A BUNDLE OF LETTERS
I watched the fierce river running through the forested outskirts of our city, and wondered if the tears now streaming down Ruth’s cheeks, where the cause of its sudden ferocity.
“Are you sure?” I squeaked out the words from my pitiful mouth.
Ruth lifted her arms into the air, and shook her hands like bees were stinging her and said, “What did you think would happen?”
I leaned forward and buried my face into my sweating palms. When I looked up, I saw a couple glance over to us, and whisper among themselves, as Ruth and I sat upon a fallen tree along the forested pathway of Warsaw’s mightiest river, the Vistula.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” Ruth insisted.
“I’m sorry?” I said, immediately regretting my pathetic answer.
A new river of tears exploded, and I feared that the river would overflow its banks if I didn’t calm Ruth down.
“Listen my love, my brother is sending me a ticket for America in a few weeks and when I get there, I’ll find a job and send you a ticket for you to come, and then we’ll marry and have our baby,” I said reaching to settle her shaking hands.
“How can you leave me, Ira? What if I have the baby before you send the ticket? Who will take care of me?”
I shrugged, thinking of the obvious, and said, “Your mother?”
Ruth groaned and said, “Sure, just wait until I tell her and father. Getting pregnant without a husband. We’ll be the talk of Nalewki Street.”
Our families, the Bruder’s and the Rosensweig’s lived in the same building. We had known each other since we were little children and grew up playing in these same woods we were now sitting. Our adolescent games eventually evolved into teenage passion, and into our current unfortunate predicament.
As I sat in my seat on the train headed for the Port of Hamburg, I waved goodbye to Ruth as she stood, slumped against her mother. One hand pressed on her still flat belly, apparently to remind me of her condition, and the other patting away her tears with a moist-looking hanky.
With my palm flat upon the window, I mouthed the words: I love you, while feeling relieved knowing that as the train pulled away from the station, I wouldn’t need to listen to her relentless nagging that everything was going to be okay, and yes, I will write often, or I’ll send money as soon as possible, so you can join me.
After a long journey, stuck in the sweltering bowels of the steamship SS Amerika, alongside hundreds of other anxious steerage passengers, we arrived in New York Harbor on a warm summer day in July 1906. My brother Benjamin was waiting for me when I walked off the ferry that carried the passengers from the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island to the docks of lower Manhattan.
With his towering size, it was easy spotting Benjamin in the crowd of people waiting for the new arrivals. I pushed my way through dozens of family reunions s well as lovers embracing each another after months, or possibly years of being apart.
When I finally reached my brother, he offered me a handshake instead of a hug, which I awkwardly accepted, after I shifted my valise to my left hand.
“You’re finally here Ira, I can’t believe my eyes,” he said.
My brother had a job waiting for me as a busboy at a busy restaurant on Grand Street. It seemed like a good place to work, as I was able to eat for free, since I squirreled away people’s leftovers into my jacket pockets and took them home for my dinner at the end of my shift.
I have to confess that during those first few weeks in America, I hardly thought about Ruth. Life was good and full of excitement for two tall and good-looking young single men in their twenties. We frequented taverns and met up with fun-loving ladies that kept us out all night.
On those hot summer nights when we got home before sunrise, we slept on the roof with the dozen other men, women and children who called our overcrowded tenement building home. The cool breeze that swept down Hester Street felt like heaven compared to the oppressive heat of our windowless room on the building’s fourth floor.
On one of these nights, as we found our sleeping spots on the rooftop, I pulled out a letter that I received earlier that day.
“What are you reading?” Benjamin asked.
I put the letter down, adjusted myself to sit taller against the back of the wood façade wrapping around the rooftop, and answered. “It’s from Ruth. She’s asking me when I will send her a ticket.”
“Again, Ira? You need to tell her that I’m not giving you money to buy her a ticket,” Benjamin said loud enough for a few people still awake to look our way.
I whispered, hoping that he would reply with a similar tone, “I know what you told me, but maybe you can change your mind. She's pregnant Ira; you’re going to be an uncle.”
Benjamin flipped his hand in disgust, rolled himself away from me, and moments later, was snoring. I sighed, picked up the letter, and under the light of the full moon I read.
My dearest fiancé,
As much as I tried, it's no longer possible concealing my pregnancy from the neighbors. This has caused unspeakable shame to mother and father. Every day they ask me if you are sending a ticket for America, and all I can answer is—not yet.
Father says that I cannot continue to live with them under the same roof as an unwed mother with a fatherless child. I am afraid that if you do not send a ticket soon, they will force me out onto the street where I’ll need to fend for myself. I am sure that you wouldn’t want me or your unborn child to face such unspeakable consequences.
Ira, if you love me, please save us. I am desperate.
All my love,
Three words in the last line caught me by surprise and caused me to smile. She wrote, if you love me. Why would she say if? Was she giving me a way out of this mess? I thought about the words and realized that perhaps I didn’t love her anymore. Maybe I never loved her. After all, we based our relationship on a childhood fascination that got carried away with adolescent impulses.
I folded the letter and stuck it in my pocket and fell asleep next to my brother who was snoring so loud, I wondered if the people on the next door rooftop could heard him.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt the effect of her words tugging at my conscience. So, intending to relieve my guilt, I wrote back.
I have read your letter and I am shocked at the reaction from your parents. How could they be so cruel as to threaten to send their pregnant daughter out onto the dangerous streets of Warsaw? Please tell them to have patience and know that I am working hard here in America, and understand that a ticket for a steamship is not cheap. Perhaps they can buy your passage for you and you can come sooner?
But know that I am thinking of you often and can’t wait for our reunion and the birth of our child.
I decided not to sign off the letter with the obligatory signature of All my love. Perhaps such indifference would soften the blow, causing us to drift apart. But the next letter that arrived a few weeks later was disturbing.
My dearest fiancé,
What I had feared most has happened. Father has forced me out of the apartment and onto the street, seven months pregnant. Mother tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t back down saying he had been publicly humiliated and shamed.
I am living in a woman’s shelter and I am frightened. Why have I not heard from you since your last letter? It's been months. I cannot believe you would abandon me and your unborn child in a time of great need.
Please, I’m begging you. Send for me now! I cannot give birth in this hideous place with these strangers. I am scared Ira, and I need you now more than ever.
All my love and devotion,
I showed the letter to my brother, and asked, “What should I do?”
He read the letter, crumbled it into a ball and tossed it into the street where it rolled under a pushcart selling pickles, as we walked down Grand Street.
“Forget about her. She’s a world away. Do you really want to be burdened with a wife who nags you to death, and a baby who cries all night? I know I don’t.”
I nodded, thinking he was right. Maybe if I ignored her letters, she would just disappear.
A few weeks later, I got the letter that gave me hope that my nightmare was ending.
My dearest Ira,
I have sad news to share with you. Last night while showering in the facilities of the women’s shelter, one of the other girls living here began screaming and pointing at me.
“There’s blood,” she shouted.
I looked down and saw, to my horror, blood streaming down my legs and mingling with the soapy water puddling on the tile floor.
I called for help and was brought to the hospital, which was fortunately nearby.
“Please tell me what’s happening,” I pleaded to the nurse who attended me. She told me to lie still, and the doctor would soon examine me.
Well, my dear Ira, I am sorry to say that they delivered our baby stillborn—dead. I don’t know what will become of me. My poor child is gone and I am homeless. I only hope that you will pity me and bring me to America. My sadness consumes me. You’re my only hope.
Please do not abandon me,
When I showed the letter to Benjamin, he put his hands to his mouth in order to hide a smile and said, “I’m sorry Ira. But this is good news. You’re free of her.”
I nodded and was pleased to agree with him. Perhaps this was the end?
Later that same year, I went into the trucking business with my brother. We started with a horse-drawn cart and just two years later we were operating a model 1906 Cadillac delivery truck with the name of our business painted on its side in large gold letters: Bruder Brothers Trucking Company.
We earned good money, which allowed us to move out of the congested tenement building and into a nicer apartment with a window and a bathroom.
One afternoon, while I enjoying a tea and reading a book, there was a knock at the apartment door. Being home alone, I stood up from the chair and went to see who it was. A strange chill ran down my spine causing a body shiver. I didn’t understand the cause of this sensation until I opened the door and saw standing before me—Ruth.
She was half the girl I remembered. Staring at me was a frail person, with dark-circled eyes, and a thin thread-bare dress hanging off boney shoulders.
“Hello Ira. It’s me, Ruth.”
I shook my head and took a step back. “Ruth, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve made it,” she said, stepping around me and into the apartment.
She carried two canvas bags one in each hand. When she reached the center of the apartment, she turned to face me and dropped the bags simultaneously in the center of the room.
“How in the world did you find me?” I asked, with my mouth slung open.
“I thought that was going to be your first question. Not, are you well? Or how did you get here?”
I shook my head. In fact, I wanted to know the answers to all those questions.
“You want to know how I found you? Your damn name is on that fancy truck running up and down Grand Street all day. It wasn’t hard tracking you down.”
I scratched the back of my neck, “But why are you here?”
“Ira, I’m your fiancé. I promised myself to you, my love,” she said with an attempt of sounding dignified.
“But you lost the baby,” I said pointing to her belly.
“That doesn’t change your responsibility. I’ve been exiled from my family and my community. No man would have me now, except you. I can marry no other.”
The door swung open and in walked Benjamin, who immediately grimaced at Ruth.
“Don’t tell me this is her.” Benjamin said, slamming his newspaper onto the kitchen table and pointing a wagging finger at Ruth.
“This charming man must be your brother Benjamin,” Ruth said with a sneer.
Ignoring the comment, Benjamin continued his assault, and said “She’s not staying here, Ira.”
I gestured with outstretched arms and open palms, “But she has nowhere else to go.”
Benjamin walked up to me and poked his finger deep into my cheek and said, “I’ll give you until tomorrow to figure out what to do with her. But when I come home, she better be gone.”
Later that night as Ruth slept in my bed, I sat at the kitchen table, looking out onto Hester Street and wondered what to do with her. She didn’t look well, and I couldn’t in my right mind just send her out into the world alone. But I didn’t love her nor did I want to marry her. I needed someone to tell me what to do.
I looked down and saw lying on the table the newspaper that Benjamin had slammed down earlier. It was the Jewish newspaper called the Forward, and I remembered about the advice column called A Bintel Brief, where desperate people wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper, the well-respected Abraham Cahan, and asked for his sage-like advice.
So I took a sheet of paper and a fountain pen from the desk and wrote my letter. It took nearly a week before I saw it printed in the Forward. During that time Ruth lived with us, as there was really no choice, even with Benjamin’s insistence.
“I hear that people get wise answers from the Editor. Let’s wait and see what he says,” I pleaded to my brother.
On the morning of September 10th, the letter and reply was published.
[Note from Author—Actual published letter]
September 10, 1906
I am confident that you will publish my letter in the Bintel Brief column, just as you have others. Please give me good advice, and I assure you that I will act accordingly.
Five years ago, when I was a youth of eighteen years old, I became close with our neighbor’s daughter, a girl of about my same age, whom I had known since childhood. Living in the same building and always being together, we fell in love with a childish passion. Our love grew increasingly stronger and more intense, and our relationship became too close. As a result, we got carried away.
We used to take walks on the outskirts of town, along the riverbank near the woods. Once, as we sat there, she told me she was to become a mother. This made me despair. Only then did we consider our deed; only then did we take into account what we had done. But it was already too late. I consoled her by saying that I was expecting a ship’s ticket from my brother in America and that as soon as I arrived there, I would send for her. Soon, my ticket arrived, and I departed with a sad heart and with much regret.
Now, not being close to my beloved, I realized my big mistake. Now, I felt that I did not love her. Now I understood that it was just a passionate attraction devoid of love. I left with the determination that as soon as I arrived in New York, I would try to get the money from my brother, bring her over, and marry her. Upon arriving here, I told my brother about my situation with the girl and asked him to loan me the money to bring her here, assuring him that I would pay him back with interest.
My crying and beseeching were of no help. He yelled at me to knock this foolishness out of my head.
I got letters from her relating her desperate situation, being forced to leave her parents and wandering about far from home. Later she shared with me that she delivered a stillborn child.
In the beginning, I used to answer her letters immediately, but later, seeing that I could not help her, and feeling no love towards her, I wrote more seldom until I stopped altogether and tried to forget her. On the occasions when my conscience bothered me, I tried with all my might to suppress these feelings. And this is how three years passed.
One day, I was shocked to find her standing upon my doorstep. I saw her in body, but of my former beloved there was hardly anything to recognize—before me stood a skeleton with dull eyes in which one could see a sea of troubles. Three years of exile from her parents and friends wounded her. You can imagine how this meeting affected me.
Now she demands that I marry her. She insists that I am responsible for her. Under the circumstances, she thinks that she has no chance of marrying anyone else. And if she were to marry someone else, she would never be happy. Given her history, she would always feel like a condemned convict, and if her husband were to find out, he would abandon her. I am the only one she can marry.
I however, do not love her, and if I marry her, I will be unhappy my entire life.
But my conscience torments me, knowing that because of me they drove her out of her parent’s home, because of me she suffered, because of me she became despondent, lost her youth and self-worth. And I cannot decide what to do. Should I marry her and condemn myself to a loveless existence for a sin I committed when I was not yet mature? Or should my conscience be consoled by the fact that she was an equal partner in our deed and that my sin is no greater than hers? I do not deserve a lifelong sentence for her suffering.
So, please advise me what to do. I would like to handle the situation as an honorable man, but I do not know how.
— A Reader
I placed the paper down and took a breath, pleased they published my letter in the Forward, the largest Jewish newspaper in New York City. It was said that hundreds of thousands of people read the paper every day. Even though the letters to the editor were anonymous, my plight was now common knowledge among the massive Yiddish speaking population. I was certain my spicy dilemma became a topic of their daily gossip sessions for the men and woman who sat on the benches along the Grand Street promenade, wasting away their day exchanging slanderous tales.
But what I really cared about, at that moment, was the response from the Editor.
[Note from Author—Actual published response]
The writer, as it appears from the letter, is a man of conscience and feeling. We believe that in the very least he should do everything in his power to help the young woman achieve independence. Naturally, it is true that given the customs and attitudes of our times, such a woman is likely to have difficulties were she to marry. If someone who was willing to take her and found out about her past, a tragic drama could ensue. It would be much better if she were to present herself to the world as a divorcee.
- The Editor
The first line where the Editor said I was a man of conscience and feeling elated me. But the rest of his reply confused me. Especially the last line of It would be much better if she were to present herself to the world as a divorcee.
Just as I pondered the possible meaning of what this meant, the apartment door opened and in walked Benjamin and Ruth. If the Editor’s words confused me, I was doubly confused by seeing Benjamin and Ruth together.
“What’s going on?” I asked, placing the newspaper down.
“Oh you mean because we walked in together?” My brother said gesturing to the door.
“We just met this moment on the sidewalk. I was coming from the garage and Ruth was out shopping so she could make dinner for us.”
I looked over to Ruth who was unpacking vegetables from her canvas bag and offered me a gentle smile. Satisfied, I picked up the newspaper and pointed to the article and announced, “They published My letter.”
“Oh let me see,” Ruth said, leaning over my shoulder.
“He says you should present yourself as a divorcee, as that might offer you some sort of redemption for society to accept,” I said.
“Oh, let’s not worry about this now,” Ruth said, as she walked back to the kitchen.
One week later, I was shocked to see a published response to my letter to the Editor. Apparently, there were sixty-eight people who met regularly in a park to discuss and debate A Bintel Brief. They even organized a single opinion for a letter and sent it to the Editor.
[Note from Author—Actual published letter]
October 10, 1906
We, a group of sixty-eight people who meet in a park to debate various topics. Someone read a letter that appeared in the Forward on Monday, September 10. We debated the letter and your response for nearly three hours, and after a vote of sixty-three to five, we submitted our opinion.
A boy of eighteen fell in love in Poland with a girl his own age. And because of their “childish feelings,” she was to become a mother. She shared this with him, and in a short while he left for America, promising to bring her over. And here, lacking the means, he eventually stopped writing her. During this period he received two letters from her. In the first, she wrote that her parents threw her out of the house, that her friends and close acquaintances distanced themselves and that she was wandering about among strangers. In the second, she writes that she gave birth to a stillborn child. But he still did not answer her. Three years later, she comes to America. As he himself described how she looked, stones should scream, let alone people with feeling.
Now, she was asking him to marry her. He said: “I do not know what to do. I do not love her. I will be miserable.” His justification was that he was a child, but she was also guilty!
Taking all this into account, we can say: That he does not love her is a minor issue because, if he is a person of feeling, he will learn to love her first as a woman and later as the mother of their children. Let’s assume he were to wed through a marriage broker; he could not love her because he would not yet know her. Typically, love would follow later. If he is a man of feeling as he represents himself, he should consider what he has done to her! What will become of her? What is in her future? Suicide or a house of shame?
He defends himself by saying: “I am not the only guilty one. She was no younger than I, and she agreed to this. I was also a child then.”
One must laugh bitterly at his defense—a child of eighteen.
“She also shares the guilt in this.” True, we agree. But he should read what he himself wrote, how she struggled in Poland, how she looked, how she suffered. Even Tsar Nicholas would not mete out a harsher punishment.
And he can allow himself to say: “I cannot marry her.” Then to whom should he be compared? What should she do now? Marry? Whom? We agree with the editor’s suggestion that she represent herself as a divorcee, but she would have to find a man on an island with no people. If she were to marry where there are people, it would be impossible for the husband not to find out, eventually.
We have plenty of ‘good’ people who love to tell of such things. But what if the husband was to find out after there were a couple of children involved? What would become of them, of him, of her? To destroy a woman and then give her a few dollars to make it easier for her to fool a person for a short time is dishonest.
In the name of fifty-three socialist workers, with no less compassionate hearts, we say: Marry her and you will be happy, even more than happy!
As for his brother, we can say: If he could say, “Do not think of her,” then anything we could say would be more than he deserves!
We conclude hoping you will live happily together.
— Volunteer writer
[Published, just below the letter, was the Editor’s response]
There is no need to respond to this letter. Our opinion on this matter has already been stated. If the young man were to marry willingly and compassionately, as the writers advise him, it would have been best, of course.
Your premise that “a person of feeling will surely learn to love after the wedding” does not conform to life experience. There would be far fewer family tragedies if every man “who is a mensch” were to learn to love his wife after the wedding, and she him. We must also emphasize the fact that interesting letters of the Bintel Brief engender earnest discussion. The author of this letter is an intelligent man, and the interest of intellectuals in these important life-questions is one reason the Bintel column is such a success.
While it was exciting to see my words in print within the prestigious newspaper, the Editor’s advice provided me with no practical guidance. Instead, our regular customers were able to figure out that it was me who wrote the letter, and started asking embarrassing questions.
But what surprised me the most was my brother who didn’t seem to be bothered in the least. He dismissed it with a flip of his hand and said, “Who cares what they think. It’s none of their business.”
“But it is our trucking business, Benjamin. This is hurting our reputation,” I insisted.
“So marry her and be de done with it.”
“I can’t marry her if I don’t love her,” I said.
Meanwhile, Ruth was doing all the cooking, cleaning as well as our laundry. It was nice having her around. She even stopped badgering me about marrying her, which was a relief.
As this went on for a few weeks I noticed a change in the relationship between Benjamin and Ruth. Instead of his relentless, belligerent attitude toward her, his tone softened and he was actually pleasant to a point where I enjoyed our three-way camaraderie and happy life together.
One day when I was out making deliveries, I remembered a funny story of when Ruth and I got ourselves in trouble back when we were children in Warsaw. I thought it was interesting that I was recalling nice memories of our life together and realized that maybe I still had feelings for her. So I decided that I would surprise her and stop by the apartment and share the story.
I bounded up the stairs, two at a time, anxious to see her. I fumbled with my keys for a moment and then charged into the apartment.
“Ruth, I was driving the truck, when…” I paused because Ruth wasn’t in the room. I heard some noise from the bedroom. Ah, she must be cleaning, I thought. I opened the bedroom door and there they were. My brother Benjamin and Ruth in bed, making love.
I shook my head as if my vision would magically correct itself and fix what I was seeing.
“Get the hell out,” barked Benjamin as he pulled the blanket to cover their naked bodies.
“What are you doing, Ruth? I thought you loved me.” I said, not believing the words coming out of my desperate mouth.
Benjamin pointed his finger at me and demanded, “Out now, Ira.”
I ran from of the apartment and sat in the truck parked out on Hester Street. Tears filled my eyes thinking how I caused her so many years of sadness and struggles that Ruth didn’t deserve. All she ever wanted was to love me, take care of me and raise our children. Now she was in bed with my brother and I assumed they were now in love.
I thought about writing another letter to the Editor and describing how my predicament turned out. But I feared that people would read it and think of me as a fool. They would ask, why would a woman dare to travel alone across a great ocean to an unknown land, in order to be with a man who would reject her?
Ruth was a good woman and may have been a good wife. But I didn’t deserve her, this much was true.
Looking back now, I should have seen the obvious signs. The most significant was the softening of Benjamin’s attitude toward Ruth during the time we all three lived together.
But I cannot blame either of them. I made it plain that I didn’t love her, and would never consider marrying her, and on top of all that, our history together would have been a huge obstacle to overcome.
If Benjamin and Ruth marry, they will have a better chance of being happy than Ruth and I would. I wish them nothing but happiness and many healthy children and I’ll look forward to becoming the loving and supporting uncle.
But my brother has a short temper that Ruth may grow tired of. Perhaps I will bide my time and be kind to her, just in case.