01. 03. 2013. 14:45

Gábor T. Szántó: Threesome (Excerpt from the novel)

A master, a student and a woman are trying to extricate themselves from the dead end situations of their life in typical present-day Budapest scenes. Can we step out of the shadow of the past, or will we carry it within ourselves forever?

An old Holocaust survivor returns to Budapest from the US. A young man becomes his student, and while initially he supports his old master, it is gradually the student who is more and more in need of the experience and wisdom provided by the old man. His master teaches not only tradition, but life as well, as if suggesting that if studying is not possible any more as a way of life, life still remains as a way of studying.

The past is a living reality in this book, yet at the same time it is a full-blooded contemporary novel. It is about passion, the dialogue between generations, and the possibility for people of various creeds and ways of thinking to live together. It is also about the challenges that tradition and the modern age pose for us.

The First Lecture

“Bring the folder with the photocopies, will you please? The transparencies I put in my bag. Where is my bag? The lecture outline’s in it. I cannot leave without my bag.”

“It’s on your shoulder, Reb Shloime. Under your coat. I’ll help you take it off, okay?”

“We’ll be late, Miklós.” And he headed for the door.

“We will not be late, calm down. I called a cab; it will wait for us. And the students will, too. They can’t round up somebody else on such short notice. Which proves you are irreplaceable.  And that’s why you should take care of yourself.”

“Don’t get smart with me. Lock the door instead.”

I held the folders in one hand and with the other was trying to pull his coat off.

“Wait, this isn’t working. You do it, by yourself.”

He stopped, stretched out his arms like a child, and I had to keep pulling on his tan, lined raincoat until the black shoulder bag came into view.

“Put it down,” I said, taking the bag from him, “otherwise I can’t help you put your coat back on.”

“I ought to go to the bank too,” he said anxiously, while his hand kept slipping into the lining of his coat.

“Now you have to?”

“I’ve no money on me. I haven’t been out for a week.”

“We have no time for that, you’ll go afterward. We’d better get going or we’ll really be late.

“How will I pay the cabby?”

“Not to worry, I’ll take care of it. You’ll pay me back later. Where is your key?”

“In the keyhole; where I left it when I let you in. Use it to lock all three locks. Plus the iron bar.”

With the bag now slung over my shoulder and the folders stuck under my arm, I bolted the door and locked up with considerable difficulty.  Luckily, he didn’t double check; he trusted me, I guess, and waited for me in the elevator. I opened the elevator door and handed him the key.

“Wait, where is your bag now?”

“It was in your hand; you took it off my shoulder.”

“So I could help you with your coat. Oh God, we will be late. Let me have that key again.”

“Make sure you lock all three. And the bar too.”

The cab stood on the corner in a no standing zone. Before we got in, he turned to me:

“It would have made more sense if I got the cab; I have my regular guy. Now it’s too late of course. Let me do the talking, anyway.”

As soon as we climbed into the car, he leaned forward between the two front seats. He also lowered his voice, as if anybody besides the three of us could have possibly heard what he was saying.

“We’d like to go to Pesti Barnabás Street. But you don’t have to run the meter. I’ll give you a thousand forints.”

“I can’t tell off the top of my head how much the fare will be. Depends on traffic, too.” The driver didn’t turn around; he looked at us in the rearview mirror.

“You really don’t have to start the meter,” he said, giving it another try.

“I can’t just turn it off; I answered a call.”

“I told you that you should have let me take care of this,” grumbled the old man, leaning over to me. “I have my own people… Couldn’t you ask a fellow driver, one who usually works for me, to come here?” The cabby heard the question but hadn’t the foggiest what the old man was driving at.

“Will you be needing me now or not?”

This was too much, even for me.

“I ordered the cab, I’ll pay the fare. Let’s just go, okay?”

He sensed my anger, and was probably offended by it, but kept quiet. I knew I would have to apologize for this, too, though it was he who was being impossible. I was nervous about being late and angry that I was so quick to promise that we would be there on time. We had another fifteen minutes, but I didn’t think we’d make it. We crawled along the Danube embankment in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. I rolled down the window and looked at the river, but the little white tour boats swaying in the water by the dock turned me off, and so did the tourists in their colorful windbreakers, crowding around umbrella-wielding tour guides and laughing loudly as they waited for embarkation.

In the meantime the old man struck up a conversation with the cab driver. He asked him where he was from, and when the guy told him, he began rattling off the names of neighboring villages, as if wanting to prove that his memory was still working, or that he was still more at home in this country than the driver. I didn’t want to listen; these chats of his annoyed me to no end. I was getting all worked up. Why carry on a conversation with a cab driver?  Why pretend that they had something in common? The cabby only wanted his money; and if he found out what sort he was, he probably wouldn’t give him the time of the day. Let him take us where we want to go, and then it’s good-bye and good riddance. “Aknaszlatina, Beregszász, Büdszentmihály, Csenger, Demecser, Dombrád, Döge, Fényeslitke, Huszt, Kaszony, Mándok, Nagykálló, Nagyszöllős, Nyirtass, Nyírmada, Szaplonca, Tiszalök, Újfehértó, and of course Újhely.” I heard him reel off in alphabetical order the names of towns and villages, which he mentioned to me often enough, as though it behooved me to know all of them, only because there were yeshivas there and large Jewish communities; and if I didn’t know the names, I was supposed to feel terrible about it. “Altmann, Berger, Czitrom, Danciger, Dick, Ehrlich, Friedmann, Glück, Gottlieb, Herskovits, Holländer, Itzkovics, Katz, Krebs, Lefkovics, Marmorstein, Messinger, Nussbaum, Polnauer, Rosenbaum, Schaechter, Weisz and Zeller.” He was quizzing the driver now: did he remember any of those names, was anyone in his village called by those names, or something similar,  for wasn’t it enough that they were all killed, they each had names, and he knew them all, or at least the names of the villages… I, too, should make it my business to know them; I am bad in topography of course, in that too, but then why don’t I buy a map,  as a writer I should at least know which village comes after which small station, as long as I live here and write in this language, instead of writing, as I should, in English or Hebrew, because nobody is interested in Jews here, not even the Jews themselves, in fact, they are particularly uninterested, because anyone who is more Jewish than they makes them extremely uncomfortable;  why don’t I at least go abroad for a few years, to study, or just bum around…? Because I have family here, Reb Shloime, I told you a hundred times, my anxiety-ridden mother and my oh-so-sad father, neither of whom knew their father, I am all they have, and a hope for a grandchild some day, which would also be a sort of restitution, showing  death a new life so it could have something fresh to devour, justifying all the previous generations’ self-deception that it makes sense to continue the race of rampant cells plagued with acute consciousness… but for that I must want to start not just a family, but a Jewish family; and for my life to have meaning I need God, too, and a community of Jews; I would want to recreate something, as I don’t see much sense in simply bringing something into being. So far I haven’t been successful starting a family, perhaps because I can’t deceive my own instincts… I am surprised that this peaceable taxi driver hasn’t yet thrown us out of his cab here on the bank of the Danube, if shooting us unto the river is no longer an option; but to put up with this torrent of words, the names of dozens and dozens of settlements and people, is, for me at least, just too much. If I only knew why I am still sitting here, why do I stick to him and visit him and listen to him pestering me; what the hell am I waiting for? What do I want from this manic-depressive old codger who, when he is up, dashes about the city, and I with him, helping him run his errands in banks and photocopy shops and hospitals and Jewish community centers, and listening to him bitching about my pessimism which, he says, is such a drag. But when he tumbles into the pit of depression, he won’t pick up the phone, and I could bang on his door till the cows come home. What do I hope to gain from him or understand through him, if not myself? To understand at last what I want from him and why I put up with him. What on earth connects the two of us? The very thought of him comparing me to himself frightens me… Why then do I go with him even now to that lecture, his first at the university, which he’s been working on setting up for ages? Why do I keep seeing him when I know it’s always the same story; nothing comes of it except this chaos. Yet I go, like someone who is in search of something but is barely able to make out its outline in the dark, or perhaps it’s the temptation of an even deeper darkness; he ought to be afraid of it but is drawn in, the attraction is that strong, and come what may, he must follow it and look at it, into it, into its very core.

I tried to take a deep breath, so I could concentrate better. Focusing on things isn’t easy for me. As long as I can remember, things of the real world reach me through a fog, a blur; due to some unknown defense mechanism my perceptions slip through the sieve of my senses and remain useless phantoms. I always believed that I mustn’t fool away my life; I wanted desperately to concentrate on essentials, with the result that I had no time for anything else—life, for instance. Reb Shloime’s distracted, scattered self irritated me. Though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted from him, I was furious when I felt that he paid too much attention to pointless trifles.

“Right here is fine, thank you,” I said to the driver as soon as the Elizabeth Bridge was within sight.

“I can’t stop here, only there by the arcades,” the driver said.

I hated these petty tricks of theirs: squeezing another hundred forints out of the fare by stopping at a long red light or taking a little detour. I looked suspiciously at anyone who I thought was out to gyp me.

“Fine. Stop wherever you can. We’re late.”

I paid him, and then helped the old man out of the car.

“Come on already, we still have to find the room.” I knew that sounded harsh, but I couldn’t contain my emotions any more.

After the cab took off, I was ready to go, but Reb Shloime just stood there motionless.  I turned back. He was looking at me with reproach in his eyes.

“You cannot talk to me like that, Miklós. I am old, I am senile, but you still can’t talk to me like that. You have to grant people their dignity.”

“But why would you want to start haggling with a taxi driver? They have fixed rates.”

“Don’t lecture me; I know what I am doing. And if I make a fool of myself, you still shouldn’t talk to me that way, you hear?” He was shouting by now.

“We have to get going, it’s late.”

In the department office they were waiting for him. He had asked specifically for an overhead projector. The machine was all set up, and I could see through the slightly ajar classroom door that the students were there too, eight, maybe ten in all, sitting around a long table. He threw his shoulder bag on a chair in the secretary’s office, and I proceeded to peel off his raincoat. He was still puffing away from having climbed the stairs. I reached out to fix his jacket collar, but the gesture embarrassed me.

“Everything okay?” I asked. I needed a little time, after my own anger had subsided, to be able to relate to his.

He didn’t answer and began walking toward the room. I followed him, carrying his bag. With his hand already on the door handle, he turned around. “You have one job now. Let’s agree on a signal. You will look at me and shake your head if I digress a little too much.  Don’t say anything, just shake your head. A deal?”

“A deal.”

We both entered what was a seminar room. He strode to the head of the table, and I sat down in the first chair on his left and placed his bag on the table. He sank his hand into it, felt about, took out a piece of paper, searched some more, then looked up and around, his eyes ranging over his audience.

“Sholom Aleichem,” he finally said, and while still rummaging in his bag, he began his talk: “You most probably study Yiddish as well as Hebrew here. Yiddish was my mother tongue, but here I will speak in Hungarian. My name is Shlomo Eliezer Löw ben Doved Maisel. I will write it on the board. The last two were my father’s names. Löw in German means lion, so my friends used to call me Leo. My official Hungarian name is Jenő, but to some people I was Janó; in America I was Eugene, but my students, with whom I learned Talmud, called me Reb Shloime. Or would have… but that’s a whole other story. Rav is a more distinguished title than reb, rabbanan is more prominent than rav, but the greatest honor of all is to be called by your name, the Talmud teaches. Everybody knows what the Talmud is?” he asked, looking around the room. When he reached me, I nodded eagerly.

“The town I come from, Sátoraljaújhely, had a large Jewish population. The Hungarian name was too complicated, so in Yiddish they called it Shadarada. Certain words you have to understand. My name you already know, I will also tell you where I studied, and from whom, because I am proud of my masters, and the Talmud says that when someone is teaching or quoting another scholar, he has to say who his teacher was and who it is he’s quoting. For if he doesn’t, it’s as though he was stealing from them. And the person who taught him but one thing, he must also respect as his rabbi:” And with that he gave me a long, meaningful look. I stared him down in return.

“I assume you have all received copies of the syllabus,” he said after pulling out a sheet of paper from his bag and waving it in the air. “We’ll cover various topics on the bases of this plan.” He pushed his glasses up his forehead and began reading: “I will offer six lectures in all, just as I have done at American universities. I will present an overview of the legacy of Hungarian Jewry as reflected in their burial customs, in their cemeteries and gravestone inscriptions. In this connection I intend to speak about patterns of Jewish settlement in Hungary between 1795 and 1944, deal with social, political and institutional structures, and discuss demographic changes over the years. In the second lecture I will talk about Ashkenazi and ultra-orthodox Chasidic communities and institutions in Northeastern Hungary, specifically in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. In our third session we will consider—from the standpoint of halakha, that is, Jewish law—religious practices and customs as important elements of community life, with emphasis on Szabolcs-Szatmár and Hajdú-Bihar counties. In the fourth lecture we will examine the workings of the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial societies (literally holy societies), on the bases of several such institutions in Transylvania, which were established well before any other community organization. These holy societies were not only concerned with burial; they helped the needy as well as the families of the deceased, and they organized community functions, dinners, etc. For according to the Jewish religion, the deceased is holy, and his or her standing is higher than that of the living, because a dead person can’t watch over himself, only the living can watch over the dead. And the dead can’t wait, only the living can. That is why the burial has to take place on the day the death occurs, if at all possible, or the following day. The fifth lecture will be devoted to cemeteries, gravestones and inscriptions, and we will refer to examples from northern Hungary. In the final session I would like to analyze the headstones and inscriptions of the Újhely cemetery. In this case I plan to use no resource other than the inscriptions themselves.  Does that sound all right to you?”

I wasn’t sure if he was posing the question to me, but I quickly nodded anyway, and he went on. He spoke at such a furious pace, his great hurry had an effect on me; I also became agitated.

“I will only speak about prewar Hungary. My world ended with the Holocaust. My father was a teacher, and after cheder, Jewish elementary school, that is, he enrolled me in the yeshiva of Sátoraljaújhely, where Reb Eizik was my master teacher. This man in all his life never hurt anyone, but he ended up in Auschwitz just the same, blessed be his memory. The year I was in that yeshivah had to be 1939.  I spent two semesters there and then one year at the Szatmár yeshivah, where I was a student of Joel Teitelbaum, the famous Reb Yaylish. Does this name mean anything you?”

I looked around the room very deliberately and then nodded, hoping this will prompt others to nod too, but except for a sad-faced, heavy-set boy, no one did.

“Do you happen to know what kind of religious affiliation he represented? There were orthodox, progressive and in-between Jews, and besides the orthodox there were the ultra-religious chasidim; the Jews of Szatmár belonged to this group. You might say they were the crème de la crème. Can anyone tell me what was the difference between these various groups? Well? One day we’ll take the minibus to Ferihegy Airport, and when a plane arrives from America or Israel, I’ll point them out to you. That would be the simplest way. Each rebbe had his grand household, and some still do. Incidentally, I learned in a third yeshivah, in Csenger. There I didn’t understand a word the rabbi was saying, that’s how fast he read from the Talmud. Already then I was a wandering Jew. My father was also a teacher, a melamed; he would wake me up at the crack of dawn, around four thirty, and have me memorize passages from the Gemara. Sometimes he’d hit me, too, if I misbehaved or went against my mother. Then he really let me have it, there was no running away from him. I was a pretty bright kid, but somehow I couldn’t stay put, I’d get the urge to move on. My father saw this, and saw also that I liked to read. Literature. So he would take me to yet another school. Finally I ended up in Debrecen, in the Jewish high school, though that’s a story for another day…  First I tucked my payess behind my ears, so the other boys who didn’t have sidelocks shouldn’t see it, but then I cut them off. My classmates, children of 'progressive' Jews, caught me one day, dragged me to an unlit doorway and tried to force a bacon sandwich down my throat. I couldn’t spit it out fast enough.”

He looked at me as though he wanted to ask me something, and I quickly nodded, urging him to continue. I had no idea where he was going with all this.

“I’d like to show you pictures of various communities, famous rabbis and their gravestones.” He again reached into his bag.

“They are in the folder,” I said quietly.

“What’s that?”

“In the folder.”

He took out the photocopies and passed around the first sheet.

“This is a painting of the Chasam Sofer, the father of Hungarian Ashkenazi Jewry. He was born in Frankfurt and his master was Nathan Adler, who had to leave the city, so Sofer went with him and settled in Pressburg. He became the spiritual leader of a community of eight thousand souls, and he commanded as much respect as the pope. Hungarian Jewish orthodoxy came out of his overcoat. His son was the likewise famous Ksav Sofer. And Maharam Asch was their descendant, too, and I am a descendant of Maharam Asch... What else did I want to say?  Oh yes, the grave of this ancestor of mine became a much visited site in Pressburg, that is, Pozsony or Bratislava. Because for Jews cemeteries—mark my words—are more important than synagogues. You can pray anywhere if a Torah is present, but as soon as it is removed, the sacredness is gone. The synagogue is not a holy place, even if here they believe it is, and restore synagogues where no one will ever pray. A cemetery is holy. We call it bet olam or with Ashkenazi pronunciation, bais oilom: the house of eternal life. We buy a cemetery plot not for twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years, but for all eternity, like Abraham, who would not accept Sarah’s gravesite as a gift in Hebron in the Cave of Machpelah, but wanted to pay Ephron, son of Zohar, so there should be no misunderstanding later. Because according to our belief, at the end of time the Messiah will come and resurrect the dead. That’s why we have to build fences around every cemetery, because they are holy places.” He stopped and looked around. “In this country it wasn’t only the Nazis that wreaked havoc. In the past decades people let cemeteries fall into ruin. They carted away the stones to construction sites and sold the land, which was then used for farming. There are at least five hundred cemeteries, out of fifteen hundred, that met this fate. If anyone among you would be interested, I would gladly organize trips to the countryside, and we could clean up some of these cemeteries. I’d get the local authorities and Jews from abroad to chip in so that at least fences could be put up around these cemeteries.

I tried to signal to him that he was digressing, I kept craning my neck and shaking my head, but instead of getting the message, he scolded me. “Stay out of this, you don’t have to come. Mr. Writer here doesn’t like to visit small villages.” I could feel myself turning red in the face.

“But not everyone is so picky, right?” he said, turning to the students who were clearly confused and embarrassed—after all, they came here to learn, not to go off as volunteers in some sort of work camp. “After class, I will take the names of those of you who are interested.” I tried to get his attention and let him know that he shouldn’t push this thing. I pointed to my watch.

“Excuse me for a second,” he said to the class. “I’ll be right back. Can I see you for a minute, Miklós? Outside?”

Then, in the secretary’s office, he lit into me:

“Why do you have to disturb my class?”

“Me? You asked me to signal if you’re digressing.”

“How long have I been talking?”

“About a half hour.”

“And I haven’t even begun. What should I do?”

“Go on with your lecture.”

“Don’t rush me. Did I say stupid things?”

“No, but you keep rambling.”

“I told you to warn me.”

“Don’t tell me I didn’t signal. But when I did, you gave me hell. Don’t try to recruit helpers; don’t start campaigning. Teach them.”

“Be more patient with me. You can’t talk like this to an old man. Because then you understood nothing of what I tried to teach you.”

“And you must try to listen to me.”

“Let’s go back to the room.”

Inside he motioned with his hand.

“Turn on the overhead projector, please.”

I couldn’t help making a face and didn’t care if he saw it. He was really being impossible. I was sitting next to the projector, the request was clearly addressed to me, yet his wounded pride made him dig into me one more time by pretending that he was no longer speaking to me. I turned on the machine and he began rummaging in his bag and continued pawing through it ever more feverishly. Finally, he turned to me in despair.

“I can’t find the transparencies.”

I flung out my arms. I wasn’t in charge of them. It was the one thing that was his responsibility: to select the appropriate transparencies, because in America he learned that you cannot lecture at a university without using an overhead projector.

In his irritation he tossed aside his bag.

“It doesn’t matter, we’ll do that next time.  Actually, it would be simpler just to go there, in person. Although somebody told me—and he cast a sharp glance at me and then a benign one at the others—that I shouldn’t start campaigning here. I will still tell you what I learned from the Pirkei Avos, the wise maxims of the Fathers: Lo hamidrash ikkar ella hama’aseh. It is action, not theory, that is important. The cemeteries have to be put in order because the dead cannot wait. A zoy dik dort’n di kedishe az mem ken es shnaden mit a messer. Holiness is so thick there, you can cut it with a knife. This is Yiddish. That’s what somebody once told me in Israel, somebody who knew a thing or two about what Hungarian Jewry was like once upon a time. Anyway, the department secretary has my phone number, so if you’re interested, give me a call and we could arrange a trip to these cemeteries and do some work there. While we are at it, we could read the inscriptions; it would be better anyway to see the real things rather than look at photographs. And I would explain everything to you. For starters, I’ll tell you a story that will make even those realize what kind of people lived here, who otherwise totally lack humility.” By now he ignored me completely, and was talking only to the others.

“The town I come from is where the rabbi of Tiszaszalka lived. Before the war he may have had at most fifteen congregants. We were on the same train when we were liberated in 1945. During the American bombing raids, the train had rolled through the Tyrolean mountains, shuttling between Wahlheim and Munich, at least thirty cars going back and forth, with our captors waiting for the right moment to finish us off. Now and then the train stopped, the doors opened, dead bodies were thrown off, and people trying to escape were either shot or brought back. The rabbi of Tiszaszalka was on this train lying half dead on the floor. He had diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever; the end was near. The rabbi of Szanz was sitting next to him, the son of Divrai Chaim, and with his handkerchief he was wiping the dying man’s behind. A young man asked him: ‘Who is this man that you are serving him shamesh be kodesh, with a sacred sense of duty?’ And the one from Szanz replied: ‘I want you to know that this man knows both Talmuds by heart.’”

The old man choked up, flopped down in his chair, and though his tears flowed, he looked up and I could see he was struggling, anxious to go on and make it to the finish line, on all fours if need be. He was talking in a whisper by now, I could hardly hear him.

“Can you imagine? He knew both Talmuds by heart. I had seen this man sitting in his backyard, smoking a pipe. He was a tall, quiet man, with two lovely daughters and a modest wife. And no one knew what a great scholar he was, only in the lager did we gather, from chance remarks, while he studied with us. The students in the seminar room were shaken and perplexed as they looked at one another. They tried to act as if they hadn’t noticed that he was crying.

“We are finished for today; you can go home,” the old man said with a groan, realizing he cannot continue, and then he looked at me. I had no idea what he wanted now or what I was supposed to do. The others were gathering their things in silence, but in a hurry, too. I also made as though I was getting ready to leave, but I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I waited until they were all gone and the two of us were alone.

“We better get going,” I said after a while rather nervously.

“I can’t.”

“Why not? What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer right away, just looked at me, leaning against the table, blinking noticeably.

“I peed in my pants, Miklós. From the excitement I couldn’t pay attention to it, I couldn’t control it, so I peed in my pants. It’s an old thing, I’ve had it since the lager. Luckily I’m wearing a diaper.”

“Well, then it’s not so bad. That’s why you put one on, right?” I asked firmly. And tried hard to make his condition appear normal.

“Even so I can’t go out on the street like this. I have to go to the toilet and change it. You can’t really understand this. Call a taxi. Take me home.”

 

Szántó T. Gábor: Édeshármas

Budapest: L'Harmattan, 2012

Translated by: Ivan Sanders

Tags: Gábor T. Szántó