Mistress of the Return

Marc Chagall, "Birthday"

Marc Chagall, “The Birthday”

She was, she told me within five minutes of our acquaintance, a baal t’shuva, a “master of the return.” She preferred to think of herself as a “born again Jew,” who had recently discovered the “emptiness” of her secular upbringing. She had opted to remain on campus through the summer to attend an intensive Judaic Studies seminar, which in turn had led to an internship with my employer. Raised in New Jersey, star of her high school tennis team, Clara Feld now wore a uniform of long sleeve peasant tops and black skirts that swept the floor. Whenever she walked into work she breathed in deeply the musty air, loving the place, she explained, for its “overwhelming Jewishness.”

Clara worked just part time, but her connection to the work we were doing was far more personal than mine. I had been a religion major, with a focus on scriptural languages, and upon receiving my degree felt qualified to do—nothing. Early on, I’d considered attending seminary after graduation, but in the course of my studies with the religion faculty I had somehow lost my faith.

And so I looked for work. Hoping to apply what few marketable skills I’d acquired in school, I used my undergraduate Hebrew to check into options in Israel. I was eager to travel, open to adventure, but as a non-Jew, I found that my possible motives were a cause for concern. To my prospective employers I tried to explain that if I was to convert anyone it would only be to a nebulous, wishy-washy agnosticism, but this honest answer did not earn me many callbacks.

It was with mounting desperation that I turned to the local want-ads one day and discovered that the Jewish Cultural Organization, a small non-profit located just down the road from my university, was looking for help. They needed someone to sort books in their warehouse; the only requirement was knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. When I applied, no one asked if I was a missionary, but neither did they ask if I was a Jew. Because I was available immediately, I was offered the job.

It was not quite what I’d expected. I’d been boning up on my Hebrew, supposing that increased facility with the language would help me catalogue or otherwise familiarize myself with a warehouse full of Jewish books. I had told myself the work might be not so different from graduate school, which interested me as a potential religion scholar but remained beyond my financial reach. Working with books all day, I imagined, could be a way of continuing my education while getting a paycheck.

As I discovered my first day, however, the books weren’t in Hebrew. They were in Yiddish, a language that has about as much in common with its ancient cousin as English does with Latin. My job, I realized, was to organize books I could not understand.

Standing among miles of gray metal shelves, I saw that the books in my charge might as well have been cartons of cigarettes or bars of soap. I’d become a warehouse clerk, nothing more.

Nevertheless it was a job. And if the work was sometimes tedious—open boxes, sort books, shelve books—it did allow a fair amount of autonomy. The cultural organization’s business offices, where most of its twenty or so employees worked, were located in another building across town, which meant that, day after day, I was mostly on my own.

And yet I soon realized I was not on my own at all. I was surrounded by boxes of stories. Opening them, I never knew what I would find. There would be books, of course: some in excellent condition, others worth less than the postage that had brought them. But that wasn’t all. Hiding under layers of cardboard and packing tape, cushioned with rolled-up grocery bags, there were also mezuzahs and yarmulkes, tefillin and prayer shawls, Kiddush cups and Seder plates. One morning I discovered a tiny plastic bar mitzvah boy, the kind that might stand atop a kosher cake. I found all manner of discarded religious items, the presence of which suggested that their owners had either died or given up on God. Judging from the age of the books with which this spiritual bric-a-brac usually arrived both possibilities seemed likely.

Before long, I got a sense of the kinds of people whose books were dropped on the warehouse’s doorstep each day. As the poet Itsik Malpesh, with whom my own life would soon become so entwined, once described his contemporaries, the books’ owners were “bastards of history, New World spawn of the Old World’s dotage, lovers of ghosts, bards of forgotten tongues…” And I began to like them.

It took longer to get a sense of the books themselves. To find each volume its proper place in the collection, I only had to read the first few letters of its title. Beyond that, what was contained between the covers, or who had created it, didn’t matter much as far as the operations of the warehouse were concerned.

One grasps for meaning in the face of monotony, however. As I picked books from boxes hour after hour, I attempted to pronounce the names of their authors. Some, I would later learn, were the great masters of Yiddish literature: I.L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, Mendele Moykher Sforim. Once or twice I must have handled Lider fun dem shoykhets tochter, the one published work of Malpesh himself. Yet I knew nothing of him then, nor of his peers. Their names were only sounds in a foreign tongue; the books they adorned seemed impenetrable.

But then I set my mind to it. Each day I spent a couple of hours opening boxes and finding the right places for the books in the maze of shelves. The rest of my time I devoted to puzzling over what was inside their covers.

By the month’s end, while I had unpacked far fewer boxes than my employer hoped I would, I’d begun to learn the language.

“I have this box full of letters written by my great-grandmother,” Clara told me. “They’re in Yiddish so I can’t understand a word of them, but they’re like my prized possession.” She seemed to get choked up a bit at the thought, then added, “You’re so lucky to be spending your days preserving the history of our people.”

As she spoke she lifted her hair from her shoulders and twisted it into an auburn knot, which she pinned to the back of her head with a pencil. With no other skin showing, the nape of her neck would drive me to distraction for the rest of the day. I saw no reason to deny what she believed me to be. I saw no reason to deny her anything at all.

“You ought to bring in those letters sometime,” I suggested. “Maybe I could help you read them.”

“Maybe I will,” she said.

Click the cover to buy the book!

Click the cover to buy the book!

Learning to pass, it turns out, is less a matter of acting than not acting. You can become part of a given scene, situation, or people (“our people,” as it were), simply by letting yourself serve as a mirror for those around you. When I was still in college, when I still thought I might make a good priest, I spent some time in a Trappist monastery. I found that by exerting as little of my own personality as possible I was able to fit right in. The monks in no time came to call me brother, believing I was destined to make vows as one of their own. Passing begins with the assumptions of those around you. The best thing you can do to maintain the illusion is to come as close as possible to doing nothing at all.

The warehouse occupied the top two floors of a former textile mill that was more than a century old, a vast red brick block teetering on the edge of a stagnant canal. In its prime it had been the kind of place that could turn a third-rate river town into a city rich with jobs and manufacturing revenues. Now it was leased for two dollars per square-foot to businesses that couldn’t afford to rent a more respectable space in the suburbs.

On the mill’s first floor there was a small tailoring operation, staffed by two dozen Vietnamese ladies who never seemed to come or go. Whenever I arrived at the warehouse in the morning, escaped for lunch at noon, or went home at night, I could hear the workers sewing and clucking through their main entrance, which they kept propped open with a folding chair in apparent hope of a breeze wicking off the canal.

The second level was occupied by a furniture shop. I have no evidence of dual use other than the affirming “One Day At A Time” and “Easy Does It” posters that decorated the walls on either side of the shop’s mini-fridge, but it appeared to double as a drug and alcohol rehab program. The workers were damaged-looking hard cases with bruises on their necks; and from the shouts that drifted out to the stairwell, I guessed they were prone to slip ups and displays of sudden anger.

As different as these two populations below the book warehouse were, they had one thing in common. To those on the first and second floors, we on the third and fourth were known simply as The Jews.

I was often puzzled by the plurality of it—most days there was only me, after all. Yet it was a welcome reminder as well that I was part of something. There had been others who had performed my job in years past; there would be more to come. No doubt they would nearly all be Jews, and so the name was more fitting than not.

At any rate, there was nothing derogatory about its use, as far as I could tell. In fact, one of the Vietnamese women was rather friendly about it. Of all the workers I’d seen through the shop windows, she was the only one who ever seemed to come out. Dressed in stylish suits and garish jewelry, I supposed she must’ve owned the place. Whenever I ran into her in the parking lot beside her Lexus SUV, she would look me over, frown at my beat-up Celica, and ask, “You with the Jews?”

“Yes,” I would answer and she would cheer “Hi!” by which I can only assume she meant “Bye” because at that point she would invariably roar out of the parking lot.

It was the same with the furniture-makers. My only contact with them came because they had a habit of leaving the door to the freight elevator open, making it inoperable on any other floor. Not a week went by when I didn’t find myself poking my head into the shop and yelling over the whine of band saws that someone should please shut the safety gate. The five or six workers kept their heads down with cigarettes dangling from their lips as they cut piles of dresser knobs and shelving planks. They wore no ear protection except for knit caps pulled down to their goggled eyes. Eventually I’d walk through the sawdust cloud that hung below the rafters, past the mini-fridge and the AA posters, and close the elevator myself.

On my way out I would often hear one worker say aloud, “Who was that?”

“The Jews,” another would say.

In such an environment, not passing would have required a concerted effort. And, worse, it might have been disruptive. Why bother insisting I was not a Jew when such insistence would only confound everyone around me? And what about my own attractive coworker? As Malpesh once wrote, A man is in his pants what he is not in his heart.

Summer days inside the warehouse felt as though the earth had tilted closer to the sun. Heat that was merely oppressive in the parking lot became unbearable in the entryway and just got worse on the march up the stairs. With windows sealed shut and the stairwell railings scalding to the touch, it was almost a relief to reach the top and arrive at work each day. Four flights up, our maze of metal bookshelves baked with the accumulated warmth of all the floors below, filling the place with a musty smell like incense mixed with newsprint. A few industrial fans to blew the burning air around.

Twice a day, once for UPS, once for regular mail, I brought up the recent deliveries from the loading dock. When Clara was there, she helped. Together we would pile the boxes onto pallets and, using a pallet jack to wheel them into the freight elevator (a steel cage twelve feet wide by ten deep), we’d bring them to the fourth floor. There, we’d position the boxes in the gust of the fans and unpack the books as loose pages flew to the rafters.

As July turned to August, the heat inside the warehouse caused the books to sizzle on their shelves. Filled with nearly a century of moisture and the oils of readers’ fingers, they hissed in the arid air, yielding up the scent of warm paper. Just looking at the maze of books, such a fire hazard, all that potential energy, I had soaked through my shirt by noon. So I sat and I read.

Three days each week, alone among the bookshelves, with boxes piling up as least as high as they’d been in June, instead of sorting through them, I’d position myself by the largest of the metal fans and work my way through page after page. I did so haltingly, with a Yiddish-English dictionary by my side, from the moment I arrived until it was time to go home.

On Clara’s days in the warehouse, she’d join me in the relative cool and we’d look over her great grandmother’s letters. There was a ritual to this: Clara sat in the same spot each time and selected a letter at random. Then I’d read aloud a line or two in Yiddish, doing my best to translate on the fly. Yiddish script was so much more difficult to decipher than the typefaces I’d read in the books that most of the sentences went only half-translated, “Something-something-something…on the train to Birobizhan, which…something.” This caused me no end of frustration, but Clara was enthralled by just the margins of the story that seemed to be emerging.

One stormy afternoon we tried for an hour to make sense of a short note, but the legible words amounted to not much more than “Something-something-something…the baby is getting so big…”

“That must be my grandmother!” Clara exclaimed. She moved in close to my side and peered at the letter in my hand. The idea that these strange markings held clues about her family was thrilling to her—and more and more to me, too. Outside thunder boomed and lightning lit up the warehouse windows, and it was exactly the kind of commotion that seemed to be going on inside her. She looked up from the letter and held me in her gaze, her eyes shining. “It really says that?” she asked.

“Yes it does,” I answered, then looked down at my watch and guessed that the mail might be waiting on the loading dock, possibly getting wet.

“We’d better go down and get it,” I said.

We rode the freight elevator to the dock and sure enough rain was falling hard on two dozen boxes. Darting in and out of a thunderstorm’s downpour, we grabbed them by their sides and pulled them under cover. In three minutes only one box remained in danger, and this one was already so waterlogged that its cardboard corners came apart in my hands. When I lifted it to my chest, a small blue book fell out onto the concrete. Clara retrieved it as I wrestled the ruined box to the safety of the elevator.

Dripping and exhausted by the exertion, I pulled the elevator shut as we caught our breath. Clara was examining the book she had saved from the rain. It was no bigger than a pack of cigarettes but, even wet, it was impressive. Gold letters gleamed on its hard blue covers, as did a seven-armed pitchfork design which appeared to represent a menorah. Clara ran her fingers along the spine.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yes,” I agreed, and took a quick look. “Some kind of prayerbook.”

“You can tell so fast?”

“Yeah. Look at the ornamentation. Doesn’t it make you want to pray?”

“Are you teasing me?”

“No,” I said. “Just think of the hands that have held it. It seems so well loved. And look here–” I opened the book to its inside cover, where a few lines of Yiddish mixed with Hebrew. “This word is tehilah. Prayer.”

Clara stared down at the book with renewed wonder, then up at me.

“Can I tell you something?” she asked.


Smiling, twisting her finger in her hair, she said, “I never knew anyone so…”

I pressed the button marked ‘4,’ and we began to rise.

“So?” I asked.

“Jewish!” she cried and pushed me against the elevator wall. She kissed me so hard my back hit the buttons and we stopped with a crash, halfway between the first floor and the second. Through the safety gate we saw a gang of furniture shop carpenters taking a coffee break.

“Hey, look at the Jews!” one of them said.

Four-eyed with goggles raised to their foreheads, a cigarette loose in each set of lips like a snaggly fang, they could have been another species. Whoever or whatever I was at that moment, I knew I wasn’t one of them.

Reaching behind me, I pressed the button marked ‘4’ again, and up we went, the soggy book pressed between us like a bride’s bouquet.

From Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, now available in paperback. ©2009 by Peter Manseau. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.