Arts & Culture

Moshe Yungman

Noted Israeli literary critic and editor Menachem Perry considers Yossel Birstein one of the “greatest Jewish writers of the twentieth century, on a par with Kafka and Agnon.” Both for his range of forms and genres and for his multilingual … Read More

By / March 24, 2009

Noted Israeli literary critic and editor Menachem Perry considers Yossel Birstein one of the “greatest Jewish writers of the twentieth century, on a par with Kafka and Agnon.” Both for his range of forms and genres and for his multilingual brilliance, Birstein is indeed a significant talent. His wandering biography, his ideological convictions that are cut through with more than a trace of irony, his literary commitments, and his personal generosity–which all come through in his Hebrew stories–make him an intriguing symbol of the vagaries of modern Jewish life. In this story, Birstein recalls his aliyah with a characteristic wryness, and then manages to extend the reach of this short narrative to touch on the fate of Yiddish writers in Israel, here represented by Moshe Yungman, and the difficult process of immigrant absorption in the 1950s. This tale offers far more than a sociological window; it presents a glimpse into the startling connections of time and space, and the sometimes miraculous human interconnectedness that one feels wandering the streets of Jerusalem. This story was first published in his Hebrew collection Stories Dancing in the Streets of Jerusalem [Sipurim Rokdim B'Rechovot Yerushalim (2000)]. Look for Zeek to feature more stories by Birstein in the coming months. We hope to bring Birstein’s singular talents to a larger audience.–Adam Rovner, Hebrew translations editor

 

 

Moshe Yungman

 

 

         I came from Australia to Kibbutz Gvat with a box of 300 pairs of socks, which were later handed over to Migdal Ha’emek–a new immigrant township in the making during the early 1950s.  Yesterday, forty years later, here in Jerusalem, during a hamsin day in the month of August 1998, I came across a pair of socks out of that very cardboard box I had brought with me from Australia.  I saw the pair of socks hanging behind glass on the wall in the clinic of an eye doctor in the Bell Tower, near the intersection of King George, Nathan Strauss, and Jaffa Streets.  The original label of the sock factory in Melbourne smiled towards my eyes:  Robert Rotberg– Kadimah Socks. 

 

         This Robert Rotberg had come to talk my wife and I out of going to Israel once word of our intention had gotten around.  “One doesn’t just leave a land of peace and prosperity for a land of war and austerity”, he said.  When he realized that his words had no effect, he took a large cardboard box from his car and said, “Well, so be it.  If you don’t have enough bread to eat in the Jewish Land, at least you’ll have enough socks to wear”.

         On the day of our arrival in Kibbutz Gvat, we already saw that there was enough bread to eat and that there was no need to open the cardboard box containing the socks.  We did open it, though, when the woman in charge of the kibbutz general store — a squinting spinster — came to our room to find out what we were in need of.  When she set eyes on the cardboard box we had brought along, she fell silent for several minutes and then decided that the existence of the package had to be kept a close secret.  If she took the entire batch along with her to the general store and word about it got around, her life would turn into hell.  It would set off a rush for socks in the kibbutz and the line-up for them would be endless.  She helped me return the cardboard box to its former place under the bed and admitted that she had the reputation among the kibbutz members of being stingy by nature.  But she was fully aware of the fact that her stinginess was merely on account of her concern for the common good of the members of the kibbutz.

 

         Two years went by and the woman in charge of the general store never returned to take the socks.  Her life had undergone a change.  She’d found a man, got married, and stopped squinting, though her stinginess for the sake of the common good had not changed.  Nevertheless, my wife and I didn’t give up hope that one of these days she’d turn up and take the 300 pairs of socks to the store.  

 

         But Moshe Yungman, a Yiddish poet, came instead of her.  One chilly but sunny winter day he appeared in our room with a big empty sack on his shoulder and declared that he was collecting shoes.  A new township — Migdal Ha’emek — had sprung up and he was the principal of the elementary school there.  But the trouble was that on freezing winter days the children didn’t come to school because they had no shoes to wear.  If there happened to be a pair of shoes in the family, the kids took turns wearing them.  Everyday the same pair of shoes would turn up at school, but each time on the feet of someone else.  In a large family each child barely attended school one day a week. 

 

         While we were having coffee, Moshe Yungman added that it was a damn shame that kids so keen on learning weren’t given the chance to advance in their studies.  He told us about a twelve year old who had a promising future ahead of him provided he attended school regularly.  If not, he’d be forced to become like his father a simple laborer for the Keren Kayemet, the Jewish National Fund.

 

 
       I hauled the cardboard box of 300 socks out from under the bed and opened it for Moshe Yungman to take a look and make up his mind what to do with them.  Shoes, I couldn’t provide him with, but I certainly could provide him with more than enough socks.  Moshe Yungman opened his sack, and I emptied the entire cardboard box into it . Together, we carried the heavy load along the narrow winding tracks between the long-established kibbutz and the new town of Midgal Ha’emek. 

 

         Green wooden shacks lined both sides of the unpaved road.  Children crowded around us while Moshe Yungman handed socks out to them.  The twelve year old he had praised so highly earlier received a bundle of ten pairs so he’d have enough socks to wear during the winter days, provided he attended school every day. 

 

         Years later, Moshe Yungman wrote a poem in praise of the youngster beginning with the following lines:

 

Socks sent by someone far away,

Turned a poor boy into a doctor today.

 

         I entered the clinic of the eye doctor in the Bell Tower, sat down and pressed my chin and forehead down firmly against the optical machine. He had nothing but praise for the owner of the sock factory in Melbourne whose name on the label I had read out aloud.  He praised his generosity and would have told me something about him, but the line in his waiting room was long and so was the story.

 

         When the examination was over, I couldn’t resist and pointed to the socks and said that the woman in charge of the kibbutz general store also deserved to be praised, above all, because of her stinginess for the sake of the common good.  My remarks puzzled him for he couldn’t make out what I was driving at.  I added that I, too, had a long story to tell him.  One of these days, after having cured my eyes, we’d find the time to have a chat over a cup of coffee without the pressure of patients in the waiting room and we’d finish telling our stories to each other.  When I left the Bell Tower I put on dark glasses to protect my eyes against the blinding rays of the hot sun and walked towards the intersection. 

 

         And once again Moshe Yungman strode beside me on that windy and freezing winter day along the unpaved road between the green wooden shacks handing out socks from the sack and calling out in his gentle voice:

 

         “Children, come to school!  I’ve got lots of socks for you to wear!”

 

***

 

Zeek‘s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net

 

Yossel Birstein was born in Poland in 1920. At the age of 17, he immigrated to Australia on his own and served in that country’s military during World War II. After the war, he learned that his family in Europe had been murdered in the Holocaust. He began writing Yiddish poetry during the war and later published several books of verse in Australia. With his wife, Margaret, whom he met and married in Australia, he moved to Israel in 1950. There he continued writing in Yiddish in addition to Hebrew. He became a member of Kibbutz Gvat and worked as a shepherd for a decade. Later, he became a bank manager and after moving to Jerusalem in 1970, served as an archivist at the National Library. He published throughout his career numerous books of poetry, short stories, novels, and translations in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Birstein died in 2003. 

 

Margaret (Waisberg) Birstein was born and raised in Germany. She immigrated to Australia after Kirstallnacht and there met Yossel and soon married. Margaret learned Yiddish from her husband, and has translated most of her husband’s work into English from Yiddish and Hebrew. She remains an active preserver of her husband’s literary legacy and still resides in Jerusalem.

Images by artist Dubi Kaufman