call, but Klass clenched his fists and concluded.
Just then the rear doors opened and a uniformed man entered with a huge bouquet of flowers. Bercovich stood at the edge of the stage and waved to him. But the delivery man had explicit instructions.
“Is your name Dr. Klass, Ph.D.?” he asked.
Klass, beaming, walked to the front of the stage. The thin delivery man, in a uniform as brown as a UPS truck, nimbly jumped up on stage and presented the flowers to Klass. Then he turned to the crowd and read a card. “From the All-World Yiddish (he pronounced it to rhyme with “fried-dish”) Culture Union, wid thanks for your great massage on this day.”
Klass held the flowers. The bouquet hid his upper torso. He looked like legs that had blossomed. But soon even this moment of victory withered. Griselda had probably spent $50 on this foolishness, eedyot that she was. A bouquet, he told his wife. But not the entire greenhouse.
Now Englander approached the lectern. He began in English.
“Yiddish, Yiddish,” came the cry.
Englander raised his hand. “Wait,” he said in Yiddish. “Patience for a moment. I have a telegram to read.” He pulled out a yellow paper, but did not look down as he read:
“To Gimpl Englander, the great Yiddish poet I love to read. I regret that a previous engagement prevents me from sending you a telegram. The President of the United States of America.”
The wave of laughter gladdened Englander. Everyone turned to Klass, the butt of Englander’s wit. But Klass was completely hidden. Englander beamed like a bar mitzva boy.
Now it didn’t matter what he said. Englander could have read from the phone book. He had the audience on his side. My mentor, Sholom Aleichem, Englander mused, said it best in one of his stories: Success is sweet, but success plus revenge is sweeter yet.
Curt Leviant’s most recent work is the two-novella collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet and Weekend in Mustara (University of Wisconsin Press).