The Verboten Journals of
A Lithuanian Jew seeks a new life, far from home.
By Steven Goldleaf
My grandfather, a learned Jew born Mordechai ben Avraham in 1856 in western Lithuania, came to be known in this hemisphere as “Mordechai Goldblatt.” This non-patronymic form of his name appeared on his certificate of marriage to Jena Lavine Hoffman, a new nomenclature Lithuania imposed on all its citizens by the end of the nineteenth century. Mordechai was the oldest child in the family. Two other children would, like him, eventually emigrate to Canada. Several of his siblings either did not outlive their childhoods, as was common at the time, or remained in Lithuania their entire lives.
I refer to my grandfather as a learned Jew because his headstone refers to him by the title “Reb,” meaning “Rabbi,” though that doesn’t necessarily mean that he studied Torah formally. It doesn’t mean he didn’t, though, and, as I have learned through genealogical research, intellectual curiosity has long been a family trait. Many details in the story I am about to tell come from the meticulous journals my grandfather wrote for many years, starting in the mid-Atlantic Ocean aboard ship in February of 1903, journals he passed on to his youngest son, my father, that my father left to me, and which I never opened up until 2012, when I began delving into my family history.
When Mordechai married the 25-year-old Jena late in life, in his late thirties, his brother Jacob, twelve years his junior, had recently married, so they both had small children in the 1890s, in a small town named Seda located fifty miles east of the Baltic Sea. They were prospering as much as Jews could in that time and place. There had been metal-workers in the family for generations (hence the surname “Goldblatt,” that I have translated into English but most of my family still uses untranslated). Jacob’s work, however, was trading livestock, mostly horses and cattle, while Mordechai had trained as a shochet, overseeing the ritual slaughter of animals for human consumption.
Both brothers’ livelihoods involved a fair amount of travel. In their town of Seda, on the Vedsuva River, there was hardly enough business in either field to maintain a family so each brother rode on horseback up and down the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. They were permitted to travel freely, Mordechai with his book or two of Torah commentary that he carried with him throughout the countryside and read diligently in his rented rooms in the evenings between stops at slaughterhouses. Jacob, far more social than his elder brother, was often invited to spend the night in the home of one of his trading-partners. All his socializing led Jacob to business deals well beyond the scope of buying and selling livestock—for a while he had a minor interest in a glove factory—and he always returned home to Seda with gifts for his young wife, Menuche, and his children.
While Mordechai was a fanatic for reading, eager to acquire knowledge, his much younger brother was a colorful character, always interested in meeting people and making business deals, and as such a bit of a joke-teller and card-player. The dark-haired Iankel (“Jacob” in Yiddish) enjoyed staying up late with friends and strangers. His sandy-haired brother preferred to study law commentaries at night. If Mordechai met someone nearly as well-read as he, or even better-read, in a field outside of Jewish law, like philosophy or economics or what we would now call “political science,” they might stay up later than Jacob and his band of tummlers, discussing and disputing and learning these fields, which came, more and more, to be directly relevant to study of the law.
In the early 1890s, justice was a frequent topic, particularly among secular Jews who considered themselves Communists before they were Jews, and human beings before they were Communists. In public, such men could hardly advocate for revolution, a dangerous topic, but they could safely promote their visions of a just society. There were no Czarist secret police infiltrating discussion groups, there was no one known to either Mordechai or Jacob who had ever been arrested for political dissidence, and there had not been a pogrom in northwestern Lithuania for as long as they could remember. No, the problem of justice and of injustice was largely economic in their world.
It was difficult, but possible, for Lithuanian Jews in the early 1890s to earn a living. Before both brothers married, they had rented small rooms for themselves in Seda that were inexpensive to keep heated in the winter. Then in 1892, a slight increase in taxes was imposed, just as each brother took on a new wife. They worked harder, put in longer hours and extra days on the road, and their families ate a little less, or maybe just a little less well. Towards the end of 1894, just as conditions were starting to improve, again the government imposed an even harsher tax. Six months later, to save on rent, the brothers had to move into the home of their sister Gita Rochel.
Gita was between the brothers in terms of age, closer to Mordechai chronologically but much closer to Jacob emotionally, and she was married to a very crafty man named Lazar Tafekman, who had been trained in glass-blowing. With three families under the same roof, her home was painfully crowded. What’s more, Lazar’s business was suffering even worse than his brothers’-in-law. For this reason perhaps he was more inclined to take action.
“Life here,” he announced one evening, “is, I think, no longer possible.”
Mordechai recognized this as a frequent subject of debate among his scholarly group, the question of resettlement in another part of the Russian empire or of the world, and gravely nodded his head in agreement, while Jacob felt that both his brother and brother-in-law were exaggerating, if only slightly, their dire economic situation. Perhaps because of Jacob’s ability to win money at cards when needed, and to squeeze his various enterprises for quick cash, he tended to regard such matters optimistically. This was, to Jacob’s mind, a downturn in the economy, an unusually long and pronounced downturn, but how long could it possibly last? A man who pushes on a rock in the road eventually moves the rock, he felt, and a bad economy was just another stubborn rock. Mordechai and Lazar disagreed. Unlike Mordechai, Lazar was willing to do something about it. “What,” Mordechai asked him softly, “are you willing to do?”
“Emigrate,” Lazar told him.
Lazar shrugged. “Does it matter?” he explained. “There are countries where Jews have rights, guaranteed under a written constitution, countries that don’t view Jews as a bottomless source of tax revenue, or as scapegoats for angry Christians who might otherwise be thinking about revolting against the government, and I’m going to see what one of those countries is like.” Lazar was, he explained, planning to visit either England or South America or Canada or South Africa or the United States, wherever he could find cheap passage and some form of security.
“Security for what?” Jacob wanted to know.
Lazar explained that the problem wasn’t that he wanted to stay in Lithuania--his mind was made up against that--but that he didn’t know a soul anywhere else in the world, and people who travel abroad without a good sponsor looking out for them were easily cheated out of their money, and oftentimes murdered. “I will find someone I know,” he vowed, “in one of these countries, and I will go there. And then I will send for my family, with me as their sponsor, and for you, and you too, brother, if you’re willing to come.”
But for the next three years Lazar was unable to find a sponsor and was stuck in Seda. In 1898, desperate to leave, he bought a steamship ticket from a stranger, a disreputable man who promised to sponsor him. That spring Mordechai and Jacob rode on horseback with Lazar to the Vilnius train station, where he would board a train to Germany. The brothers promised to watch over Gita Rochel and his children until they heard from him again.
Meanwhile, they returned to their careers. Rural Jews who formerly bought meat whose slaughter Mordechai had overseen had taken to eating food that they had grown themselves, or, worse, had abandoned the laws of Kashruth as they grew disenchanted with Judaism entirely. The problem of secularism was even more severe in towns like Seda and cities like Vilna where Jews had openly joined the Bund, a union of anti-Zionists determined to form a collective of organized workers. Other Jews were excited by the rise of Zionism, which favored emigration to a country of their own making as the only viable solution to their difficulties in Europe. All these forces, plus the rising cost of meat itself, reduced the need for a shochet. Mordechai found himself travelling further, sometimes as far north as the Latvian border and as far east as the city of Vilna, for fewer wages. Several trips brought him home to Seda with empty pockets.
Jacob, meanwhile, was home more and more, not from choice, but from his wife’s illness. Almost as soon as Lazar left Seda, a cholera epidemic moved through central Lithuania. The disease afflicted Menuche so severely that for years afterwards she would require attendance for the simplest tasks. Her own mother moved into Gita’s two-room house to care for her, bringing the number of inhabitants as high as fourteen people. During her convalescence, Menuche became pregnant with her fifth child even as her oldest child, a daughter named Chaya, perished from the cholera. She had the baby, a boy they named Ephraim, in September, but almost as soon as he was born, another child of Menuche’s, a three-year-old boy, whose name I don’t know, developed pneumonia and died.
During this time, Mordechai and Jena also lost children to sickness and epidemic, and found themselves at one point childless. Though he remained in good health, Mordechai’s work was becoming less and less lucrative. Fortunately, another opportunity soon appeared.
In Vilna, responding to the Czar’s taxes, some labor organizers were drafting a manifesto that was both practical and philosophical, drawing mostly on German pamphlets, Russian books and Yiddish newspapers. They needed someone who read all three languages to produce a finished copy that could be printed and distributed. They offered Mordechai the job, requiring him to spend the winter in Vilna, eighty-five miles away. He could live for free in a gigantic hen-house, a poultry factory, really, that belonged to an organizer’s family, and receive a small but regular bonus for supervising the slaughter of the poultry when needed.
Jacob feared that Mordechai was taking risks in associating with such dangerous men, and could easily be mistaken for a radical himself. But Mordechai took the job, and in the winter and spring of 1899 found himself enjoying the company of these radicals. The labor organizers of course did not agree with any policy of the government, but neither did they agree with each other on a solution. Some were representatives of the workers, and barely literate, mostly interested in improving working conditions, while others were openly revolutionary, and grimly reconciled to dying young in the revolution soon to come. Still others in the intelligentsia argued that crucial changes in policy, even those that reduced the Czar to a constitutional monarch, could occur without bloodshed. As they debated these issues, Mordechai would sometimes join in the discussion—he had a remarkable memory for details, often pointing out precisely where a speaker had contradicted himself, or failed to account for subtleties in another’s argument, or how a detail in a different argument was factually mistaken. He rarely spoke up, but he found that he (the Rabbi, as they called him) was treated with unusual deference by this rough group of men, who asked him on occasion to break from his translation duties to help adjudicate some sticking point of contention.
Though he missed his family in Seda terribly, and although his smelly and noisy living conditions were even worse than in his sister Gita’s smoky two-room house overrun with children, Mordechai thought of these months as the most stimulating time he had ever spent. He found the political discussions extremely edifying and soon found himself siding with one group of radical thinkers much more than with the others. He even began to think of himself as a kind of scientist, though he had had almost no training or understanding of any particular science.
“Science” in Latin (of which he had only the barest smattering) means “knowledge,” and he realized that knowledge was the thing he most enjoyed about studying the Torah, pure knowledge, as virtuous in itself, and as a model for creating order. Mordechai understood what one of his new radical friends meant in describing himself as a scientist with mystical leanings: certain mystical beliefs correlate to universal truths, by means not yet understood, but true nonetheless—rather than being opposed, the mystical and the scientific may be two divergent paths leading towards the same truth. Mordechai remembered one Talmud commenter speculating that women’s curse, the agony they endure in bearing children because Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge, reflects the same scientific truth that as the human race evolved their brains grew so that their newborn heads no longer permitted women an easy time in childbirth. So though the Torah might be a collection of silly and primitive myths, it could also contain some prescient or intuitive truths.
He had heard of scientific thinking that fit in with mysticism in some unforeseen manner: he was interested in the theories about the development of what would later be called “x-rays,” for example, light that could not be seen but which illuminated parts of the body—bones and internal organs— normally visible only in autopsies. Now scientists were trying to discover ways to view the insides of a living person, and if they could see into the heart or brain, why couldn’t also the soul be located? Skeptical for decades about the existence of a soul, Mordechai was willing to let science prove him wrong. Does it matter if the most powerful force in the universe is called “Science” or if it’s called “God”? This, to Mordechai Goldblatt, the Reb Mottel, was mere nomenclature, a foolish subject for disputation—many, many people would have to be born and many more to die before an answer to these questions could be found, so he would keep his opinions to himself, if it was even useful to hold an opinion on cosmic matters.
More along social lines than philosophical ones, Mordechai wondered what exactly he was, at this point in his life. A Jew, certainly, but one who felt oppressed by Orthodoxy. A rabbi, but one without a congregation nor much use for his rabbinical training, such as it was. A citizen of the Russian empire? Yes, but one who Russia defined as such so as to tax him, and mistreat him, and take advantage of him. A Goldblatt? Certainly, but was studying with the Vilna radicals doing the Goldblatts any good? The months of isolation from his family had given him the opportunity to re-define himself, and in the summer of 1899, returning to his hometown of Seda with his pockets jingling from gold and silver coins, and his head jingling with ideas, Mordechai Goldblatt was in his own sensible way, fully radicalized.
He had come around to Lazar’s way of thinking: Seda was no place for him to live his life. Neither was Lithuania, nor Russia, nor Europe. His wife, Jena, disagreed. She was worried by Lazar’s continued absence and his silence. Lazar not written so much as a letter in the mail—Jena sometimes thought that if he hadn’t been killed, then Lazar was now freezing in some damp foreign prison. But for the time being, with the money Mordechai had earned in Vilna, and with the summer months having arrived, the Goldblatts could enjoy the bounties while they lasted. For the first time in years, they had enough to eat day after day, and enough to share with others.
Mordechai found himself in a position to help out not only with the eleven Goldblatts in Gita’s house, but with the other members of his family living in Seda. His father, Avraham ben Abba, was still living with Mordechai’s mother and two of Mordechai’s siblings, a younger brother named Nechemiah, who drank, and an even younger sister named Bella. The old man was grateful for the help that Mordechai could give, and gave his blessing to Mordechai’s decision to emigrate. He himself, Avraham ben Abba, had no interest in emigrating at his advanced age but he wanted Mordechai to make a good life for his family outside of their small poor town, which grew smaller and poorer by the day.
By this time, in 1899, the Yiddish newspapers were warning of a possible war between Russia and Japan, and the Czar’s army had already begun conscripting able-bodied men. Jacob feared that he would be drafted, even though he was a 33-year-old father. But something unexpected happened one rainy morning. An overnight train originating in Finland passed through Seda, and out popped Lazar.
Not having seen him in almost five years, his in-laws, and especially his wife, Gita, made a constant fuss over him: How well he looked! How beautiful his cloth coat was! What fine presents he brought for everyone! How fat he’d gotten! Lazar explained that he had written several letters that obviously never arrived, and had asked travelers to Lithuania to visit Seda with news of him, that none of them had delivered. Almost everyone who offered to help along the way, starting with that disreputable scamp who had sold him his steamship ticket, had instead cheated him of his money. He had been arrested in Germany, swindled in England, deported from Amsterdam, and quarantined in Nova Scotia, but he had finally reached a free country where he established himself in the peddling business, with his own pushcart, and an annual income more than triple what he’d earned in Lithuania—the whole family must immediately come with him there!
But where was “there”?
Canada, Lazar told them. He was now, he told them proudly, a citizen of Canada, free to bring his immediate family, and sponsor others to join them. Gita would travel immediately with their children back to Canada with Lazar. Mordechai and Jacob would travel separately in the steerage compartment of a different ship that left a few weeks later, then get themselves established in business with him— only then would they send for their wives and small children.
“It’s an uncomfortable journey,” Lazar confessed, “what I have arranged for you two, although far safer than the trip what I took to Canada five years ago. But I have also arranged for you two a room in my house in Canada until you get yourselves set up in business and find for your families suitable housing—this could take a little while, so no need to make Menuche and Jena and your children suffer. They’ll come after you get yourselves a little bit established, in a year or two. Trust me, they’ll be fine, and so will you.”
They were going to do the opposite of everything he had done wrong, Lazar told his brothers: they would leave by ship from a Baltic seaport that would take them straight to Liverpool, instead of a train overland through Europe, where every border-crossing would be another opportunity to get swindled, and instead of booking passage in some Northern European port (where he lost his passage money twice), their tickets, Klaipeda-to-Liverpool and Liverpool-to-Halifax, would be paid for in advance. They must sew their tickets to Halifax into the jackets they would wear, and un-do the threads only when demanded by the Allan Line officials, who operated the ship that they would take. He would meet them in Halifax when they arrived to take them to the city where they would live and work.
And which city was that?, the brothers asked at once.
Lazar laughed. He had forgotten that in the hours and hours he had been in Seda, he had been so excited that he never had mentioned the name of the place he had settled in. “Chamilton,” he slightly mispronounced the city’s name, the “H” sound having no local equivalent. The closest Lazar could come was downplaying the guttural sound at the beginning of the name. And as successful and comfortable as the three of them would get to be in Canada, none of them would ever lose his accent enough to pronounce properly the name of the Canadian city they would live in for the rest of their lives. “Chemilton, in Ontario district, close by Toronto.”
None of them had heard any of these strange names before, not Hamilton, not Ontario, not Toronto, not Halifax (pronounced, of course, as “Chelifex”), not Nova Scotia, and neither Mordechai nor Jacob had considered living in Canada before. Between them, the only thing they knew about the place was that it was somehow connected to the northern parts of Russia and Siberia and that it was a frigid land populated mostly by Eskimos. But Lazar assured them that it was quite pleasant in the summertime, and moreover that there was plenty of work there, and plenty of freedom for Jews. There were no streets paved with golden cobblestones; but in a sense, there were: on the streets were other metals strewn around, that Lazar would show them how to gather and to sell, and much like the Megillah of Ruth in the Ketuvim gleaning the fields of grain, here the gentiles left this gathering of metals to the Jews.
“What river is it on?” asked Jacob. Towns were built on rivers, and big towns and cities on tremendous rivers.
“No river,” admitted Lazar. “But have you ever seen a waterfall?”
Jacob and Mordechai shrugged a yes, because they had each seen the small and unimpressive waterfall at Siaurukus, fifty miles distant, on their travels. Lazar described the largest of Hamilton’s waterfalls, and said that there were perhaps a hundred more waterfalls located within the city itself.
“You exaggerate,” Jacob said.
“Probably more than a hundred,” Lazar answered. “Who can spend his days counting waterfalls? And as close as Siaurukus, with its puny waterfall, is to here?”
“Niagara Falls,” Lazar said in English.
“Vus iss dos?” Jacob asked in Yiddish.
“I can only show you,” Lazar said. “You will call me liar if I try to describe such a thing, and I will not try. I will take you there.” Lazar’s point was that Hamilton had many sources of water-power, and was located on a great, deep harbor perfect for the huge modern ships, such as the one they would board in a few weeks’ time. The city lay on the western shore of Lake Ontario, “a lake big like the Baltic Sea.” Jacob’s and Mordechai’s eyes widened at this description; the Baltic was the largest body of water either of them had ever seen, a hundred or a thousand times larger than Lithuania’s widest inland lakes. “Maybe it is,” Lazar admitted, “I never measured it. But it is the biggest lake you will ever see in all your lives, I promise that to you.”
Lazar took Gita and their children ahead with him to the main Lithuanian seaport of Klaipeda, and left the Goldblatt brothers with instructions for every step of the journey—where to board which ship in which city, the names of helpful people from various Jewish Traveler’s Aid organizations at each step along the way, temptations to be wary of, some rudimentary signs in English for them to begin learning (“station,” “lodging,” “harbour,” “food,” and the like), and the name of the ship that he had booked passage on for the two of them, in the steerage compartment, that they had already sewn their tickets for into the linings of their coats: the S.S. Tunisian, of the Allan Line, leaving Liverpool, England, on February 26, 1903 at 11 in the morning.
There were many tearful farewells, to Lazar and Gita and then to their neighbors and their families, and as many promises to see them again someday, either when Jacob and Mordechai would return to Seda or when they would join them in Hamilton, and more sincere and heartfelt promises to each of their young children and to their wives to send them passage as soon as possible, amid more farewells and goodbyes and so-longs and God willings, until the brothers left Seda one wintry morning, never to return for the remainder of their lives. They were 46 and 34 years old, and had never been more than a few months or a hundred miles away from home.
They rode a carriage into Klaipeda, pulled by two horses that Jacob had arranged to be sold, along with the carriage, to a horse-dealer he knew near the seaport. Each brother took one suitcase on board the passenger ship where a passport inspector waited for them.
The voyage from Klaipeda to Liverpool passed through the Baltic Sea and then the North Sea, which was especially choppy, and then briefly into the Irish Sea. Lazar had chosen it because it placed them on the western shore of England, avoiding not only travelling overland through Europe, but also travelling through England. Mordechai’s stomach felt queasy on this voyage, especially the North Sea, but Jacob was excited and refreshed by the cold sea air on deck. Their status, third-class passengers, entitled them to a cot and a place at a table with a dozen other passengers, among whom Jacob made friends. The trip to Liverpool took two-and-a-half days—they arrived at night, on February 22nd, and went straightaway to the Jewish Travelers Aid station that Lazar had repeatedly exhorted them to find.
They were lodged by the Travelers Aid Society in a tiny room near the docks with three other families. They understood what Lazar meant by temptations: more than once, their door was knocked on by English Jews offering them food and drink for the ocean voyage, and the chance to come out into the streets and see what was for sale at the markets near the seaside, and in the town itself. The streets near the seaside were cobblestoned, and Mordechai and Jacob took walks through the twisting, narrow lanes around the port to entertain themselves during the day. Jacob bought a deck of cards from an English boy, and dealt the cards to other travelers after that night’s dinner. One of the travelers could perform tricks with the playing cards, and Jacob agreed to give him the whole deck once they arrived in Canada if he would teach Jacob his four best tricks. Mordechai looked in the windows of a news-store and bought a German newsletter to read. Other than two loaves of black bread apiece, the newsletter and the deck of cards were their only purchases during their three days in England.
They did see their steamship pull into the harbor, and prepare to take on passengers: the S.S. Tunisian, a large black ship with red trim that had been built only two years earlier in a great shipyard in Glasgow, Scotland. Lazar had researched this ship very well—not only was it seaworthy, but its massive size ensured that the shipping company would keep their investment in good condition. Sailors on the ship’s deck polished the metal, and oiled the wooden floors, and scraped the rust off the pipes all day from dawn until nightfall.
For two days, the brothers inspected the great ship, which was easily the largest vessel they had ever seen. On the afternoon of the second day, English-speaking passengers mostly boarded the ship, with their gigantic trunks and suitcases and crates being hoisted by winches as the passengers, in fine clothes, mounted the unsteady walkway to the ship’s main deck.
Steerage passengers had to wait until the other passengers and freight were all aboard—their tickets were good only if there was enough space for all of them, which the shipping company saw to it that there was not. They always sold more tickets, Lazar explained, than they actually had room for people. This way, the last few dozen desperate people would beg to be allowed into steerage below decks, and offer bribes to the shipping officials. If they should find themselves being denied entrance, Lazar explained, they must bribe the head English shipping official three pounds apiece to avoid being left behind. If one or both of them missed the Tunisian’s departure, they might be stranded for months in Liverpool. The bribe money, three English one-pound notes, as well as the tickets, were sewn into their coats, which they had worn, day and night, ever since leaving Lithuania.
As the ship unmoored, the crowd on the docks, well-dressed for the occasion, waved to passengers standing at the decks’ rails, and wished them well. In steerage, the silent hopes went out to those now-unseen relatives left behind, the ones whose bribes were insufficient, waiting for the next ship that had room.
Lazar had described his own passage in steerage, five years earlier, as a hellish experience, with more people in the steerage hold than there was room for, people fighting for a place on the planks to sleep for an hour or two, the unbearable dampness and cold, the exposure to diseased travelers, the endless darkness and difficulty finding a toilet, the discomfort of sharing space with women and children, the tumult when the food was distributed in filthy crockery with no utensils and no napkins, and the unending chaos as people took ill, a few even dying in the two-week journey. But advances in the steamship business between Lazar’s first trip and theirs meant that Jacob and Mordechai found themselves assigned to a steerage-level room with eight hammocks, to share with six other Jews from Galicia, all men, and the trip itself was scheduled to take only eight days.
The brothers agreed that one of them should remain in the room with the suitcases while the other explored the rest of the steerage compartment, or if possible, the ship. Jacob, this time, felt so uneasy with the ship’s motion that he decided to rest in his hammock, not even disturbed a bit by the other Galitzers’ seeming disinterest in his deck of cards. All he wanted to do was lie down until his stomach got used to the violent pitching of the ship.
So Mordechai explored the larger open area of the steerage compartment, where travelers even poorer than they, who couldn’t afford the luxury of a crowded, semi-private cabin with strangers, gathered in the gloom, whole families and single travelers, wary of each other, warier of the unknown dangers of the voyage. Mordechai noticed at the far end of the compartment a narrow corridor at the end of which he saw a little light from the ceiling and, lit by the dim light, a kind of ladder, attached to the wooden wall, metal rungs screwed into the wood, leading to the light. He climbed the rungs, and stuck his head out the opening where the light was coming from.
After forcing his way through the narrow hatch, he took a few unsteady steps onto another deck altogether. There was no one in sight—understandable considering that it was the middle of the night and freezing cold. But the air was fresh, and Mordechai felt he should stay on this deck until the chilly wind got too strong or someone ordered him back below. This might be his only chance to escape the foul air in the steerage compartment, so he turned up his coat’s collar, and looked out over the dark sea.
Clouds were covering the stars, and Mordechai knew the moon to be only a tiny sliver tonight, barely visible, so that neither it nor a single star could be discerned. The deep ocean was pure blackness as well, where the drops of water extended infinitely far and infinitely deep, as did the limitless number of stars out there behind the black clouds. But could that be right? Could one infinite quantity, the stars, be bigger or smaller than another infinite quantity, the waters of the earth? Maybe neither is truly infinite, or maybe they’re not comparable, the water that you can feel, that has substance, and is made of matter, and the stars, in the darkness, that are made out of light and energy. He searched for the horizon dividing the black sea from the black sky, and he could not see where one ended and the other began, though he knew with his logical mind that they did separate somewhere, somewhere invisible to him. All was black and void as far as he could see.
Though he was no longer a habitual reader of the Torah, he had of course memorized huge swatches of verse in his yeshivah bocher days, and now he thought of the first verse he’d ever committed to memory, which was also the very first verse of the Torah, the B’Reysheeth: “in the beginning was the earth void.…” This passage was a new beginning for his life, this passage through the void of sea and sky, this passage in the holy text. His past was passed—his mistakes, his misguided ambitions, every foolish deed he ever did, still existed, but they were all in Lithuania and in Lithuanian, a language he expected never to speak again. Now he was determined to think anew. Was it possible, for example, that the B’Reysheeth was a metaphor, that the universe had existed earlier, but that God—or Knowledge, or Truth, call it what you will—had decided to destroy it, and create it all again, from the very start? If Mordechai were to make something of his life, why couldn’t he start now, fresh, instead of being weighted down by all that had gone before?
He wanted to write down his idea. He had a stub of a pencil in his pocket but no paper. He walked on the unsteady deck, found a door leading to the hatchway he had crawled his way out of, and forced himself down the hole again, into the cramped steerage compartment where he’d seen a notice in German and English tacked next to the metal rungs he had climbed. The German was headed “VERBOTEN” and the English was headed “FORBIDDEN,” and he realized that they were the same word, in two different dialects, as German and Yiddish were also two separate dialects. (The Yiddish word, he immediately supplied as “pa-arb-aten,” which was a shochet’s second word—his entire training being in distinguishing food that was kosher from food that was pa-arb-aten.) Pleased that he taught himself a word in English, his first self-taught English word, he worked the tack out from the notice (which, he noted, forbade him from stepping out onto the deck) and scrawled down on the blank obverse side in Yiddish his thoughts on infinity, and void, and passages. Then as an afterthought he wrote the date (in English: February 27, 1903) and signed his name (also in English, “M. Goldblatt,” not knowing exactly which Roman letters to use for “Mordechai” yet.) He would try to keep a diary of all his thoughts from now on, though he had never kept any sort of journal before. He had no idea who would ever read his journal, or even if it would be worth reading, but he also sensed that somewhere someone, perhaps even someone yet unborn, would one day find interest in the thoughts of a newly self-created man.
Publication Date: May 17
Steven Goldleaf, a professor of English literature at Pace University in Manhattan, is the author of John O’Hara: A Study of Short Fiction and the editor of Penguin Classics’ recent collection of O’Hara’s fiction The New York Stories. “The Verboten Journals of Mordechai Goldblatt” is an excerpt from a longer work-in-progress, Only Mostly True.