Going to See the Elephant: A Talmed Metumtam Story

The Elephant on Coney Island

The Elephant on Coney Island

Going to See the Elephant [1] *

So big the ocean, thinks Moish, not at all like a bathtub or even a swimming pool. Moish is taking a dip in the waters off Coney Island Beach. A small man he is not. The hot dogs are yelling from the boardwalk; the Wonder Wheel is a rainbow of Bethlehem steel parading through low heaven; tenement children on roller skates, at this very moment, are racing from their homes all over Brooklyn toward the ocean and its accompanying promise of a horizon without end. The fish are practically nibbling at Moish’s feet and it is all he can do not to nibble back.

Moish lifts his eyes to the sky. His eyelids have grown brittle like onion skin in the past years. Once thick and wavy, the hair on his head has come to resemble the beard his grandmother Pesya had worn in her senility. To the adulterers and terrified green-faced boys straddling the sky at Luna Park, the Jewish man, becoming old before his very own eyes, looks like a sickly beaching whale. The irises of the fat one’s eyes are discs of darkness spinning in the blue water’s eternity.

Once, many moons ago, I took a girl here and touched her skirts under cover of darkness. How long ago that was. We both were new to the love game. I breathed hard when she took off my tzitzis. Now, I breathe heard when I take off my tzitzis. How porklike I, a Jewish man who squeals at the sight of a pig, have spread and grown. How life can make a khazzer out of any of us. Moish dreams and dreams as he soaks in the salts of G-d’s greatest puddle. Oy, Miriam Roizenkish, I touched you on the beach when we were twelve. One more year and I was already a man, wearing a black hat, rising early each day to accompany Father to shul. In two years I was saying kaddish for him. Four years after that and I could no longer tell you who was at the top of the baseball standings. What made me so stupid to think that life was more important than playing stickball with my pals? Last ballgame I saw? Cleveland Blues, visiting Uncle Peysakh.

When Moish was nine, he remembers, the sun tickling the back of his neck with its cottony August afternoon-evening fingers, some men began building a mammoth hotel near the beach. When he was ten, it burned down. But for one glorious year Moish would hop on his bicycle and race down the broad streets of Brooklyn—What streets didn’t seem broad then, to a skinny little boy on his sister’s bicycle?—and go see the Elephant. Higher than the tower of Babel, wider than the river Nile, too large to fit into Noah’s ancient cruise ship, the Elephant Hotel rose nearly to G-d’s shoulders, and on the Elephant’s back there was a – – a what? Was it a pagoda? A café up there? A private viewing space for the city’s rich and famous? Did men go up there and pinch their girlfriends’ fannies, showing them the arc of the ocean in the geometry of their short lives?

It lasted a year and then, by the time he was ten and three months the Elephant Hotel was like a bad word, an arsoned fairyland that made his mother’s face go sour as a pickle whenever he mentioned it. Today, Moish can fathom what must have gone on there, but then, in his youth, before anybody had ever lifted up his tzitzis – this is how he divided his life – back then he only felt awe at the structure, and fear of the spirits which must have inhabited it.

The Elephant Hotel. It is only nineteen twenty-three but that seems like so long ago. I am not a man of forty, but I am fat enough to be sixty-five. Still, it is nice to be here, off the coast. Unfindable. I am piggy, I am fat; I am weightless in this water. Nice, so pleasant here. An elephant feels like an ant in the Coney Island Ocean. And the hotel was already ashes when I touched Miriam Roizenkish on her pretty little nose. Yesterday Hymie Cohen told me she was dead.

[1] “Going to See the Elephant” first appeared in the 1927 collection of short stories A Raisin in My Pocket!

 * Built on Coney Island in 1985 and victim of a fire in 1986, the Elephantine Colossus housed a hotel and a concert hall. The expression “going to see the Elephant” became shorthand for visiting a prostitute, as the many nooks and crannies in the structure allowed for discreet relations.

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Who Was Talmed Metumtam? An Introduction

My great-grandfather, founding member of Die Absurdelekh, Talmed Metumtam

My great-grandfather, founding member of Die Absurdelekh, Talmed Metumtam

A Brief Introduction

A founding member of the turn-of-the-century group of Yiddish writers who were known as the Absurdelekh, my great-grandfather wrote nearly three hundred short stories and a novel in his lifetime, all under the pen name Talmed Metumtam. He was born in the Mogilev province of what is now Belarus; he died in New York City. To the English-speaking world, he is practically unknown, although his stories have appeared in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Russian and Lithuanian. Talmed Metumtam’s novel, Playing Lefthanded in Toledo, appeared in over fifteen languages and won the Chambermaid Prize in Potsdam – twice.[1] Once in 1929, and again in 1946, after the war, when all the Potsdam laureates gathered at a rebuilt Hall of Culture for a ceremonial re-awarding of the prize in a hopeful gesture towards a new peace. Talmed Metumtam accepted the prize, a silver bust of Epimetheus, the Greek god of Afterthought, in 1929; in 1946, horrified by the war and its inhumanity, he tossed his second prize from the stage, breaking the nose of the Portuguese Minister of Culture in so doing. Talmed Metumtam never won anything else in his life.

[1] Among the many dignitaries gathered in Potsdam on July 8, 1929, for the awarding of the prize were the French Minister of Health, the Soviet Ambassador to England, and Bernadette Schwartz, lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain. The following is the text of that speech:

Thank you for the prize. I haven’t been this honored since I received word that I was awarded the Goldene Klyamke award from the Yiddish Writers Association. That was at six this morning, while I was putting on my bowtie for this dinner.

I will begin by saying that writing is a long and dark hallway and writers take many barefoot steps on cold marble but don’t believe those who say that fate is written in ink. There are doors at every stride which are labeled Exit and these doors open into the sky and one who steps out dies quickly, with everlasting purple in his eyes. But I’ve always preferred long suffering over a short jump in the hopes that at the end there will be a beautiful woman who tells me why, for example, some of us implode when still young and clever while others expire unwise and ancient. Since I first took a pen in my left hand at the age of seven I have not dotted one chirek without thinking of Job.

People call me a member of Die Absurdelekh. It’s true, I am a founder and representative of that group. Now I would like to say something about how I got to where I am. Too often people confuse absurdity with idiocy. Absurdity is in the air with our first breath. Idiocy is something we learn, and it can be combated by patience and love. Absurdity is stronger than steel and more dangerous.

I don’t like to talk about grand ideas but if I did I would take an oath that the world is absurd. That the world is being held hostage by a G-d who feels at home on a Mississippi riverboat and a devil who has too much time on his hands. I also would swear that writing solves nothing but it’s a living and who wants to sell fish in the market? This is the guiding premise of Die Absurdelekh. We write the world the way it happens. Which is to say, without justice, without logic, without temperance. And with little or no regard to the true gravity of life and death. We owe this insight to the Old Testament G-d — you know, the one whose chosen people rose and fell as easily in the Five Books of Moses as mankind rose and fell just a decade ago on the bloody pitch of Europe.

My wife Dorah, [It’s not clear why Talmed Metumtam calls his wife Dorah. He married Sarah Yanklevich, his first and only wife, in 1924. Ed.] may she rest in peace, [Also unclear: Sarah accompanied TM to the awards ceremony and died in 1965, outliving her husband by nearly a decade. Ed.] never threw out a thing except her first husband, a man at least two inches shorter than me, and it is to her I owe the fact that my first poem, which I spoke of a minute ago, survives today. It was short, a little nothing, worth about as much as a church bell at a hippodrome but nevertheless I will repeat it here.

The dog eats his breakfast.

Potatoes.

The man eats his breakfast.

Potatoes.

This is a breakfast?

This is a man?

The man is very happy, for a dog.

Even as a little boy, I think I would have been tied to the Absurdelekh. I have spent my whole life trying to find a good reason for why G-d chose Job to torment, if only because I am positive this is an impossible mission. I want the last words on my blue lips to be, “G-d is a spoiled child.” But I also wouldn’t mind, barring that, if I mentioned the dimensions of the holy tabernacle, the death of Moses within view of the Promised Land, Esau’s head rolling into the cave where his father’s body rested, and the binding and unbinding of Isaac. The unbinding is to me even more absurd than the original plan. Human sacrifice we can understand. The forefathers of Israel had no great monopoly on that particular barbarism. But the unbinding of Isaac – how can we keep our faith in a   G-d whose scheming is so nefarious? Faith, taken too far, becomes an absurdism.

Let it be noted by the woman in the corner with a notepad scribbling down all the speeches as they’re made, that this is different from denying G-d’s existence. I don’t break bread with apostates and I never will.

Just about ten years ago there was a great war being fought in these lands and I am hopeless that we have truly taken a lesson from it. I return to that accursed favorite book of mine: Once G-d’s little joke was over, after killing all of Job’s children, G-d decided to give back to Job all the property the tormented servant of the Lord had lost, twofold. Then He blessed Job with ten new children. But here it behooves us to pay attention. Even the Almighty couldn’t raise the dead: He replaced Job’s children; He did not resurrect them. We should keep this in mind the next time we aim our cannons at a target, which in other words might be called human beings.

What choice did I have when I set out to write but to become one of the Absurdelekh? In a world like this, who can say that precious logic and reason must rule the page? Why must the magician always be pulling rabbits out of hats? For once let the hat emerge from the rabbit. Or better yet, let the rabbit wear the hat and make the decisions.[TM was referring here to his story “The Magic Backwards,” published in 1926. It was the subject of fierce criticism from the Yiddish literati, who accused him of charlatanism and nihilism, among other delicate epithets. Ed.] Surely we couldn’t be worse off?

I should only like to add that this Chambermaid Prize belongs not just to me, but to all of the Absurdelekh. As humans, as men and women, as Yiddish writers, we ask the same question as Job: How can an innocent man be punished? And beyond that, in such crazy crazy ways? Avromele Katz, Pesakh Streimel, Miriam Hutgebrakht, Nokhem Shtetlboim and Anna Markowitz share this honor with me. We are a community of men and women who die and rot and stink at the end of a long dark hallway but at least we can hold each other’s noses.

A sheynem dank.

Zay Gezunt, America (A Talmed Metumtam Story)

Zay Gezunt, America [Be Well, America]

Hershel was born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1913. His parents were Russian immigrants from the Palest of the Pale of Settlement who spoke only Yiddish. Hershel spent seven to nine years mastering basic life skills in kindergarten until one day he came home from school practically tumbling with excitement. He was followed by a wild gang of little children, for his fellow kindergarteners, being much younger than he, clung to him much in the way that extremely well-manicured women cling to extremely well-manicured men. Hershel shook them off with vigor.

His teachers had told him that he could advance to first grade. He was sure to be a doctor.

But when Hershel, or Heshie, as he was called by the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, walked in the door, he was greeted with a great surprise. His parents had skipped town. His baby sister was sitting in the crib, applesauce all over her mug; his older brother was shooting peanuts out of his nose, aiming straight for the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld who was passing on the street; Heshie’s twin sisters were counting rubber duckies in the bathtub. They’d been roasting in the water for G-d knows how long. When Heshie first walked into the bathroom he mistook them for two giant figs.

“Figs!” cried Heshie. The boy loved figs, and what better could a boy who loved figs imagine than two giant figs floating in a bathtub?

“No, not figs!” cried the girls. “We’re girls! It’s us, Mirrele and Sheynele.”

Heshie ran from the bathtub, horrified by the nakedness of his sisters, embarrassed that he could have mistaken them for one of the seven holy fruits and grains.

The children called a family meeting. Boarded up the windows. Locked the doors. Sent smoke signals out the chimney and loaded tight their pistols. Nobody, not even the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, was going to get into the house, the castle, the fortress, the stronghold, the citadel, the redoubt, the bastion…

Two days later Heshie wiped the applesauce from his baby sister’s angelic, swarthy face and, hoisting her on his back, pulled his woolen socks up to his waist. He opened the door. The sky was blue. Pennsylvania was a magnificent place to be in September. The town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld walked by chomping on an apple like a dumb horse but that didn’t even bother a fly.

Heshie was a first-grader now.

Placing one left foot in front of another, dancing to the dreamy piglets of the alphabet and the fishes of gefilte heaven, the boy put his sister’s hand to his lips. The hand was white, oaky, delicate with a hint of lavender and tobacco. She’d gotten into the wine casks again. There was shmutz beneath the fingernails.

Heshie stuffed his pockets with dirt. It might as well have been gold.

“Zay gezunt, America!”